Original publication: ejumpcut.org

Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity (2012)

The original, much more media-rich version of this essay is available on Jump Cut online. [1] It is reproduced here under the terms of its Creative Commons License. [2]

An interesting discussion with the authors, several years after the original publication, is available on the Champagne Sharks podcast. [3]


Contents

Introduction

“I think that everything I do tends to root for the underdog. I always felt as a kid that I was under appreciated, invisible or weird, but I’ve always secretly thought people would one day appreciate what is different about me. I’m always putting that message out there. Eventually, the nerds and the geeks will have their day.”
 — Judd Apatow, from his IMDb Biography

“If this was fifteen thousand years ago, by virtue of his size and strength, Kurt would be entitled to his choice of females. […] But our society has undergone a paradigm shift. In the Information Age, Sheldon, you and I are the Alpha males. We shouldn’t have to back down.”
 — Leonard (Johnny Galecki) on CBS’ The Big Bang Theory

Geek culture dominates popular media. Comic-book films like Iron Man, The Dark Knight (both 2008) and The Avengers (2012) are among Hollywood’s highest-grossing blockbusters, while geek/slacker comedies like Superbad and Knocked Up (both 2007) are runaway R-rated comedy hits. The San Diego Comic-Con, once merely the largest annual meeting of a fairly obscure comic-collecting subculture, has become a major pop cultural event where A-list actors and directors make lengthy appearances to communicate with fans in an effort to generate buzz for their films and television programs. Best Buy, a dominant technology retailer, offers to send a Geek Squad to your house to help you with technology installation without having to wonder if anyone finds a squad of geeks unsettling. Books like Geek Chic: The Ultimate Guide to Geek Culture and How to Date a Geek have begun to journalistically analyze and capitalize on the phenomenon.

The economic successes of geek businessmen like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are also primary sources of current geek predominance. These real-life geek success stories are so influential that they resonate on the pop-cultural front as well: for example, recent summer blockbuster Iron Man 2 (2010) has Tony Stark giving rock star keynote addresses at Stark Expos in a thinly veiled reference to Steve Jobs strutting his stuff at Mac Expos. The film also includes Justin Hammer as an emphatically plagiaristic and sub-par competitor of Stark’s, alluding to Bill Gates’ capitalizing on Macintosh’s windowed graphic user interface to create Microsoft Windows, as well as the popular notion that Windows-based PCs are substandard when compared with more expensive Macs. Jobs’ and Gates’ inclusion in Iron Man 2 drives home that the celebration of geeks in media is connected to actual geek success in the corporate and financial arenas. [4]

As geeks are recognized as sources of cultural and economic capital, their manliness and date-worthiness must also rise. This provokes a desire to see geeks in a new way. Contemporary media fulfill this desire with portrayals of sympathetic geek protagonists.

As geekdom moves from the cultural fringes into the mainstream, it becomes increasingly difficult for the figure of the geek to maintain the outsider victim status that made him such a sympathetic figure in the first place. Confronted with his cultural centrality and white, masculine privilege — geeks are most frequently represented as white males — the geek seeks a simulated victimhood and even simulatedethnicity in order to justify his existence as a protagonist in a world where an unmarked straight white male protagonist is increasingly passé.

Our investigation proceeds through three core concepts / tropes prevalent in geek-centered visual narratives:

  1. “geek melodrama” as a means of rendering geek protagonists sympathetically,
  2. white male “geek rage” against women and ethnic minorities for receiving preferential treatment from society, which relates to the geek’s often raced, usually misogynistic implications for contemporary constructions of masculinity, and
  3. “simulated ethnicity,” our term for how geeks read their sub-cultural identity as a sign of markedness or as a put-upon status equivalent to the markedness of a marginalized identity such as that of a person of color.

We analyze these tropes via an historical survey of some key moments in the rise of geek media dominance: the early-20th century origins of geekdom and its rise as an identifiable subculture in the 1960s, the mainstreaming of geek masculinity in the 1970s and 80s via blockbuster cinema and superhero comics, and the postmodern permutations of geekdom popularized by Generation X cultural producers, including geek/slacker duos in “indie” cinema and alternative comics.

We would like to note that while there are many important examples of female geeks, including geeky high-schooler Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) in Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), protagonist Enid Coleslaw in the comic and film versions of Ghost World (1993-1997 and 2001) and, more recently, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon on the NBC comedy 30 Rock (2006-present), the critical thrust of our intervention examines previously unstudied issues of masculinity and misogyny as they relate to male geeks, while acknowledging that female geekdom deserves further extensive research.

Origins of the nerd and the geek

To trace the history of geek culture, we must begin with the cultural (stereo-)type of the nerd, whose history is traced in Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd. “Nerd” designates a type, fully solidified in the American cultural imagination by the 1960s, that stands in stark negative contrast to the upper-class sportsman or “jock.” [5] The nerd is a social outsider who is intelligent, technologically proficient and, until the 1970s, viewed as an object of pity and/or ridicule by mainstream culture. According to Nugent, the “nerd” type predates the term, which came into parlance around 1950 as successor to the “greasy grind” — both terms refer to the college student, stereotypically of Eastern European or Jewish descent, who works hard academically (at a suggested inhuman intensity) to gain entry into elite, formerly blue-blooded institutions like the Ivy League. Calling such a student a “greasy grind” is a way of devaluing that hard working student’s efforts by labeling the student as one dimensional and not well-rounded, especially socially and athletically, and therefore less deserving of entry into the American elite despite his/her academic or intellectual achievements. Early media nerds include Harold Lloyd in The Freshman (1925), Jerry Lewis’ titular character in The Nutty Professor (1963), underground cartoonist R. Crumb, and the screen persona of Woody Allen.

In the comedies of Lloyd and Lewis, humor arises from the nerdy social misfit trying to fit into mainstream — that is, “jock” — culture. Yet the proto-geek himself is presented sympathetically, he is our misfit hero. In contrast, the dramatic film narratives of Hollywood’s Golden Age depict geekdom as horrific, abject, deserving of pity rather than sympathy. In the influential 1947 film noir Nightmare Alley, which centers upon the rise and fall of a carnival sideshow mentalist named Stan Carlyle (Tyrone Power), the carnival’s geek is barely human, a pathetic, insane alcoholic whose very presence threatens the reputation of the carnival. Indeed, one character notes early in the film that “some [performers] won’t work in carnivals that have [geeks],” and by the end of the film, Stan’s depravity is marked by his acceptance of the job of carnival geek.

Of course, the geek of Nightmare Alley is a bonafide sideshow horror, not the much milder technology and comics enthusiast the term connotes today. Yet something of the sense of social marginality remains in the present-day term, and it is this abjection upon which the contemporary geek hangs his melodramatic victim narrative.

The way we understand the term geek since the 1960s is closely related to the history of the nerd, but it inflects itself differently. The geek is more focused, more fanatical than a nerd. The geek is a specialist and is always passionate about his chosen field(s) of knowledge. Whereas a nerd’s successes are almost always scholastic,and frequently center on scientific and/or mathematical expertise (e.g., Brian [Anthony Michael Hall] in The Breakfast Club), a geek can fail at school because he is too immersed in his sub-cultural interests (e.g., Rob Fleming in High Fidelity). A third type, the dork, tends toward more impractical interests than the geek and is even more lacking in social cachet (e.g., Napoleon Dynamite’s experiment with an action figure on his school bus and his love of tetherball).

Of these three related terms — geek, nerd, and dork — geek is the oldest, originating as a northern English variant of an older word, geck, which began in the Middle Dutch, as gec, a fool, simpleton, or dupe, dating back in English to Alexander Barclay’s Certayne Eglogues of 1515:

Aiijb, He is a foole, a sotte, and a geke also Which choseth […] the worst [way] and most of ieoperdie. [6]

It was also used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night:

Why have you suffer’d me to be imprison’d.
And made the most notorious gecke and gull
That ere invention plaid on? [7]

The term reemerged in the early 20th century to describe the sub-human sideshow eater of live animals and the subaltern-like identity of that performer provides a context for the geek as marginalized. But, beyond that etymological history, it is more relevant to identify that “geek” was appropriated as an epithet for non-carnival social outsiders.

