Blog Archives

The New Normals: Geek Style and Consumer Culture

At Katsucon in Washington (image from Fred Dunn)

At Katsucon in Washington (image from Fred Dunn)

For those interested in a summary of my posts on “geek culture,” I have a piece The New Normals: Geek Style and Consumer Culture that appears today on PopAnth.

For more details, see my earlier posts on Geek Subculture including pieces on Geek T-Shirts, Cosplay and Geek Subculture, Walking Dead Fandom, and the Marketing of Doctor Who.

Geek Wars: The Politics of Media Fandom and Geek Conventions

The Ghostbuster wander the hallways of the Louisville Convention Center

The Ghostbusters wander the hallways of the Louisville Convention Center

This week a convention in Louisville, Kentucky served notice once more of the concrete and distinctive politicization of geek fandom while it also reminded geeks of the erosion of their insularity from mainstream society, casual fandom, and capitalism itself.  A weekend of breakdowns at the FandomFest convention—cancelled events, multiple conflicting schedules, photograph lines lasting for hours, and poor spatial management, among other things–resulted in mounting frustration, increasingly grumpy tweets, and the most feared of all nerd battle cries: “I am going to blog about this!”  The responses to FandomFest underscore the digital sociopolitical dimensions of contemporary geekdom; however, they simultaneously reveal the ways once-insular and well-defined geek fan communities have become a dynamic media fandom inseparable from the broader fabric of popular culture and ripe to be colonized by the mass marketplace.

The failures at FandomFest are perhaps symptomatic of the growth of convention culture in particular and geek fandoms in general.  The “mother fandom,” in the words of Fanlore, is probably Star Trek, whose fans began orchestrating conventions in the early 1970’s (and one fan gathering that may claim the award for first Trek con was held in Newark in 1969).  From the very beginning these Trek conventions included personalities from the show itself:  Gene Rodenberry appeared at the 1972 Star Trek Lives! Convention and other cast members appeared at subsequent fan-organized conventions through the 1970s.  Those fan-run conventions produced little or no profit for their organizers, but they served notice that geeks were a potentially massive constituency:  the 1974 Trek Lives convention, for instance, hosted 15,000 people and reportedly turned away another 6000 people.

A circa 1969 Star Trek convention program cover (University of Iowa, M. Horvat Collection of Science Fiction Fanzines)

A circa 1969 Star Trek convention program cover (University of Iowa, M. Horvat Collection of Science Fiction Fanzines)

The Trek conventions were very much fan-organized events whose structure is familiar to anybody who has been at contemporary conventions.  Rodenberry and the Trek casts’ appearances at the 1970’s Trek conventions underscores that fandom has long embraced the allure of personalities.  The 1975 convention, for instance, was simply a series of appearances by the Trek stars (punctuated by Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison), lacking any panels assessing the philosophical dimensions of Trek or science fiction.  There was never an especially clear division in Trek fandom between, on the one hand, a fandom focused on the personalities themselves (e.g., Q-and-A sessions with the stars recounting “life on the set” stories) and, on the other hand, a genre fandom (e.g., panels intellectually contemplating the complexities of multiculturalism in Trek or deconstructing science fiction tropes).  The most dramatic transformations in Trek conventions came with the arrival of corporate profiteering: ironically, Star Trek conventions declined after the 1979 Trek film, which appeared a decade after the show had been cancelled; the studios subsequently wanted to license Trek events, and stars began to demand significant appearance fees. Read the rest of this entry

Performing Fan Culture: The Material Experience of Fandom and Conventions

At Katsucon in Washington (image from Fred Dunn)

At Katsucon in Washington (image from Fred Dunn)

