Geek Culture and its Discontents

James Rolfe is one of many public geeks upset about Paul Feig’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot. There’s no shortage of them, and they are very vocal about how the new film is taking a dump on their childhood memories, or is desecrating an important piece of high art. I disagree, and I say this as a child who grew up on Ghostbusters. I saw Ghostbusters II in the theatre on opening day—at four years old. I owned the toys, watched the cartoon, saw the Universal Studios Ghostbusters show, and wore out the VHS tapes. I am a fan, and I am cautiously optimistic about Feig’s remake.

Of course, it’s James’s right to not see the movie. It’s James’s right to not like the movie, and certainly his right not to review it. What I object to is the whinging and whining over the remake’s mere existence. It’s not as if Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy are going to bust down our doors and destroy every copy of the original film. The original Ghostbusters is a classic, and it’s not going away until the sun throws out an EMP that obliterates all of our technology, including film projectors.

But we’ve seen this sort of thing before. Every time a beloved geek franchise is revived by Hollywood, there’s similar cries, but rarely have they been at such a fever pitch as over the new Ghostbusters. Combine a beloved geek film, female leads, and the miasma of racism and sexism that Geek Culture wallows in, and this was inevitable. I’m not going to talk about the problem of geek racism and sexism, at least in this piece, except to say I’m against it. Better if you listen to the voices of women and people of color in geek spaces instead.

Instead, I’m interested in the phenomenon of modern Geek Culture, and the way in which fandom has moved from an act of love to an act of smug superiority. Historically, the public image of fandom has been building up a community. Fans created things: fanfic, fan film, fan art, cosplay, building props, and running conventions to share their love of the weird things that they adore. These things still happen, of course, but there’s been a sea change over the past decade or so: the rise of the so-called “Critic”.

The Nostalgia Critic

I put “Critic” in quotes, because they do not engage in true criticism. Indeed, true critics in the academic sense are often attacked in geek circles. Just look at Anita Sarkeesian, who performs an academic, feminist critique of geek culture through Feminist Frequency. She’s been the target of death threats, and sustained harassment for years. All this from an audience that not long ago was demanding film critic Roger Ebert to consider video games as art. News flash: if Geek Culture is art — and it is — academic critique comes with the territory, whether you like it or not.

The difference between a Geek Critic like James Rolfe, and an academic critic like Anita Sarkeesian is that academic critics demand audiences to engage in a work outside of the fuzzy comfort zone of nostalgia. It’s no fun to examine how Peter Venkman is a sexual predator, when the Geek Audience would prefer to imagine themselves as Venkman, saving the day, getting the girl, all while making witty remarks. (Why the hell was Venkman carrying so much Thorazine anyway?)

James Rolfe in character as the Angry Video Game Nerd

Instead the Geek Critic is a reviewer. Reviews are important—they tell you if a work is worth your time and money. What a review doesn’t tell you is what the work means. When a Geek Critic looks at a historical work, they either ooze pure nostalgia, or they unleash pure anger and hatred upon it. The latter is the more successful model of the two, because we geeks love the chance to feel smug and superior to those fools who like the terrible thing. They proliferate, because smug, angry faux-criticism is easy to produce and easy to consume. It is the junk-food of criticism.

And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying some Chicken McNuggets from time to time. The problem arises when this becomes your entire diet. There’s no incentive for most geeks to ask for criticism that doesn’t reinforce both the geek superiority and geek inferiority complex. And yes, these both exist. It’s how a geek-focused movie property like the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes half a billion dollars at the box office, while the “Everything Wrong With…” videos have multiple millions of YouTube views.

Something is wrong here.

Geek Culture and Fandom in general have never been free of drama, of course: Joel vs. Mike, Kirk vs. Picard, Superman vs. Batman, Marvel vs. DC, Babylon 5 vs. Deep Space 9, Nintendo vs. Sony vs. Microsoft, etc… There’s a difference between the inevitable conflicts that arise in any long running fandom, and the deliberate stirring up of conflict by public and private geek personas. It’s as if we cannot let people choose to enjoy what they enjoy, and instead take every new development as an affront to the holy cultural icons of geekdom.

This where the spectres of racism and sexism rear their ugly heads again. To go back to Ghostbusters, if anyone thinks that a reboot with a male leading cast would get such vitriol is kidding themselves. There have been countless remakes and reboots over the last decade-plus, and more to come. I’m not thrilled about this either, but no matter how many times they remake beloved franchises, the reaction has not been half as vitriolic. Nobody attacked Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto for the Star Trek reboot in the way the hordes attacked Leslie Jones.

Despite the drama endemic to the subculture, Geekdom is supposed to be a Big Tent. There’s supposed to be room for everyone, and what we overlook when a new Geek Franchise is rebooted, is that it provides a way for new people to get into it. Without new fans, a fan culture will die out. When push new, fledgling geeks out of our circles for not being fan enough, we are sowing the seeds of our subcultural extinction. Do we want geeks to become like the Shakers?

The urge for protectionism is natural, but it’s coming at the cost of our future as a subculture. Geekdom is a billion-dollar business, and we’re still putting up walls and demanding purity tests from anyone who doesn’t look like us. We close the door on women who share our interest, claiming they’re “fake” geeks. We close the door on geeks of color, or on queer geeks, because they “make it all about their color/orientation.”

Female Superheroes Sell!

Never mind that the majority of Geek Culture has been made by white male geeks, and for white male geeks. We have never wanted for representation, and we never will. Hollywood will keep making movies about white male heroes. Marvel and DC will keep making comics with white male heroes. Video game studios will keep making games with white male heroes. That there are more movies, comics, and games with female heroes, heroes of color, queer heroes, means there is something for everyone — not just us. This is a good thing.

It’s not about whether the Ghostbusters reboot is going to be good. Who can tell from a trailer? The original Ghostbusters trailer wasn’t a good measurement of the film’s quality either. The 1984 trailer positioned it as a horror-action movie with comedy elements, and cutting the character moments that made the original Ghostbusters so good. This is about maintaining a healthy, open community for geeks who are more than just white, straight, and male. The 2016 Ghostbusters fracas is the symptom, not the disease.