Geek culture has recently seen a massive surge in popularity, owed largely to its being embraced by people who, just a few years ago, would never have been associated with anything nerdy. The parameters of what qualifies as nerdy have expanded considerably, and media that caters to an audience of geeks is treated seriously.
Though geek culture has had past moments of being cool, it was rare to find it being wholly endorsed by people who did not consider themselves geeks. In the ’90s, television shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer explored comic book-friendly themes and featured attractive characters who, for a time drew non-geeks into their fan bases. Unfortunately, the deep mythologies that die-hard fans love drove away a good number of those casual viewers. Something similar happened with Lost a decade later; non-geek fans fell by the wayside as it became more and more apparent that the show was really about time travel.
A Brief History of Modern Geek Culture
Geek culture began to receive mainstream legitimacy in 2005 when Batman Begins was released. Director Christopher Nolan added a darker edge to the superhero by incorporating popular storytelling devices into the narrative. Like Tony Soprano, Bruce Wayne now had elements of the antihero. Three years later, Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight drew in an audience that never would have gone to see a superhero movie otherwise.
Television shows that lend themselves to binge-watching have also made geekdom more mainstream. Game of Thrones comes from a long tradition of history-based premium cable dramas, and its timing coincided with the debuts of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Though those shows are not geeky, they primed audiences for detail-oriented viewing and shorter seasons. The Tudors, Rome, Spartacus and Boardwalk Empire might not seem like they feed into geek culture in any way, but they are directly responsible for popularizing the storytelling style of combining a few historical details with complete fiction and a heavy dose of sensuality. Though Lost alienated its fair share of viewers by the end of its run, it proved that audiences were ready for long-form storytelling and huge casts of characters. The 2005 revival of the UK sci-fi classic Dr. Who catered to that audience and inspired viewers to dig into 50 years’ worth of reruns.
Other Sources of Geekiness
The influence of fashion cannot be ignored in a discussion about popular culture. Though hipsters might have once considered themselves too cool to see an X-Men movie, their style hinges heavily on nostalgia. They were wearing vintage superhero t-shirts before Batman Begins hit theaters.
The prevalence of blogging, particularly television recapping, normalized the once-fringe tendency to analyze every last detail of a show. People are no longer intimidated and overwhelmed by media that requires knowledge of back stories and incidental characters.
According to The New York Times, the main reason geek culture maintains its stronghold on mainstream society is its emphasis on creativity and the lack of historically ingrained hierarchies. Another reason is that geeks are the ones who are making money. They are launching tech start-ups and figuring out how to make money outside of the conventional workforce. Geek media is earning respect because real-life geeks are also earning respect. They are the young adult demographic with the most spending power, which gives them the most cultural cache.