This weekend 5000 people have crowded a Chicago hotel to celebrate anime at the Anime Midwest Convention: Sailor Moon, Naruto, and Vampire Knights wander hallways amidst reflective conversations about Ghost in the Shell and shared contempt for most of what is playing the local cinema.  The crowd in Chicago is among numerous such fan conventions gathering circles of the most committed followers united in their passion for manga, gaming, sci-fi, comics, cosplay, and assorted other fandom niches.  These conventions bring together collectives crafting a community united by like-minded passions for genres (e.g., anime), popular forms (e.g., comics), or certain franchises (e.g., Stargate).  Such 21st-century fan communities are increasingly well-networked in cyberspace, so perhaps all conventions really do is push such communities momentarily into physical space.   Yet those gatherings have in many ways been absolutely critical to the explosion of fandom and geek subculture and cannot be separated from the fan communities that have emerged online.  These convention gatherings expand conventional notions of fandom, social collectivity, and even culture; they illuminate precisely how contemporary fandom is shaped by the rise of conventions; and they underscore the often-misunderstood social consequence of the material gathering of fans.

Anime Expo poster (image from Danny Choo)

Anime Expo poster (image from Danny Choo)

In anthropological terms it is not completely clear what we should call the new social collectives that are intimately linked to digital media, mass cultural products, and broadly defined fan-generated creativity.  In some ways these fan communities are cut from what some scholars have called “participatory cultures,” which establish cyber-social connections in which audiences actively reinscribe the dominant meanings of mass cultural products; in this model, we watch shows like Doctor Who, but we actively interpret the episodes, reflectively link the show to a master narrative, and expand, complicate, and contest those themes in participatory collectives.  Much of society is wired into various types of participatory networks—stamp collectors, kennel clubs, environmentalists–but fans have been especially active crafting creative interpretive collectives that are reflected in fan fiction, wiki’s, cosplay, blogs, and films that interpret, revise, and sometimes reject popular texts: Doctor Who fans, for instance, write their own Who tales, dress up as various characters, dissect the show’s infinite details, assess the intentions of its stewards like Russell T. Davies, and patrol interpretations that somehow violate the master narrative in either fact or philosophy.

Henry Jenkins’ rich work on fandom argues for something he calls a “convergence culture” that describes “a moment when fans are central to how culture operates.”  Jenkins’ model acknowledges that mass cultural products are commodities with dominant meanings that always hazard reproducing existing social inequalities, but these messages exist across numerous media platforms that ideologues cannot utterly control:  for instance, if we are unhappy with the Walking Dead’s televised interpretation of the comic’s master narrative, we can register our discontent in cyberspace.  The internet has accelerated the growth of such fan communities, and today we can tweet ongoing commentary as a movie unfolds; anybody can post a blog; and fan art can be found in every corner of the internet and in every expressive form.

Fans taking pictures of cosplayers at Fanime Con (image from coolmikeol)

Fans taking pictures of cosplayers at Fanime Con (image from coolmikeol)

Some scholars are wary that a focus on fans’ apparent impact on mass media risks hyperbolizing the sway of everyday, transgressive agency.  However, convergence is not simply a theory of resistance that opposes active audiences/consumers to bureaucratic dominant producers.  Rather, for Jenkins fandom implies a creative imagination of social possibilities; that is, fans are self-organized social groups that seize on particular popular forms that provide them mechanisms to rethink how the social world could be.  Everyone in a fan community knows something and shares an imaginative passion that encompasses rational reflection as well as emotion.  Mass-produced storylines get distributed across a vast range of media from blogs to conventions that re-imagine official narratives: a series like Sherlock, for instance, borrows from a late 19th – and early 20th-century canon, revolves around the 21st-century official narrative of Holmes as millennial digital whiz (the new Holmes has a web page and  Watson has a blog), and is then imagined by myriad fans across cyberspace.

Anime is a good example of a fan form that has secured an increasingly broader worldwide following in cyberspace.  Japanese animation had appeared in the US by the 1970’s, and the introduction of the VCR allowed fans to exchange tapes and forge the primal anime fan communities.  The first American “fansubs” (that is, fans’ English-subtitled anime) appeared in the late-1980’s and early 1990’s and were mostly confined to anime fans who simply copied tapes for other fans.  Some of these movies were screened at the earliest anime conventions in the US at Project A-Kon in 1990, AnimeCon in 1991, and AnimeFest and Anime Expo in 1992.  Sean Leonard’s study of the earliest American anime fans notes that the 1991 San Jose convention screened a series of anime films in Japanese without sub-titles, leaving the curious absolutely mystified by films like Wings of Honneamise.

