katharine makes observations: subcultures


I am not a nerd. I am not a feminist. I am not an atheist. I am not a writer. I am not a designer. I am not a hipster. I am not a solitary something that can be easily labeled. Even trying to nail down my official ethnicity would be tricky thanks to European-Indian sexual habits in the early settlings of the United States. I am a colourful tag cloud where no keyword is ever significantly larger than another.

We want people to be easily categorized so that we can connect with the “right” people and not waste time with everyone else. We search for ways to fit in and seek out kindred spirits to not feel so alone. The labels make it easy to find like-minded individuals (in theory).

Life would be much easier if, instead of career aptitude tests in junior high, schools issued lifestyle tests. Kids would take a multiple choice quiz and based on the results, they would receive little lifestyle kits and computer print outs of similar individuals in your school. Boom. There’s your personal life sorted for the foreseeable future. You know where you fit, you know who your people are, you know your cultural pretences. If something goes wrong, you simply retake the test and try to get placed in a different group. No more time wasted feeling things out by taking up band or joining a bunch of school clubs or crying in your room after school and reassuring yourself you’ll make your friends in college. Sure, you’ll be dealt an off-the-rack personality but you’ll fit in! Fitting in is half the battle of life.

If we had our interests and peer groups all set out for us, there’d be none of this discovery of new things or broadening of horizons. We’d know our friends, we’d know our enemies. My subculture can beat up your subculture. And a thousand micro-wars break out in major metropolises over microscopic differences between micro-subcultures. Subcultures allow us to exercise extreme prejudice. Our tolerances for the big differences have been raised, but we’re left with this primal urge to discriminate. Maybe it’s some sort of tribal protection reflex that we haven’t evolved out of yet. Subcultures offer a sense of belonging with a hint of exclusivity. My subculture is so exclusive that I’m the only active participant.

Just as the labelling helps us find our tribes, so does it allow for stereotyping and discriminating and bullying. Boy nerds certainly have a joystick up their somethings over the rise of girl nerds on the Internet. As if girl nerds are a new concept. Never in the history of human existence has woman dared to take interest in science-fiction or role-playing games or technology? And why can’t pretty girls be geeks? Does it matter if a girl becomes a nerd because she got into Doctor Who last year and that prompted her to watch and read more science-fiction? We discover things at our individual paces and sometimes popular things can serve as gateways into unexplored subcultures that often lead to the wormholes of obscurity. Do you really want to deny someone’s journey of discovery simply because they don’t fit your particular vision? (And does it really matter if her facial features are symmetrical and she likes to play with make-up?) Nerds used to be inclusive. They used to be excited to find kindred spirits to passionately discuss minutiae. They knew from personal experience what it was to be excluded from social circles and vowed to make an effort to cast people aside. Would you cast out the bee girl from your commune of bee people simply because she also enjoys tap dance and you feel that bee people are really more into freestyle jazz?

I understand why people who feel they are actual things get upset by people who pretend to be things, like hot models pretending to be nerds at comic book conventions. It devalues the label, the prestige, or the condition. People misuse all sorts of cultural identifiers to manipulate situations. People pretend to be deaf, gay, autistic, terminally ill, and interested in whichever subculture has the most promise of human companionship. Pretty girls calling themselves nerds simply because they’ve expressed moderate interest in an icon of nerd culture weakens the meaning of nerd. But “nerd”and “geek” have already been weakened as shorthand for anyone with an intense appreciation or considerable knowledge about a particular area, regardless of genre, gender, or girth.

What happened to “enthusiast” and “aficionado” or the simple “fan”? What happened to the excitement in sharing knowledge and books and music and whatnot with new people? Where are the subculture mentors that scoop up newbies and educate them on their newfound passions? Must we be all be hipster assholes casually sniffing “Yeah, I’ve been into that for a while. Good luck catching up to my level of intense love”? Are we competitive in our passive hobbies as well now?!

We have to make allowances for unexpected people doing unexpected things. We need to accept that grown women can watch Spiderman cartoons on Netflix while knitting.  The woman you’d label as a militant feminist probably makes lovely wedding cakes. The unfashionable nerd actually has a collection of skin care products that could put a Real Housewife to shame (if such a thing were possible). Getting lumped into one subculture denies the multifaceted dimensions of a single person. We don’t fit neatly into little boxes. Life isn’t that tidy. It’s possible to be a Trekkie surfer and a steampunk juggalo and a fashionista Whovian and a new age furry and a rockabilly bodybuilding cosplayer. Let people self-identify as they please. Or, as Leslie Love put it:

Screen shot 2013-01-23 at 11.31.56 PM
Cat videos are the new peace treaties.


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