The Baxter and Romantic Comedies

Written and directed by Michael Showalter, The Baxter is a romantic comedy about romantic comedies, where Showalter plays CPA Elliot Sherman, a decent but boring man who is doomed to be a “Baxter.”

Baxter n. “A good but dull man who is not the right partner for the female lead of a romantic comedy.  The Baxter is left at the alter when the leading man makes the dramatic return to win over the leading lady.”

Elliot has been stuck as a Baxter several times over the course of his life, and spends the film trying to shake the Baxter curse. Showalter displays great familiarity with the genre conventions of the romantic comedy, employing several classic motifs with Elliot and company being more conscious of the narrative structure that they’re fitting into.

Elizabeth Banks plays Caroline Swan, Elliot’s latest romantic interest, whom he meets the same day as Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams), who is hired as his temporary secretary.  Justin Theroux rounds out the cast as Caroline’s old flame, Bradley Lake.

The plot is as predictable as any romantic comedy, and it’s this predictability which the film siezes on to set itself apart from the majority of the instances of the genre.  The humor in the film is often understated, doesn’t go as far into slapstick as films like The Wedding Crashers or There’s Something About Mary, instead falling more into the Indy aesthetic of small moments with awkward but charming people.

The moral of the story is that the reason the Baxters get left behind for the romantic leads is bravery, the bravery/bravado/foolishness to do those big stupid romantic things like standing outside her house with a boom box, flying to Portugal to propose to her at work, doing a rain dance to make it rain, ask her to dance during the last song of the night, etc.

The Baxter urges us to take a chance, to put ourselves out there, to make the big romantic gesture.  not necessarily because the gesture works on its own, but that spontenaity and the willingness to be vulnerable will be what puts you in the situations to fall in love and win someone’s heart.

But even a romantic comedy about romantic comedies is still fitting into a formula, as do other meta-romantic comedies like Hitch The Baxter says that we can change our archetype within the romantic comedy structure, we cannot escape it completely.  Sherman only gets his happy ending when he realizes that he’d been living the wrong role opposite the wrong leading lady — which is only enabled by having the ‘right’ leading lady in his life to be able to make that realization. Without the ‘meet cute,’ the story cannot get moving, the real romantic comedy cannot begin.

For the people still looking for the person who stars opposite them in the romantic comedy of their life, these stories serve as consolation.  They are a cultural promise that says “Do not despair.  The right person is out there, and when you meet the right person, whackiness may ensue but if you put yourself out there, the two of you will have your happily ever after.”

Is this ultimately a healthy message that these films send?  Stories can be many things to many people — and for some they are consolation, for others passing entertainment, but they feed into a larger cultural mythology about how romance and relationships work.

We’re seeing more women in the protagonist romantic lead role of the genre, as the person who has to make the romantic gesture and put themselves out to get hurt or get what they want.  Gender equity in whose responsibility it is to initiate a relationship goes part and parcel with third-wave feminism, but cultural forces haven’t just dropped away to allow this gender parity to take place — everyone has expectations influencing their decisions.  Lingering double-standards position a sexually-agent male as a ‘go-getter, a virile man,’ while a sexually-passive male is ‘effeminite.’  But on the other hand, a sexually-agent female is a ‘loose woman’ while a sexually-passive female is ‘in her place,’ is being ‘proper.’

It’s good to have meta-narratives critiquing the assumptions of narrative genres, but when you engage a genre, you are often stuck feeding into the expectations of that genre or reacting against them.  Finding the middle ground more akin to Jose Esteban Munoz’s notion of disidentification, where a critique can be made and self-definition be made manifest, that is much harder, but it’s the path that each of us live day by day, taking the narrative tropes and stories that make up the fabric of our cultural canon and working them in and out of our lives.

This application and analysis of narrative is a necessary part of being a functioning being in society, but like any crafts-person, the better the raw material we have to work with, the more effective tools we can make for understanding and confidently and successfully moving through life.  What if more romantic comedies had strong elements of how-to videos, teaching body language, conversational techniques, and real-life appropriate methods for putting yourself in situations where you are more likely to meet people with whom to make a connection?  All of this would of course have to be done under the aegis of entertainment so as to be more widely distributed and more appealing to people who want to find love but are for one or another reason unlikely to purchase or investigate ‘how to’ manuals for dating.  This brings us back to aesthetics and the reasons why people seek out romantic comedies.  Not everyone is looking for advice from them, but perhaps a few people could find it, given the right film/show/narrative to provide it.

