Consuming Geeks: Subculture and the Marketing of Doctor Who
This month the most committed Doctor Who fans descended on the Los Angeles Marriott for Gallifrey One, the 24th annual gathering of Whovians in Los Angeles. On the one hand, these Doctor Who fans share a commonplace geek satisfaction with their sense of distinction from the mainstream. A Who fan who grew up in Detroit noted that “As kids we loved anything Science Fiction from Star Trek to Space 1999 … we were weirdoes. But that was okay. It was a badge of honour. Really. SF was not as `popular’ then as it seems to be now, and British SF was probably deemed even odder.” Patton Oswalt’s analysis of contemporary geeks inventories a typical range of geek obsessions confirming that “I was never going to play sports, and girls were an uncrackable code. So, yeah—I had time to collect every Star Wars action figure, learn the Three Laws of Robotics, memorize Roy Batty’s speech from the end of Blade Runner, and classify each monster’s abilities and weaknesses in TSR Hobbies’ Monster Manual.” Oswalt admits the satisfaction he got from “quietly being tuned in to something dark, complicated, and unknown just beneath the topsoil of popularity.”
On the other hand, though, Oswalt is among the observers who have prophesied the death of that very subculture, lamenting “Fast-forward to now: Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s. Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun.”
Once utterly invisible outside a circle of the most committed fans, in 2012 Entertainment Weekly heralded Doctor Who as a “global geek obsession”; this week al-Jazeera bought three seasons of Doctor Who; and in 2011 Doctor Who’s sixth season was the most downloaded television season on iTunes. In some observers’ minds, this long-awaited ascent to mainstream popularity spells the death rites for the Doctor Who geek as a distinctive voice and identity. Contemporary Doctor Who fans risk being not marginal at all, and in this respect they share quite a lot with comic books fans, science fiction geeks, anime fans, or role-playing gamers who all have secured significant footholds in popular culture: San Diego Comic-Con is now among the most influential of all mass media and marketing events; television is littered with a variety of series that openly invoke science fiction and celebrate geeks; anime and manga aesthetics pervade popular culture; and role playing games have become a massive industry whose impression can be seen all over popular culture. Once embracing something esoteric and disinteresting to the masses, geeks now have effected a complete reversal that witnesses them as the leading edge of style: rather than being disparaged as outcasts, geeks have become an energizing fringe fueling mass culture.
“Geek” is commonly referred to as a “subculture,” but that term is sloppily wielded in popular usage and tends to refer to nearly any distinctive social collective. In scholarly terms a subculture reflects and expresses social contradictions through oppositional style and social practice. Subcultures use material style and social practice to express and attempt to resolve the contradictions of mainstream culture: that is, weeping angel t-shirts, “Bad Wolf” bumper stickers, and sonic screwdrivers are utterly politicized symbols signaling social identity and distance from mainstream social codes. Doctor Who fans, like most members of self-identified subcultures, are energized by their self-perceived marginalization, if not the belief that they have been denied some unfettered experience by the normative values of “mainstream” society.
Not every geek is eager to relinquish their distinctions from the mainstream. Blogger Maryann Johanson, for instance, prophesied the underside of Doctor Who’s broader following when she lamented retailer Hot Topic’s embrace of Doctor Who merchandise: “Hot Topic is a U.S. chain store that pops up in malls to serve kids who want to buy a premanufactured notion of cool instead of developing their own personalities. If the vice president and general merchandise manager for Hot Topic is excited about Doctor Who, it can only mean that the Doctor is on the verge of tedious ubiquitousness in America.”
Johanson seems to be apprehensive that the unfeigned passion fans have invested in Doctor Who will be undone by the marketplace. Her wariness of “premanufactured cool” suggests the marketplace will inevitably redefine consequential if not deviant symbolism and reduce it to transparently commodified edginess. This is precisely what Dick Hebdige cautioned was the universal fate of subcultures. Hebdige’s classic study of punk style argued that subcultural aesthetics are re-defined by marketers in ways that neutralize anxiety-invoking distinctions. Those subcultural material forms—goth makeup, Rastafarian garb, hippie tie-dye shirts–become simply an aesthetic expressing no especially substantive social or political statement. Indeed, Hot Topic reduces fringe symbolism to a hollow style: pre-distressed shirts featuring the likes of Black Sabbath, David Bowie, or Joy Division evoke a historical fringe; pre-shredded jeans labor to conceal their wearer’s bourgeois status; and Batman earbuds invoke all the style and none of the pathos of the Caped Crusader.
