Tag Archives: nerd culture

A Celebration

I’m a nerd. That kinda really goes without saying. Spend five minutes on my blog and you’ll see me talking about Firefly, giant robots, The Lord of The Rings, comic books, Jacques the Fatalist, and looking at video games through a surprisingly feminist lens. I really enjoy this stuff.

And over the years nerd culture has gotten more mainstream. Superhero shirts are in these days and Star Wars is cool again. It’s pretty neat to these things that used be kinda niche getting brought into the limelight, with the praise and big budgets that follow.

So nerdy stuff is in, and the cherry on the sundae is Steven Spielberg making a movie based on a very nerdy book: Ready Player One.

(Yep, this is it, the post on Ready Player One)

Preface: I first read the book a couple years ago and I really enjoyed it. There’s a chapter about getting a perfect score in Ms. Pac-Man which, as someone who makes a beeline for the Ms. Pac-Man cabinet in an arcade, was a lotta fun to see in a book; it spoke my language. Now, sure, author Ernest Cline has a tendency to cross the line from enthusing to over-explaining. And his handing of his female characters does leave a lot to be desired given that it’s 2018. And, yes, it borders on a self-insert fic with its nerdy fantasy fulfillment.

But with all its flaws, there are some great things in it. This is a book that sees value in the digital. Much of the book takes place in the OASIS, a virtual world everyone can log in to and play games and live life. Experiences in the OASIS were treated as being real and worthwhile, which as anyone who’s gone deep into a video game can go, is how it feels (I don’t remember mashing buttons when I look back on games, rather I beat that Thunderjaw in Horizon Zero Dawn, I assembled a crew to stop the Collectors in Mass Effect 2). It’s unusual to see a book take what’s essentially a video game so ‘seriously,’ in that the virtual stakes matter. Adding to that, here was a story that treated online friendships as being as important as real life ones. Unlike other depictions of nerdom (and really, a lotta stories) which tend to demean them, this one valorized these relationships. And as someone who’s made some of his closest friends online, it’s something I really liked about it.

So the movie adaptation gets announced and people start paying a lot more attention to the book and its flaws came under scrutiny. As well they should, because there’s no excuse for poorly written women and bad prose can always be better. But then there’s the criticism where Ready Player One is compared to The Big Bang Theory. And that’s, well, wrong.

The Big Bang Theory came about before nerd culture was hip and the central joke of the show was that those nerds were dorky. I watched — and liked — the show at first for its references but over time grew tired of it and, after a while, insulted. This was a show that was laughing at me and folks like me, not with me. Yes, they make deep cuts and go the distance to get some things in,  but ultimately it’s not a show that makes nerds good joke fodder, but not someone you’d like to be. Halo nights were seen as a dumb alternative to going out, not a really fun thing to do. Ready Player One does the opposite: It makes being the biggest nerd a hero-worthy quality. We don’t enjoy reading about Wade because his situation makes him the butt of a joke, we wanna be him.

Enter the movie. The adaptation improves on the book’s flaws; pacing is better, less expo-speak, the love interest Art3mis is both better and a little worse. And dear god it’s nerdy. A bunch of Master Chiefs from Halo rush into a battle where overhead flies in flipping Serenity and then a FRICKING GUNDAM jumps out of her hold to fight a certain giant Kaiju. But what’s so wonderful about Ready Player One — and Spielberg’s direction — is how much the movies loves its subject matter. The Spartans’ guns have the exact right sound effect when they fire (and when the needler gun shows up, same!); and the pose and movements of the Gundam feel lifted from the anime. The movie doesn’t just throw the images around, it wants to get them right. And it’s so freaking satisfying. It’s much more than just lip-service.

The nerds in Ready Player One — and that’s all the main characters except the villain (which is a statement in itself) — are cool. They’re the ones who can do stuff and, more importantly, they have fun. Art3mis teases Parzival with a chestbuster puppet, which, dorky as it is, feels real. It’s not funny because lol, Alien reference; it’s funny because it’s a gag for the characters too. The movie celebrates being a nerd.

