Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hijacking geekdom: geeks vs. freaks

The more cachet the term "geek" gains, the more distorted it becomes. We see this most recently in Ada Calhoun's piece in this weekend's New York Times Magazine Lives Column. Ms. Calhoun, now an accomplished writer and speaker, was the editor of the junior high school paper, attended parties and sleepovers, and had as her best friend the most popular boy at school, who once asked her out (she turned him down). Why, she asks, did she identify herself as an outcast?

The No. 1 suspect: late-1980s and early-’90s popular culture. In every book, movie or TV show, nerds were cool and the popular kids were lame. There was integrity to being an outsider. You didn’t want to be beautiful, popular Lea Thompson in “Some Kind of Wonderful”; you wanted to be the tomboy drummer Mary Stuart Masterson.
But how geeky were these pop culture cool kids anyway? The coolest protagonists of Freaks and Geeks, for example, weren't the geeks (the two younger male characters who were often played for laughs), but the freaks. And when has it ever not been cool to be a tomboy?

People forget that there are two types of outcast. There are those who are so socially awkward, and/or clueless, and/or narrowly intellectual that they have few or no friends who aren't equally geeky. And then there those who, often more deliberately, violate mainstream standards for gender, clothing, behavior, and extra curricular activities (eschewing leadership, football, and cheerleading).

When people depict geeks as cool, they're invariably depicting not the true geeks but the freaks. We see this most recently in Alexandra Robbins' Geeks will Inherit the World, which I blog about here, noting that:
The students she profiles are a “popular bitch,” a victim of racism, and a social under-achiever who is openly gay. They're certainly ostracized, at least by some, but not because they’re geeks.
Indeed, many people, if not those in the mainstream/majority, view freaks as cool, and they do so precisely because such kids deliberately flout mainstream standards.

The problem with twsting the term "geek" around to mean "freak" is that it's all too easy to pretend that geeks have it easier than they actually do, and that the rest of us don't need to make much more of an effort to appreciate them for who they really are.

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