23 August 2013

Meta: fannish shibboleths

When I read Making Book, it spurred a lot of thoughts about fandom, fannish culture, inclusion, and modes of exclusion, and how these relate to the “fake geek girl” phenomenon.

A major aspect of fannish culture is the reliance on in-jokes and cultural references: reciting lines from Monty Python, Star Wars, or the Princess Bride, or any number of geek books or media quotables. "It's only a flesh wound." "As you wish." "When 900 years you reach, look so good you will not." "You remind me of the babe." "Fear is the mind-killer." "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot." Et cetera.

These media references are relatively accessible to all. In some ways, these references act as shibboleths: you are one of us if you know this thing. The fan, hearing quotes from their favorite movie or book, may feel more comfortable, more at home. A new fan might not know where "As you wish" comes from, but they can ask (or google it), and then they can go watch Princess Bride.

It's part of human nature to want to belong, to fit in. For a lot of people, finding fandom was a revelation: There are more people who like these things. I have a complicated history with my relationship to being a geek, because I wasn't raised in a household where geekery was understood. I was given books, but they were random books Grandma found at the used book store and in any genre, from Gothic romance to crime. I missed out on a lot of the so-called geek kids' canon. I wrote a short series on this last year, so I won't go too far off on that tangent.

But finding fandom, meeting other people who liked weird, geeky things and had read Lord of the Rings a dozen times too, was a turning point in my life. I found people who understood me, if only on a certain level; I found people I could connect with over a mutual love of Legolas and Gimli.

And then I learned that some sections of fandom don't want to let other people in.

These fannish shibboleths can also be used a gatekeeping tool: to keep out the people who don't know the reference. This is the "fake geek" (usually "fake geek girl") phenomenon. Someone (usually a man) decided that unless you (usually a woman) can name every incarnation of the Green Lantern or every captain of the Enterprise or some other equally ridiculous piece of trivia, you're not a real geek, and you're only doing it for attention. A lot of other people, like Seanan McGuire and John Scalzi, have discussed this at length, so I won't rehash it here. My position on the matter is that you're a geek if you say you are.

Gatekeeping is a tool of exclusion, definitionally. Someone is an arbiter of who is allowed to belong to the group. Some exclusions can be passive, while others are active.

In Making Book, there are a lot of things referred to that aren't explained in the footnotes. A lot of the material wasn't for me as a reader, because I wasn't there for the referent. A lot of the essays were from fanzines, which were circulated among friend groups as a way to keep in touch with each other. (This was before the internet. A lot of the purpose of fanzines has been filled by blogs and livejournal.) I felt excluded from it. It wasn't her intent in writing it to exclude me-personally or anyone else in particular from the club, but that's how I felt when I read it. I wasn't part of the audience of the original fanzines, and that's fine! I certainly don't expect anyone I don't know to read my Dreamwidth journal and have it make sense. It's passive exclusion, and that's okay. Not everyone is going to be actively included in everything.

There's another sort of shibboleth: the shared experience and the in-jokes born from it. Every friend group, every family, has a few. There's comfort in the sense of belonging that comes from the knowing smile or shared laughter when someone shares a “Do you remember the time when...” story. It could be the time when your cousin spilled wine at your other cousin's wedding, or the time when you went to Disney World and saw Thumper. Or it could be a shared joke.

As I mentioned, I don't have a lot of the geek childhood reading canon. I'd never heard of a lot of these books until after college, sometimes years afterward. I don't share the experience of reading Ender's Game in seventh grade and finding it utterly transformative (I read it at 25 or so and found it overrated.) But I was picked on in school because I was smart (and overweight and also poor: the trifecta!), so I share that experience.

When it becomes a problem is when these passive exclusions are used to justify active exclusion. If you get married, your family starts teaching your new spouse the in-jokes and references to welcome them in. (Unless you don't have a good relationship with your family, which changes things.) If you make a new friend, you welcome them into the group by teaching them the references.

But in fandom, there are people who don't want to welcome new people in or see any changes. So they make up the “Fake geek girl” or decide that only certain methods of fannish expression are valid. I'll discuss this more in another post.


John Wiswell said...

We could do a whole series on sharing our in-jokes. Sometimes the most fun is watching someone fail to relay why a reference is so funny.

Enjoyed this, thanks for sharing!

Lise F said...

I feel like I come from a very similar place--my family was not fannish in the least. I don't remember when I discovered what fantasy was, or that I liked reading fantasy more than anything else. I have fond memories of reading certain fantasy books at a young age, but I also have many more of reading some classic of fantasy as an adult and thinking it was dreadful (See: my opinion of Fritz Lieber).

I often joke that I'm culturally bankrupt, because there are many of these touchstones or shibboleths about which I'm totally ignorant.

However, there are also ways in which I can out-nerd the best of them, too, so maybe it evens out? I thankfully have never found myself in a situation where my geek cred has been called into question.

But I don't doubt it happens, and with frequency.