In an article titled “Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity“, Kom Kunyosying and Carter Soles argue that geek culture (i.e. “geekdom”) as portrayed by popular media, functions as a sort of “simulated ethnicity”, where being a “geek” becomes at some level equivalent to being say “Black” or “Hispanic”. What do they mean here, how exactly does such a thing work, and — most importantly — how does this apply to looking at fandom and “otaku culture”?
The article itself is quite academic and decently long, so I’ve written up a summary of it’s main arguments below.
“Geek” and “Geekdom”
Over the past few decades, geeks have become more popular in cinema and more prominent in popular culture as a whole. This has led to a rise in perceived “geekdom”, most clearly exemplified by “geek” protagonists, such as in Superbad, The Big Bang Theory, Scott Pilgrim, and other media.
But wait – what are geeks? And what makes them different than, say, nerds or dorks, many of which are used interchangeably? Kunyosying and Soles provide a nice classification system, which I’ve copied below.
There are obviously some problems with this classification scheme (e.g., do nerds have to be socially awkward, or can they just be “nerdy”?), but overall I really like this grouping as a rough first pass/a guideline for distinguishing geeks and nerds. The “social awkwardness” part, for instance, is tough to pin down (I think you can be nerdy and still be socially competent), but it’s a small gripe with what is an otherwise good attempt to separate out the group. As Kunyosying and Soles limit their analysis to “geeks”, we can thus see they’ll be attempting to focus their analysis on people who share in both academic-esque hobbies as well as more obscure ones, and for whom social interaction with others may or may not be a problem.
So what is the popular image of the “geek” and the “geekdom” he represents? For instance, geeks in popular media are almost invariably portrayed as straight, white, middle/upper-class males, and are even often Jewish! For such a broad category, this typification is striking. Why aren’t there female geeks, or geeks of other ethnicities? Or a larger variety of socioeconomic classes (say ultra-rich or poor) represented? There’s something else going on here, something possibly more sinister…
The overarching argument of their essay (which is messy) is that “geekdom” rises out of melodrama, which in this case is somewhat akin to a persecution complex. Melodrama is the process by which suffering, persecution, etc. is used to grant the sufferer the moral high-ground: the more someone is portrayed to suffer, the more than are seen as sympathetic and “in the right”, and thus suffering grants the sufferer increased moral privilege and garners our admiration. Because geeks are constantly portrayed (and often portray themselves) as excluded from society — often typified using jocks and/or other racial/gender stereotypes — “geeks” are cast as persecuted and good-hearted people whose self-worth cannot be recognized. Through melodrama, geeks are then able to use this persecution to grant themselves sympathetic and privileged moral standing that they can leverage against their oppressors. This allows them to move past their privileged economic/ethnic/gendered status (since they essentially win at life there) and and re-create their image as an individual persecuted for some external behaviors or qualities. This process is akin to persecution due to ethnicity.
Most importantly, the definition and (self-)identification of being a “geek” has changed from partaking in a set of behaviors and/or interests that society might deem unacceptable (e.g. watching a lot of imouto wincest shows) to a quality that is internal/inherent to the individual. You can stop your geeky activities, but the inner morality/dialogue/tendencies that make up your “geekiness” will remain. The (perceived) persecution thus shifts from rejection due to something societally unacceptable (in which case you only need to stop the activity) to some core part of yourself (in which case even if you stop the activity, some core part of your personality/self will lead to some level of alienation). As you cannot strip away this “inner” geek, the persecution then becomes akin to ethnic persecution.
By making such suffering, exclusion, and conflict a common trait that overarchingly defines “geekdom” (you can’t be a geek unless you’re excluded/rejected by society at some level!), geeks use melodrama to essentially grant themselves ethnic minority status. This is functions quite similarly to the persecution of Jews (who look “white” but are still a minority with a long history of repression), and might be the reason why a lot of geek protagonists recently have been Jewish.
Desires for Re-Integration
In addition (and most crucially), geeks really aspire to integrate/assimilate into society — they feel excluded and want to join in. Although geeks are ultimately characterized by melodrama, self-doubt, and other modes of conflict, they yearn to give up that identity and life “the easy life” — “get the girl”, do normal things, be successful, make friends easily, not worry about morality, talk smoothly, etc. This internal paradox between a desire for assimilation (i.e. the cessation of melodrama) and an identity which is largely built upon melodrama is at the heart of their classification of geekdom as simulated ethnicity. Real ethnic minorities face similar conflicts between an identity founded upon differences and separation from “society at large” (i.e. melodrama) but an overall desire to integrate into that same system and subsequently lose what made them specifically “ethnic” in the first place.
Geekdom becomes “simulated ethnicity” through this process: by turning “geek” into an internal rather than external quality and forging a link between such a quality and melodrama, “geeks” are then caught in a conflict where they seek to eliminate the very same melodrama that grants them their identity. By building up such a complex, what would otherwise be middle-class, heterosexual, white males are able to subvert their “white privilege” to become a suppressed “ethnic minority”! Isn’t that neat?!
