Just because you like Firefly, it doesn’t mean you’re a science fiction fan. Just because you laugh at Big Bang Theory, it doesn’t mean you are a fan of nerd humor. Just because you are excited to see who the new Dr. Who will be, it doesn’t mean you’re a nerd.
The following post might ruffle a few feathers, so let’s start with a disclaimer. I’m not going to suggest that it’s bad that anyone likes these things (for any reason) or that casual fandom is a bad thing. Not intentionally anyway, and I’m not trying to dismiss people’s level of devotion to science fiction and fantasy. That sort of elitism, of “You just don’t get it” reflex, is usually just someone being petty and obnoxious toward people who are legitimately enjoying something.
That said, you probably don’t get it.
Well, not you. You’re a member of the A. Lee Martinez Action Force, and as such, you most certainly get it. I’m talking about other people.
I guess there’s really no way to say this sensitively, but as a guy who actually loves this stuff, I can find casual fandom a bit irksome. It’s not casual fans that bother me, but the notion that all fans are created equal. There was once the accepted fact that the geek label and the love of staples of science fiction / fantasy were the marks of a person with an almost unhealthy devotion toward their beloved pop culture icons. Now it’s anyone who happens to watch a few episodes of Dr. Who or thinks Nathan Fillion is cute.
There’s a world of difference between the casual fan and the devoted geek, and while I’m not suggesting one is better than the other, I am pretty sure that unless you’ve written a series of essays about why Superman is awesome and how Man of Steel fails to understand all those reasons, you’re probably not a geek.
And there’s not a damn thing wrong with that, but it can be infuriating to a real geek. Not just someone who knows about Superman and has read a few comics, watched a few cartoons, went to see the latest blockbuster featuring Superman. But someone who honestly has thought about Superman, his world, what he represents, and has serious hero worship of the guy. To the casual fan, whether or not Superman might kill someone is something insignificant. To the devotee, it’s something huge. And a movie where Superman isn’t inspiring or a symbol of genuine hope can be morally crushing.
Yes, he’s just a fictional character, and in the end, he will do whatever the writer tells him to do. But to the devoted fan, to the hardcore nerd, Superman matters more than a lot of people realize. But it’s larger than any one character, any single choice by any particular writer. It’s about devotion and a level of immersion most people never experience.
A good way to tell if you’re a casual fan versus a hardcore geek about something is to ask yourself obscure questions. Everyone knows that Superman is Clark Kent, but do you know of the once canonical explanation that his glasses hypnotized people to see Clark Kent as shorter and scrawnier than Superman. Maybe you’ve heard of Lana Lang and Lois Lane, but have you heard of Superman’s mermaid girlfriend? Have you read the comic where Superman loses his powers, but gains the power to shoot a miniature Superman out of his hands?
If not, you’re not a geek. You’re just a person who casually knows about Superman.
As a devotee of a lot of this stuff, I often get annoyed by the casual fan. Not for their casualness, but for their mistaken belief that because they’ve watched a few episodes of Star Trek that they’re somehow deep in hardcore fan culture. It’s that mistake that bother me, not their casualness. I don’t expect everyone to know that Gizmoduck’s secret identity is Fenton Crackshell, bean counter, or that Mjolnir is made of enchanted uru metal. I don’t expect most people to know that a giant cyborg space chicken with a sawblade in his chest is one of Godzilla’s recurring foes. I would be surprised if you’ve seen the classic killer automobile movie The Car even once, much less at least four times as I have.
I don’t expect the average person to have that level of devotion, nor do I believe they need it to call themselves fans.
I do expect them to understand that there’s a world of difference between liking something and devoting yourself to it. Devotion is an entirely different experience, and one that demands a hell of a lot more from the devotee. If you’ve only watched the last few seasons of Dr. Who, you are certainly entitled to call yourself a fan. But if you can’t compare and contrast William Hartnell versus Tom Baker versus Sylvester McCoy than you are probably not a nerd. (Note that I had to look those names up, but then again, I know I’m not a Dr. Who devotee.)
I used to think that the line between casual fan and devotee wasn’t that important, and I still think it shouldn’t be. But then along comes something like Man of Steel, a movie of Superman that really isn’t aimed at Superman fans, or the reboot of Star Trek that shambles along like a zombie, living on mythology it hasn’t earned. One of the reasons I adored Pacific Rim was that it was a movie about giant monsters and robots done by a guy who clearly loved the genre. Pacific Rim was a movie by a nerd for nerds, and it is really any mystery why it didn’t perform better domestically? We live in a culture of superficial geekdom, and there’s a world of difference between that and actual geekdom.
A friend of mine summarized it pretty well recently. He’s a devoted Gargoyles fan, and whenever someone equates their casual affection for the show with his devotion, he says part of him wants to ask, “How many Gargoyle conventions have you gone to?”, “How often were you mocked for being a grown man having to rush home to catch the latest episode?” Those aren’t impertinent questions. They’re the heart of what separates the casual fan from the geek.
I remember when I was still wearing Transformers T-shirts and told it was “little kid” stuff. I was ridiculed for my nerdiness. But I persevered. I loved Transformers so much that I didn’t care what everyone else thought. Now I can wear a Transformers shirt, and nobody bats an eye. Whereas once it marked me as a guy who loved the Transformers and their universe, now it just marks me as a guy who went to a website and clicked on a buy button.
I used to wear Superman shirts every day. Every. Single. Day. And I only stopped because my Superman shirts got old. So when Man of Steel tells me the S stands for Hope, I don’t need convincing. But now I’m reluctant to even wear the few I have left because I don’t like the association with that film. More importantly, I just don’t want to talk to some random dude about Man of Steel because I’ll either end up lecturing someone (despite myself) or getting irked by someone saying how “awesome” it was to finally see a movie where Metropolis is reduced to rubble and even Krypton is a crappy place. Even knowing that it’s not my place to do so and they have every right to their opinions, it’s hard not to get a little worked up about it.
That’s the nature of geekiness. There is a dark side to it, of course. It can become proprietary, elitist. Yes, I imagine that Michael Bay’s version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is going to be lousy, and I’m annoyed by that. But those kind of disappointments are just part of being a devoted fan of something, and you have to be mature and accept that. Geeks and nerds and devotees would always be better served to remember that, and at least attempt to temper that passion.
But the casual fan should also make an honest effort to understand what stuff like this can mean to the devotee. Just because you didn’t mind that Superman killed a dude, that doesn’t mean the Superman devotee who does is wrong. Or that their nerd rage isn’t valid. It shouldn’t be dismissed just because it doesn’t matter to you.
And you might not like the kaiju genre, but if you automatically consider it stupid by default, you and I are probably going to have words. Especially if you summarize Pacific Rim as “Transformers versus Godzilla” or “Power Rangers”. In such case, reasonableness be damned, I will let you know how wrong you are.
And Superman’s mermaid girlfriend’s name is Lori Lemaris. Just in case you were wondering.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,