The movie’s not all nerdy jokes, though. Yes, it’s got more nerdy references than you can shake a stick at (Hadouken! Adventure!), but it’s got a lot of heart and it’s really cute. The movie dispenses with a lot of the technicality from the book and zeroes in on a really fun, dare I say it: ’80s-esque adventure story. Sure, it’s got its problems, but at the end of the day I was so enchanted by it that I stopped caring. Without the references, it’d be fun enough, but with them all, and how they’re treated, it really feels like a celebration.

Plus, Aech’s homemade Iron Giant is referred to as a MOC, which is a term you usually only hear in the LEGO fandom. But now it’s there in a movie. And that’s really freaking cool.

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*general internet frustrations*

Y’know, I had plenty of ideas about what this blog post was gonna be about. The casting choices in Dr. Strange verses Kubo and The Two Strings (with some Uncharted 4 thrown in) or maybe one about how Silk, a comic about an Asian woman with Spider-Man powers, is not a story about race but still tells a uniquely Asian story.

But then internet people had to be spoiled and cruel to Chelsea Cain because she dared write a feminist comic, to the point where she decided she’d rather leave Twitter than deal with that noise.

So this blog post is about those idiots.

Here’s the quick and dirty recap: the last issue of writer Chelsea Cain’s (and artist Kate Niemczyk) wonderful Mockingbird series (which I love) features Mockingbird herself, Bobbi Morse, on its cover proudly sporting a t-shirt that reads “Ask Me About My Feminist Agenda.” It’s a great cover, adding a nice exclamation point to a book with an already decidedly feminist bent. Over the past week since the book’s release, however, The Internet hasn’t been too happy about it, and subsequently people on Twitter actively have been harassing her for it.

The sad truth is, this isn’t new, neither for comics nor nerd culture at large. Marvel as a whole gets a lot of crap for them “pushing social justice down readers’ throats” (that is, promoting diversity in their recent titles), and there was the horrible attacks on Leslie Jones for her role int he new Ghostbusters over the summer. Ultimately, it keeps coming down to the same thing: more people (especially women and minorities) want a more active, representative role in nerd culture and folks (especially straight white guys) don’t wanna share.

And look, I get it.

I really do.

I’m a lifelong nerd, well before it became cool to be one. I got picked on in real life for reading Star Wars books (and reading in general), being good at schoolwork, and spending my weekends playing video games. Online forums were my social sphere. It’s jarring to see a title and its hallmarks go from peripheral to mainstream. In recent years there’s been a steady merging of nerd culture into popular culture.

And I’ll admit, I bristle at it sometimes; I get protective of these stories: they’re mine! These newcomers just getting into Star Wars and superheroes didn’t have to deal with being weird; why do they get to choose to be called nerds? They’re your toys and you don’t like the neighbors coming over and making Darth Vader team up with the Power Rangers to fight the Decepticons. They’re our stories, we’ve claimed them as our own.

But they’re stories in contention are stories we like (hopefully) because they affected us deeply, why shouldn’t I want someone else to have that experience? Star Wars was for me a galaxy of possibility, where, y’know, things were great even if high school wasn’t. If making Rey and Finn the new face of the franchise opens the door for others to have that experience, I’m down. Mockingbird is a book where a woman can be the badass scientist-super-spy without being objectified (and instead the men are!). This summer’s Ghostbusters let women see themselves as the funny unhinged ghost hunters, like how the original let you do the same, my proverbial straight, white, male straw man.

But when every story used to cater to you, my straw man, it seems like you’re being alienated from the fandoms you sustained when more and more stories don’t. When Ms. Marvel is a Muslim, Pakistani immigrant and Iron Man is a black woman, it’s weird, as a longtime fan, to not see yourself reflected as the main character. But the point is, no one group has a monopoly on wanting to connect with stories — not everyone feeling ostracized is a straight white guy. As someone who is an immigrant, it’s exciting to see elements of my own story pop up in a comic book like Ms. Marvel. There has to be space for stories for everyone.

We need diversity. And I love Marvel for pushing it (and, y’know, reflecting the real world).

