Patton Oswalt thinks geek culture must die so that geek culture can live. Paradox!

patton-oswaltImage Credit: Lester Cohen/ Comedian, starring-voice-of-Ratatouille, and nerd demi-god Patton Oswalt has written a fascinating piece for Wired about the rise of geek culture from the schoolyard fringes — kids quoting Monty Python and playing Dungeons & Dragons — to its present status as an all-encompassing cultural force. You see geek culture everywhere now, Oswalt notes: The relentless parade of superhero movies, the post-Lost vogue for detail-obsessed TV fandom, “Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells.” As you might guess from that quote, Oswalt’s less than joyful about geekery’s current mainstream dominance. “Everything we have today that’s cool comes from someone wanting more of something they loved in the past,” he notes. “Action figures, videogames, superhero movies, iPods: All are continuations of a love that wanted more.” Oswalt’s piece is hilarious and incredibly thoughtful, but his ultimate point is worth discussing: Has the internet-assisted rise of geek culture had a negative effect on pop culture? Certainly, Oswalt’s vision of the future sounds eerily possible: “One long, unbroken, recut spoof in which everything in Avatar farts while Keyboard Cat plays eerily in the background.”

Oswalt begins with an extended personal riff about his own youth as an otaku with an encyclopedic knowledge of Alan Moore comics, a more leisurely time before the Internet made The Lonely Geek extinct. So you could feasibly dismiss Oswalt’s piece as a typical elder rant: Things were better in the good ol’ days before modern technology has ruined everything, and also what’s the deal with these kids on their cell phones and the Twitter, am I right!?!?! Certainly, Oswalt’s definition of “geek culture” is indefensibly vague: “The fans of Real Housewives of Hoboken watch, discuss, and absorb their show the same way a geek watched Dark Shadows or obsessed over his eighth-level half-elf ranger character in Dungeons & Dragons,” he argues. “It’s the method of consumption, not what’s on the plate.” It almost seems a bit like what Oswalt is really arguing is that people talk too much about pop culture now — an interesting notion which sounds a bit hypocritical coming from someone who has made a career out of brilliantly talking too much about pop culture.

Still, Oswalt is definitely onto something. I collected every isue of The Mighty Thor for a decade, so I should feel ecstatic that the character is actually getting a kabillion-dollar movie. But I feel the opposite — it seems too good to be true. (It’s sort of like the Talking Heads song, “Once In a Lifetime”: “This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife, this is not a beautiful $200 million movie about a character who carries a big hammer.”) Oswalt’s tongue-in-cheek solution is to push geek culture into a semi-omniscent realm of dystopic minutiae: “Lists of the best lists of boobs… Goonies vs. SawThe Human Centipede done with the cast of The Hills and directed by the Coen brothers.”

Oswalt envisions a singularity point at which geek culture burns itself out. But you could just as easily argue that, just as the auteurist film culture of the ’70s turned into the Stallone/Schwarzenegger steroid-pumped ’80s, the modern vogue of geekery will slowly fade into something else. (Jockery? Is that word?) What do you think, PopWatchers? Do you agree with Oswalt’s anxieties about geek culture in the mainstream? Would you rather play Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft?

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  • paige

    “Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells.” yep thats me. proud to be a gay geek bodybuilder ;)

    • Corpsegoddess

      Ah, but I bet you don’t act like a meathead, which I think is the type to which he was referring.

      It’s like Kurt Cobain experienced, when he said he was playing giant concerts and the guys in the front row singing along to his songs were the same mooks that used to beat him up and shove him in lockers for being “weird”. I can totally understand that sentiment. I loved the X-Men when it meant you were getting your butt kicked for it, not toting around a Wolverine lunchbox and being all cool.

      I’m sure he doesn’t mean you, anyway. Gay geeks are teh smexy. =D

      • Zidders Roofurry

        \o/ I’m a gay geek. And yes…yes, they are ^_^

  • Bug

    Part of me rejoices that geek culture has become so big. Hey, all that Star Wars stuff being available online made my spouse’s birthday really easy. But part of me sort of agrees with his point that geek culture has gotten overwhelming and has been taken from the people. But let’s get real here: geeks have money. Geeks will spend money on things that they like, which are geeky things. So companies will continue to supply geeky things to geeky people because geeks have money. I would also argue, though, that most of the people who shell out most of the money on these things–like XMen and Iron Man–don’t do it because they collected the comics for a decade; they do it because the movie is good or because it has a lot of explosions. They don’t care about the mythos of the character, they care about the hot chick in the black leather.

