On Geek Privilege

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I’d like you to take a moment (preferably before reading the rest of this column, but it’s not like I can control your reading habits) and read the piece that inspired it on Medium.com – a site which I hadn’t heard of before but evidently could be thought of as “Twit-really-really-really-really-longer” – titled “On Gay Male Privilege.” It’s a long read, and the degree to which its content will be in some way revelatory to you will depend a lot on the immediacy of your familiarity (if any) with the slang and reference pool of the present-day gay male social scene, but since reading it is what put me in the mind to write this column I figure it might be helpful for context.

The main theme of the piece is the author entreating fellow gay men to be more aware and take steps to correct a vein of casual misogyny that (in his view) has become prevalent in parts of their subculture in-tandem with their growing acceptance into (some aspects of) mainstream culture. Though he cites multiple examples and levels of such, the most prominent “villainy” hovering over the thesis is the acceptability – indeed, the tongue-in-cheek celebration of gay men who say things in regard to women, their physical appearance, bodies, etc., that would be (rightly) condemned as callous if not outright sexual harassment were they said by straight men (see: Hilton, Perez) but are laughed-off because, as gay men, they are presumed to be both “harmless” (re: Isaac Mizrahi groping Scarlett Johansson) by virtue of supposed lack of sexual-interest and afforded a certain leeway because they, too, are marginalized by broader patriarchy. The author contends that while these allowances were never appropriate, the second one is significantly less so now that gay men (at least, a certain idealized variety of “straight-acting,” fashion-forward, culturally-urbane gay man) have attained a level of cultural power (and, thus, privilege) of their own.1

There’s a lot more in there, some of it pretty raw and all of it fairly fascinating, but about midway through a thought wormed into my brain and refused to leave: Swap out the word “gay” with “geek”, and change up certain pop-cultural reference points (Big Bang Theory for Will & Grace, comic book stores or tech-sector jobs for gay bars, etc) the conversation this author wants to have with his community is largely the same one I (and many others) have been trying to have with mine.

Well… sort of. See, if I were to start a conversation about “Geek Privilege” the first thing I’d probably want to address is my own growing discomfort with unironically claiming the privilege of using words like “culture” or “community” to draw some kind of parallel between the nerd/fandom pop-ephemera and actual marginalized groups; a “joking-but-not-really” meme that goes all the way back to Revenge of the Nerds, where The Nerds succeed in becoming an official College Fraternity as a member house in the historically black Lambda Lambda Lambda order after the organization’s head comes to see their on-campus “oppression” as being analogous to his and other former members experiences with racism. (This is, astonishingly, not the most offensive thing that happens in that movie.)

Yeah… no. Sorry, but no.

1. It should be noted that the “Gay Male Privilege” piece is not without its own critics, including but by no means limited to those who object to the author’s call to replace “gay” with “queer” as the identifier of choice. On that particular point I don’t feel qualified to offer an opinion, identifying as neither gay nor queer myself, apart from the feeling that people should be called what they wish to be called and not called what they find personally offensive.

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“I totally relate to the systemic societal bigotry you’ve faced and likely will continue to face your entire life because I got picked on for being really into Star Trek might be an endearingly-naïve sentiment from a 10 year-old, but from a grown man (or a “movement” of grown men) it’s pretty much grotesquely insensitive appropriation – and all the more so when the “marginalized community” in question is as powerful and dominant a part of the pop-culture market and conversation. To say that “geek culture” is in any meaningful way suffering under the boot-heels of the mainstream “bullies” is to ignore Hollywood, TV and the publishing industry alternately bending over backwards to revive and invigorate every sliver of nerd-adjacent intellectual property and finding new ways to assure (white, male, middle-to-upper-class) nerds how awesome and meaningful they and theirs are considered.

To put it bluntly, for however much the very real problems of schoolyard bullying and social stigmatization have been part of the “geek experience” over the years, the temptation for self-identified geeks, nerds etc to claim an exaggerated sympathy for the same (whereby the archetypal “bullied nerd” is afforded the privilege of presumed innate goodness) too often prevailed; particularly when abated by a popular culture that so loves it’s “underdogs.”