What we don’t need is this bullying bs that crops up over and over again. White guys aren’t the center of the world anymore; creators like Chelsea Cain can take a character who’s always been a supporting player and spin her into a hero in her own, feminist right. The stories, all of them, never belonged exclusively to any particular person or group of people, they’ve been ours this whole time. It’s time to share.

I wish I could end this post here.

But there’s the fact that Chelsea Cain is targeted because she’s a woman writing in the comics industry, an industry whose fans will protest and harass at any provocation. There’s no ignoring the repulsive sexism at work here (and, in Leslie Jones’ case, the racism too). It’s abhorrent and disgusting; things shouldn’t be this way. Harassing and attacking a woman just because she enters into a sphere usually dominated by straight white guys is childish. It’s stupid. It’s mean.

I don’t rant about feminism as much as I used to (haven’t you heard? This is the year of diversity at Essays, Not Rants!), but this is why feminism is important. It’s ‘cuz of bullshit like this.

When they announced the cover of Mockingbird #8 a few months ago, I quickly bought my own feminist agenda t-shirt (which I love). And my feminist agenda isn’t just putting more strong, well-written women in my stories and supporting others (and women) who do; it’s not putting up with this crap.

feministagenda

Chelsea Cain responded to this picture on Twitter. But I can’t show you that now because people are awful.

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Pixel Problem

I remember seeing Patrick Jean’s short film “Pixels” when it first hit the internet a few years ago. It’s a cool short film with a fun concept. It does what it does and is great for it. Then there was Freddie Wong’s “Old School vs New School” which took a similar idea and, though not quite as visually spectacular or narratively sound, was a great ode to nerd culture (Lara Croft from Tomb Raider gets in the lander from Lunar Lander!).

Then along comes this new movie Pixels, based on Patrick Jean’s eponymous short. It’s always exciting to see an independently made short get a feature based on it, especially one with such a relatively nerdy concept. But based on the trailers and such for the film, it’s, well, it’s looking more Big Bang Theory than Chuck.

And not just because of Adam Sandler.

Although there’s an outlandish concept to accept, (not Kevin James as president; an alien invasion taking the form of classic arcade games) but it serves its purpose well enough. That is, it allows the story to collect a team of former arcade super stars. So far, not so bad. There’s a great opportunity here to celebrate retro-gaming and gamers in general: gamers get to save the world! Nerds get to be the winners.

Only thing is, it’s looking like nerds are the punchline again. There’s no attempt to show the them as anything other than people to be laughed at. They could keep them weird, they could make them normal, or even take a page out of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End and have most of them have moved on in their life and now have to access something they thought they grew out of (which, for the heroes of Pixels, would also allow them to recapture the joys of youth). Instead, no, the nerds are social rejects who are thrust into the spotlight for us to enjoy how hilariously out of touch they are. Also, they’re saving the world.

Which, again, wouldn’t be so bad if it felt more like a love letter than, well, whatever this is. Having a fictionalized version of Pac-Man’s creator show up (by name) is awesome, but it’s quickly negated by his appearance being reduced to something of a racist caricature. Because a screaming Japanese man makes for an easy joke. Again, this is based on the trailer, but I have a great deal of respect for Toru Iwatani and it’s disappointing to see someone playing him only to get the short end of a stick.

Which isn’t even touching the film’s gender issues. Michelle Monaghan plays the all too familiar hot-woman-who-tags-along-with-the-nerds, albeit a Lieutenant Colonel. But in doing so the film falls back into the trap of the myth that women can’t be nerds. The film creates a clear gender dichotomy that a woman’s not a gamer and is instead the ‘normal’ character who keeps the others on leash. It’s very rare to see any form of media actually get through this (Chuck had its moments), but nonetheless it’s a bummer. Would it have been too much to rework her character into someone who avidly actually enjoyed games?

Look, Pixels isn’t out yet and I don’t really plan on seeing it (which makes this one of the few things I complain about without watching). But nerd culture is something I’m big on, seeing as it’s something that occupies a large chunk of my life. I want a movie like Pixels, but I want a movie better than it. One where being a nerd is cool and can be anyone, whether they’re socially apt, a man or a woman, or heck, whatever their race is. ‘cause c’mon, nerds are cool now.