Now I’m not saying that all romantic comedies should be didactic dating how-tos with a thin plot, but it’s important for creators to be aware of the cultural/psychological effect their narratives have on the way people experience and understand life.  The stories available to us inform what we imagine as the range of possibilities in what has (and therefore can) be done.  It’s the approach I try to take with my own work, and in my research, I plan to investigate that part of the creative process as well, setting aside ‘the author is dead’ in favor of ‘the author is very much alive’ — there’s a maxim in writing that says ‘write the novel that you want to read’ — we write for many reasons, and exorcising our demons or exploring psychological possibilties are among them.

Ethnography can go in a lot of directions, and one of the things I want to do with my career is to see how working with people at all levels and stages of the culture-making business in addition to audiences and those who take narratives and transform them to their own ends (fan-fiction, vidding, etc.) can lead to a greater overal understanding of the cultural process of making meaning and understanding the world.

Supernatural 4×05 “Monster Movie”

This week’s Supernatural was a loving homage to the classic Universal Studios monster movies, complete with a bombastic soundtrack in the place of Supernatural’s classic rock and a full black-and-white episode.

A full unpacking of the expert genre and medium emulation on the part of the episode “Monster Movie” would fill an entire journal-length essay, which I intend to write, but not here.

The episode “Monster Movie” was written by Ben The Tick and Angel‘s “Smile Time” Edlund, a devotee of classic horror and expert in loving parody. The entire episode had its medium and genre conventions filtered through the Universal Studios Monster Movie paradigm.

But the genre elements were explicitly diegetic (internal) as well as influencing the credits, the color (as in none), and even including an intermission card in the middle of the episode before a commerical break. Sam and Dead listen to and comment on the horror-movie ‘radio’ which gives the soundtrack.

Throughout the episode, Sam and Dean are confused, then bemused by the fact that the popular, media versions of classic monsters such as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Mummy pop up to commit murders across a Pennsylvania town during Oktoberfest (having the whole town dressed up Oktoberfest-style means that various locals can all be dressed up in a way that invokes the original Dracula, including Dean’s romantic interest of the week, a bartender aka “bar wench” named Jaime.

The reason for this genre emulation goes into the plot of the episode itself, rather than being just mapped on to an otherwise ‘normal’ Supernatural case. In a move consistent with Universal monster movies, the villain is made sympathetic in its monologue about being feared and reviled, then finding solace in the noble solitude of the “classic monsters” of film.

The shapeshifter villain is trapped in the genre conventions of the monsters he emulates, down to oh-so-slowly reaching for the switch that would electrocute Dean, explicitly casting our heroes and others into the Dracula story (Dean as Jonathan Harker, Sam as Abraham Van Helsing, with Dean’s romantic interest Jaime as Mina Murray).

In a genre-inverting turn, it is our damsel in distress who vanquishes the monster (with silver, which does not normally kill vampires in Supernatural‘s mythology) working both as an inversion of genre expectations as well as the expectation for Supernatural itself, which has been criticized for its treatment of women.

This level of genre emulation and careful parody happens from time to time in television and film, and “Monster Movie” provides more evidence that the best parodies come from a deep understanding and appreciation for the genre being parodied. One of the best examples of this mode of parody can be seen in the ABC Family show The Middleman, adapted from a graphic novel series into a tv superhero parody tour-de-force of Generation X/Y (mostly geek) cultural references.

Review: Pretty/Handsome

There are a lot of things that media can do.  It can inform, entertain, challenge, distract, instruct, condemn, rally, terrify, delight.

And of course, there are people in control of media distribution, company programming execs, network censors, etc.

Which means that sometimes, a show will come along to challenge our pre-conceptions and investigate difference, a show with the potential to display and normalize a valid but-often-misunderstood way of living and instead, it will get left out in the cold.

I can’t know for certain why Pretty/Handsome wasn’t picked up from its pilot (barring interviewing those who made the decision), but I can guess, and I can talk about what we could have had.  Because even if the show doesn’t run, we have the pilot, and it’s enough for a good bit of discussion.

