Game of Thrones: Surviving Geek Culture Going Mainstream
Today is the day that millions of people are excitedly anticipating the premiere of Game of Thrones' fourth season. The series has been critically acclaimed, and it has become a cultural icon in recent years, soaring in popularity to a height that's usually unheard of in the fantasy genre. Perhaps, with the additional mainstream successes of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings franchise, the genre is overcoming its previous stigma?
When I was a child, fantasy books were huge to me. I always wanted to read about dragons, unicorns, monsters, castles, wizards, and the like. As a pre-teen I was attracted to Piers Anthony's pun-filled, intellectually complex, and sexually entertaining adventures of his Xanth series. As a kid, I didn't just read Harry Potter and anticipate the next book, I entered the world of the stories. When I read the Wheel of Time series in high school, I also got extremely absorbed in those books. But here's the difference I experience between reading Xanth, Discworld, or The Wheel of Time that and with reading Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, or now A Song of Ice and Fire. When I read the former, I'm largely isolated, when I read the latter, I seem to be participating in a popular fandom.
When I was a child, I'd always felt isolated by my obsessions. Even the most popular of "geek" franchises, like Pokemon, were not openly acknowledged by the "popular" crowd. In fact, people who liked Pokemon only casually ended up distancing themselves from the people who like me, who watched every show, remembered every line, and collected fabulous stashes of cards with our allowances. There was a black line separating the few "geeks" in their own subculture from the mainstream "casual" watchers of the show or occasional players of the card game.
What did that mean with fantasy? Well, growing up for me meant realizing that it just wasn't typical for girls to read fantasy or sci-fi. Other girls liked to read stuff that I found dull for it's lack of creativity, and they thought the stuff I liked was "hard to get into", "too complicated", "too technical" or dry. Other girls seemed to think they wanted to be princesses, but the tame Disney kind, not the Elayne Trakand or Danearys Targaryen kind. And another challenge for girls getting into it is that the fantasy genre has been associated with sexism, because the main series people think of when they think of fantasy, Lord of the Rings, is in fact a little bit sexist (or just kind of really man-centered).
So, what I'm saying is that early in my life, I associated fantasy with isolation. It was a social barrier between me and other people, and that made me and the few people who were also "geeks" for a thing our own sub-group. Having something mark you as different and separate you from others is kind of painful, but growing up is all about defining yourself in terms of a sub-group. It's how you form and come to understand your identity as an old kid to young teen.
When something that was once niche becomes mainstream, many people's first reaction is negative. I think it's because they get so caught up in their identity that if the things they like become associated with conforming and popularity, they have to either abandon liking it and ridicule the "sheeple" who like it. They make up narratives about how the franchise supposedly "sold out". Or, they're forced to deal with the horrific realization that they actually like something that is popular. Well, I've been at this sort of thing a while, and seen many of my beloved hobby franchises get taken up into the Mainstream Borg collective. So, here's my tips for geeks who are miffed at the success enjoyed by Game of Thrones crying "I read the first book back in '96!"
1) Realize You Can Still Be Nerdier Than Most About It
Most people who watch Lord of the Rings movies, or comic book movies, or the Game of Thrones TV Show, are hardly going to geek out over those things as hard as the hardcore fans. If you've cosplayed, won a trivia contest, attended a premiere event, played the card game or board game, named your cat "Khaleesi", etc., you still get to put yourself in that hardcore minority. Heck, since these newly popular "geek" franchises gain popularity through movies and TV shows, sometimes simply having read the original source material places you in a minority.
If you stay up all night arguing about the story online, that helps too.
2) Becoming "Mainstream" Means You Were Right About Something
If your favorite fantasy series becomes a hit show on HBO, that's actually a big reason to celebrate. It means that all the time you spent liking it "before it was cool", you were right. It means that now, people are beginning to appreciate things that were once resigned to nerd sanctuaries like gaming conventions. It means that whatever enjoyment you got out of a series was noticed by people with money and power. It means you and your fellow fans helped set a trend that snowballed dramatically. Isn't that crazy? I mean, nerds live their lives actively avoiding fashion, and then we become it overnight? It's almost like, when the show becomes popular, the hardcore fans are now in the spotlight more than ever. If that freaks you out, it shouldn't. Numbers are powerful. They are what's going to keep your favorite show from getting cancelled. No one wants another Firefly to happen. How do we prevent that? By accepting mainstream, casual consumers of nerd culture instead of trying to push them away or silence them or make them feel dumb.
3) It's Great That People Want to Be Us
People, gosh do they ever freak out in this community about "fake geek girls". But, people who are overly concerned that people are faking nerdery just to be cool are missing something important implied by all that, the fact that being a geek is considered cool by such people in the first place. That seriously never happened as recently as 15 or 20 years ago.
When I got knocked face-first into the mud in fifth grade, it wasn't by people who thought what I stood for (or got the snot beat out of me for) was cool. Reading didn't used to be cool. Having glasses didn't used to be cool. And fantasy, comic books, anime, sci-fi and the like were the opposite of cool. And it sucked. It meant that being smart meant getting beat up. It meant that you could be the best chess player in your class and not mean as much to anyone as the star athlete. It meant being ignored was the best you could usually hope for, so much so that we all became shadow lurkers and library dwellers to stay away from people as much as possible.
The dot-com boom and the shift to a more information-based economy made geek culture not just acceptable, but cool. Now, people dress up like Thor and Batman for Halloween. People go to conventions in frighteningly high numbers for everything from anime to My Little Pony to Dr. Who. Box office rates for comic book, fantasy, and sci-fi movies have soared since 1980. How can us original geeks be upset by all this? Why would someone bitch about the things they consider most important to them suddenly growing in popularity? You should just be stoked that when you post online or talk to co-workers, you're much more likely to get responses from people who know what you're talking about than ever before.
Don't Get Mad, Get Geeky!
So, as Game of Thrones reaches new heights of popularity, I'm reminding fellow geeks that they should be happy this is happening. Do not pass judgment on the newbs, for you were once a newb yourself. And if non-nerds start getting into Game of Thrones or another geeky franchise, that means that's one more thing about you that they can relate to and understand.