How Geek Went Chic: The Gamut of Geekiness

I’ve been a geek since birth. Growing up, I played with Luke Skywalker instead of Barbie and preferred Power Rangers to princesses. When I was 14 years old, my geekiness reached an unprecedented high after I discovered “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a show I loved so much the only way I could think to express my dedication was to buy action figures of my favorite characters and display them on my dresser.

Shockingly, being a high-school girl with an action figure collection didn’t make me many friends. Some people simply accepted my action figure display, but others had no problem pointing out what I had always known but have sometimes felt too ashamed to admit ­­— I’m a geek.

But is that a bad thing? Today, 57 percent of Americans think being called a geek is a compliment and a whopping 82 percent of people think being a geek is more acceptable today then it was 15 years ago.

So what’s changed? The most current generation of geeks are reacting to other counter-cultural groups that have emerged in society, especially the yuppies of the 1980s, who wanted wealth and status. Then in the mid-1990s, the geeks started to gain power, emphasizing the value of personal enjoyment and rejecting the showiness of material culture, says Lars Konzack, an associate professor at The Royal School of Library and Information Science in Aalborg, Denmark, who has studied the humble roots and slow evolution of the geek movement.

Their rise coincided with the birth of new technology, which made it easier to access geeky materials and interact with other fans while also allowing the community to generate its own material, like fan-fiction and the fantasy worlds that would eventually develop into online game play. Today, geeks aren’t just becoming more popular in our culture; they’re actively creating it.

With an idea of how the modern geek pulled himself up from the bottom of the social ladder to a more comfortable position, I began to examine just who this modern geek is.

advanced level geek

My search begins with Rod Landreth, a 40-year-old senior from Sherwood, Ark., who towers over me. When I ask if he considers himself a geek, he looks me straight in the eye from behind a pair of black-framed glasses and says he knows more about Godzilla than most people know about anything.

He’s been playing Dungeons and Dragons for 30 years, loves Star Trek, Star Wars and Star Blazers, and shows up to our interview wearing a crimson polo with embroidered with the image of Bun-Bun, a knife-wielding rabbit from the cult comic “Sluggy Freelance.”

Landreth calls himself a “geek evangelist,” and wants to spread the word about the goodness of geekdom, which includes acquiring an encyclopedic knowledge about whatever interests you and getting to use your imagination as an adult.

One of Landreth’s favorite parts about being a geek is that “you can’t be stupid and be a geek.” TV shows with geek followings like “Star Trek” and “Firefly” rarely write down to their audience to make them easier to follow, they just force their audience to rise to the challenge.

For this reason, geek culture might survive longer than most other counter-culture movements, Landreth predicts.

It might never become totally accessible to the public, but the web has helped level the geek playing field. With websites dedicated to everything from “Star Trek” to iPhones to beauty products, it seems like everybody is a supergeek about something, says Genevieve Valentine, co-author of the book “Geek Wisdom” and a writer for several prominent sci-fi and fantasy magazines.

“I think that geek has only ever had one meaning, and that is someone who gets super excited about something,” Valentine says. “But people who were geeks about sports never got labeled in the same way as people that were geeks about building model trains, for some reason.”

Unfortunately, for decades mainstream culture wasn’t accepting of geeks. As a result, geeks withdrew and it became harder for the average Joe to feel accepted in traditionally geeky environments. Nowhere is this more obvious than a comic book store — geek mecca. As a child I begged my dad to take me to the comic book store, but when I finally got there as a teenager, I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of comics, yet ignored by the teenage boy behind the cash register who seemed to actively try not to help people.

Joel Pfannenstiel noticed this problem, too.

“You’d have to fight your way around these guys playing “War Hammer” on top of the back issues,” Pfannenstiel, owner of Astrokitty Comics and More, says of his early experience in stores.

When he moved from Wichita to Lawrence to attend college, he had a series of bad comic buying experiences that forced him to stop reading entirely for several years. But he eventually returned to his roots and started working at Mass. St. Comics, a now-closed store where employees and the owners shared a vision of creating a comic store atmosphere that would appease both devoted fans and newcomers.

Posters weren’t plastered over windows. Employees were friendly rather than anti-social. Neat rows of carefully selected materials replaced overwhelming stacks of unorganized comics. It was a store where comic lovers could feel at home and comic virgins could come in without feeling out of place.

It’s a philosophy Pfannenstiel incorporated into his own store when Mass. St. Comics closed in 2005. Painted sky blue with sunflower yellow stars, Astrokitty, 15 East 7th St, feels more like the childhood bedroom of an eccentric teen than a place where die-hard fans come to stock up on new comics when they’re released every Wednesday.

Having a store that makes geek culture accessible and appealing to people that might not have been willing to try it a few years ago is good for business, but the philosophy also appeals to Pfannenstiel on a personal level. He enjoys seeing people experiencing comics for the first time, even if it’s because of the recent proliferation of superhero movies and comic books based on TV shows.

geek-lite

With a better understanding of the die-hard geeks of the world and how geeks became chic, I move on to examining a more recent addition to the geek world, the moderate geek.

Gone are the days when a geek can be identified by sight, I discover as I search the mid-afternoon crowd of The Underground, looking for Kyle McRae, a senior from Iola who recently founded the University’s Pokemon fan club. I don’t know exactly who I’m looking for, maybe a sickly looking guy wearing a Pikachu t-shirt. I’m surprised when I finally find McRae. He looks like a southern frat boy in his navy pullover, striped dress shirt and and cowboy boots.

Like many children of the ‘90s, McRae grew up loving Pokemon. The early exposure to Japanese culture led him to study it in college, which put him in the company of other Pokemon fans. Now every Thursday night, they get together to play the card game the TV show was based on.

He was surprised to find that almost 50 people have expressed interested in his club, proof that people are becoming more accepting of their inner-nerd, just like he has. “In college, I just don’t care anymore what people think,” he says. “I can go be nerdy.”

Nerdy activities are becoming a more acceptable part of student’s lives. Take, for example, Holden Beier-Green, a junior from Topeka who transforms from an amiable college student into a light-saber wielding Sith for a few hours each night.

Beier-Green isn’t suffering from an identity crisis. He just plays Star Wars: The Old Republic, a recently released World of Warcraft-style multi-player online role playing game set in the Star Wars universe.

He’s played video games, his favorite form of entertainment, for years, starting out with an Xbox playing Halo and Grand Theft Auto before moving on to PC gaming. Last month, he decided to start playing Old Republic with his friends.

Beier-Green says playing the game is a nice way to relax at the end of a stressful day of work and classes. It also gives him an opportunity to spend time with his friends without having to be in the same room as them.

What might have seemed like intensely geeky dedication a few decades ago is now a normal part of life for many male college students. A few weeks later, I ask a very tan, very blonde woman if she has any geeky tendencies.

“I don’t know” says Casey Freeman, a junior from Hutchison. “I’m very intense about school. I never miss a class unless it’s to study for another class. And I read academic articles for fun. Does that count?”

I say it does. In my exploration of the wide world of geek, I have realized that Genevieve Valentine was right. Forget the glasses, forget the expansive collection of comic book and superhero t-shirts. A geek is just somebody who really likes something; anything. Some geeks might be a little more intense than others, but we’ve all become part of a society that is more accepting of pure, unadulterated excitement, whether it’s over the latest Apple product or the most recent episode of “Dr. Who.” We’re all geeks about something, and it’s okay to admit it.

  • Updated Dec. 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm