Following Loan/Kelly Marie Tran’s remarkable New York Times article about Internet harassment and her own cultural identity, Cav considers how her words serve as a reminder of some seemingly long-lost principles of geek culture.
” …the same society that taught some people they were heroes, saviors, inheritors of the Manifest Destiny ideal, taught me I existed only in the background of their stories, doing their nails, diagnosing their illnesses, supporting their love interests — and perhaps the most damaging — waiting for them to rescue me…
…And as much as I hate to admit it, I started blaming myself. I thought, “Oh, maybe if I was thinner” or “Maybe if I grow out my hair” and, worst of all, “Maybe if I wasn’t Asian.” For months, I went down a spiral of self-hate, into the darkest recesses of my mind, places where I tore myself apart, where I put their words above my own self-worth.
And it was then that I realized I had been lied to.”
Loan (Kelly Marie) Tran, Aug 2018
When Star Wars actor Kelly Marie Tran abandoned Instagram three months ago after sustained racist and sexist attacks on the social media platform, it felt like yet another casualty to the increasingly depressing reality of modern fandom. Once again, ‘fans’ who had let their sense of enthusiasm become enslaved to the pursuit of division and hate had chased an artist from the public eye, simply because their visibility threatened the comfort of the status quo. It seemed unlikely that we would hear from her again in a good while, at least until her next role.
But Kelly had other ideas. On Tuesday she returned, and brought fire with her. In a beautifully-written op-ed piece in the New York Times, she not only drew a line under her defiance of the trolls and bigots, she used the platform to reclaim not only her Vietnamese heritage, but her birth name. “My real name is Loan”, she writes, “And I am just getting started”.
And fair fucks to her, say we. But to some, agreeing with her consitutes a betrayal, a willing surrender of the culture to shadowy, insidious SJWs who have infiltrated the entertainment industry with the sole intention of remolding pop culture to cater only to themselves and their allies. To subjugate, belittle and ultimately eradicate the people who have resided in the audience since time began. To supplant the way of life, the very identity of the population so that this invading culture becomes the culture, with no divergence or dissent allowed.
You know, colonialism. Let’s face it, if anyone’s going to have in-depth knowledge of how you pull that off, it’s white people.
But that’s the problem with the MRAs and their ilk: they’re bred and programmed to only think about themselves. When you’re part of the dominant culture, all you’re told you need to worry about is your own perspective, because that’s the perspective the rest of the world runs on… right? And with the Geek Wars having supposedly been long-won, and contemporary culture now outright encouraging us to cling to the tastes and worldview we had when we were thirteen, why would we possibly want things any different to how we had them in the past?
That’s why these people react so aggressively to the idea of modern art reflecting social justice concerns, or – Dawkins forbid – the mic being given to anyone who might look at their cultural bubble and ask, why is that there? It’s because the only true answer, as Tran so eloquently points out in her piece, is that that bubble has remained there at the long-term expense of anyone who’s not a white, straight, middle-to-upper-class cis male.
A History of Cringe
Don’t get me wrong; I get this attitude, more than I’m comfortable admitting. Once upon a time, I lived in a similar bubble and was just as self-centered. I spent a good chunk of my twenties lamenting my inability to get laid so thoroughly, I came within a gnat’s pube of becoming some kind of before-his-time-proto-Incel. In the late 90s, I balked at the notion of saying ‘sorry’ to Indigenous Australians. I didn’t slaughter them and steal their kids, I thought. I’d have never done that. What have I got to say sorry about?
I didn’t hate anyone, or wish anyone any harm: I was just naive enough and sheltered enough to think that every fucking thing to come my way, had to somehow be about, or at least against, me. I present that not as any kind of excuse; I own my past shitheadedness.
The point is, such false knowledge is only helpful when it’s fleeting. My first problem was tackled by a couple of wonderful women who had the generosity and patience to demonstrate that I could be attractive, to teach me that I just wasn’t paying attention to women when they were sending the right signals. With the other, a bit of social education and listening to other perspectives made me realize that the point of saying ‘sorry’ had nothing to do with shouldering blame, but supporting change. It’s just that social programming takes some effort to break, and it mainly involves growing up a bit and listening to other people – not just in curated, digital spaces where everyone thinks the same thing as you, but out in the world, face-to-face.
Wait, did I just tell young people to get off the computer and go outside?
