On Saturday, Cliff Bleszinski, creator of games such as Gears of War, went off on a rant about actress Olivia Munn. Among his complaints, he leveled the charge that Olivia Munn is a fake geek girl who is engaging in cultural appropriation of nerd culture.
Folks, Olivia Munn is a bad person. She is the embodiment of appropriating nerd culture and using it for her gain. Don’t trust her.
— Cliff Bleszinski (@therealcliffyb) March 12, 2016
My immediate thoughts on the subject can only be summed up in meme form:
It’s hard exactly to sum up just how Olivia Munn is appropriating nerd culture, seeing as CliffyB didn’t bother actually going into detail other than to rant about her being an asshole and making the usual “your anger only makes me stronger” posts that people seem to think proves that they’re not bothered by the response.
Fuck you and your dumb college catchphrase. Xo https://t.co/mXuT4ThRqw
— Cliff Bleszinski (@therealcliffyb) March 13, 2016
But while there’s a certain amount of irony in CliffyB calling people hipsters for using phrases like “gatekeeping” while slinging terms like “cultural appropriation”, it’s a charge that gets thrown around regularly without irony (usually by people who think using “SJW language” is a magic spell) at women who have the temerity to claim to be geeks or to like geeky properties.
What’s Cultural Appropriation Anyway?
The term “cultural appropriation” crops up a lot these days. When fashion designers decide that it would be a good idea to dress their (white) models in feathered Native American headdresses and “war paint”, when pop singers dress up in Geisha cosplay or saris and bindis, when photographers and models paint themselves with Day of the Dead sugar skull make-up, and white model-actress-whatevers start wearing cornrows (and when the New York Post claims that UFC fighters created them…), we hear about cultural appropriation.
So what’s the problem, exactly?
At its core, cultural appropriation is treating cultures like a pick-and-mix grab bag of ideas for the dominant majority culture (almost always white) to dip into and adopt as their own. It treats other people’s culture, history and identities as a source of exotic flavor without any regard for the cultural context from which the ideas originate. It’s treating other cultures, especially minority cultures, as a stereotype at best, reducing them to a cartoonish caricatures instead of people. At worst, it’s quite literally stealing their accomplishments and claiming them for your own. Rock and roll, for example, has a long history of cultural appropriation as white bands would take African-American music (such as the music of Muddy Waters) and claim it as their own creation, erasing the contribution of the people who came before.
But it’s not always on the level of the Beach Boys straight-up ripping off Chuck Berry or Led Zeppelin stealing from Howling Wolf and Willie Dixon; it’s also a series of acts of profound disrespect for the culture that’s being stolen from. When Katy Perry dresses up like a geisha at the American Music Awards, it’s not a sign of her love and respect for Japanese culture, it’s adopting stereotyped imagery. She’s not even embodying true geisha costuming or tradition but the Exotic Oriental Flower. It’s a white person’s fantasy of a geisha, turning a long and historically rich world of artisans and performers into a gimmick.
When frat bros start getting marked up with Pacific Islander tattoos, it ignores the fact that in those cultures, the tattoos are the story of an individual’s family history. To us, the tattoos are gorgeous geometric designs; to the Maori people, it’s literally stealing somebody else’s life story for decoration. Similarly, the sugar-skull make-up and Native American headdresses aren’t just a nifty aesthetic, they’re part of another culture’s religious traditions, borrowed without any regard or respect to the meaning behind them other than “it looks cool”.
To the cultures these are being taken from, this is profoundly insulting and the implicit message is that they’re inherently lesser – a thing to provide zest to others rather than a people with their own distinct and discrete values.
Which brings us to the idea of the appropriation of nerd culture…
How Do You “Steal” Nerd Culture?
The implicit accusation that Olivia Munn is somehow appropriating nerd culture is that she’s an outsider, someone who’s been faking her geek cred for a decade now in order to support her career. Before we take on the idea of fake geek girls (again) let’s talk a little about just what nerd culture is.
Geek culture is liking geeky shit. Period, the end.
In order to appropriate the culture, you’d have to have some concrete examples that nerd culture is somehow a separate group, with its own values, rituals and belief systems distinct from others. But what, exactly, makes up “nerd culture”? Building your own computer? PC gamers are a minority within geek circles; most people play games either on consoles or smartphones. Playing video games? Everybody’s a gamer these days. The stereotypical frat bro is playing Call of Duty, NBA Live 16 and Madden 16 and everybody plays games on their smartphones. Show me someone who doesn’t play Angry Birds or Candy Crush and I’ll show you someone without thumbs.
Is it loving genre entertainment? The list of top 50 highest grossing movies of all time is filled with geek properties. Batman, Supergirl and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D all have popular television incarnations. Networks like the CW are almost exclusively broadcasting genre shows. Nerds may be plentiful, but there ain’t enough of us to buy all those tickets to Deadpool.
Similarly, certain “rituals” like lining up for tickets for popular movies, cosplay or attending events like comic or sci-fi conventions are hardly exclusive to geeks. Sports fans dress up in their team’s colors, paint their faces, wear outlandish outfits and attend autograph signings and fan-events in droves.