Pretty/Handsome is a pilot created by Nip/Tuck director and writer Ryan Murphy for FX.  Hollywood pitch would be “American Beauty meets Transamerica.”  It stars Joseph Fiennes as Bob Fitzpayne, a gynecologist with an affluent family, a beautiful dedicated wife (played by Carrie Anne-Moss), and two sons–a child genius and a nearly-college-aged lacrosse star.

Bob is also a transsexual, and his family doesn’t know.  The main action of the show hinges on the growing tension of keeping this aspect of his life and personality secret from his family as he is faced with a challenge at work that brings issues of gender/sexual identity, community status and bigotry into the fore.  Bob is presented with a FTM transsexual who needs a gynocologist to treat him for an unknown issue.  The stir that having a male transsexual patient in a gynocology clinic in Small Town New England stands as the example of the social pressures and bigotry faced by trans people everyday.  Bob’s wife Elizabeth is un-satisfied with her marital sex life, but is too committed to Bob and her family to leave.  As she says in the pilot — “You can leave and be alone, or stay and be lonely” — she’s chosen the latter.  Genius son Oliver is too precocious for his own good, combining hyper-intelligence with youthful curiosity and libido to get himself into trouble, while older brother Patrick’s future is threatened by a teen pregnancy and being ‘dragged down’ by a dead-end girlfriend (dead-end according to everyone but Patrick, of course).

In just a pilot episode, the show clearly sets the stakes of the interpersonal and sociological drama, and they are high.  It’s intense the whole way through, jumping from dynamic to dynamic, but the leads are all compelling in their flaws, and in no place is Bob reduced to the stereotype of a transsexual.  Bob gets a taste of what it would be like to live and be seen as a woman, even for just little snippets of time, and it helps him re-connect with his wife (which of course makes for a larger turn as he reveals the fact that he would rather be a woman all the time) Bob is a person with a secret and enormous pressures to keep that secret, bound up with gender expectations, societal expectations, familial expectations, and more.  Given chance to unfold the story, we could have seen a maturely depicted narrative of a transsexual taking the steps towards unifying the person they see themselves as and the body they have/the way they are seen.

Instead, we got a pilot, and won’t get any more (unless the show gets picked up elsewhere, but that doesn’t seem likely as is).

I strongly believe we need shows like Pretty/Handsome.  Television as a delivery mechanism has a lot of space for genre and content, and I would hope that in-between Survivor and Hardball and Chuck and Monday Night Football, we’d have room in our televisual field for shows that tackle important social issues through the lens of fiction.  One of the important things media exposure does is normalize things.  It also provides validation through representation.  I don’t have much trouble feeling like a valid social being, because straight white males in their mid-twenties are frequently depicted on television and in film, especially in the West/1st world/Global North.  But you don’t have to go too far back to see an American TV/film world where white people were the only ones depicted with any kind of real range and breadth.  Even still, we have certain stereotypes that practically everyone are forced into.

Having a(nother) show (done well) that depicted a rounded individual who happened to be transsexual, working through the issues involved with being in that fringe group and dealing with very real social pressures could go quite a ways towards helping show transsexuals as people.  Just people, like you or me, with a particular set of challenges in life that they have to deal with.

But luckily, in the current age, pilots like this get leaked and scholars like me can talk about what could have been, and use opportunities to bring up the issues when they might not otherwise occur (in the field of American TV/film/new media).  Watching TV shows isn’t enough by itself, of course, but it can sometimes open a door for someone to re-examine their pre-concieved notions and provide room for further consideration and dialogue.

T:SCC Samson and Delilah — A Vid By Any Other Name

The opening sequence of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles‘ season 2 premiere “Samson and Delilah” is tightly-edited, and seems like it was structured beat-by-beat off of the soundtrack used for the scene, “Samson and Delilah,” as sung by Shirley Manson, former lead singer of the rock group “Garbage” who also happens to be playing a new recurring character in the series.