    • Elena

      A fringe movement has risen and taken over the mainstream. Some people think it’s too much. Others think it has dilluted the charm of the fringe movement.

      Um…why is Oswalt telling us something we already knew? It happens all the time, in music, films, fashion, books, etc.

      • Weblogic

        And here you are, telling us something we already knew. Oswalt 1, Elena nil.

  • sam

    Things are ruined by being shoved into the mainstream. Why should the geek culture be any different?

  • Sara J

    Geeks and weird kids will always find something new to obsess about – sure, Star Wars doesn’t mean the same to kids today as it used to, since everyone’s into it, but Ren Faires and steampunk are still on the edge of the mainstream. And once that gets swallowed up, there will be something new. Things change. Geekdom changes. Accept it, and move on.

    • bob fom binghamton

      You hit the target re Steampunk. It’s definitely on the cusp. “Girl Genius” forever!

  • Crimson Kisses

    I agree that at some point it will burn itself out, I cant wait. Then people can jump off the bandwagon and move on to the next “it” thing of the moment. Until then I will just sit here and hope that they come to their senses soon before they ruin another one of my beloved british shows by moving it over here and re-doing the whole things to fit the wants of the new breed of geeks that has been created. Leave Torchwood alone!!!

    • Casey


  • Eric

    That was about as convoluted, uninteresting and unfunny as his stand-up. Sorry Patton.

  • Lucy Blue

    Back in olden times, you used to have to actually understand and digest the stuff that geeked you out; now you just have to be able to buy the tee-shirt. And sadly, geekery is already evolving into something as dumbed-down and slicked-up as that transition in cinema between the 70s to the 80s – not jockery but snarkery. These days, we revere EVERYTHING, no matter how inane, but only briefly. And anything that might be layered enough to last past the latest viral video, we snark to smithereens. And we don’t do it by actual criticism – we HATE actual criticism. We nitpick and ridicule the spelling or just declare it boring – or talk about how things were so much better years ago.

    • A Different Eric

      Seconding this, but this blade swings in more than one direction. It’s one thing to have an finely detailed Internet recap of Lost, but do we really need a NINE page post to mull over all the nuances of the Dancing With The Stars finale? Because I’ve seen it with my own beady little eyes.

  • LOL

    The posts above were a pleasure to read. They are well thought out and make several good points. I hope you folks post more often.

  • bambam

    in the end, george lucas is to blame for this. the three star wars “prequels” were just salt in the festering wounds. his evil heart was first exposed by the ewoks. george lucas raped my childhood.

  • therealeverton

    Sounds like rose tinted “in the good ‘ol days” nonsense to me.

    I also read tons of Thor comics when I was growing up and I can’t wait for the movie to come out.

    Maybe it’s just the fact that some geeks comforted themselves with the delusion that all geeks were awkward, average looking dateless, obsessives (we weren’t) and now that “everyone” is a geek, good looking socialites included, there’s a double dose of jealousy going on. Now everyone likes what “I ” like and they don’t even have the decency to be nerds either.

    I know there’s a lot of generalisation there, but that’s the way the article is written.

    I’m geeking out about the whole Marvel Movieverse thing and it doesn’t bother me at all that there are millions of people who don’t get the intricacies of X-men (even the depth of X2), or Tony Stark; who don’t understand the history of Many Marvel characters; Why not? because they never did, at least now they know who Iron Man, Wolverine and The Mighty Thor are (soon for Thor) and some, not most, some of them will go and buy a comic or two, and if the quality of writing is there then they will get just as hooked as I am, my sister is and Oswalt say he is.

  • Corpsegoddess

    Hubby and I have already weathered this storm once, when the mainstream pop culture grabbed our gothic lifestyle and ran straight into the mall with it. At that point, it was taken out of our hands and placed into the hands of—well, EVERYBODY–and everybody grabbed a piece and took off with it. A great illustration of this is the evolution of Hot Topic; when the store first opened, it was ONLY gothic-themed stuff, mostly clothes and jewelry, some music, some makeup. But it was cool because hey! black nailpolish buyable all year long now and not at a specialty boutique! But then, the clothes started to give way to tshirts, and cd’s and toys, and kitsch and whatever else was popular “with the kids” at the time. It turned from a store where already gothically-minded people could get clothes and supplies (remember, this was in the very early stages of the internet) to a place where anybody who wanted to look vaguely gothic could shop for bits and bobs—talking the talk without walking the walk. And now? I look at teenagers and they have some components of gothic trappings about them, but they’re mixed in with the 80’s, grunge (yes, that’s coming back), punk, skater and whatever else.