Geeks vs. Slackers
Note, however, this simulated ethnicity is contingent upon some sort of melodrama, exclusion, etc. With the rise of geekdom in pop culture, such melodrama might break down as geeks (or their associated activities) become more accepted. This essentially could lead to a geek “identity crisis” which might parallel other historical ethnic assimilation.
But what about those who don’t feel this desire for integration, or more precisely are not characterized by either accepting or rejecting this impulse? This group becomes what the authors deem slackers. As these individuals are not characterized by this conflict, they do not become part of some larger “geek” culture/consciousness. Instead, they become individuals who just don’t really fit in and don’t care about fitting in. There’s no culture that arises around said individuals, and thus no development of a simulated ethnicity as is in the case of the geeks. Kunyosying and Soles use pop culture and common slacker/geek pairings (e.g., Luke/Han, Nite Owl II/Rorschach) to illustrate how this dichotomy heightens the sense that geekdom is something more than just a type of individual.
Kunyosying and Soles go on to argue a couple ramifications of this viewpoint and how they can then become entrenched in “geek culture”. I’m a little bit more skeptical of some of these claims (and tend to believe they arise through more historical means rather than “simulated ethnic”-baed ones), but I’ve listed them below.
- For instance, they can use their position on the moral high ground (due to their melodrama) to get mad at women for not noticing their redeeming qualities, portraying them as shallow and perpetuating a common misogynistic vibe that runs throughout many geeky stories.
- By extension, this also explains the strong backlash against (attractive) female geeks by male geeks — they need to be unappreciated by members of the opposite sex that they desire to maintain their simulated ethnicity and melodrama.
- To distinguish themselves from actual ethnic minorities, they can then use Asians/Blacks/other “real” ethnicities and their associated stereotypes as foils in both directions (as either “nerdy”/”cool” ethnic groups to try and avoid/emulate, respectively, for instance).
- And, of course, this can be used create a sympathetic hero (because of the melodrama) for whom the audience can universally root for.
In all cases, these qualities are in stark contrast to the economic, racial, and gender advantages that geeks (as portrayed by popular culture) possess.
There are a number of critiques that one can make about this argument. A friend of mine, for instance, proposed a good number of the biggest problems with the above argument. I’ve listed several of them below:
- Even this watered-down argument feels highly academic and overblown. Geeks may cling to an under-appreciated/persecuted image, but geek culture as a whole does not emulate and/or aspire to be an ethnic minority.
- Geeks don’t typically dislike attractive members of their ilk for being popular/accepted, and the suggestion that they do is simplistic and ignorant. Though misogyny is a problem in geek communities, I don’t think this arises from a feeling that geeks are mistreated by women who reject them; geeks today are not completely lacking in self-confidence, or at least not for the sole reason that they are geeks. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and others are now the norm, not the exception — and geeks know it. The misogyny arises more often from a disbelief that women really want to be part of the community, rather than that they are trespassers on the new, geeky “cool” that we enjoy.
- Also, so long as most “geeks” are male, it is to be expected that female characters will have less depth and seem more objectified. Of course many women do truly connect with geek culture, and it’s a shame that they face such skepticism.
- I believe that geek culture is more than a group of empathetic individuals, but rather is founded on a belief that obsession is okay. You can be fascinated with little, seemingly boring details, whether it’s baseball trivia or science or math or Lord of the Rings or Minecraft or anime or Star Trek or My Little Pony or anything you can think of. Geekdom is far from perfectly nonjudgemental, but it is this principle binds us together.
- Ethnicity is based on a historical culture and identity (and oppression). Geek culture has certainly capitalized on the “marginalized coming out” story, as seen in movies like those referenced in the article, but though we enjoy them, many geeks resent the image of the 40-year-old virgin and the protagonists of The Big Bang Theory. These hollywood geeks are stereotypes, when the reality is that geeks come in all shapes and sizes. Geeks are no longer the forcibly excluded, desperate to fit in characters from Freaks & Geeks — they are instead a tremendously diverse group that finds common ground by “geeking out” over our love of things that some find stupid or lame or mundane. They are not defined by those who find them lame or by feeling misunderstood, but rather by common obsessions. Geekdom is internal, not external.
Note: Full credit for the critiques goes to my friend. I’ve edited them minimally only to make them read more objectively; the original text included a lot of “we” and “ourselves” (just in case that changes how these read here).
These are good critiques, and I agree with many of the points that are brought up. These responses, however, actually lead to some interesting points, which I respond to below…
- I don’t think this was meant to be an essay about “actual” geekdom, but the “geekdom” that is often portrayed in pop culture. The wide diversification of geekdom in recent years (although it’s been happening for some time) is in contrast to the very typified geek portrayed on TV and through other media channels. It’s good not to get the two confused, and this limits some of the articles implications for investigating “real” geekdom, but the model they propose is useful for understanding geekdom as represented by popular culture.
- Extending on that, the ideas the article proposes (bolded above) is interesting. While the very coarse application used can in general be argued against, you can’t fully say that the “geek” community is not often defined at some level by individual member marginalization and — by extension — its presence as a subculture.
