I feel to simply report here, as tons of other sites have done, the fall of geek icon/SDCC staple/Talking Dead host Chris Hardwick would be redundant. Instead, I thought I would use Hardwick’s example to illustrate the commodification of “Geek Culture” over the last decade and how it was used to fuel a “Good Geek Guy”/”Bad Geek Guy” dichotomy.
First the “short version” of the Hardwick controversy. His former girlfriend, Chloe Dykstra, recently wrote an unlisted post in Medium detailing years of alleged emotional abuse—and sexual assault—by an unnamed geek icon who was quite obviously Chris Hardwick. Yikes, double yikes, triple-yikes.
Hardwick then gave a long response to Dykstra’s accusations that was not as bad as Kevin Spacey’s but very much on the Channel Awesome spectrum. He later was pulled (or pulled out of, it’s unclear) from hosting SDCC panels and AMC similarly pulled his Talking Dead show pending further review.
But this is not a post about Hardwick’s alleged guilt, not-guilt, partial-guilt, or whatever.
Instead, I would like to address something that I actually have **legit experience** to discuss. And that is how Hardwick and other actors/companies/entities used the “geek experience” as a cynical marketing tool.
I used to work for—indeed, edited—a website called MTVGeek. So that is “MTV” welded to the word “geek,” and it was largely what you would expect. This was the commodification of the geek lifestyle to present to a larger audience. And Hardwick actually hosted one of our SDCC “video events.” Because Hardwick was that iconic Good Geek Guy.
Now, this whole “geek chic” movement started around the late 2000s, and peaked at like 2012 or so. A big part of the movement was sparked by the runaway success of the Marvel Studios movies + The Dark Knight. Other factors included the successful “reboot”/continuation of the Doctor Who TV series featuring David Tennant, the start of Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, the Adventure Time era of Cartoon Network, and, towards the tail-end of all this, the announcement of new Star Wars films.
What was once considered more a “nerd niche” suddenly took over TV and cinema in a very big way. And so, you know, larger corporate entities sought a way to profit off it; that is them just doing their job, they would have been stupid not to attempt it.
Suddenly, there was a whole “strata” of actors and actresses popping up that were “geek friendly”—who, indeed, proudly announced they were geeks. Your Wil Wheatons, your Felicia Days, your Patton Oswalts, and, of course, your Chris Hardwicks (who had previously been best known for the MTV game show Singled Out with Jenny McCarthy).
You also had your “Geek Gurus” like Joss Whedon (who was later accused by his ex-wife of shitty behavior) and Dan Harmon (who later admitted to sexually harassing his writer Megan Ganz), and a plethora of “geek” movie critics and critic-consortiums like Devin Faraci (who was later accused of sexual assault), and Channel Awesome (who were later accused of a whole host of things, including treating some of their female contributors like shit).
And, of course, you had that iconic geek theatre chain/merchandising concern: the Alamo Drafthouse (who was later accused of “minimizing” sexual harassment and assault claims by their employees).
Now, a “side-effect” of the expanded reach of geek culture had been an increased number of females getting involved in various fandoms. In seeming response to this, you had groups like Gamergate “pushing back,” questioning the “geek legitimacy” of some of these women, and basically farting a lot in the public pool and being unpleasant.
This was seen by the official branded/licensed Geek Cognoscenti as an opportunity to band together for a good cause—the defense of these girls and women—while at the same time better defining the brand.
(Now, I have no doubt that much of this outpouring of support of women was sincere on the part of some these people. But the lack of internal oversight within the community in terms of their “bad players” IS a problem.)
Many of these Geek Icons—including, crucially, a number who would later be accused of sexual harassment/assault/emotional abuse of women—were some of the loudest voices supporting female fans and condemning “the bad guys.”
And slowly 2 basic types of comic/sci-fi/videogame/animation/name-your-poison fan began to emerge in the public consciousness: Good Geeks, and BAD Geeks. While a lot of this started in response to Gamergate, etc., this good/bad Geek Guy dichotomy started to encompass a larger pool of male fans.
Good Geeks like Chris Hardwick, Wil Wheaton, and so on were well-groomed and witty, for starters. They were not socially awkward. They were financially successful. They treated the Ladies with Respect. And they were not…”embarrassments.”
Bad Geeks, in contrast, were embarrassments. They were seen as liabilities to the Brand. The directive I was given at MTVGeek—well, my stated directive—was to move the Geek Brand away from anything that looked like “sad geeks” or “bad geeks.” Which included a certain “look,” anything that seemed socially awkward, and etc.
Think about how online conversations/remarks pushing back against Gamergate-type things start to stray into “you’re all overweight man-baby virgins living in your mom’s basement” territory. The “effect” or subtext is that not only are the online harassers such people…but that such people are also harassers.
Now, I’ve run into several male geeks about whom I can tick off every box in the “stereotypical awful neckbeard” checklist—they conform to the stereotype to a ridiculous extent. But the vast majority aren’t like that.
A larger issue, though, is the citation of weight, social awkwardness, financial, and sexual factors (e.g. being a virgin) in the overall conversation. And it just doesn’t get used against specific online harassers of females in the geek community. Rather, it starts to refer, in a patently negative way, to a larger pool of male fans. This larger pool becomes the “embarrassments” to the larger geek community that these Geek Icons present themselves as the “antidote” for.
And this becomes problematic not only for obvious reasons but because over the last year we’ve found out that a (creepily high) number of these high-profile Good Geeks were really not that good to females. And then you have to ask yourself: did their “cover” of being a Good Geek “protect” them longer from the ramifications of their own actions?
Now, there is another phenomenon here that I will expand on in a future post, and it’s the Hollywood “bait and switch” from using the “authentic” geek/nerd as the hero to replacing them with jock-figures (and the journey of Chris Pratt seems very emblematic here).
At any rate…fans of sci-fi, comics, videogames, animation, and so on are too diverse to give such an umbrella as “Geek Culture” to. You may be able to bring them together for an event like San Diego Comic-Con, and you can have very general-interest websites to address their shared interests. But we’re still talking about a very wide range of different folks with different ideologies, “takes,” likes, dislikes, and so on.
Maybe the only thing we can really try to make an effort to agree on is to not treat other people—co-workers, girlfriends, and fellow fans—like crap.