Watch here:

As I watched the opening, I couldn’t help but read the sequence as if it were a fan-vid, as in ‘vidding.’  My friend/colleague Alexis Lothian, author and maintainer of Queer Geek Theory (http://queergeektheory.wordpress.com/) has been working on/with vidding of late, which almost certainly helped inform my viewing.  Vidding has a great deal of transformative potential, in that juxtaposing specifically-edited scenes from one or more show/film to a soundtrack can easily and affectively change the original scenes and create/unlock new or underprivilidged readings.  Vidding is an argument, constructed and polished as any other, an argument using audio-visual elemets edited together in the proud tradition of a Henry Jenkins-style Textual Poaching.

More than just in that opening sequence, the whole episode seems to be a riff on the title/content of the song, casting John Connor as Samson and Cameron as Delilah.  It’s not terribly surprising to have this tightly-coded opening, considering the potent use of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” at the end of last season to support the inexorable menace of the Terminators.

Most of the time, a TV/film score is a supplement, a way of re-inforcing or undercutting the tone of a scene.  It’s more rare to have a scene where the music takes the foreground, and it seems as if the visual and diegetic-audio component is supplemental to the score.  But sometimes the music tells the story, sets the tone.  It remins me of the sequential art form, where the narrative relies at different times more on the text or more on the art.  Using the song “Samson and Delilah” allowed for the show to immediately set the stakes for the second season and ride the driving emotion of the song to open the episode and the season with a great deal of momentum, which then is carried forward by the relentless pace of the chase-and-hide-and-chase episode.  “Samson and Delilah” felt more like a Terminator film than most any of the other episodes thusfar, emphasizing the lack of fatigue or remorse on the part of the Terminators.

The Samson/Delilah dynamic is the latest layer of what is a growing theme in the show, a meditation on faith and the role of a messiah.  John Connor is the Promised Hero who is destined to save humanity, with his own personal angel he himself sent back to ensure that he could fulfil his destiny.  Agent Ellison (named for Harlan Ellison, whose story “Demon With a Glass Hand” was an inspiration for the original Terminator) is a man of faith, who comes to view the Terminators as agents of the Adversary, falling into Dr. Silberman’s paradigm, viewing the coming Judgement Day as being that of Revelation (the title of that episode “The Demon Hand” was another nod to the Ellison story.  The Terminator series has always had those strands running through it, but the series has the advantage of being able to develop these themes over time, subtly and incrementally.  In addition, with Cameron inquiring about the ressurection, we see another thread in the tapestry of that theme, as her character develops both along the Delilah angle, a continuing possible threat, but since she was just ressurected, her sins washed away, she is re-christened as a savior figure herself as John’s guardian angel.

The show has clearly found its stride, and if the rest of the season to follow the cues of the premiere, I think we’ll be in for a good year for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Preliminary Notes on the Aesthetic of Awesomeness

Ever since my seminar on aesthetics, I’ve been thinking about awesomeness.  Awesomeness as its own aesthetic, a distinct artistic urge/dao that is often slavishly followed, draws huge attention, and yet hasn’t really been examined in a way that makes me happy — or if it has, I haven’t seen it.

I’ve been talking about how I’m going to write an article called “On the Aesthetic of Awesomeness” — so here are some notes for me to start with, as building blocks.  This is intended to be a work in progress, a making public of my academic process for the purposes of discussion and self-reflection.  I’m aware in this discussion of the inherent silliness of talking seriously about awesomeness, but I think there are important points not being explored here.

What do I mean by Awesomeness?

Awesomeness is an aesthetic agenda associated what we call in the speculative fiction field the ‘Sense of Wonder’ — The sense of wonder is revelatory, the amazement that comes from being confronted with something new and striking.  I’d say that the Sense of Wonder is one of the modes of the aesthetic of awesomeness.

Other notable moves/moments that would count as Awesome:

  • The lobby scene in The Matrix
  • Your first glimpse of Iron Man in the 2008 Iron Man.
  • Watching Optimus Prime transform in Transformers.

And more generally:

  • Stuff Blowing Up Real Good (TM).
  • Breathtaking visuals (esp. special effects — practical or digital).  The Pod race in Star Wars Episode I, the battle of Pelennor Fields in the film ofThe Return of the King — this is where the Sense of Wonder comes up.

Awesomeness is about potency, strength, competence in action, it’s the stuff that makes you go ‘whoah’ in varying degrees of Keanu Reeves-itude.