Nerd first saw print on October 8, 1951 in Newsweek: “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.” The origin of nerd is unclear, but likely comes from Edgar Bergen’s buck-toothed dummy Mortimer Snerd or from its use without definitional context in Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo (1950): “I’ll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep and a Proo, a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!” [8]

Dork originally meant penis. It was first used in Jere Peacock’s 1961 novel Valhalla: “You satisfy many women with that dorque?” [9] Dork began to mean a socially inept person in 1967, first being used this way in Don Moser and Jerry Cohen’s The Pied Piper of Tucson: “I didn’t have any clothes and I had short hair and looked like a dork. Girls wouldn’t go out with me.” [10]

Table 1: Nerd, geek and dork characteristics

Type Characteristics
Nerds conformist, academic achievers
Geeks passionate, keep it real through resistance to academic/professional capital (subcultural fan capital ok)
Dorks socially awkward, inwardly focused, in some ways the most authentic in that his pursuits rarely lead to self-benefit in the eyes of society

Table 2: Interrelated features of geeks, nerds, and dorks

Types Characteristics
Geek & Nerd Interested in pursuits that can be used for academic and/or financial benefit.
Nerd & Dork Lack of social graces.
Dork & Geek Interested in obscure pursuits that lack social cachet or profit.
All Not jocks. Not “popular” with the exception of the current “chic” associated with geekiness, and by extension, nerdiness and dorkiness.

Of these three types, geeks are our main focus since their passion for certain hobbies and forms of expression often lead them into creative pursuits such as writing, comic book drawing, television production, and/or filmmaking. Furthermore, our geek-centric analysis allows us to shed light on the geek’s interactions with a fourth character type, the slacker. We discuss the slacker type and its importance to geek culture in our analysis of the 1990s, the moment of the slacker’s historical emergence.

Geek melodrama: gender, class, and race

Film scholar Linda Williams’ explanation of the melodramatic mode is crucial to analyzing the cultural logic of geek entitlement and the emotional impact of geek narratives as they developed from the 1960s onward. As Williams argues in “Melodrama Revised,” melodrama is best understood as a mode or loose collection of tropes rather than a specific literary or filmic genre, though it has strong historical ties to sentimental fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and women’s films (or “weepies”) like Stella Dallas (1925, 1937) and Terms of Endearment (1983). As Williams explains, “the mode of melodrama […] [moves] us to pathos for protagonists beset by forces more powerful than they and who are perceived as victims.” [11] This set of structures — heightened pathos, clear oppositions between good and evil by which we are made to identify and empathize with a suffering victim, and thus to yearn for narrative closure via the defeat of the victim’s oppressor(s) — is common to all genres of U.S. film and, as Williams argues, to U.S. popular narratives writ large. As she states,

melodrama has always mattered and continues to matter in American culture […] the sexual, racial, and gender problems of American history have found their most powerful expression in melodrama. [12]

Williams’ model helps us see how racial marking becomes desirable to white geeks: if suffering equals virtue and moral superiority, then the virtue of a marked identity type (black, female, gay, disabled) can be reduced to how much one suffers for it. Here is also the key to why our analysis reads geeks primarily as straight white men. The anxieties of the straight white male geek’s identity are transformed into the authenticating devices that paradoxically make him a moral hero in a postmodern world in which an unmarked and untroubled straight white male hero would normally be out of place.

Melodramatic tropes are deployed to create sympathy for white male geeks beset by their own sexual, racial, and gender problems. For example, R. Crumb characters Whiteman and Fritz the Cat are driven to angst by the carefree lives of African Americans they encounter as well as the ease with women this blitheness imbues them with. Similarly, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), protagonist of Mike Judge’s Office Space (1999), hates his unapologetically mainstream boss Lundberg (Gary Cole), both for work-related humiliations and because Gibbons wrongly imagines that his new girlfriend has had sex with Lundberg. Gibbons expresses his rage at Lundberg’s perceived victimization of him by destroying an office copy machine in a slow-motion sequence set to gangsta rap music: it is Gibbons’ and the film’s racialized fantasy of violent, melodramatically justified geek vengeance.

In line with their presumed whiteness, geeks are typically economically privileged. Both Gibbons and Lundberg are economically empowered white-collar workers. It is Lundberg’s unapologetic participation in the corporate environment that sets him as a villain, and Gibbon’s tortured relationship to his work which make him sympathetic, despite both characters participation in the same economic system and set of privileges.

In terms of the geek’s class identity, it is important to our project to discuss Zygmunt Bauman’s essay “Tourist and Vagabonds,” and to use Williams’ insights about identity-based suffering to shed light on Bauman’s claims, as well as to introduce the term “simulated ethnicity.” Bauman deftly analyzes globalization and why “vagabonds,” the global have-nots, are in a state of perpetual admiration of the economic mobility of the tourists, the privileged members of “developed” nations. As a Marxist, Bauman is clearly focused on the economic disparity between the tourist and vagabond. However, if we use the logic of melodrama to modify Bauman’s analysis, the vagabond has a surplus of one commodity that the tourist desires: the tourist admires the vagabond’s suffering, which imbues the vagabond with virtue. This plays out, for example, as real-life tourists paradoxically disdain the touristy and prefer to travel with the conceit that they are more “on the inside” than an average tourist. This ironic admiration of “vagabond-ness” is the same as the admiration non-marked identities have for marked identities in a postmodern milieu, where markedness serves as an authenticating feature. We use the term “simulated ethnicity” to describe the way geeks melodramatically cast themselves as members of a marginalized identity to foreground their validity and authenticity as postmodern protagonists.

Geeks mainly generate their markedness from non-ethnic features, and whiteness is the stereotypically assumed race of geekdom. According to cultural theorist Richard Dyer, whiteness connotes spirituality, intellect, enterprise. [13] Geeks are by definition enterprising — this is precisely what marks them as uncool from the jock or slacker point of view — and indeed, even the name Enterprise has been associated with space travel and sci-fi geekdom since the 1960s. Strong spiritual elements saturate geek texts, in the form of

  • kung fu (which inspired Mark Salzman from Protagonist and Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill),
  • karate (The Karate Kid),
  • encounters with extraterrestrials (Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Elliott in E.T.) or simply
  • “The Force” (Luke Skywalker from Star Wars).

The geek imagines himself a “peaceful warrior” with immense power and a finesse, sensitivity, and interior world that his brutish “jock” competitors lack. This sensitivity, spirituality, and intelligence comes in exchange for sexual prowess, which is the one thing more athletic and conventionally attractive men have that the geek typically doesn’t. No matter his intellectual gifts or proclivities toward accomplishment, the geek is always by definition sexually inferior to the jock, and feels that inferiority deeply.

Sexuality is itself racialized, and so we can place the white male geek on a racial and gendered continuum that situates him between, on the one hand, male jocks and black males, who are stereotypically considered more embodied, sexual, and animalistic, and, on the other, Asian male geeks, who are stereotypically considered even more rational and less sexual than white male geeks. Note that these raced positionings along the masculinity/femininity continuum largely result from the projection of white male fantasies, not necessarily anything in “real life” — they are white middle-class cultural stereotypes. Also note that we must specify males here because the raced and sexualized stereotyping process operates differently for non-white females than it does for their male counterparts. For example, stereotypically Asian females are hyper-sexualized while Asian males are hypo-sexualized.

Table 3: Geek race and gender [14]

Gendered status Figure
hyper-masculine, hyper sexualized black man
normatively masculine white male jock [15]
somewhat masculine white male slacker
feminized white/Jewish male geek
hyper-feminized, hypo-sexualized, androgynous Asian male geek (formerly the Jewish geek)

The young white male’s desire to inhabit racialized identities, especially blackness, is displayed in a wide array of geek media: to take just one example, in Swingers (1996), an ur-text of 1990s geekdom depicting geeky white guys trying to play hip in order to attract women, the hippest guy whom everyone else looks up to is Charles, the black guy. The function of this imagined black masculinity for the feminized geek is rendered in direct, highly sexually charged terms in Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999). Having just been “outed”as a homosexual fantasizer by a black man (Chris Rock), geeky stoner Jay (Jason Mewes) flees to a heterosexual strip club, where he enters into a bidding war with a black gang leader, Kane (Dwight Ewell) for the attentions of a stripper. At the conclusion of this episode, Kane asks Jay and his “heterosexual life mate,” Silent Bob (Smith), to join his gang. Jay and Silent Bob’s anxiety over their own sexual impotency and possible queerness is here channeled into projected black gang solidarity: they join the gang to reinforce their masculinity and heterosexuality in the face of their own geeky arrested development.