- In addition, this model hints at some interesting applications and ideas for how we construct/construe identity. What could this idea of “simulated ethnicity” tell us about behavior in the LBGT community or other persecuted sociocultural groups? Or, flipping the question, what does it tell us about “real” ethnicity? Even if it’s not correct in this case, I find the implications compelling enough not to dismiss the argument offhand.
- This skepticism of female geeks is another form of misogyny with very similar roots to the first. Why is there a need to doubt attractive members as “posers”? It implies they aren’t “truly” geek and consume only “surface” geekdom…which is simply another manifestation of the same problem.
- Speaking of the idea that “obsession is okay”, I find this shift in identity to probably be the most important offshoot of this post. It implies that geekiness is more than just a common set of practices (e.g., playing a lot of video games), but actually a way of viewing (dare I say interpreting?!) said practices. If we want to be even stronger, we could even say the viewpoint leads or inspires said practices. This shift, and its impact on the way geeks view themselves, their communities, and the ways it impacts (how they construct) their identity (which plays right into the misogyny above) is fascinating.
- This viewpoint on obsession itself as actually really interesting, especially given the phrasing you choose (i.e. “obsession is okay“). Why wouldn’t it be okay? Why not something like “obsession is fun” or “reveling in obsession” or something along those lines? Why explicitly the “okay” part? Is it because there’s some(one/thing) that says it’s not? This idea (which is common to most definitions of geekdom I’ve seen floating around) seems to imply there’s something it’s being framed against — which leads us back to some vision of the “oppressor” sneaking back into the definition.
- Speaking of the oppressor, I’m not at all sure that geekdom is free of that shackle. A wide swath of members are introverts, engage in escapist practices, and often make friends through said practices because they can’t/don’t feel comfortable through other means. Although obviously not all of it is this way, there’s a noticeable undercurrent in much of what goes on that is framed by some sort of margnialization (either forced or self-imposed) against society at large.
- By extension, these responses (and the original argument) rely heavily on a “society at large” to frame this against. This leads use to question what this really is: a real thing that causes melodrama, some sort of boogeyman/strawman constructed to create melodrama, or something in-between?
- This way of viewing geeks (defined by similar viewpoints/sets of values rather than practices) also gives some interesting ideas as to how one should study “geekdom”. If “geeks” really are internal classifications rather than external practice, then defining things like “geekdom” or “geek culture” based on external behaviors and/or practices is indeed the wrong way to go about it. In other words, we shouldn’t be framing groups such as “geek culture” based on what geeks do, but rather frame our viewpoints based on why they do the things they do. The physical behaviors should be seen as manifesting from ways that geeks perceive things (i.e. how geeks read and define texts, if we’re being more academic).
- Likewise, this almost suggests that geeks are sociological/anthropological entities, in the sense that someone is internally a geek or not. Is there an element of choice there? Are geeks (and self-identifying as one) similar to identifying as fans? Or, more explicitly: are you a “geek”, or can you be a “geek”? Because if we go by this “reading” of geeks, we seem to be able to study them as if they are indeed some sort of race, ethnicity, etc. with cultural practices, rituals, etc. built up around them. Which essentially gives them a simulated ethnicity (albeit of a different sort than Kunyosying and Soles argue). However, a lot of groups can be studied this way, so maybe I’m looking a bit too much into it.
Otaku and Anime Fandom
The arguments, critiques, and extensions detailed above so far have only applied to “geekdom”. However, the questions they raise can naturally be applied to studies of otaku, and indeed are directly relevant to understanding anime fandom and otaku culture. For instance, this type of “you are an otaku” viewpoint is all over Japanese studies of otaku (which tend to be more sociological, studying a group of people who possess some intrinsic quality). By contrast, American studies of otaku often seem to support the “you can be an otaku” view (and thus are oriented differently, since you’re now studying groups of people who have chosen to be hardcore fans).
Both of these viewpoints, however, don’t really answer a fundamental question: what makes someone an “otaku” as opposed to a hardcore anime fan? What’s the difference between the two groups (or is there one in the first place?). Using the ideas raised here, we can attempt to answer this question in a way that simultaneously fits both views: otaku are individuals who have come to interpret texts in a certain way. This way might be different from that of normal fans, and our investigation should focus on trying to tease out what these are, how they come about, and consequently how these different ways of viewing things leads to different groups — interpreting how interpretation defines and creates individual and group “otaku” identity! These naturally lead to concepts of simulated ethnicity, especially given the differences between how “otaku” is used in the US (specifically referring to anime/manga fans) and in Japan (where it is approximately equivalent to “geek”). This might also lead to some answers as to why fujoushi are seemingly viewed so differently than female geeks, and tie back into things like the database model of consumption.
In the end though, this is all just theorizing and stabs at a useful/interesting way of understanding otaku and fandom at large — I’m not sure where all this leads, let alone if it leads somewhere useful and/or insightful. What do you guys think about all this? Does the concept of “simulated ethnicity” make sense? Is is justified being applied to “geekdom”? How about the wider interpretations and applications I attempt here — are they logical extensions, or am I making some huge leaps? And is there any part of this you find particularly interesting or want to comment on?