Anime and manga come with a variety of appeals, but perhaps the fundamental allure for Americans is that they are patently distinctive:  for their many American followers, anime and manga are obviously not American in style, narrative, or content.  Jenkins suggests that this is a form of what he calls “pop cosmopolitanism” in which consumers seize upon global popular culture to manufacture distinction.  Anime and manga come with visual cues, narrative mechanisms, and themes that are clear breaks from mainstream American rhetorical and aesthetic forms.

Cosplayers at Katsucon (image from Fred Dunn)

Cosplayers at Katsucon (image from Fred Dunn)

On the one hand, anime fandom defined as exotic fascination risks appearing to be shallow escapism.  Put in such terms, anime and manga fandom hazard being portrayed simply as American suburbanites and bored college students hungering for a contrived imperial experience.  On the other hand, though, anime runs counter to the homogenization many of us experience in global consumer culture.  Koichi Iwabuchi argues that some mass cultural products have no “cultural odor”; that is, we cannot identify their origin culture, or at least a commodity does not somehow materialize consumers’ stereotypes of something like “Japanese-ness” or difference.  Many mass-produced things intentionally conceal any evocation of race or culture, but anime and manga have clear distinctions as well as evocative familiarities with some American narratives.

In 1994, Annalee Newitz championed the novel thesis that much of anime played on American popular cultural themes, so “watching anime gives Americans a chance to reflect on their own culture, but it also lets them deny that they are doing so.”  Newitz sees this as a rejection of American nationalism, but it is probably simplistic to label such fandoms simply as a repudiation of “American values.”  Many different fandoms that fancy themselves marginalized react against what they imagine to be “mainstream values,” but framing this as a reaction against (or within) nationalism may not capture the heart of anime fandom’s politics.  Anime fandom seems instead to fasten on anime as a transnational product that melds familiar and novel narrative conventions alike but is not reducible to an American versus Japanese polarization.  Susan Napier argues a similar point that the essential “Japanese-ness” of anime is probably less significant for most fans than its non-mainstream dimensions; that is, anime has a fundamental “otherness” that celebrates alien aesthetics and story-telling conventions that clearly depart from familiar Western conventions.  This “otherness” comes with a distinctive vision of self by fans.  For instance, Napier stresses that anime fans develop a unique self-consciously aware way of viewing an anime film that consciously acknowledges anime as a novel genre, recognizes its distinctive animation and aesthetic form, and reflectively experiences the viewing as something that is not “mainstream.”

At FanimeCon 2013 (image from Cliff Nordman)

At FanimeCon 2013 (image from Cliff Nordman)

Many of the first wave of American anime fans simply saw themselves as advocates for the medium, and their subtitled tapes, informal clubs, and modest conventions were essential to anime’s foothold in contemporary American fandom.  Manga sales in the US and Canada reached $200 million in 2007, and anime DVD sales were $375 million in 2006; in comparison, US sales for comic books in 2012 were $475 million.  Yet where comics have captured the heart of popular culture, anime and manga fandom appears to hold much less clear sway over mainstream popular culture.  On the one hand, some fans remain committed to championing the art form and introducing new fans to anime.  These advocates often point to all the corners of popular culture (e.g., gaming, cartoons) that bear the fingerprints of anime sensibilities that pass unrecognized by most Americans.  On the other hand, some fans value the exclusivity of anime fandom, and they seem convinced that anime’s complexity cannot be made accessible beyond the most devoted and reflective fans.  The tension between these positions is typical of geek fandoms that are wary their passion will be misunderstood or belittled when it is shared beyond the confines of fellow travelers.