The Social Network (2010) is a highly profitable, culturally significant, Oscar-nominated entry into the annals of recent geek-centered film narratives. Directed by David Fincher, the film melodramatizes the creation of social networking site Facebook by computer geek Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) starting at Harvard in the early 2000s. The story is set up around two court cases brought against Zuckerberg by his former business partners, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence). The Winklevoss twins in particular are shown in the film to be uber-jocks, members of Harvard Crew and perfect specimens of muscular, attractive Aryan blondeness. Despite the real-life Winklevoss’ status as respected Olympic athletes, the onscreen Zuckerberg shows utter contempt for them throughout the entire film; they are the “jerks” of the film’s story.

The Social Network amplifies the geek melodrama of Zuckerberg’s story by framing his creation of Facebook as an attempt to impress his ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). The opening sequence of the film depicts Erica breaking up with Mark after he insults her upbringing and her education, essentially accusing her of being over-privileged and unintelligent. He spends the rest of the film regretting his loss of her and channeling his anger at her rejection of him into his Facebook business. This explanation of the motivation behind the onscreen Zuckerberg’s efforts is fictional. Not only is it impossible to verify whether or not the real-life Zuckerberg even had a substantive relationship with the woman the Albright character represents in the film, but he had already met Priscilla Chan — who became his girlfriend in 2003 and his wife in May 2012 — by the time the events dramatized in the movie transpired. In other words, contrary to the film’s narrative, he was engaged in a successful romantic relationship more or less the whole time he was working on turning Facebook into an international phenomenon. Fincher’s choice to frame the narrative in this way, ignoring the existence of the Facebook creator’s real-life girlfriend and future wife, heightens the film’s geek melodrama by staging the entire narrative as a socially outcast computer geek’s obsessive competition with jocks over women.

Of interest here is not so much The Social Network’s fidelity or infidelity to real life events, but rather why this heavy emphasis is placed upon male competition for women in a film containing no significant romantic plot (or even subplot). The answer: to highlight the foundational battle between geeks and jocks for dominance in the heterosexual dating field. In the Social Network that core struggle of geek versus jock is used as a framing device, a backdrop to the battle taking place in the worlds of internet technology and business, but the film makes clear that for the fictional Zuckerberg, being humiliated by jocks and women is what fuels his desire to see Facebook succeed. Indeed, Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim Emerson notes of the onscreen Zuckerberg that “all of Mark’s motivations appear to be old-fashioned, personal, emotional ones,” and this bespeaks the mode of melodrama.

Even more interesting in this connection is the scene in which Zuckerberg confronts Albright in a restaurant about halfway through the film. She sits next to an unnamed African American guy, who asks her if “there is a problem here” as her tableside debate with Zuckerberg intensifies. She deals with Zuckerberg herself, explicitly referring to geek rage in her repudiation of him: “You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that’s what the angry do nowadays.” Yet it is significant that this unnamed black companion is given screen time; the scene shows how the geek’s self-righteous anger is directed at women and at jockish men, perhaps especially men who are ethnically marked and therefore harder to denounce on the grounds of untrammeled race-based cultural privilege.

If the white geek is often bested by jocks and black hipsters, a compensatory part of the white geek’s melodrama is to disparage Asian geeks as being even less hip, less authentic than he is. Even for a geek, a lack of “well roundedness” is a concept that can be used to marginalize Asian geeks. In this way of thinking, the Asian geek doesn’t “keep it real” because he is too mercenary: he is only interested in the types of geekiness which will benefit him academically or get him ahead. Hence the Asian Geek or any mercenary geek lacks the spirit or heart needed to redeem him melodramatically by the narrative’s end. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) is a film well aware of these stereotypes, unlike less multi-ethnic films such as Superbad, wherein an Asian male simply serves as a temporary example of a more staid and less rambunctious colleague for Michael Cera’s geek protagonist. HKGWC instead plays its Asians as central protagonists; in doing so, the film tries to grapple with some of the stereotypes ascribed to Asian male geeks while at times reifying them, showing John’s Cho’s character (who has obviously picked a profession based on its lucrativeness) initially supplicating himself to do accounting work for his cooler office mates as well as unable to talk to his love interest. Kumar Patel’s slackerism can be read as a conscious revolt against stereotypes about Asians who dispassionately pursue careers in medicine in compliance with parental desires.

In fact, both Jews and Asians are traditionally stereotyped as academically focused “keeners” (a term of Canadian origin, which refers to a type of nerd who only cares about his grades). Only recently, with the films of Team Apatow, are Jews becoming more synonymous with “hip” (sexual) geeks. [16] In Knocked Up, Ben Stone, played by Seth Rogen, foregrounds his Jewishness while embodying geek (and previously nebbish) qualities such as self-doubt and a living arrangement surrounded by immature young men interested in internet technology and other geeky pursuits. However, these qualities are also marshaled as authenticating features that make him sympathetic and imbue his character with a non-threatening, yet rakish masculinity in a postmodern milieu. This overlap is why the rise of the Jewish male protagonist is inseparably intertwined with the conceits of geek melodrama. In Superbad it is the put-upon, picked-on, identity of the Jewish keener that allows Michael Cera’s character Evan, who is harassed by bullies early in the film, to possess the virtues of suffering imbued by the melodramatic mode and thus become a morally superior protagonist who has the right to humiliate jocks and non-geeks, and ultimately get the girl. [17]

Jewishness allows ethnic specificity yet middle class white appeal/identification, for, as Richard Dyer observes, whiteness “creates a category of maybe, sometimes whites” who “may be let in to whiteness under particular historical circumstances.” [18] Even within one historical moment, Jewish geeks may fluctuate somewhat in how they relate to whiteness, sometimes appearing as “transparently” white, at other times singled out as a socially oppressed, “raced” minority. For example, in Superbad, the characters played by Michael Cera and Jonah Hill make no mention of their ethnicity and therefore can be read as transparently white, but in promoting the film, Cera, Hill, and Seth Rogen often referred to their collective “Jew fros,” through their very language juxtaposing their less marked ethnicity with that of African Americans. This racializing of Jews through comparison/proximity to black characters is evinced even more pointedly in the Freaks and Geeks episode “Beers and Weirs” when Jewish kid Neal (Samm Levine) commiserates with an unnamed black friend:

Black Kid: “No, no, no — you wouldn’t want to trade places with me, believe me!”
Neal: “I don’t know, I mean, I’m Jewish. That’s no cakewalk either. I was elected school treasurer last year […] I didn’t even run.”

In this context it is no surprise that Jewish geeks are so prevalent in geek culture, for they are possessed of a real ethnicity that nevertheless functions analogously enough to a “simulated” ethnicity — that is, it is hard to see visually (like whiteness) but is historically justified by (generations of) persecution and suffering — as to allow Jewish geek protagonists to operate as proxies for simulated ethnics who consume these texts. While the persecution of Jewish people and the Holocaust are certainly valid grounds for feelings of victimization, within the popular milieu Jewishness is similarly an authenticating device in the face of a postmodern crisis of authenticity which can set a protagonist apart from the square and unmarked (non-Jewish) white colonizer.

1960s: underground boomer geekdom

We begin our historical survey of media geekdom with one of the earliest and most influential of Boomer geeks, underground comics creator R. Crumb. [19] We use Crumb as our starting point and early definitive geek because through his work, Crumb confesses to what all geeks conceal.

The first issue of Zap Comix by R. Crumb came out in 1968. This was the debut of R. Crumb’s famous “keep on truckin’” motif and, more importantly for this project, the character “Whiteman.” As the first place where the spelling “comix” was used prominently, Zap was extremely influential: prominent cartoonists such as Maus author Art Spiegelman would later adopt the term comix to emphasize the multimedia nature of the medium. Zap was a collection of mostly one to three page comic shorts wherein Crumb engaged themes of 1960s counterculture like free love and dropping out, while overlapping them with his own anxieties about sex, sexual fixation, and identity. Crumb’s work has often been analyzed for its extreme confessionality and scathingly harsh depictions of self. However, using Linda Williams’ insights into the melodramatic mode as a lens with which to interrogate Crumb’s work reveals previously unexamined explorations of melodramatic victimhood. While also a harsh critic of this phenomenon through the polyvalent and iconic medium of comics, intriguingly, Crumb is simultaneously a progenitor of geek melodrama and the authenticating devices of the geek hero.