But as Tran’s story illustrates, it’s this very programming on the macro level that is why diversity in popular culture needs to be supported. Western culture has, from top to bottom, been constructed to represent the straight, cis, white male perspective as a default. It’s a machine that’s worked to flatter straight white males and tell everyone else that they’re subservient for no good reason. It’s just the way it is, as the old song goes.
The saddest part is, the very people who rail against social justice, who take actual time from their lifespans to attack prominent women and people of colour in pop culture, would be the first to instinctively bristle at this phrase. That is why they are traitors.
Episode MCMXCV: A Nerd Hope
Now for a quick music break, courtesy of one of the most revolutionary songs of the 1990s. No, it’s not from Rage Against the Machine, or Public Enemy. It’s not even Chumbawamba:
It used to be tough being a geek. Once upon a time, being into sci-fi, comics and video games – even just generally being into science and learning – was considered a one-way ticket to social exile. Sure, fantastical movies, video games and comics were big money-spinners, but they came with a strongly-defined puberty ceiling. They were strictly for kids, and to develop hair downstairs was considered a signal that these things should be put away, and that it was time for one to turn to more mature pursuits – you know, drinking, sport, and spending your weekend in deafeningly loud, overpriced shitholes on the vague chance that you might get laid. Adult stuff.
To be seen to continue to be into these things, to be seen as a sci-fi nerd, a computer enthusiast, a reader… these things marked you out. Made you a freak, a sad-act, a target. Being mocked was not only a way of life, but a compulsory social act. You could either repent and do what everyone else was doing, or resign yourself to serving as a handy target for the ‘normal’ people and take your licks.
Cue the 90s, a time which has been oft-portrayed as the spark that set off the rise of Geek Culture to the mainstream, but for the most part… well, wasn’t. Not if you were living in Britpopland, at least. Our touchstones were Oasis, Shaun Ryder, the Stone Roses: lads who loved football, never cried, drank and snorted and fucked everything in sight. Bands like Suede and the Manic Street Preachers gave as much counterpoint as they could, suggesting that there was actually a place for gender fluidity, intelligence and, well, reading books in modern life, but their intentionally-brash flamboyance was easily turned against them, and by the most part the leading lights of the culture were laddish, anti-intellectual and depressingly conservative.
That’s why the rise of Pulp, and its gangly-yet-rakish frontman Jarvis Cocker, were a revelation. They didn’t just champion intellectualism with theatrics and daggy pastiche: they used the language of the Lad Bands to stick up for the “Misshapes, mistakes, misfits”. They nailed with surgical precision the social divide between the haves and have-nots, the geeks and the beautiful people, the ‘men’ and the ‘boys’. Pulp posited a taking-back of the ‘freak’ label so commonly directed at geeks, the idea that the aspects of our personalities that marked us as apart from the herd were also traits that could be used to fight back:
We want your homes, we want your lives
We want the things you won’t allow us
We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs
We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of, that’s our minds
Cocker himself was a galvanizing figure, a model of masculinity that was bookish and potent, and to the geeks of Generation X offered a prescient role model as their way of life gradually grew to define the new Western culture.
One thing I’ve noticed about MRAs and anti-SJW crusaders is that they seem to trend trending, more at the millennial end of the generational spectrum. And seeing as the Old Fart achievement just popped, maybe it’s time for me to get yelling at a cloud or two.
Men with No Right
It all comes back to history. That’s what Tran talks about, the reason for my brief detour into 90s indie rock. We live always in the shadow of history, whether it’s the portrayal of the ‘other’ in popular culture or common attitudes to being nerdy. What we enjoy now is invariably a reaction to the past, and if we can’t understand the past for what it was we can never move forward.
It’s why, when we hear MRAs pining for some romanticized, nebulous concept of old-timey ‘masculinity’, we shouldn’t dismiss them or shout, but ask them what masculinity they actually think they want to protect. These guys are geeks, just like us. They worship decades-old genre properties just like we do. They watch the same shows and movies, play the same games, spend way too much time on the internet just like we do. Many harbour the same pains as we do, the same social insecurities, the same frustrations as all of us who align ourselves with activities and interests generally seen as ‘other’ to the vanilla. Yet when they start lamenting society’s rejection of masculinity, is when they go off in a direction that, frankly, baffles the shit out of me.