Awesomeness vs. ‘literary merit’

Just because something has what people argue over as literary/artistic merit doesn’t mean it’s awesome.  Awesomeness has been ignored in aesthetic considerations (and no, it’s not the sublime, though the original meaning of the word awesome would suggest as much.)

‘Awesome’ has experienced a cultural linguistic renaissance in the last few years, with notable champions in popular culture such as How I Met Your Mother, “Captain Awesome” in Chuck, and others.

Often times, films will get horrible reviews in terms of their narrative, thematic, dramatic chops, but are still well-received/popular.  Why does this happen?  There are a number of explanations, and Awesomeness is one of them.

Artistic paragons of awesomeness who have been critiqued for their lack of artistic merit could include but not be limited to Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon, The Rock), Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Carribean, Top Gun, Black Hawk Down), The Wachowski siblings (The Matrix trilogy, the new Speed Racer), and George Lucas (Star Wars, et al.)  These creators make immensely commercially successful works that are often panned by cultural critics/gatekeepers such as reviewers, literary critics, etc.  Such films are called ‘childish/immature’ — as their primary aesthetic (awesomeness) doesn’t fit into established and accepted artistic parameters.

Here’s another thing — for most summer blockbusters, the primary intent of the film is to impress the audience, to take their breath away, make them clap and shout.  Summer Blockbusters play a simple but potent game of pulling on heartstrings and pushing buttons.  Really, the primary aesthetic agenda of the Summer Blockbuster genre is Awesomeness.

This is not to say that a narrative cannot be both awesome and dramatically compelling, beautiful, grotesque, or any other aesthetic.  Mostly I just want to identify a chunk of the aesthetic field we’ve been ignoring/spurning.

Thoughts for further investigation

  • A more specific articulation of the sense of experiencing awesomeness
  • The overlap between awesomeness and other aesthetics
  • The negotiation and appreciation of awesomeness in fan communities.

Mediating the 21st Century Geek

In case you haven’t noticed, geeks are big.  Geek culture is big, geek subculture is ascendant, being mainstreamed and both ideologically and commercially incorporated by said mainstream. This trend is not entirely positive or negative, but is complicated, like most things.

For this post, I’m going to be looking at two new TV shows that debuted during the WGA-strike-shortened 2007-2008 broadcast year.  Those shows are NBC’s Chuck and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.  Both of these shows star characters who I call geeks, though in the shows, they are often known as nerds rather than/in addition to geeks.

First, let’s talk about geeks vs. nerds.  I’ve been reading Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People, which is a cultural studies history of the nerd.  For me, Geek and Nerd are sometimes synonymous terms which refer to substantially overlapping subculture groups.

Here’s the important overlap — Geeks and nerds are conceived of as intellectually inclined, socially mal-adjusted individuals with intense commitment to non-majoritarian hobbies.  Geeks are more associated with fandoms, computers, and media, wheras nerds are more associated with academia and scholarship.

Geeks were the kids who played Magic: the Gathering during lunch.  Nerds were the ones with their noses who spent afternoons at Science Olympiad/Academic Decathalon.  In high school, I was both a geek and a nerd, since I did all of the above.  Geek has become the more dominant term, and is also the one with the greater cultural cache at the moment, given things like Best Buy’s Geek Squad, The CW’s Beauty and the Geek, and the like.

We’ll be bouncing back and forth between nerdiness and geekiness pretty quick here, which is why I wanted to define terms before diving in.

Chuck — Meet the Lovable Geek

In Chuck, the titular character is Charles Bartowski, the head nerd of the ‘Nerd Herd’ at a ‘Buy More’ — TV-world versions of the Geek Squad from Best Buy.  Chuck was an engineering major at Stanford, but was expelled from the school due to the machinations of his former best-friend, Bryce Larkin (who also stole Chuck’s girlfriend away from him).  Five years after his expulsion, we meet Chuck in his aimless path working in the Nerd Herd and hanging out with his even-geekier friend Morgan Grimes.