A straightforward reading of R. Crumb’s “Whiteman” [20] is that it depicts the stress of being white and middle class (Crumb and Whiteman’s projection) in juxtaposition to a carefree lower-class African American existence. The character Whiteman finds himself off the beaten path in his city surrounded by African Americans (drawn in a consciously stereotypical Sambo-styled comics shorthand by Crumb). Whiteman grapples with his fear of the African Americans and his guilt because of his fear; meanwhile, the African Americans tell him to “Be cool!” and to listen to the laughing and the singing coming from down the street (in an intentionally problematic Stephen Foster-like depiction of the African-Americans as either simple children or happy-go-lucky charlatans).

“Whiteman” is significant in that Crumb positions a less marked white identity in juxtaposition with more marked non-white ethnicities and the angst that accompanies it. Crumb draws attention to the irony of this move by naming the character Whiteman. In terms of his name, Whiteman is quite marked, but in terms of his appearance, Whiteman is less marked because he lacks ethnic iconicity in the shorthand comics depiction of him. Crumb is highly aware of this contrast when he decides to hyper-exaggerate the stereotypically racist depictions of African Americans in early American comics. When subsequent artists and performers (such as the “Everyday Normal Guy” played by Jon Lajoie on YouTube and Sarah Silverman in her “Jews in German Cars” video) engage with this subject, they also create characters which are an exaggeration of, but not identical with, the creator’s standard public/comedic persona.

What is advanced here (and also in the tales of Skutch, Crumb’s later autobiographical work grappling with a popular and more typically masculine high school counterpart), regardless of Crumb’s ironic authorial intention, is Crumb’s self-identification with and interrogation of a put-upon yet unstudied identity, whiteness. This whiteness, because of so much attention paid to marked identities like ethnicity and gender, acquires a level of significance and interest that ultimately trumps, in the mind of the geek, traditionally marginalized identities based on gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. It is through suffering in the melodramatic mode and hence victimhood that Crumb’s protagonists gain authenticity as well as imbue their identity with a political cache that allows them to be sympathetic characters while simultaneously benefitting from a system that Crumb castigates. Even as Crumb intends ironic psychodrama, a through-line of non-ironic melodrama survives.

Still, it is important to address Crumb’s work as both ironic and confessional. Crumb’s depictions of women and of African Americans are shockingly racist, misogynistic, and objectifying. However, a valid reading of Crumb’s work integrates Crumb’s satirization of the racist imagery that haunts U.S. identity and the misogyny inherent in U.S. dominant ideology. With such a reading, our study of Crumb can come under fire for taking Crumb and his artistic conceits to task while misreading his own critical perspective on the very issues we accuse him of reifying. This is why it is important to acknowledge Crumb’s work as both ironic and confessional.

The misogyny and racism on the page is also Crumb’s depiction of the racism and misogyny he has internalized from our culture. Crumb confesses this inner programming to draw a reader’s attention to his or her own haunted impulses surrounding race and gender. However, as Crumb’s body of work bears out, he does not evoke these demons to exorcise them, but to repeatedly shed light on them. So, it is valid and useful to study Crumb’s work as a reification of cultural paradigms, especially in a study of cultural trends such as this one, despite Crumb’s possibly ironic and self-critical positioning surrounding these paradigms. [21] By shedding light on his geek rage, Crumb does not exorcise it either, but provides it for readers to identify with it.

The relationship between Crumb and Skutch is tellingly analogous to the relationship between Whiteman and the African Americans he encounters in Zap #1. These African American men, as depicted by Crumb, are unselfconscious and thus are granted a carefreeness and coolness that is similar to that of Skutch as a popular high school student. This sheds light on the relation between geeks and ethnicity, and geeks and popularity. In both cases, the geek focuses on how his tortured identity, rooted in his thoughtfulness and lack of façade, is not recognized, while thoughtless jocks and African Americans, who are already regarded as cooler, get to live carefree and un-tortured lives precisely because of their perceived “inferiorities” to geeks. Again, it comes back to the melodramatized geek notion of a tragic female misrecognition of true worth — the female inability to see value in the geek and the failure to see through the jock or the African American. In terms of African Americans and Crumb, this is a continuing trope, including depictions of Jimi Hendrix and white groupies, to the African American crows in Fritz the Cat (1993) who accumulate white women while being more interested in getting high, while Fritz struggles with coming off as cool while the crows do so with no effort.

See also Crumb’s portrayal of the working class and non-intellectual (and therefore non-tortured) Bo Bo Bolinski in “Bo Bo Bolinski Relaxing On a Saturday Afternoon” from Id #3 (1991), who has easy access to his thick-legged (and therefore ideal by Crumb’s measure) wife and who doesn’t even appreciate her as he drinks a beer and watches Sunday football while nonchalantly copulating with her from behind.

More interestingly, in My Troubles with Women, Crumb portrays the androcentric consequences of geek rage. Of particular importance is the relationship between Crumb and his older brother Charles with the aforementioned popular boy Skutch. This begins in the section entitled “My Troubles with Women Part II,” which first appeared in Hup in 1986. The first panel opens with a woman, captioned “a woman,” saying, “Doesn’t this guy ever stop whining?”

The panel two caption, as if in response, explains,

“Part One was just the tip of the iceberg […] This time we’re really gonna get down in the murk!”

In panel two, Crumb, wearing a Hugh Hefner-esque smoking jacket and smoking a pipe, signifying a mock playboyish mastery of romantic interaction, expounds,

“My first hard lesson about women came soon after puberty […] There was this guy in our high-school named ‘Skutch’ …” Sitting next to Crumb is a character Crumb would in later work refer to as “Li’l Hitler Pig.” [22]

Li’l Hitler Pig, henceforth LHP, embodies all the world-weary, cynical, and conniving ways to look at the world that dominant males (not Crumb) use to make meaning of their lives and “get” women (like Vince Vaughn’s “swinger” Trent of the 1990s). LHP provides knowing commentary on the events in Crumb’s life and even on his sexual fantasies.

Skutch, who is one with his sexually aggressive, seductive, callous side (his LHP), is a key player in “My Troubles with Women part II.” In the third panel of II, he is described as

“…the number one big man! The most handsome, most charming, most self-confident male in the entire school.”

In the geek-as-outsider formula, Skutch is also the most despicable character to appear in Crumb’s oeuvre, exponentially more despicable than Crumb himself, who is confessional, but more importantly, melodramatically “tortured” about his own problematic relations with women. What makes Skutch so despicable is his apparent agency in these relations, though once Crumb achieves recognition through his real-life fame as a comics artist and cultural icon, he becomes an attractive geek and gains just as much agency (though of a different kind) as Skutch ever had.

However, Crumb remains firmly in the camp of the outsider (and therefore ultimately forgivable), while the females who seek him out are aligned with the “insider” world Skutch embodies. Crumb maintains his outsider status by never engaging the carefree attitude toward life that Skutch had. Instead, it is the women whom Crumb sleeps with who are thoughtless and un-tortured. This alignment is apparent in Crumb’s misogynistic portrayal of these women as concerned only with the facades of cultural sophistication but not with the substance of it. Thus, their fascination with Crumb is still based in misrecognition: they do not appreciate who he is, but they appreciate his status. This is similar to the behavior of the high school girls who misrecognized Skutch and saw him as attractive. Crumb is an outsider to mainstream culture, and he is simultaneously a hero and outsider to the 1960s youth counterculture. Crumb is aligned with and wanted by hippies, and he created album covers for The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Yet, Crumb did not truly fit in with them nor did he see their affection for him as a genuine assessment of his abilities or worthwhile qualities. In Terry Zwigoff’s documentary Crumb (1994), Crumb said that he felt he was often mistaken for a narcotics agent and is still stung by Janis Joplin’s question,

“Crumb, what’s the matter, don’t you like girls?”

