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.

7 thoughts on “On being a different kind of geek

  1. Being a make up aficionado, a perfume geek and an historical costuming nut I can relate to many aspects of this post. A couple of years ago there was a wonderful Swedish forum for make up/perfume geeks and a ditto one for historical costuming. Sadly, they both died. Since then most of my hobbies are worked alone. I go to events and I share mine and other peoples work online (blogs and facebook are awesome for this) but sometimes I miss the real human interaction. I’m partly to blame since I choose to live in the countryside but I can’t help to long for “syjuntor”(sewing meet ups), perfume dates, thrift store hunting and make up hunts together with other people.

    I think the reason that I once got into my passions is that fact that I was a artistic loner growing up. It was not chosen, I didn’t fit in with the pack and when my futile tries to fit in didn’t work I said “screw it” and went my own way , finding pleasing things to do that didn’t require company. Nowadays I have a few trusted friends and they all have similar passions to me, so I guess loners finally find each other instead of getting assimilated in to the crowd. I’m also working on finding more people that share my interests.

    When it comes to the term geek, geekdom and so forth,it’s tricky. I don’t like to feel what I choose to do with my time is less worth (hence my hate for the Swedish term “pyssel”) than traditionally male activities. I really don’t understand why the hunt for knowledge, the perfecting of skill, the pursuit of the perfect object should be less worth just because we hunt for different thing than the male crowd?

    One other thing I react to is that men that do venture into traditionally female areas of geekdom often get an elevated status (look at Kaffe Fassett, the knitter for example. He is skilled but if he had been a female would his work achieved the same status?). But a female that head into traditionally male areas often get sexualised, people often assume that she’s some ones sister/friend/girlfriend and that she probably don’t have any knowledge or skill.
    I’m not saying that we should not support men that venture into “our” arenas I just wished everyone could support anyone that arrives to their turf regardless of sex and what that turf is.

    /L

    1. Yup, much to relate to in your story for me as well. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for your Konstfack applications, and you will be spending more time in Stockholm if you get in, which will hopefully mean more syjuntor!

  2. När jag läser din intressanta text känns som om det är gemenskapen och etiketten på aktiviteten som gör den legitim och acceptabel.

    Gå med i scouterna; var min mammas paroll.

    Mina intressen var leken; berättelserna och bilderna som skapades. Det var ju i n g e n t i n g enligt min omgivning.
    Skulle jag benämnt det som teater, skrivarkurs eller akvarellmåleri och gått på av någon annan styrd aktivitet så skulle det varit någonting. Man blir liksom till psykologiskt som människa först när andra värderar och ser och bedömer och bekräftar aktiviteten och ens identitet,

    Funderar vidare. Pojkar/män umgås ju oftast i grupper. Kanske stärker det dem mer och den manliga gemenskapen är kanske ett delsvar på hur patriarkatet uppkommit (jakt och förvar i mansgrupper) De flesta flickor och kvinnor trivs att umgås i duader och triader, kanske skulle vår styrka öka genom att ses genom flera par ögon och inte göra oss lika beroende och sårbara genom bästisar?

    Att ha en samling på 140 nagellack ses som ytligt och patetiskt medan en killes samling på 140 tennsoldater är lite charmigt och gulligt.
    Det kvinnliga nedvärderas alltid och systematiskt om det inte nu inte objektifieras och slemmas ner.
    Kanske är med mera nätverkande och större gemenskap och genom att bekräfta varandra och göra oss stoltare och synligare som vi kan bryta mönster och givetvis med män som agerar och reagerar med ryggrad när de hör nedsättande, sexistiska kommentarer i sina kretsar och öppet står upp som stolta feminister oavsett situation.