You see, a lot of us are old enough to remember the pre-Geek Explosion days. We remember what ‘traditional masculinity’ looked like. We knew those guys. They were the school bullies. They were the shitty fathers who beat the school bullies when they got home. They were the football players. They were the football thugs. They were the Baby Boomers who conned, and boozed, and abused everyone they could to get themselves ahead. Who sold the generations to follow so far down the river, our sperm’s still trying to swim back up. They were the guys you knew to never make eye contact with in the pub.
Seriously, MRAs: what is it you think you’re defending? You’re more like us than you are like them, and take it from those of us who were there: it sucked. Here’s how a meeting with one of those ‘traditionally masculine’ men would roughly go:
MASCULINE HE-MAN: Watcha doin’?
MRA: I’m posting an angry condemnation of a video game that has women in it!
Masculine He-Man administers a taint-cleaving wedgie.
MASCULINE HE-MAN: Poof.
I don’t know, I was brought up to believe that being a man was about understanding and generosity of spirit, not entitlement. Aligning yourself with a cultural structure that never had respect for you doesn’t make you a crusader, an iconoclast or a martyr: it makes you a fool.
But maybe that’s where the problem lies. In the article Pedanticide: An Introduction, I talked about how we seem to be living in the ‘Elvis in a Jumpsuit’ era of modern geek culture, how we’ve gotten so used to getting what we want and being catered to we’ve abandoned any sense of humility or perspective. I used to find it baffling how any geek can be so removed from their cultural history that they could resent any underrepresented group from wanting recognition, but the internet long steered me straight on that one. I guess you know you’re truly indulged, when all that matters is worrying about who might be eyeing your perch.
Those who troll and harass women, people of colour, gay, bi, trans or those who inhabit any part of the spectrum aren’t just pests, aren’t just bullies. When geeks start side-eyeing any power claimed by women or minorities, they willingly adopt the language of the people who kept us in the cultural basement, those we all swore to never be. When geeks deny fellow underdogs the right to participate and to be recognized, they betray Geekdom itself and everything it’s stood for, today and in the past.
The mainstream kept us in that cultural basement, and make no mistake, it can send us back. We continue to tolerate hateful junk on the Internet, harass and attack good people for no other reason than their visibility, the more we erode the common perception of the Geek Nation just as acceptance was finally settling in. At this stage, I’m not even sure if we really deserve any better.
At the end of the day, this is me, an ageing geek with a good few years of studying the culture behind me, wondering what the fuck is going on anymore. And don’t think I’m declaring this from some safe moral perch, either; cultural diversity affects me too, from a career standpoint. I rarely write about this stuff anymore, mainly because we’re entering a stage where outlets are actively seeking out non-straight white males to speak about these issues, about culture in general. The same goes for the world of fiction: significantly, this year’s Hugo Award winners were dominated by women, with N.K. Jemisin winning the Best Novel award for the third year in a row.
Am I complaining? Fuck, no. Do I worry about my own future, career-wise? Sure, but at the same time I want to at least know that on the day I die that I made my best efforts to act fairly towards myself and other people. And if that means being OK with my career prospects theoretically being lessened in any way by entire segments of the population who’ve never previously been allowed to have a voice getting that chance, then so be it. Because we’re entering an age where people don’t need yet another straight, white cis male to stick up for them: they’re finally getting to do it themselves, and doing it well. I mean, look at Tran’s article. I’ll even link it twice, because it’s that damn good.
Bringing it Back Home
Because at the end of the day, I want to end by bringing focus back on Loan/Kelly Marie Tran and her courage. I’ve talked a lot about myself and white nerds in general here, I understand, and the last thing I want to do is make it seem like I’m steamrolling her experiences and her words to just indulge my own philosophical bent.
Her article is much more than a personal account, or a statement on her own heritage, but a reminder of the importance of understanding our cultural history and the paradigms that defined it. Of the power culture holds to not just elevate and define our personal identities, but also to lower and demean them. Of our responsibility to respect the history of the culture we align with and keep it moving forward in a positive fashion. If nothing else. I just wanted to give my perspective on the whole thing as a guy who has actually worked in the industry, however tangentially, and not the usual fuckballs who think that Mad Men was a documentary.
Ms. Tran isn’t just a figurehead for diversity; she also represents the truest essence of Geek Spirit, and long may she reign even if I just made her sound like a toiletry product.