Chuck is depicted in an archetypal role I’ll call the Lovable Geek.  Chuck is handsome in a goofy way (because everyone important on TV is pretty), kind and intelligent, but awkward around women who aren’t either related or under-age.  For Chuck, being a geek is about being smart and technically adept and interested in things like Batman and Dune and Call of Duty 4.  Morgan serves as a counter-point to Chuck, the Uber-Geek to Chuck’s Lovable Geek.  In Morgan, we see what Chuck could/would be if he had less social acumen.  Chuck is our protagonist geek because he is more accessible, less esoteric in his personality and interests.

The Big Bang Theory — Four Flavors of Geek

In The Big Bang Theory (shortened as TBBT) we find a similar configuration, but with more variants of the geek archetype.  The characters in TBBT are more firmly nerds than Chuck and Morgan in Chuck, but they are also most certainly geeks (they all dress up as the Flash for a halloween party, they play Talisman and Halo, they geek out about acquiring the original time machine prop from the 1960 film The Time Machine.  The four geek/nerds in TBBT are all faculty at and/or employed by Caltech.

The Lovable Geek lead in TBBT is physicist Leonard Hofstadder, PhD.  Leonard is the most socially adept of the four, and frequently acts as the group’s interpreter to the rest of the world (most frequently the neighbor Penny, who Leonard has a crush on).  Leonard and his roommate/friend Sheldon Cooper, PhD are the host for the geeky/nerdy antics of their circle of friends, including Howard Walowitz, an engineer and Rajesh Koothrappali, an astrophysicist.

Leonard’s romantic interest is Penny, a classically pretty bleach-blonde from the midwest who moves in next door to the geek/nerds.  Penny works as a waitress while trying to break in to show business, and is completely ‘Normal.’  She’s Everywoman, frequently the straight woman to the geek’s jokes.

Sheldon Cooper is the Uber-Geek for the show, manifested more properly perhas as the Uber-Nerd.  Sheldon has the highest IQ of the quartet of geniuses, and the complete social incompetance to go with it.  Sheldon is an instance of the double-edge of genius that makes it harder to communicate effectively with the rest of the world.  Sheldon was a child genius, and looks down his nose at those less intellectually capable than he.  Sheldon is the standoffish insular and hermitish geek/nerd, who pulls Leonard away from the rest of the world and more into the realm of calculations and formula and speculation.

Howard Walowitz, the engineer, is the Annoyingly Extraverted Geek.  Howard has no problem speaking to women, in fact he does so all the time, and thinks he’s awesome at it.  However, his confidence comes off as arrogance and the obvious attempts lack any natural charm.  Howard knows about charm and how it’s supposed to work, but is incapable of implementing the techniques he sees from others.

Rajesh Koothrappali is an Indian astrophysicist and the show’s Painfully Introverted Geek.  Rajesh is incapable of speaking to women without either alcohol or experimental drugs.  He represents the ethnic geek, those geeks from recently-developing countries like India, China, South Korea, etc. who are lumped in with the geek world.

Nerds and Race

At this point, I’ll interject with some of Nugent’s theory.  Nugent constructs a continum of racism with regards to nerds/jocks and ethnic stereotypes.  Nugent identifies a Animal<->Machine spectrum, where peoples of different types are conceived as being more animal-like or more machine-like.  Caucasians get to be the ‘norm’ in the middle (yay racism!) with Jocks on the animal side of average and nerds on the machine side.  Africans go further towards the ‘animal’ side due to racist conceptions of Africans and African-Americans as being more animalistic, associated with physical endeavors, etc.  Asians are opposite Africans, placed on the scale towards the Machine side, due to racist conceptions of Asians as being less feeling, more mechanistic and associated with the technical.

Looking at the Flavors

In TBBT, Leonard and Sheldon are conceived as one pair of geek types: Leonard is capable of walking in the ‘average’ world, though his intelligence and geekiness sets him apart.  Sheldon is mostly incapable of walking in the ‘average’ world, cleaving to the world of his hobbies and profession.  Howard tries to court women but is unsuccessful because his confidence is untempered by empathic understanding/skill, while Raj is a ‘great listener’ (he once gets picked up by a girl at a party without ever talking — in bed, she praises his skills as a listener.) who has a mental/emotional block to actually conversing with women.