    1. Nej, aktiviteterna har ju en legitimitet i sig själv, i det enkla faktum att de ger någon form av inre tillfredsställelse, och kanske yttre resultat. Men människor verkar vara byggda för att interagera med varandra, även introverter som jag, och man vill ju särskilt gärna interagera med andra som ser och förstår och kan uppskatta samma saker. Det ger en helt annan tillfredsställelse än den man får ut själv, av aktivititeten i sig, och det tror jag är synnerligen allmänmänskligt.

      Jag tror inte att det är sant att flickor hellre umgås i små grupper och män i större gemenskaper, min erfarenhet är att alla behöver lite av båda delarna, och jag är också oerhört skeptisk till den där förklaringsmodellen av patriarkatets uppkomst, som i hög utsträckning bygger på våra nutida, patriarkala idéer om vad som är kvinnliga och vad som är manliga sysslor. Vi vet inte hur arbetsfördelningen såg ut i samhällen innan bondesamhället, och jag kommer att tänka på något en av mina föreläsare när jag läste en grundkurs i arkeologi på universitetet för många år sedan sa; vi kan inte ens föreställa oss hur de här människorna tänkte och resonerade, deras världsbild och människosyn var med all sannolikhet bokstavligen oändligt mycket mer främmande för oss som nutida människa än den mest främmande och annorlunda socialiserade nutida människa vi kan tänka oss. Deras värld var en fullkomligt, fundamentalt annan värld än vår värld. Det är inte meningsfullt att applicera våra begrepp om kön, individ och samhälle på deras värld. Vi har ingen aning, och framför allt spelar det ingen roll; patriarkatet idag ser ut som det gör oavsett om män eller kvinnor deltog i jakt och försvar för tretusen år sedan. Det är irrelevant.

  3. I agree that male hobbies, interest and traditionally male attributes are always held in higher esteem. I mean, to do something like a girl is a pejorative, but to do something like a man is a badge of honour (note how you never say “like a boy” or “like a woman” – females are infantilised as part of the ridicule). You can see the way textile art (traditionally female) is traditionally treated in art history as compared to painting (traditionally male), for example. It quite often cheerfully overlooks embroidery for example as part of a genuine expression of art, and depicts it as decoratice, derivative and dreary.

    In general, I have to say that I tend to like geeks, no matter what they geek out about. Geeking about something, anything, is usually a sign that the person is capable of passion (for nailpolish, obscure Californian punk bands or handmade soap) and that they care more about content than exterior (as in looking “cool”; geeks never look cool. They care too much). Usually, they respect your interests and hobbies too even if they differ from theirs, without that amount of baffled questioning most ordinary people do when you tell them you are reading a Punjabi police manual from 1895 or an account of the theatre in the days of Karl XIV Johan (speaking from personal experience here). It’s also often a sign of a sort of mental flexibility, of not just buying into what modern pop culture tells you to buy into in order to be accepted.

    However, with modern “boy geek culture” that’s not necessarily true because it’s become a little too hip to geek out about Star Wars. It’s become a fashion acessory rather than anything to do with heartfelt emotion (much like the attributes of punk culture once upon a time). It’s mainstream, and what I like about “geeks” is the fact that they’re outsiders. Also, lots of “geeks” of the Big Bang variety are frighteningly misogynistic. I’m not going to go on about modern gaming culture and such, but… Yeah. I think you know what I mean.

    Boys will be boys, but girls should focus on pleasing boys and not faff around with hobbies. They’ll never get a man that way, you know.

    Sometimes it’s sad how distinctively not far we’ve come..

    1. I was thinking just the other day how the enormous skills women who sew and embroidered possessed and how it has been treated as not important. By men, certainly, but I also remember how women could talk about it as “förspilld kvinnokraft” when I was younger, helping reducing this art expression as not important. Luckily that seems to have changed somewhat.

  4. I read this when you wrote it, mulled over it to be able to say something intelligent, but I realise that you have put down, rather preciely, excatly what I feel!

    I have found friends and community through my passions, but the passions were there first. And will remain, even if I didn’t have anyone to share them with..

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