    Now, as geeks (as well as goths), we’re going through exactly the same thing again, and I predict the same outcome. Geek culture will fade as the acute pop focal point, with different facets of it remaining, mixing with whatever the next big thing is.

    • Zidders Roofurry

      Hit the nail on the head. As someone who grew up in the 80’s and got into the rocker/goth/punk subculture, I saw it go from a time when we had to use black magic marker on our fingernails and blue rid dye in our hair, to stores like hot topic, to where it is now. Part of about ten or twenty different styles. The people who love it for what it means to them will love it for what it means to them, I love Patton, but he needs to stop hating on things and start looking at the positive side of things.

  • Hulk waits

    Size matters. Big kids will always beat up little kids and so on. Geeks will just have to adapt and find other things to obsess over.

  • Auriana

    I’m not sure where I stand on this. I’ve always hated the people who turn on something they love just because it becomes popular and thus no longer their own. I’ll be first to admit that I’m rather jealous of the kids/teens now. When I was in school (class of 97), a love of books, computers, video games and Star Wars were all considered to be something to make fun of. Nowadays, all are considered to be trendy and cool. And as someone who became a fan of anime before it became so popular, I will admit that I got really annoyed at it becoming so mainstream. Granted, this might have been due to teens squealing over an overpriced box of Pocky because it was Japanese when they could have just bought it for $4 less at the Asian mart down the street. The dealer room at the anime con used to be a great place to buy things that you couldn’t find before. Now it’s mostly filled with the same junk revolving around whatever is considered to be the most popular anime at the time. There are 500 variations on the Death Note journal but I still can’t find a copy of the Lodoss War ova in the original Japanese. It’s also becoming somewhat tedious. Robot Chicken was great for a few seasons but now has devolved into a mess of immature jokes and Adult Swim is pretty much just intent on being weird for the sake of being weird. And a Smurf movie, really? What’s next, a Glow Worm movie? While I used to find viral videos and flash animations entertaining, now I can’t be bothered and roll my eyes at most of it. And don’t even start me on lolcats.

    On the other hand, I like the perks the popularity of geekdom provides. I like to be able to buy almost anything I want. If it wasn’t so popular, perhaps the Lord of the Rings movies would never have been what they are and Iron Man might never have been made. I love the fact that I have pretty much every gaming system in my house from the original Nintendo onward. The music of video games might not be as appreciated as it is now. I’m wearing my Final Fantasy Distant Worlds concert t-shirt at the moment and I’ll be going to see Video Games Live tomorrow for the second time. I do enjoy my collection of nerdy t-shirts and Think Geek is one of my favorite sites. I love the influence of corsets, medieval dress and steampunk on much of the clothes I’ve been wearing and I don’t look ridiculously out of place anymore. And while I might gripe about people who are just riding the wave, I can’t really say much considering I’m reaping the benefits.

    • Lucy Blue

      Great comments, Auriana!

    • Zidders Roofurry

      awesome comment!!!!!

    • Corpsegoddess

      30000000 Rei and Asuka figurines, and I can’t get me ONE Touga figure from Revolutionary Girl Utena. I hear you.

  • jon

    This reminds me of the alt-rock revolution in the early 90s. I thought, finally my years of preaching the gospel of punk rock have paid off! Then I attended Lalapalooza. It was during a set by George Clinton and everyone was running up to the stage and dancing. Foolishly, I started to think that harmony was possible in this mainstreaming of the outsider mentality. Then, of course, a fight broke out and security escorted everyone back to their proper rows. The buzz was effectively killed. My conclusion: it wasn’t the inclusiveness of punk rock overtaking the mainstream, but the thuggish, fascism of the jock mentality taking over the underground. The collapse of the movement a few years later seemed to prove my point.


    Geek culture does not need to die in order to grow and survive. What geek culture NEEDS to do is kick the self serving, popularity chasing douche bags out of our culture. The people to which Oswalt is referring are the same clowns that in the 80’s only needed a 34 inch chest and an 8 ball of cocaine to be popular. Now geek culture is what’s in because more or less geeks are running the world now, so the popularity and attention whores have to follow suit to fulfill their selfish needs.

    Natural selection is NOT working fast enough!!!

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