On being a different kind of geek

I am a geek. Not a very trendy sort of geek, I’m not terribly interested in SF or gaming or cosplay or programming or even films, although I certainly don’t mind them either, and my way of geeking is always, has always been, basically asocial. I enjoy exchanging ideas, experience and knowledge with other enthusiasts, of course, very much so, but the actual work happens at home, alone, at ten thirty in the evening, and much of the creative process happens on lonely subway rides or in bed, when I can’t sleep.

And so it is with my other interests. Perfume and fragrance? I hunt, sniff, enjoy and analyse mostly on my own. I have friends who share my interest, I have acquaintances through the perfumista communities, but it’s very much a personal, even private sort of enjoyment. The fragrance hobby exemplifies a cross between the sensual and the intellectual that most of my passions share, to some extent. Uniforms? My young man understands it, and we feed off and support one another’s passion, but he also keeps parts of his networks among other enthusiasts mostly to himself, and our specific interests overlap only partially. There is a certain amount of community there too, but, yeah, I wrote about the ups and downs of that a little while back, and in general I rarely feel seen or appreciated by other uniform enthusiasts, except as a walking, breathing fetish, an object to project wishes and fantasies on. Hardly ever as a fellow collector and enthusiast. The more flamboyant aspects of my sewing, my costume making if you will – the bit where I make shoe hats and faux uniforms and Carmen Miranda turbans and deer gloves – is part work and part play, exhilarating, immensely satisfying play, but it’s all my own. That’s why it is so free of the performance anxiety that attaches itself to most of my sewing, and that’s why it makes me so happy.

And so on.

The other common denominator is always that while I enjoy, learn and evolve from sharing my preoccupations, my passions and interests, it’s always optional. If I had to, I might as well do it on my own. I did, for a long time, I was a socially awkward child with few friends and no very close ones, so I had plenty of time to do my own stuff and got used to amusing myself. Right now I am considering retreating from the social circuit a bit and just do things on my own again, especially the uniform, militaria and military history communities, because at the moment they mostly just make me unhappy. And if I could do it just for myself before, I can do it just for myself again.

Also, as I am sure some of you will have noted by now, none of this fits very well within the confines of today’s geek culture. Apparently, somewhere along the road, the idea of the geek has shifted from being someone who puts an inordinate amount of time, effort and focus into a hobby or a narrowly defined field of interest, geekiness as a way of approaching things, rather than the thing itself. That is not how I mostly see geek culture defined now, not even the rising feminist movement within geek culture, ironically – it’s all about being interested in a pre-defined set of things that are considered geeky, rather than being deeply, geekily interested in something, anything. And who decided what is considered geeky? From where I stand, it looks like most of it was defined by the dudes. Comics, video games, table top games, programming, SF. Philately, tin soldiers and model railroading, if you’re being very old school about it; the kind of things that brainy, socially awkward boys with a bent towards collecting and making things are encouraged to do. Naturally, there are women who are as deeply interested in these things as some guys are interested in make-up; but traditionally, brainy, socially awkward girls are steered in other directions. I should know, I was one.

I know women who are deeply, absorbingly interested in those kinds of things, sure. But I also know women who have 300 eyeshadows, 50 shades of glitter, 30 foundations and hundreds of false eyelashes, or who make their own cosmetics after 200-year-old recipes, who are, obviously, deeply, obsessively interested in the transformative art of make-up, with encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject. I know women who know everything about WWII-era German nurse uniforms, organisations, rules and regulations. I know women who grow rare orchids and build their own terrarium for the purpose. I know women who run organisations and arrange events dedicated to long dead Swedish film actors. I know women who can recite long dead, thoroughly obscure humorists backwards and forwards. I know women who sew their entire Medieval or 18th century costumes by hand, because that’s the right way of doing it. Many of these women don’t define themselves as geeks or participate in geek culture, because geek culture frankly doesn’t give a shit about their passion, their skills and their knowledge. Because geek culture is about a specific set of traditionally male-oriented fields of interest, and by geek culture’s definitions, they are either not geeks, or just not visible or interesting as such – women as well as men and non-cis people, who are all very much present in all the hobbies above.

And does this matter to me, or any and all of those women, and everyone else within fields of interests that attract more women, and end up outside the male-dominated geek canon? Well, it’s a bit sad, perhaps. It’s sad that a useful word to describe the kind of person who collects things, or knowledge, or both, the kind of person who obsessively perfects hir skills and depth of understanding in their own, specific field of interest, has been co-opted and excludes a lot of people who do exactly that, but outside of normative geek culture. Perhaps we need a new word, perhaps we simply don’t need geek culture; apparently, we are doing our stuff with or without it, organising with or without it, and defining ourselves as, if not geeks, something akin to geeks – enthusiasts, aficionados, people with special skills, peculiar interests and unusual collections. But sharing knowledge, sharing enthusiasm is fun, after all, and rewarding. Geek culture might be missing out in dismissing the make-up aficionados, the perfume geeks, the historical costuming crowds and everyone else who is geeky outside of normative, mostly male-defined geekdom.