Buffy Lost Her Battlestar: How Geek Culture Is Killing Geek Culture

Posted: July 26, 2010 in Culture
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It’s far easier for an astronaut to impersonate a caveman than vice versa.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that a caveman would kill and eat the astronaut before he ever had the chance.

Anonymous Geek

I heard a “reporter” refer to the San Diego Comic Con yesterday, as a “former geek fest.” Once my initial blaze of fury subsided (and that took an unhealthy amount of revenge fantasy mental imagery) I had to grudgingly admit that she might have had a point. Somewhere along the way geekdom has become absorbed into the mainstream and, with a little logical tap dancing, it’s not hard to draw a firm link between this fact and the erosion of all that is right and good and true in the universe.

First, let’s use simple math to define some terms.

Nerds≈Geeks ¬ Geeks≠Nerds

In other words, nerds, who are academically gifted kids who will most likely be beaten into comas with their lunchboxes at some point, are usually drawn to weird stuff. Geeks, however, are kids who just really, really, like weird stuff and will still be beaten with lunchboxes but not always with the foresight granted by above average intelligence.

I was a geek of that second order.

I grew up in a fantastic geek era. In addition to an all you can spaz buffet of sci-fi on TV, the late eighties and nineties were also a golden age for comics, fantasy novels, table top gaming, video gaming, and the post Superman birth of comic book movies. Hell, Kurt Cobain even gave us our first geek rockstar. (No, Buddy Holly doesn’t count. Even the most demented jock of the 1960s would feel more at home with the D&D club than with the average juice monkey of my high school years) It was hard not to geek out about something, and find others who shared your enthusiasm. And yet, with all that wonderful genre goodness floating about our heads, those of us who weren’t knuckle dragging date rapists still got relegated to fringe status. We didn’t get dates, we didn’t get prime real estate in the cafeteria and we certainly couldn’t engage in cosplay without the certainty of being simultaneously pantsed, swirlied, and burned alive.

We existed in a constant flux of excitement and shame. And it was great.

Along with that outcast branding came a kind of specialized elitism. We could look down on people who didn’t get why Earth 2 was the greatest show EVAR. (far better than the limp and yet more profitable Seaquest DSV which only survived as long as it did based on the irresistible pull of Jonathan Brandis’ eyes) We sniggered at those who preferred Star Trek to Babylon 5. (although in hindsight…) We could give you chapter and verse on why Robin the second had to die. And we collected and traded that knowledge as though it were the only currency that mattered.

At its heart, geekdom was literally magic. It was the acquisition and application of arcane knowledge; shared among practitioners but guarded carefully from those who would abuse it. If knowledge was truly power, then we were gods. Awkward, lonely, sexually frustrated misfit gods to be sure, but, you know, demigods at least. With a +5 to mental endurance and wedgie resistance.

And then some things happened.

1) The internet

2) Harry Knowles using the internet to steal the word “cool” and not being assassinated for it

3) Buffy the Vampire Slayer

4) Blade

5) The Lord of the Rings (movies)

6) Reality TV

7) Online dating, online porn, YouTube

8) Harry Potter

9) Lost

10) Twilight

1) At first, it was awesome. We had always known that computers were cool; now, with the birth of the internet, we had proof. Kind of. And more importantly people were asking us how to use them. People with breasts! Who weren’t our mothers! The internet was a gateway into the mainstream for us and so we focused all our attentions on it and made it about the things we loved. Pop culture and porn.

2) The birth of Aintitcool.com was, in many ways, the genesis of our destruction. In the past we had hoarded our debates and insights like the purveyors of any fetish property. Harry Knowles, in a move reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s decision to teach white folks how to kick ass, chose to share the things we enthused about and broadcast them to the world.

3) Joss Whedon did to geek culture with Buffy something that we hadn’t known needed to be done. He opened our house to girls. There has always been an accidental (and sometimes not) chauvinism in geekdom, mostly caused by social awkwardness and idiotic assumptions. Buffy kicked that door off its hinges and an army of passionate, intelligent and much cooler than us girl-geeks poured through it. What was fantastic about Buffy though, was the fact that, while it brought female fans to the table in a massively visible way, the show had a completely gender neutral appeal. It took the superhero tropes that had always appealed to us (empowerment of the weak, the uniqueness of the weird, glorification of revenge fantasy, gradually empowered sidekicks and fuzzily defined moralizing to name a few) and broadened them to a level that overcame genre, gender and cultural cross section. And it did so for seven years. A lot of people say that manga was the gateway drug that helped women breach the kryptonite ceiling, and I’d certainly support the argument that it levelled the gender playing field when it came to comic books, but my money is on Whedon and Buffy in particular being the great equalizer.

