Some wars are silent.
Not secret, mind you. They happen right out there in front of you. They’re happening all around, even now. You might be fighting one now and not even know it.
They are uprisings that happen gradually, stretched out over a period of years.
Soft wars. Culture wars that leave the society changed. That have winners and losers and casualties.
I myself am a proud veteran of the Great Geek Uprising.
Never heard of it? I didn’t either. Not at the time, at least. These things usually don’t get named until a winner is declared. When you’re down in the trenches, it’s easy to lose sight of it all. You see your struggles as personal. You don’t realize that everyone is fighting their own demons. To be a teenager is to be myopic.
At least that’s how I remember being 15. I was a comic book geek even back in 1984, and we were lucky to get a comic book movie in any given year. In fact, though 1984 was a decent year for sci-fi movies (Buckaroo Banzai, Terminator, Ghostbusters, Night of the Comet, Starman, Dune, and Last Starfighter stand out), there were no big comic book movies. My comics were purchased off a spinner rack at Circle-K or a grocery store. The closest actual comic book store was eight hours away in Denver. It was a specialized hobby, one that set you apart.
To be passionate about something outside of the accepted mainstream was a cultural death sentence in a small town. Star Wars action figures and Transformers were great if you were 12. But you better get over that by the time you hit high school or learn to hide it. I had a Star Wars spiral notebook in 7th grade that had a tear-out form to join the fan club. I don’t know if I ever sent it in, but I filled it out, inviting mockery from the next desk over. Once the mockery starts, once the label sticks, I don’t think there’s ever a way to shake it.
I was bad at “hiding it.” I don’t know why. Maybe it was the rebellious spark that The Ramones stoked into a full on flame in 1983. Maybe there was something chemical in me that refused to back down, refused to pretend to be someone else. Something was going to draw me to the attention of the wolves. All I know is that that I started getting bullied regularly for being on the school’s Knowledge Bowl team, and once started it never let up. Because being smart was a stigma in Durango. Being creative was a stigma. Being different was a stigma. Being weird…
You get the picture.
Teenagers are cruel. Maybe it ties into that myopic thing. The only pain that matters is your own pain. To take the focus off how much you’re hurting, you hurt someone else. School was hell for a geek. We were the bottom of the food chain. Our culture was a sub-culture. I know things are bad now. I’ve seen how vicious social media can make people. Having not gone through 21st century cyber-bullying, I wouldn’t even try to compare the experience. But I can speak to one constant, and that is there seems to always be a group of people driven to make life hell for others. And far too many people stand around and let it happen.
But for my people, us geeks, things started to turn around in the eighties. I like to point to July 20th as the turning point of the Great Geek Uprising, the rallying cry that spread out and pointed the way to our victory.
And that was Revenge of the Nerds. Ok, let’s be honest, the last 5 minutes of Revenge of the Nerds. There is a lot of problematic material in that movie. As far as raunchy college comedies of the time, it wasn’t breaking a lot of new ground there. It’s a bit thick on stereotypes (both for heroes and the evil athletic fraternity), and holy crap does it do poorly in a feminist context.
But that last five minutes where Gilbert (Anthony Edwards) and Lewis (Robert Carradine) confront their rival athletic frat and bully coach (John Goodman) at a bonfire pep rally was priceless. I can’t watch it 30 years later without choking up. Maybe it’s the use of Queen’s “We are the Champions.” Or maybe it was that they gave outcasts the locker room speech that we needed at the time.
Gibert: I just wanted to say that I’m a nerd, and I’m here tonight to stand up for the rights of other nerds. I mean uh, all our lives we’ve been laughed at and made to feel inferior. And tonight, those bastards, they trashed our house. Why? Cause we’re smart? Cause we look different? Well, we’re not. I’m a nerd, and uh, I’m pretty proud of it.
Lewis: Hi, Gilbert. I’m a nerd too. I just found that out tonight. We have news for the beautiful people. There’s a lot more of us than there are of you. I know there’s alumni here tonight. When you went to Adams you might’ve been called a spazz, or a dork, or a geek. Any of you that have ever felt stepped on, left out, picked on, put down, whether you think you’re a nerd or not, why don’t you just come down here and join us. Okay? Come on.
Gibert: Just join us cos uh, no-one’s gonna really be free until nerd persecution ends.
Yeah. It’s simplistic. But I’d argue that it was something that we needed to hear. It was a reminder that what makes us human, what makes us unique, what makes us special, are our passions and our differences. And in those differences, we have unity. There truly are more of us than there are of them. It’s the drawback of cliques. If you define your exclusive group as “us” vs. “them” there will always be more of “them.” It’s just the math.
And therein lies one of the lessons we need to learn from wars of the past: it is painfully easy for the oppressed to become the oppressor when power changes.
Having survived the long, lean years of being a geek in any field, be it sci-fi, comic books, or video games, does not make anyone a gatekeeper of that fandom. If anything, those scars should remind us of what we fought for. They should be a lesson that no one should have to justify their love of something. Set aside your elitism. You’re a veteran of the Great Geek Uprising. You fought so that others didn’t have to. Enjoy that. Stop protecting your turf. The war is over. Join the rest of us in enjoying the geeky bounty that we have brought.
We’re triumphant. The geeks have inherited the Earth. If you doubt it, remember that one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the summer is based on a comic book staring a gun-toting raccoon and a talking tree, and the biggest show on TV is based on door-stopper fantasy novels.