And while the tales of Skutch read much less transgressively than Crumb’s more well known confessional depictions of male-female interactions, the misogyny of Crumb is arguably more significant in the tales of Skutch because it is by comparison an unacknowledged misogyny, one to which Crumb doesn’t draw attention in the way he does in his other work. [23] The geek’s misogynistic rage is this: Women are too shallow to recognize the good things about the sensitive, true, honest, and long-suffering, non-dominant males like Crumb and his brother Charles. Therefore, women deserve the pain and emotional torture they experience when they interact with males such as Skutch, but even more importantly, by this logic, they deserve the disdain and humiliation Crumb levies at them. When they do eventually see him and his comic geek proxies as worthy of attention (often, from Crumb’s perspective, moved by shallow motives), Crumb’s depiction of Skutch provides a bridge from the identity politics of “Whiteman” to the modern geek protagonist.

Through the melodramatic mode, Crumb allows that the geek, be it Whiteman or Crumb, has the moral high ground in the face of women, African Americans (in Whiteman, Fritz the Cat, Jimi Hendrix), low-class rednecks (Bo Bo Bolinski), and bullies (Skutch), because of the geek’s tortured self-image and self–doubt. As Williams explains, in the melodramatic mode, suffering, regardless of its source, equals moral superiority. It is through this process that the geek hero becomes a justified and superior protagonist in the face of all other identities and regardless of the politics surrounding the geek hero’s straight white maleness. The melodramatic mode allows the geek hero a niche in the politics of identity which lets him paradoxically identify as the victim of the socio-political system from which he benefits and, thus, be the ultimate protagonist with which audiences identify in a globalized, postmodern discourse.

This final image of Crumb is meant as ironic because of Crumb’s complex awareness of his own vanity, greed, and guilt, but it also embodies actual conceits of contemporary mainstream culture as the popularity of the geek continues to increase. Geek rage arises from this melodramatic, self-pitying, and self-righteous understanding of geek identity. In Crumb, this plays out in his misogynistic depictions of the women who misunderstand him. These punished, objectified women in Crumb’s work are typified by the Devil Girl (who has her head removed and her body used as a sex toy) and the Vulture Goddess (who has her head pushed in and her buttocks used as a trampoline) before finally accepting a geek as her appropriate paramour. Even as he arguably confesses and interrogates it, Crumb displays his outrage on two fronts: hatred for non-geek males and for women.

1970s-1980s: mainstreaming the geek

The “Hollywood Renaissance” period, [24] which spans roughly 1965-77, was a unique auteur-driven moment in Hollywood filmmaking, influenced by European art films, the French nouvelle vague, and the rise of the college art house theater circuit in the U.S. {See Biskind 14-17, 21-2, 33-5} The Hollywood Renaissance directors, all of whom (except the slightly older Robert Altman) were Baby Boomers, formed a boys’ club of “Movie Brats” who were surrounded by but to varying degrees separate from the hippie counterculture.

In the late 1970s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the two most culturally influential and economically successful Boomer geek filmmakers, helped reinstate the power of the studios over directors and inaugurated, with Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), the present-day era of the studio action blockbuster:

“Indeed, whether working together or on their own projects […] the two virtually rewrote the box-office record books in the late 1970s and the 1980s. With the release of their third Indiana Jones collaboration in 1989, Lucas and Spielberg could claim eight of the ten biggest hits in movie history.” [25]

The new blockbuster cinema was founded on a synergistic model of entertainment production, marketing and promotion, wherein a film is not marketed in isolation but rather forms the core of a larger array of related products. In this model, a blockbuster film like Star Wars forms merely one strand of a larger revenue stream that includes ancillary products like action figures, comic books, cross-promotions with fast-food chains, etc. Demographically speaking, the films themselves, as well as many of their spinoff products, were (and are) targeted primarily at adolescent-to-teenaged males.

At the textual level, Spielberg’s and Lucas’ secret to success was that they brought low pop-cultural forms — monster movies,serialized science fiction — to larger budgets in Hollywood. Unlike the New Hollywood auteurs, Spielberg and Lucas revisited genre with little sense of irony nor much interest in social or political realities:

“whereas the most sophisticated directors of the ’70s, like Altman, Penn, Scorsese, and Hopper, were deconstructing genre, Lucas, like Spielberg, was doing the reverse, gentrifying discredited genres of the past.” [26]

We see the Lucas-Spielberg influence today in the cinematic adaptation of mainstream comic-book properties like Batman, Iron Man, and The X-Men as the latest sure-fire blockbuster properties.

“[S]uch was Spielberg’s (and Lucas’s) influence, that every studio movie became a B movie.” [27]

The geek’s centrality to this blockbuster formula, starting in the late 1970s, is in fact the principal reason for his rise to mainstream cultural prominence in the 21st Century, the era of postmodern geekdom.

Spielberg and Lucas modeled their cinematic protagonists — Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in Close Encounters, Curt Henderson (also Dreyfuss) in American Graffiti, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in Star Wars — after themselves, framing them as geeky outsiders who suffer for their causes and have what it takes inside to ultimately prevail as heroes. Of course, Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Ben Braddock in The Graduate (1967) is a key precursor to these late-70s examples. [28] [29] The character of Ben, scantly described in the Charles Webb novel, was assumed to be “the scion of an apparently WASPy family, a cocky, aloof college track star.” [30] The role was originally intended for Robert Redford, but then director Mike Nichols switched gears and cast Jewish actor Dustin Hoffman as Ben. [31] However, the ironic tone and ambiguous ending of The Graduate prevents audiences from fully sympathizing with Hoffman’s Ben or his quest to win the love of Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross). It would take Lucas and Spielberg to sufficiently melodramatize the sufferings and heroism of the geek protagonist such that popular audiences would accept them in earnest.

In real life, Spielberg and Lucas are Boomer fanboys, nerds. They were of the first generation of American directors to go to film school and are known, along with Scorsese and De Palma, as the “movie brats,” which could as easily read: “film geeks.” Though Lucas and Spielberg rose to prevalence in the Hollywood Renaissance period when youth counterculture and director-based auteurism were in, they were nevertheless outsiders to that prevailing (if momentary) ethos; Spielberg is a computer geek who prefers the editing room to the set and Lucas is well-known for having more business and technical acumen than people skills or ability to direct actors. [32] Spielberg and Lucas both love computers and Spielberg in particular is a self-proclaimed video game “freak” who grew up feeling like “a wimp in a world of jocks.” [33] His contemporaries in 1970s Hollywood described him as having “no sense of style, [he] was just desperate to be cool like everyone else, but he didn’t know how.” [34] This is a description of a nerdy geek.

So when Spielberg got the chance to direct Jaws for Universal Studios, no wonder he cast the then little-known Richard Dreyfuss [35] as one of the three leads. The character Dreyfuss plays, marine biologist Matt Hooper, is described in Peter Benchley’s novel as “handsome, tanned, hair bleached by the sun, […] about as tall as Brody, […] but leaner” who has an affair with police chief Brody’s wife and ultimately gets killed by the shark. [36] As with Mike Nichols’ casting of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Spielberg, by casting Dreyfuss, makes Hooper into a short Jewish nerd:

“The book [Jaws] suggested somebody like Robert Redford to play Matt Hooper, but I felt there would be more sympathy for the character […] if someone like Richard Dreyfuss played him.” [37]

Spielberg’s film also nixes the Hooper-Mrs. Brody affair, and (somewhat improbably) spares Hooper’s life. Thus Spielberg’s Jaws asks us to enjoy and identify with Hooper’s snarky take on events in provincial Amity, all the while impressing us with his efficient analysis of the fictional is land’s shark problem. Our identification with Hooper is increased in the film version when he becomes crusty fisherman Quint’s nemesis, another switch from the novel, where the cuckolded Chief Brody is kept as the trio’s outsider.

Luke Skywalker is perhaps the most popular and influential melodramatic geek protagonist figure of the late 1970s and 1980s. Luke’s development from the whiny, naive hayseed of Star Wars to the confident Jedi of Return of the Jedi constitutes one of the most influential geek narratives of the period. Luke is essentially a kung-fu geek who learns a quasi-Eastern spiritual fighting system from an old white mystic, then uses this as a means of escaping his socially backward existence on a remote desert planet. Luke’s geeky naiveté and awkward earnestness are brought into particular relief once he meets Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the embodiment of the hip, jaded, rakish scoundrel. Particularly in contrast to Han, Luke exemplifies throughout the Star Wars trilogy the naive geek hero who suffers melodramatically, saves his evil father from ultimate perdition, and, along with his mostly male buddies (and a defanged, feminized Leia), takes over rightful leadership of the galaxy.