Hell, Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder and World of Darkness games barely differ from fantasy sports leagues.
The problem with trying to define geek and nerd “culture” is – as always – that it’s hardly an exclusive club. You aren’t raised in geek culture. You aren’t born a nerd to nerd parents, who’re raising you in the Nerd Region of the United States with it’s long history of Nerdiness. You become a geek by enjoying things. That’s it. There’s no other barrier to entry, no licensing board to apply to.
This whole “fake nerd” thing is silly. It’s not like being a Navy SEAL. If you like nerd stuff, congrats, you passed the rigorous audition.
— GAIL SIMONE (@GailSimone) March 12, 2016
You can’t “appropriate” nerd culture because there is no distinct culture to steal from. It’s a “culture” (as it were) of choice. A person can become a geek by deciding they really like comics or superheroes or sci-fi and walk away from geekdom with all the ease of turning off a television or deleting a set of bookmarks. Almost everything that people hold up as outward signs of geekiness are based around consumption. How, exactly, is one supposed to appropriate seeing The Force Awakens on opening day or binge-watching Daredevil on Netflix?
The idea that there are people who “can’t” be geeks is another case of bullshit gatekeeping and revisionist history as people forget (or were ignorant of its existence) the origins of their own fandom.
Sexism, False Dichotomies and Ivory Towers
It’s significant that it’s Olivia Munn – a woman whose career started on the G4’s Attack the Show, and who name-checks Wonder Woman in the title of her autobiography – being accused of being a fake geek. Being a regular at San Diego Comic Con and cast as Psylocke in the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse are apparently supposed to be marks against her, signs that she cynically manipulates innocent and unassuming geekboys (which presumably includes casting directors and agents) in order to boost her own profile. Every geek shibboleth she passes is to be seen as a sign of just how devoted she is to her deception.
Meanwhile, nobody bats an eye at the fact that Henry Cavill is playing Superman without demanding a deep background check to prove that he “deserves” the role. Hugh Jackman may be an icon as Wolverine, but nobody cares about whether or not he has an encyclopedic appreciation for the character’s long and convoluted history. Chris Evans and Ryan Reynolds may be lauded for being unabashed comic geeks, but nobody cares whether Mark Ruffalo is playing the Hulk because of the paycheck rather than out of a love for the character.
Similarly while Mayim Bialik – who has a PhD – is complimented on being good at faking being a scientist, nobody accuses Jim Parsons and the rest of the Big Bang Theory ((And before it comes up: the folks who call BBT “nerd minstrel show” are a. not helping and b. being really offensive… )) cast of being fake geek boys, nor is Chuck Lorre ever accused of “nerd appropriation” despite BBT being one of the most cynical cash-grabs at the nerd community in history.
And while folks may be annoyed at Ian McShane’s dismissal of Game of Thrones as “tits and dragons”, nobody is accusing him of somehow duping naive fans into believing that he’s “one of them”.
It’s all part and parcel of the same self-mythologizing that far too many nerds indulge in; we’re a “persecuted minority” (despite all of pop-culture catering to us) because we weren’t popular in high-school and people made fun of us for loving Star Wars. The idea that a woman – particularly someone as conventionally attractive as Olivia Munn – couldn’t possibly be a geek revolves around the idea that no attractive women could a) have a history of being bullied or unpopular or b) enjoy geek properties without said background. The “only” reason they could be displaying an interest in The Flash or Black Widow or Captain Marvel is because they’re trying to get geek (read: male) attention.
Geekdom may have been the refuge for the socially awkward and the bullied, but it was hardly their exclusive province. Being bullied doesn’t make you a geek, nor does being a geek mean that you had a shitty time as a child. Plenty of nerds had a perfectly lovely childhood and plenty of bullying victims don’t fall into the classic geek narrative; Tom Cruise, anyone? Similarly, loving nerdy shit doesn’t automatically go hand-in-hand with poor social skills or being socially awkward. Richard Feynman was, among other things, a noted ladies man as well as a brilliant theoretical physicist
For that matter, being a woman doesn’t magically gift you with an ability to navigate all social situations nor does it keep you from being bullied for being smart, geeky or from fitting in.
The idea that geekdom was always the last refuge for “beta males” and other boys who were excluded by the cool kids, bullied by the jocks and rejected by the cheerleaders and queen bees is an artificial construct. Yes, boys and men who didn’t fit in did and (and still don’t) find “their people” amongst the others on the Island of Misfit (Yet Still Collectable) Toys… but it was never exclusively theirs until outside forces decided that it was strictly a boys club.
And geekdom bought it, hook line and sinker.
The Forces Behind the Rise of the “Fake” Geek Girl
To dispel the idea that geek interests – comics, video games, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc. – were exclusively a “guy” thing, we only have to go back 40 years. Advertisements for arcade games, home computers and video game consoles pitched them as appealing to men and women. Commercials for the Atari system and ColecoVision regularly featured boys and girls enjoying the wonders that 80s technology could produce.
