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Geek Is as Geek Does ? Cosplay and Geek Chic as Conflicting Sides of a Figure in Need of Definition
In recent years, the figure of the geek has risen to prominence in popular culture, to the point of becoming a staple character of certain genres. What was once considered a marginalised and stereotypical anomaly of the school ground hierarchies is now far less stigmatised. The new geek chic fad makes it so fashionable to be geeky that non-geeks adopt elements of the look to spice up their appearance.
In recent years, the figure of the geek has risen to prominence in popular culture, to the point of becoming a staple character of certain genres. What was once considered a marginalised and stereotypical anomaly of the school ground hierarchies is now far less stigmatised. Certain developments in recent fashion trends tend to frame geeks as a new market, and merchandise is now created with the geeky in mind. One look at sites such as thinkgeek.com and j !nx.com show that viable businesses make their living by catering to self-identified geeks. The new geek chic fad makes it so fashionable to be geeky that non-geeks adopt elements of the look to spice up their appearance. While this depiction by popular media tells one story about the geek and his clothes, geeky characters in works of fiction such as the online comic I Am Geek, and the television shows The Big Bang Theory and Freaks and Geeks, seem to define an alternative rapport. In these representations, the geek is most often awkwardly dressed, and spends no time reflecting upon his appearance. The one moment where he enters excitedly into the practice of dress-up is when he partakes in the practice of cosplay (a portmanteau word that unifies costume and playing). This rigorous and meticulous play-acting goes well beyond costuming. One who enters into cosplay becomes the character he aims to emulate. This tradition goes hand in hand with the development of the “geek” signifier, and the otaku, the trekkers, and the Society for Creative Anachronism have been associated with it. Thus a question arises ; why is a group whose only long-standing relation to clothing is transference of identity into fiction suddenly subjected into a target market ? What relationship is there between the self-affirmation of a t-shirt that reads “geek” and the effacement of the one who becomes a Klingon in both dress and tongue for a weekend ? Perhaps the answer lies in the slippery nature of a stereotype turned into a badge of honour.
To what point has the figure of the geek risen to common knowledge ? Most Anglophones have at least a sense of the meaning of the word, and speakers of other languages often have appellations connected to the phenomenon : the Spanish friki, the Japanese otaku, the French tronche, etc. But the intuitive definition quickly becomes muddled when its particularities are discussed. The English language offers many words issued from a schoolyard vocabulary to help clarify the exact signified to the “geek” signifier. Nerd, dweeb, dork, loser, reject, pointdexter, egghead, drip and square are all conflagrated into a weird semantic field around the figure of the uncool teenager ; both the one who is socially inept, and the one who alienates his peers with stellar scholarly results. While investigating the etymology of these popular words is worthwhile and oftentimes hilarious, it would take us well beyond the scope of our considerations and into a dark corner of the human psyche where stereotypes and stigmas are born . What seems interesting is that, while the figure of the geek is definitely part of this group of misfits, it has also undergone a transformation in meaning. Since its coinage around the 16th century, the geek has been successively a liar, a fool, a carnival freak, a know-it-all and a social outcast (see the Oxford English Dictionary for further details). But by the beginning of the 1990s a new definition had made its way to the forefront, and for the first time, “geek” was self-descriptive, and it was accepted with pride. The hacker community was the first to take note, and The New Hacker’s Dictionary offers, in its definition of “computer geek” a very enlightening turn on the word :
n. 1. [...] One who fulfills all the dreariest negative stereotypes about hackers : an asocial, malodorous, pasty-faced monomaniac with all the personality of a cheese grater. Cannot be used by outsiders without implied insult to all hackers ; compare black-on-black vs. white-on-black usage of “nigger.” A computer geek may be either a fundamentally clueless individual or a proto-hacker in larval stage. [...] 2. Some self-described computer geeks use this term in a positive sense and protest sense (this seems to have been a post-1990 development). (Raymond, 1993)
This has started an association between the geek and the hacker. Since both term’s semantic fields meet at certain points (both are sometimes said to have a love for computers, trivial details, video games and DIY ethics), the self-identification of geekness and hackerdom will meet here. Most often, the hacker can be considered both a “code geek” and a “gadget geek,” but while the definition could pan out into other areas not specifically linked to the geek, for the purpose of this investigation the hacker’s description of his clothes will act as an avenue for thinking the geek’s problematic relationship to fashion.
While there is no doubt, by the end of the 2000s, that the transition is complete, and “geek” is an omnipresent designation, it remains unclear how the transformation, from despised caterpillar to social butterfly (if you will), came about. Neal Stephenson best summarises this change in a presentation titled Science Fiction as a Literary Genre, given on the 8th of may 2008 :
Twenty years ago we called them nerds and we despised them, we didn’t like the power that they seemed to have over the rest of us and we identified them as something different from normal society, now we call them geeks and we like them just fine because they are us. Nerds were limited to math and science and computers, geeks also do those kinds of things, which isn’t saying much because everyone works with computers all the time now, but geeks can also be experts on welding or civil war battles or fine cabinet making. Everyone gets now that this is how society is going to work, and as long as geeks bathe frequently enough and don’t commit the faux-pas of geeking out at the wrong time, in the wrong company, it’s okay, it’s better than okay, it’s desirable. We’re all geeks now (Stephenson, 2008 : 27:29 - 28:16)
But even though there is a shift in the perception that “passionate obsessives,” (Gibson, 2001), are not only socially acceptable, but hidden in all of us, there does remain a stigma from the original insult. It shows through when Stephenson mentions that geeks do not necessarily bathe, and that they could, at the wrong moment, estrange others by “geeking out.” How do we differentiate the “geek in all of us” from the “unclean and alienating geek ?” This distinction remains necessary, especially since those that grew up being ridiculed by their seeming lack of social abilities still exist today, and they consider themselves the “real geeks.” Since this difference seems to stem from the impression instilled in others, perhaps appearance is an interesting starting point.