Friday, July 18, 2014

All the Nerdy Things

There’s little doubt that an ironic, meta-appreciation of culture has dominated popular consciousness for almost the entirety of the last decade.  I don’t particularly know when or why this trend started (though I have my hypotheses––the rise of reality tv being the catalyst, mostly), but the prevalence of an ironic self-awareness––or its more biting cousin, sarcasm, or its mean uncle, cynicism––has permeated deeply into nerd culture as well.

Now, chronologically, this spread from popular culture into nerd culture is not a surprise––the emergence of meta-humor shot pretty much along the same trajectory as that of the general acceptance of nerdy and geeky things.  I honestly believe that the two aren’t parallel or share causation insomuch as they collided at some point, an intersection from which they’ve been orbiting each other ever since in a strange, self-aware helix and, in the way most nerds do, we have capitalized on the meta wave almost better than any other facet of pop culture.

I think we’re so good at it because it’s mixed with a hint of earnestness.  When we wear a shirt that has an NES cartridge on it with the caption “Blow Me” or see movies like Snakes on a Plane or read books like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, there is an honest love for the original properties or concepts that motivate us to consume them.  However, we consume all of these with a knowing wink which brings me to the heart of the issue: what does it mean for the nerd community to embrace this trend of ironic humor?  The obvious answer also happens to be very true: it’s funny.  Being funny only goes so far.  Some of the most earnest fiction that’s created with “traditional” nerdy properties are incredibly scrutinized by nerds––remember the simple announcement of Heath Ledger playing the Joker for The Dark Knight and the cloud of Brokeback jokes that were made in response?––but properties that sort of celebrate their traditional nerdiness, waving it almost like a parade banner, are praised and supported with an almost blind devotion (I’m thinking of things like Scott Pilgrim or Red vs. Blue, for example––to an extent, even things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer fit this mold, too).  The fact that I mentioned any of the above properties while making an analysis of nerd culture already has some of you sharpening your claws; some of you may already be challenging my own nerdiness.  But that’s the problem––were do we draw the definition for devoted geekiness?  Does everything that is for “real” nerds now have to be self-aware and a comment on its own genre or culture in order to separate it from the stuff that is no longer “ours”?  At the very least, does everything that used to be “ours” have to be met with a severe skepticism?

What's the honest point of this?

I wonder if the real answer as to why we embrace this meta-approach so readily is a bit more psychological.  The boon of having the Marvel movies and even things like the Transformers movies destroy the box office, or that things like Doctor Who are drawing huge crowds of American teenagers of both genders at conventions is that––as I’ve said before––it allows those of us who have loved these properties––properties which helped us not only have fun, but which have shaped our personalities, world views and, most importantly, our identities––to do so openly and have so many more people to talk to about them.  That’s also the problem, though; the dominance of nerd culture is creating a sort of identity crisis within nerds, and so we retreat into this meta-shell because it keeps us safe from a world that now accepts us.

Ironic meta-humor allows us who were chastised and ostracized in our youths to stay on the “outside,” especially in the face of being forced to share what, at first, separated us from the general public.  Meta-awareness seems to be the more positive side of the “fandom” coin: instead of telling movie and tv show fans that they aren’t real nerds, we can call ourselves nerds and own it before people can use it as an insult.  By showing how aware we are that these are products with motivations, processes, and histories behind them, we are effectively trying to control them by exerting a sense of continued ownership over things that aren’t ours anymore and, more importantly, weren’t ours in the first place even though it felt like it.  The best and simultaneously worst example of this recently being put into practice is the confusing self-awareness of Star Trek Into Darkness.

The world's most nerdy in-joke or touching character moment?

This implies an interesting side effect to our new “nerd culture”––as a nerd who remembers the time when it was bad to be a nerd, many of us are just as defined by that period in our life––by that rejection, if you will––as we were by the things that kept us sane.  And, as is evident by the the geeky prominence in modern popular culture, many of us have worked hard to surmount that rejection and succeed––and, boy, have we done so.  But now we exist in a culture where everybody wants what only we had wanted in our youths and that feeling of having something special, all to ourselves or to share with only a select group of others, is effectively just a piece of history, a “remember when” moment.  We thrived under that burden of nerdiness and geekiness and we strengthened our legs to stand beneath it and now we rule every possible metric.  Naturally, we become perplexed when we find that we are no longer rejected, and it scares us as much as we bask in it.

The embracing of this ironic and self-aware view of movies, tv, comics, books, video games, etc.––all the nerdy things––has become a self-placed Othering, to an extent.  Whether it’s healthy or detrimental, I don’t know because, up until recently, that wasn’t an option.

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