Lessons on Geek Anthropology: Traditional Fan Stereotypes

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Welcome to another chapter of lessons on Geek Anthropology. This time we’ll talk about how fans have been seen traditionally by the mainstream and academia. Let’s face it, traditional fan stereotypes have been especially negative and diminishing. Fans have been seen as brainless consumers, social misfits and even been accused as people unable to separate fantasy from reality. But, from where does this terrible image come from? Why has fandom been represented in such a negative light? Why does media still insists in characterizing fandom as a group that makes meaning of trivial subjects?

Let’s discover it!

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Let’s travel back in time till the 1940s. It was then when the critics started to passionately write about movie stars as marketing products that had few real cultural value. Their audiences, they said, were like religious zealots with few to no brains. While Hollywood stars were creating their path towards stardom mainstream media was qualifying the new cultural product as worthless or totally trivial. But why?

Traditionally culture has been divided in two main groups:

  • High Culture: that pertaining of the elite. Here we would find activities like the opera, ballet and fine arts.
  • Popular Culture: that pertaining of the masses. Here we can find movies, graffiti, comics, etc.

This division is a flexible one. Granted that some activities still are considered as pertaining to the high culture like the opera, however certain types of movies have been elevated to a high status, while others are relegated to a lower one.

So, according to this starting point, we see that critics considered fandom as the product of the masses, and thus, not as respectable as opera fans or ballet fans. Being a movie star fan was to be a member of an irrational mob!!

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Fandom is the challenge that brought technology and capitalism into play within the cultural arena, creating a forever changing and more compelling pop culture. Even if fandom has been considered as a marginal group till the mid-1990s, reality is that technology has opened the fannish Pandora’s box. We cannot ignore the direct relationship among technology, economy and fans. As capitalism advanced and new technologies were introduced, fandoms started to gain terrain worldwide. However, those pertaining on the top of the social pyramid, the elite who were used to egoboo themselves by enjoying exquisite high culture activities is the one controlling the media that represents what high culture and popular culture is. And in doing so, they keep on old stereotypes that were born back in the 1940s.

It is no surprising, then, that we keep on spreading negative stereotypes on fans. Let’s take the Big Bang Theory as an example. The characters of this sitcom are just stereotypes of what geeks/fans are in reality. Even if the situations are funny, reality is that their depiction is still far from what fanboys really are. As fans, they are portrayed as:

  • Emotionally and intellectually immature individuals. Howard Wolowitz lives with his mom till very old, and has a relationship with his wife Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz that remembers more and more a mother with a child.
  • They cultivate worthless knowledge. All male characters in the show tend to memorize all types of information about their favorite fandoms, like Star Trek, comics, etc. These cultural choices are still seen as low rated by the mainstream media.
  • They are social misfits. Granted that Sheldon Cooper might have a degree of autism, but as a whole, all male in the show are awkward and have problems in socializing with others.
  • They are brainless consumers. They tend to buy “toys for children” and tons of merchandise of their favorite shows. Especially Howard Wolowitz (using mainly his wife’s money on eBay), and Raj Koothrappali using his parents’ money to buy all type of techie devices.
  • They are either presented as feminized or desexualized creatures. Sheldon hates to be touched, and the rest of guys are presented with lots of behaviors that are usually attached to a female stereotype.

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Who is in control of deciding what is and not a normal cultural fannish pursuit is what dictates what is worthless or not. Media controls representation of fandom, and thus, establishes that, for example, sports are normal fannish interests for mainstream to pursue, while Star Wars as a fannish interest is a waste of time because it is deemed as a worthless pursuit.

What media wants is to normalize the audience, and in doing so it is creating a normal audience and a weird audience that enjoys fandoms. Doing that media is differentiating their ordinary audience (high culture) and othering their weird audience (pop culture). Then, there is no surprise when these two groups collide. Fortunately, things are changing little by little and nowadays, being a geek or to pertain to a fandom such as Supernatural is to be cool. Ordinary is becoming boring and the extraordinary that before was negative is becoming the standard to achieve.

What do you think? Do we still have a long road to walk before we can say that fans are not seen under a negative light?

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About pepi

A Geek Girl interested in Geek Anthropology, comic books, books, Superheroes and discovering all about pop culture.

