Appropriating geek culture. Mine! Not yours!


Last Saturday night, I joined tens of thousands of people across the world in watching Critical Role – a live streamed game of Dungeons and Dragons played by some of my favorite voice actors. In this case, they streamed from Hillbert Circle Theater in Indianapolis during Gen Con, the largest tabletop gaming convention in North America.  Early reports suggest approximately 1000 people bought tickets to watch the live session at the Hillbert Circle Theater.

The accessibility and success of the Critical Role series has brought in hordes of new fans and players of Dungeons and Dragons. One potential consequence of this influx of new fans is very familiar to those who have been part of geek/nerd culture for the last few decades: the dreaded Gatekeepers.  With the increasing permeation of geek/nerd culture into mainstream culture, some older (and mostly male) members of the culture feel that it’s their job to police who can take part in their culture.  Those of us within the culture have heard all the stories:

  • Teenage girl walks into a comic book store and starts looking at comic books. Dude behind the counter asks her if she’s here with her boyfriend (implying that she’s a girl so she wouldn’t come in here herself).
  • Female cosplayer comes to a convention dressed as Wonder Woman. Older man proceeds to grill her on her knowledge of Wonder Woman trivia going back decades. If she doesn’t happen to know every single piece of esoteric lore, older man dismisses her as being a “fake geek girl.”
  • Girl playing a tabletop game with guys at a store mentions that she may step out for a bit to grab some food. One of the male players suggests that she could just ask the male store employee for a piece of his pizza. When she balks at his suggestion, he asks her “Are you easily offended?” She responds “no.” He then points out that she has boobs, so of course the store employee will give her a piece of pizza. Uncomfortable that she’s being reduced down to the characteristics of her body, rather than the contribution she’s making to a shared fun gaming experience, she never comes back. (I happened to witness this one personally.)

There are a couple of major underlying themes with gatekeeping. Firstly, it largely comes from males.  Sadly, sexism remains a problem even within geek/nerd culture.  Secondly, it involves a form of identity politics born out of shared feelings of oppression.  Older geeks/nerds know what it feels like to be ridiculed, bullied, and taken advantage of by their peers.  Those of us who grew up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s remember this very well.  Waxing philosophical about Star Trek, reading the latest X-Men comic during lunch, or gushing about the recent escapades of your 5th level Moon Elf Rogue were all the sorts of things that were guaranteed to get you laughed at, ostracized, and/or punched repeatedly in the face.  Best to be demure and quiet.  Best to stay off the other kids’ radar.  We kept that shit to ourselves for a reason.  And on the occasion when we could attend a convention with others within our culture, we reveled in the shared passion for the things we loved.

Fast forward to 2016 and geek/nerd culture is now mainstream culture. And everyone wants a piece.  (Just look at the movie box office results.)  Sometimes people show what I consider to be a genuine and loving appreciation of the source material (see: Deadpool, Gamers: Dorkness Rising, Critical Role).  For other media creators, I feel that their work is just an attempt to cash in on my culture – and it ultimately comes across as shallow and fake to me (see the film Knights of Badassdom or any of Uwe Boll’s films).  Sometimes I even suspect that these kinds of mediocre efforts do more harm than good, creating a stereotype of geeks/nerds that harms their ability to integrate into the broader culture.  But even though I feel this way, I nonetheless guard myself against being a Gatekeeper.  I don’t own geek/nerd culture.  No one does.  I have no right to tell someone how they should appreciate or understand or represent the culture to which I belong and love.  I’ll certainly vote with my wallet, and I’ll certainly say whether I like or dislike someone’s work.  And, given the opportunity, I’ll even try to talk with the creator of the thing I dislike to share with them how much more there is to experience and appreciate in my culture.  But that’s generally about as far as I feel I can go.