TBBT portrays four flavors of geek, and it’s no surprise who our romantic male lead is:  Leonard makes efforts to reach out beyond the geek community in initially attempting to pursue Penny romantically, then inviting her into their social group when his initial efforts fail (and by fail, I mean fail to happen at all).  Leonard is the geek interpreter, the middle ground between Penny’s Everywoman and Sheldon’s Uber-Geek.  Normality and Geekdom seem to be portrayed as a continuum like Nugent’s Animal<->Machine spectrum.  As Leonard reaches out towards Penny, his fellow geeks see him moving away from his geek roots.  The show seems to be trying to work out the possibility of a geek dating a non-geek, reaching across the subcultural divide without losing your identity.

On the other hand, Chuck’s interest in Sarah Walker, the CIA agent assigned to protect him, is also a question of identity, but one determined by the Spy Show genre association of Chuck.  Sarah’s cover is as Chuck’s girlfriend, complicated by the fact that Chuck is interested in Sarah and suffers through the fake relationship that he wishes was real.  This shows an uncomfortableness with the world of fantasy and make-believe–of course, for Chuck’s life, the make-pretend life is the boring cover and the real life is the dangerous adventure of a James Bond film directed by Judd Apatow.  Chuck has to keep his spy identity secret from those he cares most about, his sister and his best friend.  The secret makes him closer to Sarah, and if he were to leave the spy business, it’d mean leaving her as well.

Chuck, like TBBT tells a story of a geek coming out of his shell and becoming more confident.  His sister hopes that Sarah will help Chuck regain his confidence and gain some momentum in life.  The spy experience moves Chuck from the role of geek slacker and moving towards the geek-chic Analyst/Field Agent.  It’s a kind of geek fantasy — we have to pretend we’re slackers to protect those we love because we’re actually so cool that it’s dangerous, our technical/cultural knowledge is actually highly important to the world.

California — The Land of Geeks

Another notable similarity between Chuck and The Big Bang Theory is that both shows take place in Southern California.  This makes sense, as California hosts many of the centers of geekdom — San Diego ComicCon, Silicon Valley, Hollywood.  Geeks are a predominatly urban and suburban subculture, thriving in places with a preponderance of hobby stores, technological infrastructure, and media entertainment.  A number of other big cities are also geek-tacular, like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Austin, etc.

Geeks and Cybercultural Technophobia

Why are more geeks being depicted in leading roles in mainstream TV/film?  Here’s a possible reason that you might not have thought of.  Geeks are the stand-in for the technocratic citizen of the possible future, a future where everyone is plugged-in, technically adept without trying, communicates predominantly through non-embodied media.   Ambivalence about geeks is ambivalence about technology.  Returning to Nugent’s Animal<->Machine continuum, geeks are cyborgs–with Bluetooth phones and PDA exo-cortexes, we’re becoming increasingly disentanglable from our technology, and not everyone is happy about this.  Sometimes you want to turn off your phone, put up an away message on G-mail and just go run around in the park.

Leonard is negotiating between the romantic subsection of socialization, the scary embodied world of emotions aka ‘real life’ and the insular world of technology, science, and the mind.  It’s a false Cartesian dualism, but it’s one that continues to be propagated and used as argument against cyberculture.  There’s the fear that if we rely too much on machines, become too technically adept and cybercultural that we’ll lose our humanity, and so we use geeks as the testing grounds for those possible futures, trying to see how we can use the power of technology while remaining human.  It’s cyborg identity theory with geeks as the metaphorical (and sometimes literal–I mean, Chuck has a super-computer in his brain — even though it’s all still a flesh-and-blood brain) cyborgs for society to work out its issues.  And Leonard/Sheldon/Howard/Rajesh are test cases for the different ways that becoming technocrats/scientifically adept might affect our social/emotional capabilities.

Of course, I fall on the pro-geek side, but it’s interesting to see Geekdom not only being commoditized, but also used as a testing ground for us to try to resolve our ambivalent relationship with technological development and the growing role of mediated cyberculture.

Hello world

Welcome to 21st Century Geeks, an academic blog focusing on geek cultures and media convergence.

Here are the stakes:

We are entering and/or are already in a golden age of geek culture. Geek movies continually rock the box offices (Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, Transformers, Iron Man), video games have become an immensely profitable entertainment medium embraced by the mainstream, and techno-culture is in.