4) The first Blade film was truly the demarcation point for the modern superhero movie. Before this, studios worked to exploit comic book properties while somehow never understanding that kicking the fans of those properties in the balls probably wouldn’t yield positive financial results. Blade gave us a down and dirty comic book flick that stayed mostly true to its roots and didn’t treat its audience like children. Also, it made some money. Fast forward a decade and we got Kick Ass and Dark Knight as a result. Thank you Wesley Snipes.

5) The Lord of the Rings. It won Oscars, it made gargantuan sacks of money and it birthed the career of Orlando Bloom, thus paving the way for Pirates. Sadly it also spawned several tons of Hobbit slash fic (really, what’s wrong with you people) but that can be downplayed by the fact that it opened the door for fantasy specifically and genre films in general to be adopted by a broader audience.

6) Reality TV made it impossible to take the blundering bully of your night terrors seriously anymore. Shows like Survivor, Big Brother (especially Big Brother) and American Idol exposed the popular kids for what they really were; narcissistic, insecure, socially maladjusted freaks. Just like us. But less self aware.

7) The total adoption of the internet in our culture has resulted in some very interesting breakdowns in our cultural assumptions. First, we now know that everyone likes a little bit of porn. (And yes I realize that everyone is a bit of a stretch, but the porn industry makes more money than McDonalds. And I’ve seen you at McDonalds.)Second, contrary to our answers on those ethics tests they make you take when you’re applying for a retail position, everyone is willing to steal. TV and movie piracy may seem ridiculously abstract concepts but that MegaVideo stream you’ve got in the next tab? You know, the one that you’ve got last night’s pre-release of White Collar buffering in? Yeah, that makes you a dirty thieving pirate. And I love you for it. Finally, YouTube. What can I say about YouTube? It gave us Justin Bieber, the Platypus song and Star Wars kid. It is our all powerful, all mocking, randomly elevating Dark Lord, and it must be stopped. After it makes me famous.

8) Sure. At the same time the Playstation 2 came out, every kid on the planet put down their controllers, remembered how to read, and all picked up the same book at the same time and there wasn’t black magic and Faustian contracts at play? I believe that. No really, I do. Harry Potter is a cultural phenomenon we may never fully understand, and I’m okay with that. It put books in kids’ hands and that’s never a bad thing. (Well, almost never. See point 10) Most importantly it built on the work already done by the LoTR movies and further broke down the genre walls.

9) Oh, Lost. You capitalized on the success of Survivor, got everyone in the Milky Way watching you and then, halfway through your run, you pulled the curtain back and revealed that you’d tricked everyone into liking a science fiction show. Said reveal then tricked network executives into thinking that everyone loves sci-fi, which they don’t, so now it’ll never happen again. Good job.

10) I know it’s considered horribly immature at this point to take pot shots at Stephenie Meyer but she and her armies of Twihards need to be stopped. Twilight has capitalized on everything positive that came before it (Buffy, Harry, the willingness of children to read, the explosion of women onto the scene of geek fandom) and twisted them into something…not right. And it was Twilight that brought me to my central thesis of the day, which is this:

It was better to be a geek when that label didn’t apply everybody.

Twilight is a symptom of what the nine major turning points above have led to, which is a complete homogenization of a portion of culture that thrived on being different.

We used to have a niche. When I was in high school, Seaquest DSV hit the airwaves with a giant thud of suck. But, since we didn’t have anything better to do and because we were so slobberingly grateful to be getting as much sci-fi TV as we were, we watched it, every week. And there were enough of us doing so that it managed to last three seasons. Flash forward to last year when Joss Whedon had a decent new show out (Dollhouse, which is another piece of heartbreak courtesy of the Friday night death slot) and it couldn’t manage to maintain ratings over two half seasons! And this was the product of a man who has the single most rabidly proselytising fan base in TV history.

Why? Why are we having nuggets of genius sloughed off to the refuse pile while the freakin’ Vampire Diaries is rolling into another season with no sign of being slowing down? How does Kick Ass, which was one of the most thrilling, daring and subversive pieces of film made in the last decade, not make back half of its budget in theatres while Twilight, which, I’m sorry, is just family values propaganda parading around as unsexed Harlequin romance written for germ phobic preteens, rakes in more money than the Apple store at Christmas?

Aaaarghhhh.