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Nerd Culture, The Big Bang Theory, and Chuck

I stopped watching The Big Bang Theory a couple years ago. Part of the reason was because I was growing tired of it, other part was I simply couldn’t be bothered to keep up with it. For a class, though, I have to write a scene for The Big Bang Theory. This means watching episodes of the show to get a hold of the rhythm and voices of the show.

I started watching Big Bang during its second season and enjoyed it for what it was; a sitcom about a bunch of nerds. I got the references they threw around, had or wanted some of the memorabilia in their rooms, and remembered when that Rebellion poster in Leonard’s room was announced. This show speaks my language.

So did Chuck, another show I began watching around the same time, although it spoke it differently than Big Bang did. In Chuck the nerd shout outs came as frequently and as accurately as in Big Bang, but in this show they felt more a part of the plot. Maybe it’d be meta gags like an entire episode following the structure of Die Hard or guest stars quoting characters they’d played in Terminator or Firefly. Other times the show would work it into the story: Chuck and Bryce speaking Klingon so they won’t be understood or Casey telling Morgan there are only three Indiana Jones movies. Chuck used nerd culture to enhance the story, partially because the protagonist himself is a nerd, partially because it’s that sort of show.

The protagonists of Big Bang are caricatures more than characters; Sheldon the insufferable genius, Raj the funny foreigner, Penny the clueless blonde, and so on. The entire premise of the show stems from their nerdiness and inability to mesh with the ‘real’ world.

Chuck of the eponymous show, is a far more rounded character. Yes, we’re told he can quote Wrath of Khan word for word and he does employ the Wookie prisoner trick on a mission, but it’s all part of who he is rather than who he is.The show’s about a normal, nerdy guy who gets brought into a world of spies and intrigue, and sometimes it’s his nerdiness that saves the day, other times it can be his sheer gumption. Chuck’s identity goes beyond his nerdy traits.

This yields different treatments of the characters and their nerdiness. Take gaming as an example. Rock Band is played for laughs in Big Bang, whereas Chuck brokenheartedly playing Guitar Hero while drinking whiskey leads to one of Season 3’s most heartfelt moments. Halo Night in Big Bang is often used as a gag or an opportunity to show how unchanging Sheldon is, even if the other guys would rather be doing something else. Early in Chuck’s first season, Chuck and Morgan are discussing something while playing Halo. The former presents Halo as being a gag in and of itself, whereas Chuck presents it as just something guys do.

And there’s the central conceit of the nerdy humor in The Big Bang Theory: It’s funny because they’re nerds. The characters playing Dungeons and Dragons or reading comics is funny in and of itself, not because of anything they do with it.

Compare Community, which just aired their second Dungeons and Dragon episode. Once again it features the characters playing a relatively realistic game of D&D. It’s funny, not because they’re playing D&D, but because of what they bring to it. Hickey using his ex-cop interrogation techniques on a hobgoblin or Dean Pelton’s overcommitment to his character’s relationship with his father. It wasn’t funny because they were playing D&D, but what they did while playing it.

Now, Chuck ended in early 2012 and I stopped watching Big Bang shortly after. In the years since I started watching these shows nerd culture has, as a whole, become far more mainstream. The Avengers happened, superhero movies are topping the box office, suddenly it seems like everyone’s watching shows like Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Nerd culture and pop culture are overlapping more and more. Big Bang is steadily becoming out of touch with where things are headed. A recent episode has a gag about how girls don’t play D&D though I know more than a handful who play tabletop off the top of my head.

What I love about Chuck and Community is their willingness to embrace nerd culture for all that it is. For someone like me, someone who’s been neck-deep in nerd culture and general geekiness since before Iron Man became a household name, it’s great to see shows who love this and celebrate the fun of being a nerd. With regards to Big Bang, well, I’ll quote Penny Arcade: “In Big Bang being like me is the punchline.”

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