JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Anthony Bourdain gains authenticity and credibility through his simulated vagabond-ness on The Travel Channel's No Reservations.

Christopher Nolan's "dark" interpretation of Batman and The Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight is influenced by the late-1980s Batman comics of Frank Miller and Alan Moore.

Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke depicts Batman and The Joker as a deeply bonded homosocial buddy pair.

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.

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.

In contrast to Rorschach, and in the pattern of many of the Generation X geeks who follow him, Dreiberg seeks out a girlfriend and privileges his relationship with her over his homosocial bonds. Dreiberg stays with Laurie Juspeczyk as Rorshach is outside being obliterated by Dr. Manhattan.

Dreiberg and Rorschach’s attempt to defeat Ozymandias in Watchmen is a fratriarchal geek-slacker revolt against the father. 

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 do Dreiberg and Rorschach. 

Randal and Dante, a paradigmatic Generation X slacker/geek buddy duo from Kevin Smith's 1994 independent film Clerks.

The Dude and Walter, a slacker/geek buddy pair from the immensely popular cult film The Big Lebowski.

Leonard and Sheldon, the geek protagonists of The Big Bang Theory. Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon, surprised critics by winning Best Lead Actor in a Comedy Series at the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards, beating out heavy hitting Emmy veterans like Tony Shalhoub, Larry David, Steve Carrell, and Alec Baldwin.

In The Invention of Lying, there is a missing character: the true geek female counterpart to Ricky Gervais's character, the one who is loved for her brains and not for her looks, the way Gervais is.  This missing character lays bare the misogyny of geek melodrama.

 

Generation X: tourists and vagabonds,
geeks and slackers

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” (Bauman 83).

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 (85-6).

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.[13] [open endnotes in new window] 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.” (53)

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

"WCI [placed] The Dark Knight Returns in different 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" (53).

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),[14] 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 (264). 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" (265). 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 (266). 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" (232). 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 (Serano 232). 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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