It’s because everyone is geeking out. Everyone. And that means there isn’t enough focus on any one thing to stand out and thrive. The stuff that already has a built in audience, yeah that stays afloat. But the new stuff? The innovative, chaotic, maddeningly glorious stuff that made getting shoved into lockers kind of worth it? That stuff is going the way of the dodo. There’s too much of it, so it’s all getting turned into white noise. The only new franchises that are thriving are those which are fantastic at disguising themselves as things that already have solid fan bases. And they’re ruining the spirit of genre for everyone.

Some people will say that diversity is always a fantastic thing and that, without all the slop, we’d never get the rare gems like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, The Dark Knight, District 13 etc.

To them I say this. There were enough of us to keep Lois and Clark on the air for four years. There were enough of us to keep Babylon 5 alive for its entire preset run. We went to see ET, The Last Starfighter, every single Star Trek movie, and even three Critters sequels. And we did it without the support from or the pandering to every person who made fun of us when we started playing Magic: The Gathering in the halls at school.

There were always enough of us to keep the Harry Potters and the Avatar’s being created. We just loved that we were finally becoming accepted. And, because of that, we’re getting a bloody Viewmaster movie next year. Because, you know, maybe someone will geek out over it.

I would gladly trade it all in; the acceptance, the sequels, the prequels, the board game adaptations and even the thrill of having Angelina Jolie grace SDCC with her prescence.

I would give it all up if it meant I would get one more Joss Whedon show that lasted longer than twenty four episodes.

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Comments
  1. brodie white says:

    great article! You pulled me in with your ranting and made me agree with your topics. We need more geeks on our side. Keep writing about that geek sheik and the platypus song and you got me on your website. Don’t hate me to much on the platypus song 😛

    • The Walrus says:

      Heh, the platypus song is now on permanent exile from my house.

      The odds are I probably won’t touch on geek sheik/culture very often. I tend to swing from topic to topic really haphazardly; hopefully I keep you here anyway 😀

      Welcome

  2. This post was spectacular.

    Well written, and it made me want to go back to the days where I would sit around with my friends and debate whether Final Fantasy VII truly embodied the spirit of the original Final Fantasy, or whether it was what FFII would have been if the graphics technology was available at the time.

    I look forward to reading more of your work.

    • The Walrus says:

      First, thank you. I’m a comment whore, so you just made a friend for life.

      Second, FFVII was a massive departure for the series. It was the first installment where character was as central to the story as plot and, in my opinion was the kick start of the modern sandbox concept rpg. Yes FFII was a landmark entry into console RPGs but VII is in a class unto itself.

      Not to geek out on you too much 😀

  3. Kaosgoblin says:

    In all writing, there is communication, and in all written communication there is a dial of gradients. On one side of that dial you have blue colored Journalistic Enthusiasm, and on the other side there is red shaded Hyperbolic Ranting. Be careful of straying too deep onto the red.

    • The Walrus says:

      Heh, But that’s just what I do, sir. I barf all over the extreme end of an opinion in the interests of stimulating debate. Glenn Beck has made millions doing it with far less noble intentions, why shouldn’t I have some fun too? 😀

      Also I’d like to point out that you can never have too much hyperbole. It is literally the bestest writing tool EVAR!!! Right next to irony.

  4. Stephanie B says:

    I’m afraid I have to take issues with some of this, and I can do it as an Ubercool Nerd God (and a Rocket Scientist). Believe me, there were female geeks (and nerds) long before Buffy (and I’m living proof).

    I see it differently. Star Wars was hugely successful. Avatar and the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter were all hugely successful – in the mainstream as well as with geeks. Do you know why? Because they are MORE than science fiction for science fiction, fantasy for the sake of fantasy. They tend toward romance and characters and action and social commentary (which is why the first Star Trek will always be the best :).

    The same is true of Twilight. People don’t love it because it’s strangely bloodless vampires. They love it because teenage girls are suckers for romance. Yes, I like Twilight, not because werewolves and vampires are corrupted, but because I like one or more characters.

    That’s what’s made our weirdness so mainstream, in my opinion, because we took the weirdness and wrapped it up in stories that had more universal appeal.

    • The Walrus says:

      Heh, I kind of figured there would be some contention with this one 😀 But I stand by the sentiment; yes there will be breakout pop culture phenomena (and here I’m thinking of Star Wars in particular) that transcend the lines of sub-culture, but I genuinely miss the good old days when geeks were geeks and we liked what we liked. I’m clearly turning into a fogey of the old variety.

      You’d better be talking about the first Trek series, not the movie, because otherwise…to the mattresses!

      Oh, and also, well aware that there were girl geeks before Buffy. But Buffy resulted in a population explosion. All I’m sayin’ 😀

      Thanks for following me to the new site 😀

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