Carry On, Geek Culture. You’re Doing Great; A Response to Patton Oswalt
Back in 2010, Patton Oswalt, famous comedian, actor and author, wrote an article for Wired titled, Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die. You may or may not have heard of it. At the time, I was a 16-year-old finishing up my GCSEs and had barely even heard of Wired, let alone Patton Oswalt. I had no time or inclination to focus on what comedians apparently deemed pressing issues, so I never read it. I can only assume some of the praise and controversy it stirred up has been lost to time in the ten years since its publication.
I only thought to look it up earlier this year, when I saw mention of an article Oswalt had written on the ruination of ‘fandom’ thanks to the internet, or something along those lines. I was intrigued at the idea. I wanted to see what it was all about, and thought I might even agree with at least part of what he was saying. But I didn’t. It’s written beautifully, no doubt, but a pretty crust on a questionable filling does not a good pie make.
In the article, Oswalt tries to take you back to the 80s, or more specifically, to when he was a lad. He paints a picture the likes of which you might expect from Netflix’s Stranger Things — a group of young boys on the bottom rung of the social ladder, playing Dungeons & Dragons in their basements, fanatics of Monty Python movies, Star Wars action figures and superhero comics like Watchmen. He prides himself on his interests and how they set him and his friends apart from the ‘normies’ who populated his adolescent life, all of them listening to the likes of Madonna and Springsteen. He claims these interests, almost. They are his, and his alone.
So, imagine his disappointment when it becomes clear that they aren’t his. He details how, in 1987, the things that had once put him on the outside were now evolving into perfectly acceptable pastimes for anyone. The line between ‘nerd’ and ‘normie’ began to blur. So-called ‘surface-dwellers’ (his words, not mine) were greedily gobbling up and claiming the treasures that had been his first, guys. The notion that pop culture was no longer exclusive — a notion which became truer and truer with the introduction of the internet years later — clearly irritates him, and as such, the essay takes a turn here. It starts being less a whimsical look back on 80s geekdom and more a rant, complete with implied kicking and screaming.
See, Oswalt’s problem, and the bottom line of his article, is that having quick and easy access to every facet of pop culture, via the internet, cheapens the value of being a true fan. His point is that anyone can be “dedicated” to a show, movie or album after a quick Google search and a skim of the relevant Wikipedia page. The sweat and tears of all of those youngsters from the 80s as they waited weeks for the latest episode of Star Trek are ancient history. We, of the 21st century, can binge an entire show in a week, read any manga or comic online, consume a band’s entire discography in one sitting.
And his solution to this constant, unfettered binging? Well, Oswalt seems to think that, given enough time, pop culture will simply implode in on itself. And we shouldn’t just let it, we should speed up the process — drop a bomb on the pop culture world whilst saving a few scraps of it to rebuild upon. Whatever we come up with from that will provoke a new era of pop culture, one starting almost from scratch and lo, something akin to the 1980s will be born. And that last part isn’t just me being facetious. He literally states in the article that he wants his daughter to have her own version of 1987, the way he did.
Beneath all the flowery language, the article really just comes down to, “I’m superior because I had to wait for my entertainment, and was bullied for it.” It’s another retelling of the story we’ve all heard, about how our grandparents had it harder when they were children and that, somehow, they’re better than us because of it. It’s simply not true. While we can appreciate and respect the difference in circumstances, no superiority should emerge from that difference. Oswalt was born in 1969. I, and many others of my generation, were born in 1994. He grew up without the internet, I grew up with it. It just so happens to be that way, and that’s all.
Let me be clear — even in the late 2000s, when I was in school, being a nerd was not a readily accepted thing. It wasn’t terrible being known as a nerd, but you could still expect to be ostracised if you were in any way open about it. Back in the 80s, Oswalt retreated into D&D with his friends. In the 2000s, me and my friends escaped into the internet. It was something of a haven, where we encountered people even weirder than us and content that we’d never seen the likes of before, like flash videos and games, online manga and of course, Wikipedia. It opened up new avenues. My life became richer for it.
So, as the geek that he is, it strikes me as strange that Oswalt is interested in shaming people, particularly younger generations, for how they consume pop culture. Sure, the internet is a tool of convenience but that doesn’t make the information consumed from it invalid. Watching a series or reading comics, even if they’re binged in a few sittings, still takes time. Just because you didn’t have to pick up your comic at a specialist shop or wait weeks for a new episode of your favourite show doesn’t change that.
And when you’ve finished, you’re just as informed about it as anyone else who’s seen it. From there, meaningful conversations, like the ones Oswalt no doubt had with his friends decades ago, can and most likely will form. Even if they don’t, who cares? Intelligent discussion is not a requirement to be a true fan of something — believe it or not, you are allowed to simply enjoy the thing. And pop culture being more accessible means more people can enjoy it, meaning barriers between groups of people are continually broken down. That can only ever be a good thing.
Simply, anyone can like anything, and outward appearances don’t really betray as much as we might think. Back in the 80s, no doubt, they did. But this is 2020, and I’m glad to say that times have changed. Just because the guy at the gym wearing a Star Wars vest is a total ‘dudebro’ doesn’t mean he, or his interests, aren’t valid. Just because the conventionally attractive girl at work doesn’t seem like the Dungeons & Dragons type doesn’t mean she isn’t. People do not fit into boxes, and we shouldn’t want them to.
Somewhere along the way, Oswalt seems to have forgotten (or simply ceases to care) that he is not the only person existing in the world today. There are the much older nerds of his generation, yes, but there are scores of nerds from every generation since, all enjoying geekdom just the way it is and who certainly wouldn’t thank you for dropping a bomb on the pop culture world. And sure, maybe that’s because that’s all they’ve ever known so of course they wouldn’t want it to change — just like Oswalt would go back to the 80s if he could. He enjoyed geekdom in his generation, but can’t seem to comprehend that other, younger nerds all enjoyed, and are enjoying, geekdom in their own generations too. There are no winners or losers.
Every nerd will have their own personal experience of growing up as one, and they’re all equally valid — yes, even Oswalt’s. Those experiences are uniquely ours, and we can own that. Nobody, however, has a monopoly on the concept of geekdom. Nobody owns it. It’s there for the taking. Whether you’ve been a nerd for 20 years or 20 minutes, whether you’ve seen every season of She-Ra: Princess of Power or just the reboot, whether you’ve read every Marvel comic or only seen the movies, geekdom’s gates are wide open to you. That has always been, and always will be, the point of geekdom.
So, carry on, geek culture. This particular nerd thinks you’re doing great.