Thursday, July 26, 2012

Who Gets To Be a Geek? Scalzi Speaks

So, John Scalzi weighed in the kerfluffle over the pretty cosplaying girls at San Diego Comic Con who many folks say aren't "real" geeks. It's a great essay and it's absolutely worth your time to read.  I highly recommend you go read it first, then come back here.

This is not precisely a rebuttal; Scalzi is right on all points.  However, there are two angles that Scalzi misses here. The first is the blatant commercialization of the 'sexy geek' that's come into play in the last few years. The second is the influx of female content creators in the genre space and how they present both themselves and their work.

Olivia Munn is sort of the poster child for the mainstreaming of the 'sexy geek' trope. G4 sells that sort of thing hard, and Munn was their most prominent face for it. So, when she put on a skimpy genre costume, it made it a bigger deal than it used to be. It stopped being something that was once the purview of cons and started being more of a symbol of how 'sexy' geeks can be.

The problem lies in the fact that Munn isn't the real deal. She's a beautiful model who puts on costumes and jumps into pies for money. This led to more beautiful models co-opting Slave Leia and other scanty costumes from the fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero genres because it's lucrative. This was a niche that hadn't been filled. It's similar to having beautiful women selling cars - of course she drives a Mercury! Why don't you buy one?

On the other end of the spectrum, you have someone like Felicia Day who may dress in a skimpy costume now and then but it's never egregious. She's primarily creating, collaborating on, and starring in genre stuff. This is the critical difference that is lost on a lot of people: Felicia Day is someone with boobs who is adding more than just those boobs to the geek culture.

Less easy to quantify is someone like Clare Grant. Grant is undeniably beautiful and uses that as a major draw for her viewers. However, she's also creating some interesting stuff with Team Unicorn, and while they tend to work the boobs angle to draw in viewers, a lot of it is quality genre work. Their Very Zombie Holiday video, for example, is awesome. In some ways, her beauty sort of edges out her geek cred, and I attribute that directly to the influx of becostumed, pie-jumping models. You can't be beautiful and be a geek, right?

If you look at what's driving the influx of cosplaying noob geeks, I think it comes down to the changing role of women in geek culture and how easy it is to embrace the Munn ideal of it - all you have to be is pretty and in good shape. It's a lot harder to be a Day or a Grant, women who add value and are strong role models for younger female geeks. Their work says to us, don't just put on a costume of something someone else wrote - write your own and have people cosplay as your characters.

On the other hand, just because a girl starts out dressing as Sexy Spock without ever having seen an episode of Star Trek doesn't mean that's where she'll stay on the scenic/value index. Maybe she sees Nathan Fillion at Comic Con and wonders what shows that handsome, charismatic man has been in. Someone recommends Firefly and she watches the whole thing. Afterward, she says to herself, "Hmm, I liked Kaylee a lot. Where can I see more of that actress?" This leads to Stargate: Atlantis, and you'd really have to watch Stargate SG-1 to know everything that's going on, right? Before you know it, she's writing gender-swapped Kirk/Spock slash and the next time she puts that Sexy Spock costume on, she's thinking wicked thoughts about Sulu holding the camera.

I want to be inclusive of every woman, of every person, who wants to be a geek, but I also would love to see more Felicia Day and less Olivia Munn among our sister geeks. I'm hoping that the latter can't help but morph into the former simply by prolonged association.
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  1. The only thing that really isn't welcome in geekdom is a bully.

    1. Honestly, I'm not even sure that's true.

      Consider my favorite Kevin Smith quote, regarding geek snobbery and Twilight: "People will come to a convention, stand there in a Spock costume, look at someone in a Chewie costume, and say, 'Look at that fuckin' geek.' How dare you pass judgment on those 12-year-old girls who like vampires!"

      There's plenty of content-based bullying that goes on. It's unfortunate, but haters abound in geekdom. And, honestly, I don't really care if the Star Wars geeks fight the Star Trek geeks to the death - we Stargate afficianados will feast on the spoils. It's when we take it from content-hating to gender-hating that it's problematic and not okay.

  2. People always ask me why I don't dress up for these things. Mostly it's because I don't want to. My jeans and geeky shirts are fine by me. Part of it is comfort, the rest is that I don't feel the need and don't feel like dealing with it and people.