Yet Hot Topic is far from the only company to charge into Doctor Who marketing. The founder of Her Universe—“a place for fangirls to step into the spotlight and be heard, recognized and rewarded”–told the Today show that Who merchandise was selling briskly, admitting that “`I never thought I would see it grow this much. … Girls would come up to me saying they wanted ‘Doctor Who’ shirts and I didn’t know how I could make it work logistically with the BBC in London.” But she was approached by BBC Worldwide’s own aggressive marketers because, according to their Director, “`She has a pulse on this demographic and on knowing what girls want.’”
The flood of Doctor Who merchandise reaching from toys to t-shirts to aquarium Daleks may indeed confirm that Doctor Who has been reduced to an aesthetic targeted to a particular consumer “demographic.” Doctor Who looms in this picture as an ambiguous symbol of aesthetic distinction; in contrast, geeks embrace something symbolically esoteric that is outside the mainstream. For some nervous fans, the passion they feel for Doctor Who or any other geek symbol hazards appearing irrelevant in the face of marketers’ dedication to profit.
However, it may be exactly the opposite: that is, perhaps the geek has now become valued by marketers precisely because geeks identify those social and stylistic niches into which people invest deep feelings. This no longer frames the geek as a unique entity, a stereotypically obsessive fan without connections to broader popular cultural discourses or politics. In an essay in Guerrilla Geek, Rory Purcell-Hewitt argues for something he dubs a “post-geek” that is quite along these lines. This post-geek is an assertively hybrid identity that does not fix geeks’ position within a particular subcultural niche: “the post-geek is one who has stepped beyond the barriers of the geek subculture, openly embracing philosophies and aesthetics from a multitude of cultures.” Contemporary geeks do indeed routinely poach on a rich range of popular cultural symbols—simply survey the cross-fertilization of symbols in Doctor Who shirts such as “Doctor Pooh,” “Gallifrey Road,” or “Doctor’s Eleven” that cannibalize other popular cultural geekery. That symbolic hybridity includes fans’ (and marketers’) conscious references to the show’s historical canon: Doctor Who evokes a half-century of programming and a distinctive retro aesthetic that the BBC’s avalanche of Doctor Who merchandise and DVDs routinely links to the newest episodes and storylines. This hybridity may be the geek’s elimination of their own uniqueness; that is, geeks and other subcultures are no longer isolated entities but wired hybrids thieving style and meaning from a range of discourses.
Doctor Who’s ascent to mass popularity certainly was fueled by the collapse of once-formidable barriers to Doctor Who access: much of Doctor Who’s run came in the context of a pre-cable TV world, the absence of mass-produced VHS tapes or VHS players, divides between the UK and US programming, and fandom organized around communities communicating through local clubs, modest conventions, and fanzines. Today, in contrast, a vast range of programming and linked marketing are accessible to nearly anybody with computer and/or cable access; BBC is systematically releasing every shred of Doctor Who programming on DVDs alongside branded books, audiobooks, and magazines; Who fans gather at massive conventions like Chicago TARDIS, Lords of Time (Australia), Regenerations (Swansea), and the official convention in Cardiff; fan communities are exceptionally well-connected online in sites like Gallifrey Base; and an enormous volume of online retailers specialize in commodities that are somehow cast as “geek.”
Subultures are not resisting any clearly defined mainstream, because normative social and stylistic codes are simply too dynamic and reside in ideology more than practice. Many geeks, though, hold onto the caricature of a normative mainstream to rationalize zealously guarding their unique identities, castigating newcomers as poseurs and warily patrolling the boundaries of the authentic canon. Perhaps the flood of Doctor Who DIY-er goods are the vanguard of material authenticity, or seeing the original Doctor Who late at night on a fuzzy black-and-white TV grants some fans some experiential privileges. But there was of course never a moment of “authenticity” untouched by the media, since Who fandom is based on a mass media product. Contemporary consumer culture is perhaps no longer populated by distinct collectives crafting individual styles in isolation; rather, we live in a world of heterogeneous styles in which appearances of resistance, deviance, and rebellion are simply a fashion. Geeks may be the preeminent creative spirits in such a moment, distinctive for their capacity to find the symbolically rich niches in mass culture like superheroes, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who.
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