In a debate on the nature of geek culture at its present juncture published earlier this week, my friend Frederick deBoer wrote what I think is a succinct and important summary of one of the more dismaying trends in cultural conversation today: the inability of people who love what is now the dominant culture to recognize that their interests have gone from marginal to hegemonic.
“My fear is not merely that the geeks will never come to acknowledge their triumph, as comfortable as they are in their self-professed victimhood,” deBoer argued. “I fear too that we have come to so thoroughly associate fandom with grievance that the two are now inextricable. That, I suspect, is the long-term consequence of the rise of the geeks: that we no longer know how to enjoy art without enjoying it against others.”
If being angry at someone who likes something else has become so inextricably bound up in our own pleasure in things that we love, it would go a long way toward explaining why debates about previously nerdy cultural objects and pastimes have become so heated — even at a moment when there are more of these objects being produced at a higher level of professionalism and consumed by larger audiences than ever before.
The numbers are undeniable. In television, the number of scripted shows on cable alone has risen 1,000 percent in the last 15 years, and that figure does not even account for the rise of aggressive new players like Netflix and Amazon. When a graph charting the growth in the number of video games released each year was circulated in 2010, the curve was so dramatic that Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett wrote that it made him feel overwhelmed. Superhero movies have also seen a steady climb in the market share they command.
Nobody is asking that Marvel and DC stop making movies and television shows about male superheroes until we have enough Black Panther, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel and Wonder Woman movies to constitute parity or proportional representation. Instead, the request is that, in a market where the appetite for superhero movies seems to be infinite, a few of these non-white, non-male characters get some of the slots in an ever-expanding roster that may stretch as far out as 2028.
Explicitly feminist video game critics, like Anita Sarkeesian, and producers of alternative video games like Zoe Quinn, are not actually calling for video games that involve violent, exploitative or indifferent behavior towards woman to be yanked off the market. Instead, they are suggesting that the market still has room to expand, and that some of that expansion might come from a different sort of offering, be it more playable female characters in franchises like “Assassin’s Creed” or more choose-your-own adventure and casual gaming options with new perspectives.
And the boom in television means that there is more vastly more content out there than any critic can consume, much less any viewer who also has a job and a personal life. If we want to glut ourselves on our television genre of choice, we can watch our fill and still have there be plenty of room in the programming schedule for innovative offerings like Netflix’s prison drama “Orange Is the New Black” to be breakout hits. Tony Soprano and his ilk do not have to die so Poussey and Taystee can live.
Maybe this is a period of adjustment, and flag-flying geeks and nerds will emerge from this upheaval in a better place. Maybe people will see that the video game industry can survive both expansion and criticism. Maybe “Game of Thrones” fans will recognize that the show’s essence will survive even with fewer naked, threatened women on screen. Maybe the bomb threats will stop.
The essence of confidence is the ability to handle critiques and the existence of challengers with grace and security in your own position. If what deBoer is describing is a permanent state, though, then a certain subset of angry geeks will prove themselves to be exactly what the once-dominant culture said they were all along: myopic and insecure. The hysterical reactions to criticism and challenge do far more damage to the proposition that geek culture contains rich forms, stories and communities worth taking seriously than any critic ever could.