Geek chic would have been unthinkable just 30 or so years ago when the term “geek” began to enter popular culture. Time – and the internet – changes everything.
THEN: “You’re a geek!”
The type: Geeks have never been easy to define. Technological early-adopters, pedantic know-it-alls and obsessive hobbyists would seem to cover most bases. An association with new forms of technology and entertainment marked out geeks from the bookish types of ages past.
The image: Geeky types have actually been portrayed sympathetically for decades. Richie Cunningham’s proto-geek was under the permanent protection of the much cooler Fonz; Saved by the Bell’s Screech fared similarly well. Pretty much every ’80s movie had some kind of whizz-kid to thank for the good guy’s ultimate success.
The label: Shorthand for socially-inept perma-virgins gathering in sweaty hordes to play Dungeons & Dragons in their parents’ basement. Lady geeks not unknown, but generally seen as indistinguishable from their male counterparts.
NOW: “I’m a geek!”
The type: Anyone and everyone. The likes of David Beckham, Megan Fox and anyone else otherwise at risk of appearing shallow and superficial compete to assert their geek credentials.
The image: Even the most caricatured of geeks – as with The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon and Leonard – possess a strange kind of cool. Not surprising since we live in an age that witnessed two of the earliest geeks – Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – come to rule the world.
The label: As likely to refer to a style as anything else; perversely a way of professing proud interest in anything previously seen as uncool. Geek is more of a badge than a label, worn enthusiastically. But does it really mean anything? Did it ever?
In conclusion: Would the real geek please stand up?
So is geek chic an ironic fashion statement or some kind of post-modern realisation that no one’s really all that cool anyway? Maybe there are reasons. As celebrity’s cachet has waned – and before that, that of the yuppie and the jock – the geek’s has waxed mightily.
It wasn’t all that long ago that public intellectuals like Albert Einstein were so well known people would stop him in the street and ask him to explain “that theory”. While that time is gone, perhaps the geek’s popularity suggests that fascination with the more technologically and scientifically minded isn’t dead just yet.