The result was, predictably, the emergence of culturally-pervasive power-dynamics with immensely troubling implications: The conflation of being a devoted fan of geeky things often associated with smart people (in the very beginning, scifi-fandom and devotees of actual science were quite intertwined, though it hardly remained such) – “I’m smart and you’re stupid because you watch football whereas I watch ‘BABYLON 5.'” The default good-versus-evil dichotomy of the Smart Nerd and Dumb Jock absent any acknowledgement of the culture and socioeconomic factors that can both make academic achievement more readily available to some and athletic achievement the only viable form of upward-mobility for others – By what logic, really, does the well-off child whose parents could afford to buy them a microscope hold innate moral-superiority over the poor child for whom a football scholarship is among the only realistic hopes of a better life?

And then, of course, there’s the dynamic involving women. You’ll note that I didn’t specify “Geek Male Privilege” in the title – let’s face it, I didn’t need to: That so-called “Geek Culture” described what was until fairly recently widely understood to be a culture overwhelmingly of white men all-but goes without saying, and the way the Geeks = Underdogs = Good Guys privilege-narrative turns women into both prizes (sex) and villains (withholders of sex) is at once a manifestation and propagation of said narrative’s ugliest side.

Consider one of pop-culture’s most prominent “Hero Nerds,” Family Matters‘ Steven Q. Urkel, whose central character arc over nine television seasons was aggressively pursuing the romantic attentions of an uninterested target in a manner that would red-flag him as stalker (and a potentially dangerous one at that – one of his triumphant catchphrases was even “I’m wearin’ you down, baby!”) were he not afforded the privilege of default moral high-ground by virtue of his being a “misunderstood” bullied nerd. In this morally upside-down scenario, Laura Winslow (the object of his obsession) was practically framed as a bully/oppressor herself by virtue of denying Steve love (and, let’s face it, sex.) Yes, 90s Kids, I know it was a cute, funny, nostalgic touchstone. But roll all that around in your heads for a moment… it’s just a bit repugnant, isn’t it?


These troubles, of course, long predate the current scenario where “geekdom” has achieved a more tangible kind of power and privilege; with Silicon Valley as the Western World’s new billionaire-factory and comic book heroes as popular culture’s new money-printing icons. But one can’t help but wonder how much of modern geek-culture aggravations like sexism in the games industry, verbal assaults in online spaces, sexual harassment at conventions, etc have some root in these old, pervasive dynamics of power and privilege.

Surely, can’t it be said that there’s at least some residue of Urkel & Laura in the scoffing of (some) male con-goers at the notion that female cosplayers have the right to exist as attractive-looking beings without being followed, catcalled or groped? Surely, a deep internalizing of the Nerd = Victim = Good Guy narrative might be at play when this or that fandom reacts violently at the notion that they or the objects of said fandom might be marginalizing somebody else (“I can’t be racist! I’m a geek, and that’s the same thing as being a racial minority in America!”) And surely, couldn’t there be just a bit of the Good Smart Nerd/Evil Dumb Jock (or Dumb Everybody Else?) mentality informing instances of, say, Google occasionally acting like the rest of San Francisco is little more than a fiefdom that should be grateful to live in the shadow of its (Tech)noble Lords?

The phrase “check your privilege” has been overused to the point of eye-rolling parody, especially on the internet, but there’s worthy advice to be found at the core of it: We (as in we, humanity) are not all equal all of the time, and neither are all privileges of equal power… but all of us do have privilege, none the less. Things that we’re permitted to do or say that others are not, places only we are “allowed” to go, behaviors that (rightly or wrongly) are okay for us but not for someone else. What is advisable – no, what is vital – is that we simply be aware of what we are afforded and honest of how we benefit or how others may not.

There is nothing, in most instances, “wrong” with achieving in-part through one’s privilege or enjoying the benefits thereof. But there is definitely something wrong with actively using your privilege to do harm or do nothing about harm. To be a “geek,” especially in the here and now, does not exactly make one a king (or queen) among men… but it does afford some a certain measure of power – a measure of, yes, privilege in certain scenarios. To “check” that is simply to consider what power you have, and how it might affect your approach and perspective versus someone else’s: “Would I feel the same way about _____ if I wasn’t _____?”

Surely, a “culture” and “community” that so prides itself on its intellect – and prizes its sense of moral self-righteousness – can handle that much.

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Image of Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.