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  • This post really made me think. Yes, The Big Bang Theory does exaggerate the geeks, nerds, and fandom freaks (which I’m one) out there. But in a way, it also made fandoms cool, being a geek chic, and being a nerd something to brag about. Which brings out a whole other issue of fake geeks and those that are just buying into the trend. I think we are still miles and years away from certain fans being seen under a negative light yet I think some fans are currently seen under a positive light. I guess it depends on the fandom.

    We have reality shows that now showcase geeks and nerds for who and what they are. SyFy even had that cosplay show that I really liked showcasing that whole arena and world. But at the end of the day-this still doesn’t mean that they aren’t made fun of but I think it is just one step closer to where we need to be. But let’s not exploit it either. Such an interesting post! So many ways to go with it!

    • Ehehehehe! The target of the post is to make you think 😉 Mission accomplished! I agree that depending on the fandom, fans will be better considered or not. And true that the problem with the fake geeks is huge atm. However, I chose the Big Bang Theory because stereotypes are exaggerated and those characterizing females are too mainstream. Geek girls on the show still don’t really geek out. An example, there’s a chapter in which Howard and Bernadette are moving into Howard’s home, and they’re sorting out the items to sell. There’s this huge Tardis that Howard wants but Bernadette doesn’t. So, a ping pong match is made to see if the Tardis will stay or go because Bernadette made her mind of not wanting it at home. The one that wins the Tardis is Amy, one of the friends helping them at the moment, who only wants it to lure Sheldon into her room. The pattern here is: women in the show aren’t really geek and are more worried about what society thinks are female hobbies. Or, are geek in a mild way, the geek stereotype that mainstream has on girls basically. We can see examples like this when they go out (all three girls together), or when they start reading some comics. Overall, the stereotypes here aren’t that great towards geek girls. In fact, they are poor in content, or so it’s what I feel.

      Reality shows are the best because they show you real people. The problem are shows that depict geeks or how geeks and nerds are. These shows hide inside a set of stereotypes that the media exploits. Some are better than others, and fortunatelly things are changing. However I do feel that there’s a long road to go ahead.

      When you read academic books on fandom, depending on the book, you might encounter really old-fashioned stereotypes that sadly are still used to explain what fandom and fans are. Since academic studies are highly valued and considered as pertaining to the high-culture, guess what the top or media are going to use: those points of view! Fortunately, more recent studies are sharing a better light on fandom (YAY!)

      BTW, I would have kept the Tardis home if I were Bernadette. LOL

      • Very True! The girls on the show just seem to go along with it but their dress and sometimes their actions do represent the geek attitude, etc. Fakers! 😉

        I don’t think I can ever watch that show the same way again! And I totally forgot about that episode. Too true my dear. All you said is just so true!

        • 😀 😀 Well, I love the Big Bang Theory, it’s fun! But I also see all the stereotypes going on while I watch it LOL You can enjoy the show as it is, but then if you take another look, you can explore it from another point of view. I think that this make it richer 😉 OOOooh now I want to talk more about it LOL

  • I do think fandoms have a long way to go to not be diminished Or seen in a negative light. Which I personally think is super sad. People are missing out on the unadulterated passion of just loving something so bad you need to know/have everything to do with it!! And enthusiasm for stuff just isn’t seen as ‘cool’ or ‘cultured’ which is everyone else’s loss as far as I’m concerned. All of my friends who I have introduced to fandom worlds have been pleasantly surprised we aren’t all raving loonies!! It’s really a shame this old stereotype is still used and mocked in main stream media making that the norm!!

    • Yes! It’s still challenging! But things are changing little by little. As you said, you introduced some friends into fandom worlds and they got surprised 😉 The more people know about what fandoms really are, the less accurate stereotypes will be, and finally they’ll be dismissed! I think it’s a question of exposure and time 😉 [We’ll win!!!]

  • I think being a nerd is fashionable right now. The Big Bang Theory does a lot of exaggeration of nerds. However, this bring out a lot of negatives as well as positives. It makes being a nerd cool and that brings out people that are fake nerds or only in it for the status. As nerds and gamers we have a long road to walk before we are ever removed from the negatives associated with enjoying a show and talking about it. Someday I believe we will reach sports level where it is okay to talk about in “normal” society. But for now we are taking baby steps instead of leaps in shifting perceptions.

    • Yeah, The Big Bang Theory isn’t good. The stereotypes on women are just outdated, and everything is just too exaggerated. But it’s good that Geekdom is getting attention and being more and more popular. Exposure is what will bring it to be seen as normal. It will take time, as you say, to shift all perceptions. But I believe we’re in a better position now than years ago.