Boomers like Lucas and Spielberg obviously “get” idealistic geeks (c.f., Luke Skywalker, Roy Neary), but they tend to disregard, render comedic, and/or rehabilitate rakish scoundrels and especially disaffected Gen-X slackers. Boomer geek creators frequently depict slackerism or social nonconformity as lonely and empty, as in Han Solo’s lack of idealism and “love of money” in Star Wars, which Luke and Leia both castigate him for. Slackerish rakes like Han Solo are usually reformed of their scoundrel tendencies in mainstream boomer geek films: as when Solo whooshes back in to save the day in Star Wars‘ climax, the scoundrel sidekick has change of heart and grows up, revealing that he ultimately embodies the same conformist values as his geekier friends.

While true “slackers” cannot be said to exist prior to the 1990s, the geek protagonists in 1970s and 80s popular media nevertheless attract rakish, scoundrelly, socially nonconformist sidekicks and buddies: Han for Luke, Quint for Hooper, Peter Venkman for Egon Spengler, John Belushi for Dan Aykroyd. Indiana Jones, or Christopher Reeve playing Superman and Clark Kent, are geek superheroes, and need no consistent buddies because they contain both aspects in one body. All of these popular narratives are male-centered, predominantly featuring male buddy duos (or male-centered groups) and evincing their fair share of misogyny. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, Star Wars trilogy, Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary, Jaws), Ronnie Neary (Teri Garr, Close Encounters), and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, Raiders of the Lost Ark) all see their roles lessened over the course of their narrative arcs, either reduced to ineffectual or secondary roles (Leia and Marion) or ejected from the narrative entirely (Ellen Brody and Ronnie) — evidence of geek misogyny at work.

In various ways, Lucas’ and Spielberg’s valorization of nerdy man-boy characters through the 1980s lay the groundwork for the rise of the specifically Generation X geek, who grew up watching — and often obsessing over — the films of Lucas, Spielberg, and also 80s teen-film director John Hughes. Hughes’ work in particular melodramatizes the plight of the geek, showing him to be a sensitive, intelligent, and sympathetic character type. Teen-film scholar Timothy Shary writes of Hughes’ seminal Breakfast Club,

“Unlike most nerd characters in school films, [The Breakfast Club’s] Brian ultimately appears to accept his nerd labeling, and his peers eventually show some sincere appreciation for the difference he represents […] Brian may be alone unlike the others, but he has thus ironically maintained a certain independence that is not afforded to them.” {Generation Multiplex 35)

In sum, Boomer geeks like Hughes and Spielberg made the young nerds of Generation X the heroes of their 1980s films, and the Generation X nerds, then in their childhood or adolescence, watched and identified with these depictions. [38]

Generation X: tourists and vagabonds, geeks and slackers [39]

The existence of a slacker, man-boy counterpart is key to our analysis of the rise of the geek protagonist, because it is in the geek’s collaboration with his slacker accomplice, as well as his sharing of the slacker’s tendencies towards unprofitable pursuits like comic book collecting and playing video games, that the geek protagonist creates a simulation of not being a part of “the system,” i.e., the capitalizing and colonizing world of jocks and businessmen. This sleight of hand allows the geek protagonist to rise (in terms of economic and cultural power) in a more unblemished and sympathetic way. To interrogate this phenomenon, we present a unique reading of globalization theorist Zygmunt Bauman’s essay on class stratification, “Tourists and Vagabonds.” According to Bauman, under globalization class stratification is defined by mobility:

“To increase their capacity for consumption, consumers must never be allowed to rest. They need to be kept forever awake and on the alert, constantly exposed to new temptations and so remain in a state of never wilting excitation — and also, indeed, a state of perpetual suspicion and steady disaffection.” [40]

Bauman defines two categories of world citizens, ‘high up’ tourists as members of the developed world who can afford increasing mobility, and ‘low down’ vagabonds, who have little in the way of resources, mobility, or hope. [41]

Tourists, who are privileged to have more mobility (e.g., access to the Internet, jet airline travel, etc.) under time- and space-compressed globalization, are admired by the vagabond, who, conversely, is robbed of mobility by globalization. The vagabond admires the tourist’s ease and ability to (by definition) choose where to locate himself or herself. However, the term “tourist” is a key to overlapping the rise of geek culture with Bauman’s identity binary because in the postmodern and heavily mediated milieu of the geek, “tourist” can only have negative connotations (as privileged cultural interloper) and so ironically, it is the tourist/geek who wants to be perceived as the more authentic vagabond. [42] Thus, the geek foregrounds his/her put-upon status in order to artfully and self-deceivingly demonstrate how s/he is not empowered, and thus not part of the problematic and enfranchised identity of the tourist who oppresses the vagabond out of self-interest.

To the postmodern sensibilities of the geek, the gawky tourist is an entirely unappealing identity, devoid of the authenticating ambivalence and ironic distancing of the Gen-X slacker who is the embodiment of a self-imposed and simulated vagabond identity. A current example of our reverse reading of Bauman’s model occurs in celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who hosts The Travel Channel’s No Reservations and gains ironic admiration and authenticity for his simulated vagabond-ness and ability to travel to locations loved and frequented by natives. Bourdain’s punk ethos and his history of drug use are foregrounded in his star text much more prominently than his matriculation at Vassar. Slackers are self-perceived outcasts, invested in sub-cultural geekiness in ways related to their attempts at false ethnicity.

A third term, nomad, may allow our manipulation of Bauman’s model to gain more nuance. If the tourist is overtly privileged, and the vagabond a migrant laborer, then the nomad sees him or herself as the free will traveler somewhere in between. Our model is invested in the nomad’s disdain for the tourist and admiration of the vagabond. Despite this disdain for the tourist, from an economic perspective nomads have much more in common with tourists than they do with vagabonds. In fact, as with Bourdain and the vagabond, similarities between nomads and vagabonds are most often brought about through the nomad’s simulation of or self-imposed vagabond-ness.

Geeks and proto-slackers of the late 1980s were heavily into comics, and helped lay the groundwork for major multimedia synergy between comic books and motion pictures in the 1990s and beyond. In part this is because the Warner Communications Inc. (WCI) media conglomerate launched a long-term, comprehensive multimedia marketing and distribution campaign in order to determine whether or not an adult, mainstream audience existed for a post-Adam-West Batman franchise. As political economist Eileen Meehan documents,

“The mid-1980s marked the beginning of a process in which [WCI] tested the waters and began building towards the release of [Tim Burton’s] Batman [film]. By issuing [Frank Miller’s] The Dark Knight Returns in comic form, WCI essentially test marketed a dark reinterpretation of Batman with an adult readership whose experience with the character would include the camp crusader of the 1960s.” [43]

Miller’s comic sold out, including a hardbound omnibus edition, and spread to new non-comics reading markets:

“WCI [placed] The Dark Knight Returns indifferent kinds of retail outlets, tapping the markets of fandom and general readers to determine if the grim version of Batman could gain acceptance from both specialized and generalized consumers.” [44]

It worked. Indeed, Gen-X indie filmmaker Kevin Smith raves about 1989 being “the summer of Batman” and Moore’s, Miller’s, and Burton’s “Dark Age” works would impact many Gen-X media makers, like filmmakers Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan.

The ascendancy of the geek in conjunction with the geek’s abiding foil, the slacker, makes important an examination of the configuration of the geek-slacker duo in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1986-1987), [45] analyzing this dynamic primarily in the context of the relationship between Nite Owl II and Rorschach. Watchmen’s depiction of this duo and its simultaneous deconstruction of binary superhero teams reverberates into the mainstream and independent graphic novels which follow it, including the texts of already existing pairings, such as Batman and Robin, Batman and Joker, and Superman and Batman, as well as pairings in second-wave postmodern superhero comics such as the Confessor and Altar Boy in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City (1995-present), and Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim in Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers (2000-present). Independent graphic novels, such as Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World (1993-1997), with Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, also inherit from the cultural patterns to which Moore contributed. In short, Watchmen has exerted a profound influence on the unfolding geek-slacker ascension across multiple media formats.