Gatekeeping is an age old human tendency that arises out of a sense of victimhood coupled with divisive identity politics. We see it in religions.  We see it in political parties.  We see it with various ethnicities or sports fans.  And today we even see it in western progressive leftists – a group that prizes inclusivity and acceptance.  There, the idea of “cultural appropriation” is taking hold.  Cultural appropriation is the notion that a person can adopt cultural elements from marginalized groups without understanding or acknowledging the value of those cultural elements to those groups.  A person is said to be “appropriating” a marginalized culture if he/she 1) is a member of or identifies with a dominant culture, and 2) fails to appropriately appreciate the culture.  So this is something that only a member of a dominant culture can do to an oppressed culture.  A sampling of examples include:

If you’re like me, you found yourself increasingly scratching your head at these the farther down the list you went.  It certainly starts off seemingly well.  Personally, I have a hard time differentiating the use of the “Redskins” name from other derogatory racial epithets, so it seems like a case of being pointlessly insulting.  And on the occasions that I’ve had to discuss the matter with others, I’ve argued that the team should change its name or adopt a representation of Native American culture that isn’t so pointlessly insulting.  Either that, or we should be just fine with a bunch of non-white soccer players naming their team the “Crackas,” “Gringos,” or “Hilbillies” while using a picture of a shirtless redneck drinking beer and racing a lawn mower.


Someone get that man a beer, stat!


Perpetuating stereotypes about any racial or ethnic group, good or bad, is something I agree we should avoid.  Instead of trying to reduce cultural groups down to stereotypes, we should be doing our best to accurately represent the tremendous variation within those groups.  And that’s a hard thing to do, particularly because no one is in a place to say that they understand the totality of any group.  Social Psychologists spend their lifetimes trying to do this, and nevertheless still are extremely reluctant to make specific generalizations.

But as we continue to move our way down the list, I’m seeing an increasing level of what looks like Gatekeeper behavior.  No one speaks for or owns all of Hinduism.  And yet the Universal Society of Hinduism, the group that leveled the initial cultural appropriation charge against Gomez, seems to think that it does.  This is a strange claim to make given that “Hinduism” is a tremendously varied group of religious beliefs.  To paraphrase what Professor William Harman, author and editor of Dealing with Deities, once told me, “When it comes to Hinduism or India, anything you can say about them is both true and not true – depending on where you are and who you talk to.”  And to say that Gomez should only wear the Bindi if she appreciates it to the satisfaction of certain Hindus smells strongly of Gatekeeping.

And I can’t help but think that the same principle applies to Halloween costumes, yoga, and foreign food.  No one owns the culture(s) to which they belong.  I can’t honestly tell someone that they should appreciate some element of nerd/geek culture to my satisfaction before they can make use of it.  And neither can you.  If someone is making an attempt to enjoy something or be passionate about something, who are we to tell them that they’re doing it wrong?

Instead, we should think of these kinds of situations as an opportunity to be more inclusive – not less.  You don’t like how someone represents or uses something you’re passionate about?  Engage with that person.  Share what you love about it and why.  Now you’re giving them a chance to look a bit deeper and appreciate your thing even more.

Prime example:  Remember when The Book of Mormon came out on Broadway?  The show poked all kinds of fun at Mormonism.  It certainly didn’t take the religion seriously at all.  But the Mormons didn’t get angry at the show’s creators and accuse them of appropriating something they didn’t appreciate the right way.  No, the Mormons took this as an opportunity to have a conversation.  They sent their missionaries to stand outside of showings of The Book of Mormon and offer to talk to theater goers after the show.  By all accounts, this strategy was an exemplary success – giving thousands of people the opportunity to learn more about Mormonism directly from people who were very familiar with it.

That’s how I’d like to see my fellow western progressive leftists approach this.  The next time we see someone borrowing from our culture in a way that we don’t like or we see as harmful, take it as an opportunity to talk with that person.  Give them an opportunity to expand their understanding of the thing you love.  Don’t shut down any possibility of discussion by accusing them of appropriating, or demanding an apology.  Talk to each other.  Give them the benefit of the doubt that you would hope would be given to you.  And do it while honestly admitting to yourself that you don’t own the culture(s) to which you belong.


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