Who Owns Geek Culture? Not The Gatekeepers

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

The trailer for Star Wars: Rogue One dropped while ago.  Much to my surprise it intrigued me – a Star Wars heist movie.  Just as I felt TFA was flawed and cautious, but had a fantastic cast and amazing heart, this film had something that hit me just right.  Seriously sign me up.

Of course this was also a time for various people to complain about the female lead online. The word Mary Sue was tossed around by people who ignore the legion of male power fantasy characters.  Of course there was talk about Women Invading Geek Space as if women can’t be geeks and aren’t as opposed you, you know, history.

There’s a peculiar thing that’s popped up on and off over the years of who “owns” geek culture.  To an Elder Geek like me, that seems kind of weird.  Geek Culture to me sort of “is,” and the idea of people raging about owning it seems odd at best, pathological at worst.  I know this clearly means I missed a quite a lot of stupidity, but I’m probably lucky for it.

And usually it’s that geekdom is owned by people of a specific gender and at times race – which is ridiculous.  The idea of a culture that’s often been freewheeling, weird, experimental, and pro-intellectual (at least on the surfacee) being afraid of cooties seems . . . bizarre.  As an Elder Geek it seems even weirder – geekdom has not been free of racism or sexism or bigotry or stupid gatekeeping, it has often been worse than we want to admit, but I don’t recall this bizarre and outright whiny territoriality when I was younger, or for that matter older.

But this made me wonder – who does “own” geek culture?  Can we discuss it as something anyone can own?  Maybe this is a discussion worth having, if only to hopefully turn down the volume on the whining.

Who Owns A Culture?

I began speculating on cultures and how people experience them.  First up, there’s the question of ownership in an enforceable sense.

Legally, people can own part of a culture.  Disney owns the hell out of Star Wars.  Someone can own a copy of a book.  People can have legal rights to certain things.  These laws and policies may be stupid or immoral or dysfunctional, but we do recognize some sense of ownership of media.  Geeks are often about media.

However, this ownership is, let us be frank, tenuous and only a small part of the culture.  Culture is something that people participate in – and Geek Culture with its tendency to self-creation the “culture” is embodied far less in owned artifacts than it would seem.  These owned artifacts are important, as rallying points, triggers, and bases – but what goes on with them far outstrips them.  The ownership of culture is not in the artifacts.

There are fans of things in the public domain or that might as well be.  Harry Potter could vanish tomorrow, and Potter fans would go on, and carry many of their values with them.  Hell, I still think someday someone will make a fandom where it and the property are the same thing, owned by none/all – some My Little Pony spinoff fan works approach that now.

So, ownership of the legal variety isn’t ownership of a culture.  You can witness fan culture rebel against the “powers that be” quite a bit.  They rebel against the owners – in a legal sense.

That’s when I hit upon it.  To discuss who “owns” a culture, let’s explore an organization with a shared culture.  I choose a church.

Church Time

So let’s imagine a church.  Where does the culture reside?  The minister in a way relays it.  But the culture is in the attendees, and the people who raise money and maintain the grounds, and do the charities.  Though a church is quite a hierarchical organization, there’s a lot of people in it maintaining it, and you know they have a say (especially if you’ve been involved in local church politics).

Geekdom is often the same way.  It’s even more distributed than your average religious organization, and also can involve elaborate costumes.  There’s major voices, some useful, some annoying as hell, but geekdom is distributed “among” people.

Geekdom has persisted through changes, new media and old, history and tragedy.  A church can swap in parishioners and out, get a new minister and endure.  So who owns the culture of something?  Who can say “this is mine?” when the organization (and its culture) endures.  Something passes around and through people however to keep that culture going.

These people are not owners, not necessarily authorities.  They are people who embody the culture and carry it on and make sure it continues.  They are Custodians, not so much owners, but maintainers and supporters and even improvers.

The Custodians put things into practice and keep going.  They ensure the culture goes on.  They care about it and for it, often nurturing it or fixing it or innovating in it.  They might not even know they’re custodians because they’re too busy or don’t notice people look to them for advice or help.  However they’re the ones to respect, and the more you’re a Custodian, the more you keep things going, the more you really have a say in the culture.

Custodians don’t “own” a culture, but they’re to be listened to.  Which is what the whiners seem to want to be.

In a church a Custodian can be a minister – or an elder.  It can be the person who manages the finances and keeps it running.  It could be distributed, it could be concentrated.  No one owns a church, but the church exists because some people (at times unwittingly) keep it going.

The Custodians also, often, have skin in the game.  They’re there in the thick of it.  They’re “authorities” to many because they know it and they do stuff.

You’ll notice “rampant complaining” really isn’t a Custodial duty.  Custodians may complain, but they’ve got skin in the game, they keep stuff running, they do things.

The people to respect in geekdom are the participants.  Those who run cons and make costumes, those who maintain sites and write.  The people that make stuff happen are the ones to respect and listen to.  The people who ensure there’s something thre – and there is a tomorrow.

The Custodians.  They don’t own it, but they are people who should be respected and listened to.

My late grandmother maintained her Church’s flowers.  You can bet she got listened to.

Participation Matters

So the people who think that Star Wars is ruined by a female cast, the people interrogating someone to be a true fan, true gamer, true comics reader are gatekeepers but not Custodians.  They’re People throwing out a meaningless trivia in order to keep people out as opposed to being Custodians for what’s important – and finding common ground that helps maintain and grow their culture.  They are the church equivalent of the person who quizzes you on theological minute just to assert themselves, but won’t even put money in the collection plate or help with the church lawn.

They aren’t participating, they’re at best annoying as hell and at worse actively harming the culture by driving people out while not doing anything to maintain what they supposedly care about.

But they have no credibility.  They are not Custodians.

How many comic geeks complaining about Squirrel Girl or whatever actually live the values of the heroes they value?  Few.  Why listen to them?

How many sci-fi geeks ho are supposedly all pro-science actually act with any scientific analysis before they decide Daisy Ridley destroyed western civilization?  They violate what they say they stand for?

How many people complain about how video games must be X or Y don’t do anything but complain, wasting the time of forum mods?

The complainers aren’t Custodians.  They’re what the Custodians have to deal with.

The Gatekeepers Aren’t The Keepers Of The Flame

Right now there’s a little girl loving Star Wars because of Rey and she’s playing with a toy lightsaber.  She is more of a geek right now than some guy bitterly complaining about Rogue One having a female lead.  Because she got this vague idea to be a hero and is having fun and setting a foundation for geekdom, whereas someone else is just complaining.

Right now there’s a cosplayer making outfits and possibly launching a career out of it.  She’s more of a geek than the person complaining that  A) she’s too sexy, and B) she won’t sleep with him.  She’s doing something and giving panels.

Right now there’s someone running a website in a thankless job that is doing more than the people complaining about the latest column on anime.

Right now there’s a comics geek who should be a hell of a lot more like the heroes/heroines and less randomly interrogating people on Twitter.

People do not truly own geekdom – geekdom is a culture, and thus this amorphous thing of information.

However there are people who are experts, who are credible, who are authorities – and these are the people that actually run the culture, embody the values, and do shit.  The Custodians.

The complainers are at best minor participants – and at worse, toxic, going against the values of their culture and sullying their communities.

Hopefully they can realize it’s a lot more interesting to get your hands dirty, a lot more fulfilling to connect, then to just complain.

– Steve