The configuration of the geek and the slacker lines up respectively with Bauman’s configuration of the tourist and vagabond and makes clear that while the geek and tourist are economically empowered, a crisis of authenticity surrounds the geek’s discomfort with his privileged status as a “tourist” under globalization and causes the geek to admire the slacker’s more authentic seeming rejection of privilege.

In Watchmen, Nite Owl II, aka Dan Dreiberg, is a geek scientist. He observes the laws his government levies against superheroes, he is comfortable retiring from superheroism, and like a true fan boy and prototypical geek, he collects memorabilia from the various eras of superheroism. Dreiberg fantasizes about himself being a slacker, a non-caring superhero like his partner Rorschach, and dreams about improprieties he could never commit, like sleeping with his former enemy, the Twilight Lady. In contrast, Rorschach, the slacker, is antisocial and doesn’t care what other people think about him. Unlike Dreiberg, Rorschach follows his own code above any other and in that way maintains an authenticity (and ultimately a “coolness” that escapes geeks in the larger framework of geek-slackerdom) that Dreiberg cannot. An important part of Rorschach’s authenticity (and the authenticity of subsequent Generation X slackers) within the geek-slacker paradigm is an unwavering commitment to the homosocial bond he maintains with his geek, Dreiberg — similar to the Joker-Batman relationship in Moore’s The Killing Joke and the films based on it, like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). In contrast to Rorschach, and in the pattern of many of the Generation X geeks who will follow him, Dreiberg seeks out a girlfriend and privileges his relationship with her over his homosocial bonds.

Dreiberg and Rorschach’s attempt to defeat Ozymandias in Watchmen is a geek-slacker revolt against the father. Watchmen reveals how the geek-slacker pairing encourages an attempt to replace patriarchy with fratriarchy: the corporate industrialist Ozymandias is a clear embodiment of the late capitalism that subsequent geek-slackers are often positioned to melodramatically struggle against, often just as futilely as Dreiberg and Rorschach do. Geek-slacker binaries continue to suffuse superhero and non-superhero pairings in comics as well as other media, including some of the currently most popular texts, such as Juno, Knocked Up, Superbad, and No Country for Old Men (all 2007).

Geeks and slackers hang together in contemporary media texts, and indeed geek culture, in the form of science fiction, computers, superhero comic books, video games, etc., is deeply imbricated with the grunge music, underemployment, and pot smoking culture of 1990s slackers. In fact, we can say that to some extent geeks are productive, conformist slackers and/or that slackers are cynical, nonconformist geeks. In the independent films of Kevin Smith, for example, where the geeks and the slackers frequently share geeky passions like knowledge of 1980s science-fiction cinema and superhero comic books, the line between these two character types are overlapped and blurry. Yet key characteristics distinguish the geek, a type that predates Generation X, from the Gen-X slacker.

The main characteristic that differentiates the geek from his slacker counterpart is that geeks can “sell out” and become students, nine-to-five workers, filmmakers, and/or cultural tastemakers because they never truly resist the system in the first place. Geeks are good workers and social conformists who respond to social marginalization by working harder and becoming creative. As a prolific screenwriter and creator, Kevin Smith is himself such a geek, as are most of his film’s protagonists. Thus, extra-filmically, geeks play a key role, perhaps the key role in the production of the “rise of the slacker” phenomenon. In a globalized capitalist system if something “rises,” it is because it makes money, and the key filmmakers of slacker cinema — Smith, Richard Linklater, Jim Jarmusch, and more recently Judd Apatow — are all highly productive and market-savvy geeks who surround themselves and fill their cinematic narratives with groups of male slackers.

In fact, there is often hero worship or a wanna-be quality that adheres to the geek’s perception of the slacker: for example, in Clerks Randal (the unapologetic slacker) tells Dante (the geeky underachiever) “you know I’m your hero” and Dante never contradicts him. In fact, Dante obviously admires Randal’s devil-may-care quality even though it frequently gets him into trouble. William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is in the same position in Gen-X director Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000): he is an under-aged, geeky journalist who loves the band he is touring with, who wants to hang out with the musicians and be considered “cool” like them, but he worries too much about his domineering mom and his writing deadline, and therefore, as Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) puts it, “is not cool.” But by the end of the film he lionizes his cooler road buddies, writing the Rolling Stone article that resuscitates the band’s flagging career.

Male geek/slacker buddy duos dominate the most popular 1990s independent cinema offerings, including the work of Smith, Jarmusch, Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers.

The Big Lebowski (1998), written and directed by the Coens, is a sophisticated genre pastiche of film noir, western, stoner/buddy comedy, and Busby Berkeley musical. But whether or not the average Dude fan catches the film’s sly references to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep or Edward Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet is beside the point. The film has gained a widespread cult following based largely upon its slacker protagonist, The Dude (Jeff Bridges), and his close buddy relationship with geeky Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak (John Goodman). Despite its unusually high degree of comedic and cinematic nuance, John Troyer and Chani Marchiselli rightly group The Big Lebowski with other works of “Dude Cinema,” which appeal to male-centered audiences eager to see 1990s and millennial slacker masculinity comedically celebrated. The film is one of the most popular and influential “cult” films of the 1990s, spawning an entire cottage industry around its fandom and inspiring annual “Lebowski Fests” in various cities around the country since 2002.

As a counterpart to the striving geek, the figure of the slackerish dude is associated with “masculine entitlement” even though he is, to some extent, a “liminal subject,” especially as presented in The Big Lebowski, where he appears as a lazy, unemployed stoner. [46] As Troyer and Marchiselli outline, “dudes are slobs, slackers, idiot savants whose achievements are fated and manifest. The obliteration of history that is always implicit in dude films works to obscure [the dude protagonists’] gender and class privileges.” [47] Troyer and Marchiselli focus upon Dude Cinema narratives’ obliteration of history, rather than the invocation of the tropes of melodrama, to demonstrate these films’ obfuscation of the socioeconomic privilege of white geeks and slackers. While their argument is convincing, it is not as broadly applicable as our melodrama-based model, though their assertion that the buddy duos that populate these films “never entirely ascend into phallic adulthood but exist in a kind of adolescent stasis” is spot-on. [48] The Big Lebowski’s famous catch phrase, “the Dude abides,” encapsulates the problem. It is easy for a white male stoner to simply “abide” because the deck is already stacked in his favor, yet his status as a relative outsider, a so-called “loser” that the “square community doesn’t give a shit about,” allows him to occupy a quasi-disenfranchised position, gaining him access to simulated ethnicity via the tropes of geek melodrama.

Since to some extent independent and cult cinema function as early barometers of pop-cultural trends, we should not be surprised to find that more recently, since 2007, geek- and slacker-centered narratives have risen into the cinematic mainstream with the films of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up and Superbad), the comedies of Adam Sandler (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) and Will Ferrell (Blades of Glory), and even network television programs such as CBS’ The Big Bang Theory (2007-present). Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper, the most socially awkward and sesquipedalian character on The Big Bang Theory, surprised critics by winning Best Lead Actor in a Comedy Series at the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards, beating out heavy hitting Emmy veterans including Tony Shalhoub, Larry David, Steve Carrell, and Alec Baldwin. Mainstream media outlets announced Parsons’ victory with headlines like, “Geeks, Rejoice!” and “Geek Out!”, and tech/geek centric blogs across the web posted clips from his acceptance speech.

The fratriarchal order depicted in shows like Big Bang Theory is no less misogynistic (nor homophobic) than the patriarchy it (arguably) attempts to subvert. Slacker cinema and Gen-X geek media of all kinds are relentlessly male-centered, focusing on more feminized/queered/sympathetic males than other genres perhaps, yet still marginalizing women, queers, and people of color.

