When did geekdom become 'cool'?

Feature Simon Brew 18 Dec 2013 - 06:20

You can't walk down a busy street without seeing a T-shirt with the word 'Geek' on it, it seems. So: is this a good thing or bad?

It can't just be me that does a double take walking down the high street now. After all, more and more people seem to be wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word 'Geek' or 'Nerd' on them, as if geekdom has accidentally come into fashion. Lots of people who - at face value - would never be seen dead with such clothing on just a few years ago are now embracing it as a fashion choice. I'd be lying if I said I've got used to it.

After all, once upon a time, you needed to put in some serious work in Sylvester McCoy-era Doctor Who to be lambasted a geek. Now you can declare yourself one - with no negative side effects - by spending the best part of £20 at Next. It's all a bit baffling, really.

Then comes the news that the Collins Online Dictionary has declared 'geek' the word of the year. This, according to posh and well-paid newspaper columnists and reporters, means that geeks are now no longer to be sneered and picked on, but instead being a geek has become a badge of honour. How about that, eh? Good times.

And there's more. Collins has, it turns out, adjusted its definition for the word geek to "a person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject". That's not how people used to put it to me, so it'd be remiss not to take it.

Inevitably, there's been some backlash against the lauding of the word geek, mainly from people on our side of the fence. You can see why too: you can't just pick up a new outfit and be a geek! You need to have passed your Buffy exam, or have corrected someone online about an important plot point in a sci-fi movie! There are standards of geekery, surely, that need to be met!

However, it would be churlish not to acknowledge straight off that there's a positive here. And whilst I can understand the backlash going on, I do wonder if, in the scheme of things, it's something worth fighting over.

Some of the garments that Next will sell you in exchange for money.

History shows that the negative power of derogatory words can be sapped by the target group proclaiming them as their own. There's logic to it: if you call yourself a geek, how can you be offended or upset if someone else does it too? Personally, I don't mind being called a geek, or a nerd. Cards on the table: I can't say it never used to bother me, as I went to school as a child and had to spend time with others who weren't quite as interested in some of the things I was. One or two people had a special way of informing me they weren't that interested, and I'm sure I'm not the only one here who's encountered some form of ostracisation for daring to like something outside of the mainstream.

But over time, I've learned that being interested in quality films, shows, comics and books has far more advantages than not. Not since my younger days have I looked at something hurling out the word geek in a derogatory manner and wished I could change places with them. I think my life improved once I worked that out.

Er, were you expecting not to? [T-shirt sold by 16 Sixty]

That notwithstanding, it's an interesting cultural change that's taking place. Because not only is geekdom less frowned on, apparently, I'm informed by far more fashionable people than me, it's 'cool' to be a geek or a nerd now. Who'd have ever thought that ten years ago?

And more to the point, who actually - when it comes to the nuts and bolts of it - cares?

Because being a geek, and geekdom, never was about being 'cool' - whatever that actually is - and it still isn't. After all, the second you start to desire 'coolness', doesn't it become more about how you're perceived than what you enjoy?

In truth, I've never met a nerdy or geeky person who cares two hoots whether they're declared in fashion or not. I've met plenty who were bullied for liking Star Trek/Doctor Who/assorted genre shows and films, and I've met a smaller proportion of people who still are picked on just for liking something.

With that in mind, I would say this: I've seen some people of the nerdy persuasion get a little bit up in arms at the proliferation of the aforementioned clothing with the word geek on it and such like. That they're getting upset/angry/bemused about it. To them, a request: don't. Please.

This isn't, after all, a badge that needs fighting over, and I can't help but think that the overriding positive of geekdom being recognised, even in this shallow way, is that there may be one less child being bullied in a school playground for being a bit nerdy. Whether the person wearing a 'Geek' T-shirt spends Saturday night watching X-Factor/nightclubbing/writing Doctor Who fan fiction, that the word's negative connotations have been de-sensitised isn't something that should be ignored. It's a welcome step on the road for not being sidelined because you watch and enjoy something others don't.

So what is someone wearing a 'Geek' T-shirt has never read a comic book, or watched the Lord Of The Rings trilogy? What harm, ultimately, does it do? Furthermore, isn't geekdom supposed to be about welcome people, rather than shutting the door in their face?

Personally, the only way I'd ever consider myself cool would be if I took my clothes off and stepped into a fridge. And as fashion fad, 'Geek' and 'Nerd' apparel will be on the sales racks by this time next year, overtaken by some other must have. But we'll still have the shows, films, comics and such like that we've always loved.

What's more, as a result of cultural shifts going on, I can but hope three things.

One, more people get to enjoy said films, comics, games and shows. Two, it opens a door for people to enjoy stuff they've never thought about trying - and that, in turn, they're welcomed for doing so (as opposed to being criticised for not being 'true geeks', as I've seen over the past weeks).

And finally, that those who choose to bully and criticise those for liking something 'nerdy' or 'geeky' just think twice about it. If that last wish comes true especially , then Next can sell all the 'Geek' T-shirts it likes as far as I'm concerned...

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