Go back further and it becomes abundantly clear that women have not just been part of geek culture since its inception, but in most cases invented the genres that make up most geek properties. The first masked hero? The Scarlet Pimpernel, written by Emma Orczy. The first true example of science fiction? Frankenstein Or: A Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly. Even the STEM fields that so feed into nerdery and geekdom were influenced by women; Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer and instrumental to the creation of the Babbage Engine. Women programmed and maintained ENIAC, the first general-purpose computer. Radia Perlman helped build the Internet.
There was never a moment in the history of what might be called the geek community that women weren’t intrinsically involved… until they were purposefully and deliberately excluded.
In the 80s, following the crash of the gaming console market, publishers and marketers embraced the idea of market segmentation. Because boys traditionally were earlier adopters of new tech1 and thus easier to market to; as a result, it was deemed to be easier to sell to a smaller, more targeted audience than to a broader population. The article “No Girls Allowed” by Tracy Lien illustrates just how quickly the market changed – not due to market forces but because of executive fiat, creating a recursive loop. More geek properties were marketed towards boys, which meant more boys were buying them, which in turn drove more marketing. It was taken as writ that girls were not into geeky subjects – even when girls were actively participating in them – leading to a culture of disincentivization In fact, women were often deliberately excluded as being an undesirable market – a trend that continues today: witness the cancellation of Young Justice, the exclusion of Black Widow from Avengers playsets and merchandise, Rey from Star Wars toys, etc.
But it was also that change in marketing that created the idea of “fake geek girls”.
Marketing reinforced not just the idea that there were no geek girls, but also used the reward of female sexuality to gain appeal. As soon as boys were locked as the target audience, marketers started to pander with tits and ass because hey, nerds are undersexed anyway, right? The deluge of ads in magazines featuring half-naked women do the double work of saying “Look at these sexy babes who love you because you’re a geek,” and “This is the closest you’ll ever get to a boob, loser”.
Those booth babes that are so frequently the object of nerd scorn aren’t models who’ve chosen the “easier” path towards riches, fame and attention2, they’re working stiffs who’ve been hired by people who cynically believe that all it takes is a pretty smile and abundant cleavage to get nerds to buy shit. And if fake geek girls are such a threat, gaining “attention” under false premises, then clearly it works.
The idea that a woman might fake being a geek in order to make her career is part and parcel of this artificial dichotomy: the only way that this could work in the first place is because marketing schemes have so convinced nerds that attractive female geeks were so rare that a girl who liked video games and comics was so rare you would have better luck finding a leprechaun riding a unicorn. Toss in a good twenty or so years of the geek community being told that women exist as rewards and consumable objects and now you have an audience primed to believe that women are tricking their boners by pretending to like games or comics or computers for nebulously sinister reasons.
Which brings us back to CliffyB’s insistence that Olivia Munn is somehow appropriating geek culture…
Olivia Munn and the Changing Demographics of Geekdom
The ongoing accusations of famous people being fake geeks – up to and including Felicia “created a fucking web series at a time when web series weren’t a thing” Day – is the unpleasant combination of bullshit gatekeeping behavior colliding with the changing demographics of the geek community that began in the late 90s. As more and more women take an active part in geekdom, the more it feels to many men that they are no longer being catered to… and the idea that other people are getting the same attention from marketers and content producers leaves the self-proclaimed old-guard feeling increasingly marginalized. That, in turn leads to more gatekeeping and attempts to keep the halls of fandom “pure” from these interlopers.
CliffyB’s callout is supposed to enrage us over this “outsider” taking something from us that’s ours. It reeks of trying to find some reason to rally the hordes against this person because… she was a dick to his friends? She took a well-paying job for the money and worked at it for over six years? She was an asshole to the stuntwomen on X-Men: Apocalypse? What does this have to do with “appropriating nerd culture” or being a fake geek girl?
The idea that Munn is somehow “appropriating” anything is absurd. What exactly is being taken, other than someone claiming to be a geek without doing the proper obeisances is left to the imagination; most of CliffyB’s complaints seem to revolve around her being an unpleasant person to work with who didn’t get along with her co-stars at G4. Perhaps that’s true. I have no idea and frankly, I don’t care.
If – for suitably dubious values of “if” – she were claiming to be a geek when in reality she views us with contempt… how, exactly does this affect anything? At worst, the only difference between Munn and Ryan Reynolds is that she doesn’t hold the same love for Psylocke and Wonder Woman that Reynolds has for Deadpool and Hal Jordan. Hardly a crime worthy of social exile or opprobrium considering that the man who embodied one of geekdom’s most beloved characters went to his grave deploring his work in Star Wars as the worst thing he’d ever done.
If we’re to be upset that she pretends to love something she doesn’t, then we should be getting equally upset every time an actor or celebrity goes on a press junket to promote a film they know damn good and well is a steaming pile of shit.
Fake geek girls aren’t a thing. “Cultural appropriation of nerd culture” isn’t a thing. Geekdom’s got enough problems that we don’t need to invent new persecution complexes and boogeymen to perpetuate them.