Conclusion

In her essay “Why Nice Guys Finish Last,” queer feminist writer Julia Serano offers a more sympathetic take on geek suffering that bears mentioning because if our thesis is correct, our essay serves as an answer to her call for sympathy for male geeks or “nice guys” as she calls them. She introduces a phenomenon she calls the “double bind for men.” [49] Her explanation makes use of the more documented female double bind which is created by sexual object/prey stereotypes of women, and reduces women to choosing between being considered either a “virgin” or a “whore.” In Serano’s male double bind, the options are between “nice guy” and “asshole.” To introduce her insights, Serano foregrounds her identity as a male to female transexual and speaks of having suffered under the male double bind and watching male friends suffer and transform under it as well. With this move, Serano essentially positions herself as formerly one of the male geeks we examine. [50] In that sense, she can serve as a counterpoint to our criticism of male geek self-righteousness and rigged identity politics. Serano explains that as boys, males are enculturated to be gentle to women, but when they reach adulthood, those who are conscientious enough to maintain this civility suffer because women are not attracted to nice guys. She recounts the stereotypical story of being consulted and confided in by her female friends as a nice guy before her sex change, but never being seen by them as a potential mate. As a result of this, many of Serano’s nice guy friends became “assholes” to attract women.

Serano falls into the sexist move we have ascribed to geek masculinity. The stereotypical “nice guys finish last” phenomenon can only occur if one maintains the assumption that women don’t know what’s good for them and end up with assholes, or must suffer with an asshole before ending up with a geek, this latter the central trope in so much of the media we have discussed in this essay. Serano raises a counterpoint to her own argument that resonates well with our theories: she cites the feminist blogosphere as the source for this unsympathetic reading of the nice guy phenomenon. These feminist bloggers identify what they call The Nice Guy with capital letters. They explain that unlike the suffering nice guy that Serano attempts to reify, The Nice Guy is often as dangerous as the “asshole.” For his good behavior, The Nice Guy feels entitled to be rewarded sexually and socially by women, and becomes enraged and condescending about women’s desires if this entitlement goes unfulfilled. This description ties in nicely to the critique of geek masculinity we theorize and leads us to a final question.

What of the female geek? For the geek conceit to play out in its most misogynistic form, she must be missing. Here is a case study of this phenomena from a recent text. In The Invention of Lying, self-described pudgy and nerdy Ricky Gervais vanquishes handsome jock Rob Lowe to end up paired with the beautiful Jennifer Garner, after Garner’s character “comes to her senses” and recognizes the value of her geeky friend. The problem is that with the exception of their genders, demographically and behaviorally speaking, Garner and Lowe’s characters are virtually identical. One (Lowe) is punished for not being a geek, that is, being a jock, while the other (Garner) is elevated for her lack of geekiness because she is required to act as the reward the geek or “nice guy” feels entitled to in traditional patriarchal narratives. There is a missing character: the true geek female counterpart to Gervais’s character, the one who is loved for her brains and not for looks, as Gervais is. This missing character lays bare the misogyny of geek melodrama.

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  1. Kom Kunyosying & Carter Soles, 2012. Postmodern geekdom as simulated ethnicity. Jump Cut. [web] 

  2. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.5) License. [web] 

  3. Champagne Sharks ft. Kom Kunyosying & Carter Soles, 2017-10-16. [Pt. 1] [Pt. 2] 

  4. Even John Hodgman, the speaker who “roasted” Barack Obama at the 2009 Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, D.C., highlights through his very presence the prevalence of Jobs and Gates in geek culture. In Macintosh commercials Hodgman plays the stodgier, less hip human embodiment of non-Macintosh computers that use a Windows operating system. Like Justin Hammer, Hodgman’s character is another unflattering analog for Bill Gates. 

  5. Nugent 37, 57. 

  6. Oxford English Dictionary. 

  7. 5.1. 

  8. Lighter [v. 2] 367. 

  9. Lighter [v. 1] 638. 

  10. 32. 

  11. 42. 

  12. 82. 

  13. White 14-15, 21, 23. 

  14. See also Nugent 73. 

  15. Note that “jock” is not synonymous with “athlete” — athletes are in fact geeks of sports. 

  16. There is a history of Jewish male images and responses to notions of Jewish men as nebbishes. This sometimes plays out as extreme masculine prowess/obsession with sports or athleticism. For example, Triumph of the Spirit (1989), portrays the story of Greek Jewish boxer and Holocaust survivor Salamo Arouch who was forced to fight by his German captors. Invincible (2001)revisits this theme with a plot inspired by the life of Jewish strongman Zishe Breitbart and similarly shows its hyper-masculine protagonist in contrast to German Nazis. 

  17. Note also a Jewish comedy tradition, e.g., Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, and Allen’s influence on proto-slackerism in theform of the nebbish Jim (Jason Biggs), protagonist of American Pie. See also Walter Mitty. 

  18. White 19. 

  19. Following William Strauss and Neil Howe, we define Boomers as being those persons born between 1943 and 1960. 

  20. R. Crumb Handbook 120. 

  21. Non-apologists for Crumb, who read him as unapologetically racist and/or misogynistic, should nevertheless find value in our critical reading of Crumb’s persona and work. 

  22. R. Crumb’s id (as a character no less) and “Li’l Hitler Pig” appear in Crumb’s work just as Frank appears in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Lynch and Crumb work in the mode of Boomer geeks. The Boomers resisted hippies and formed strong geek identities that would make the Gen-X geek’s rise to cultural prevalence possible. 

  23. Again, it is important to acknowledge that Crumb’s intention here is arguably ironic psychodrama rather than melodrama, but the melodrama survives regardless. 

  24. Some noteworthy late Boomer/pre-Generation X Geeks include: Alan Moore (b. 1953), Frank Miller (b. 1957), Jim Jarmusch (b.1953), Michael Moore (b. 1954), comics artist Charles Burns (b. 1955), Joel and Ethan Coen (b. 1954 and 1957), Cameron Crowe (b. 1957), Spike Lee (b. 1957), and David O. Russell (b. 1958). 

  25. Schatz 31. 

  26. Biskind 342. 

  27. 278. 

  28. Biskind 34. 

  29. Interestingly, Dreyfuss himself appears in one scene in The Graduate; he plays a lodger in Mr. McCleery’s boarding house in Berkeley, delivering the single line: “Shall I get the cops?” 

  30. Harris 26. 

  31. Harris 236, 275. 

  32. Steven Spielberg Interviews 103. 

  33. Steven Spielberg Interviews 100, 104, 108-9. 

  34. Biskind 260. 

  35. Richard Dreyfuss is a key figure in the rise of cinematic geekdom, playing the geek hero of three significant and immensely popular 1970s films: American Graffitti (1973), Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). 

  36. 85. 

  37. Steven Spielberg Interviews 63-4. 

  38. Note the return of the Boomer geeks in 2008 with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Interviewed in Entertainment Weekly #988/989 (April 25/May 2, 2008) both Spielberg and Lucas claim to be forever suspended in their 20s or 30s. Says Lucas: “We are not gonna get gray. We are not gonna get old. We are as young as we’ve ever been, and we don’t recognize the fact that we’ve gotten older. Do we?” Spielberg replies: “It’s true. I’ll never forget when I was making Jaws, [producer] David Brown said, ‘I’m nearly 60 years old and I feel like I’m 24.’ I’ve always felt that way about myself. […] I’ve always sort of time-locked andmind-blocked myself in my 30s, and that’s always the age I feel.” [51] 

  39. Key Gen-X geeks include Richard Linklater (b. 1960), Alexander Payne (b. 1961), Daniel Clowes (b. 1961), Mike Judge (b. 1962), David Fincher (b. 1962), Steven Soderbergh (b. 1963), Quentin Tarantino (b. 1963), David Cross (b. 1964), Joss Whedon (b. 1964), Ben Stiller (b. 1965), Jon Favreau (b. 1966), Judd Apatow (b. 1967), Will Ferrell (b. 1967), Kevin Smith (b. 1970), Sarah Silverman (b. 1970), and Diablo Cody (b. 1978). 

  40. Bauman 83. 

  41. 85-6. 

  42. This is somewhat counterintuitive to Bauman’s emphasis that the vagabond is in a constant state of admiration of the tourist’s economic empowerment. Our reading of Bauman acknowledges the tourist’s desire for the authenticity of the vagabond in order to shed light on Gen-X anxieties surrounding discomfort with their privileged status as “tourists” under globalization. 

  43. 53. 

  44. 53. 

  45. Watchmen being a major comics milestone in Gen-X and comic book culture. 

  46. 264. 

  47. 265. 

  48. 266. 

  49. 232. 

  50. Serano 232. 

  51. 35.