Fan culture has grown and diversified, and convergence media allows for consumers to become cultural producers with wide distribution of their works, with intensely complex and thought-out works that bring into question the validity of IP and cultural ownership which is very visibly bringing copyright and IP into question. Harry Potter slash-fiction may prove to be one of the primary factors that leads to the downfall of copyright and IP laws as we know them. People who grew up in slash-writing communities move into college and go to law school and become IP lawyers years down the road. Each generation re-works the social order in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to fit their generational worldview/zeitgeist.

When the Napster Generation/Gen X/Y/Insert Catchy Generational Label Here hits the age of being able to dictate policy on these matters, we very may well have a sea change on our hands. Music distribution is already changing, especially as stockholders check the numbers and move to handing over the reins to younger execs more in tune with Web 2.0 and other 21st century marketing/business models, where attention is the commodity to be cultivated by a company. In a world where you can watch the whole first season of the smash hit Heroes online and watch one add five times instead of ten adds five times, the advertising paradigm has to change. Combine that with the rise of DVD-sales and direct-to-DVD cultural properties and we’re already in a transition.

What does that have to do with geekdom, though? Well, if we look at things like the short-lived show Firefly which was re-lit for a feature film because of intense fan engagement and DVD sales, or the direct-to-DVD Hellboy and superhero films, we’re seeing that geek media is in the foreground of these transitions in marketing strategy and cultural production. Where geeks go, the technology follows. Or where the tech goes, the geeks follow. It’s a perpetuating cycle of technological advancement and commoditization of cultural production.

As geekdom continues its ascent and moves towards the mainstream, it’s also manifesting more and more distinct subcultural markers. T-Shirts seem to be the primary display of geek style, with obscure video-game references, coding jokes, and markers of affiliation with comic characters providing the canvas for geeks to display their subcultural affiliation. Recognizing and obscure t-shirt is one of the secret handshakes of geekdom. It’s one thing to compliment someone on a Greatest American Hero t-shirt, it’s another thing to identify the Blue Sun logo and greet a fellow Browncoat and reminisce over shared love of Firefly. Geek culture is being marketed top-down and bottom up, with Geek Magazine, Hot Topic’s t-shirt lines, and in situations like online dating, with www.geek2geek.com and www.sweetongeeks.com – where the early adopters of the internet, dissatisfied with the mainstream inclination of most online dating sites, have moved to create geek-friendly dating sites, where the ability to have an intense discussion about time-travel physics or partition a hard drive are the turn-ons, and Mac vs. Pc (with/without Linux) or X-Box 360 vs. PS3 vs. Nintendo Wii are sorting questions for potential partners.

Geek culture has long been decentralized, fractured but interconnected, with cultural properties bringing their fan bases across media, across subcultures. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer follow the tv show, then pick up the collectible card game and move into another geek subculture, then stop by the comic store every other week to buy the comics. Geeks move between the member subcultures of what I call the ‘geek subcultural complex’ – basically a bunch of overlapping subcultural groups that draw from similar sources and have developed interconnections while remaining sufficiently autonomous such that one can be a geek without necessarily participating in any one of the groups, as long as they participate in others.

A superhero comic reader who plays MMOs need not be a programmer or play Dungeons and Dragons to be a geek, but their D&D playing comrades are no less geeks for eschewing MMOs and not being able to tell Captain Marvel from Captain Mar-Vell. There are many ways to be a geek, and they feed into and out of one another. Convergence culture and transmedia storytelling (ala Henry Jenkins) means that these connections are being strengthened as they are commoditized, with IP crossing media with properties like the Matrix series, which had films, anime, video games (console and massive online), comic books, and more. A fan of a world/universe will follow that cultural property across platforms and into various groups, under the rubric of their own fandom, and thus, the groups cross-pollinate. Follow the money. Or, follow the fandoms. It’s another cycle, a feedback loop.

There is lots of geek culture out there. And lots of people talking about geeks. What I hope to facilitate with this community is a place for scholars of geek culture to meet, collaborate, and draw together disparate threads of geek studies as the subculture grows and changes in the age of digital convergence and massive wars over IP/DRM/revolutions in distribution and commercialization.