Some cosplayers like Angie are sought out by conventions (image form Danny CHoo)

Some cosplayers like Angie are sought out by conventions (image form Danny Choo)

Conventions are performance spaces defined in the broadest possible terms.  Anime conventions inevitably have a few rooms in which films are screening, including some classics as well as some fresh films or newly released ones.  Some of these performances are genuine theatricality of actors/actresses and audiences like cosplay, with nearly every convention now including some version of the masquerade contest and many more cosplayers wandering convention hallways in impromptu stagecraft.  But increasingly more conventions include performances like karaoke and a wide variety of crafts and arts that underscore the creativity of fandom.

Some of this performance is formally judged—characters dress and move in particular ways fans do evaluate–, but geek conventioneers tend to respect the act of creativity more than the product. In this deference to fellow fans’ shared passions, conventions are often cast by insiders as supportive and friendly environments, but what this obliquely refers to is their distinction from everyday public spaces that are hostile and indifferent to fans’ passions.  The essential respect for individual experience and knowledge and the willingness to socially share knowledge and interpretations may be what fans are attempting to evoke when they suggest that fan communities are “egalitarian.”

The dealer room at Anime Expo (image from Radagast)

The dealer room at Anime Expo (image from Radagast)

Many of these fandoms see themselves as marginalized in mainstream society, so they romanticize the convention as a space in which they can acknowledge their passions and “be themselves.”  Many conventions have labored to reproduce that ethic of equity and fairness, with nearly every convention now including a code of conduct.  Increasingly more of them are focused on sexual harassment and at least indirectly addressing the sexism that often surfaces among some sci-fi, comics, and anime fans (the Con Anti-Harassment Project inventories some conventions’ policies).  Increasingly more conventions have events for LGBT members (and Gaylaxicon is a series of LGBT sci-fi conventions); Anime Midwest includes a workshop on plus-size cosplay (though it also includes “Dante’s guide on how to pick up women” hosted by Dante from Devil May Cry).  The vast majority of anime and geek fans are sociopolitically progressive men; in Susan Nappier’s demographic analysis of anime fans, somewhere between 76% and 85% of anime fans are men, and most are young and liberal.  Nevertheless, mediums like anime spend much of their focus imagining transgressive experiences of gender and sexuality that may be performed in a variety of forms on the convention floor.

The popular cry that conventions are “safe spaces” inelegantly dodges that convention floors, fandom, and “real world” ideologies cannot be utterly separated.  The convention floor is itself a bodily display governed by implicit codes of “open-ness” that hazard condoning anti-social behaviors:  some are prosaic (insufficient deodorant), and others are more problematic (sexual harassment).  This week Dustin Kurtz assessed a harassment charge made at WisCon and mused that perhaps the convention and fandom assumption of equality and convention safety has condoned persistent sexual inequalities.  In a discussion of sci-fi fandom and conventions, Kurtz suggests that “outsiderdom predicated on other criteria—transgendered fans, for instance—is welcome within the community, even when that might be less true in society generally. But some, particularly men of an older generation, seem to mistake a spirit of permissiveness for individual permission.  Whatever the reasons, harassment is rife at these things.”  Kurtz’s conclusion that such sexism is primarily an artifact of an “older generation” risks under-estimating the depth of sexism, but conventions’ sense of equity provides a few people a sense of plausible deniability for behaviors that are clearly not acceptable in public space.

Artists' exhibits at Anime Expo (image from sklathill)

Artists’ exhibits at Anime Expo (image from sklathill)

Some of the material performance is more oblique: fans’ t-shirts jockey to stake a claim to novelty; piles of stuff in sales’ booths display the distinction of anime and manga aesthetics; and even cars in the parking deck display geek stickers staking the driver’s claim to subcultural status.  Contemporary conventions are consumer spaces, of course, but virtually everything at even the most massive conventions can be secured online.   Nevertheless, fans will rarely encounter so many of the material trappings of their passion; much of the convention experience has been reduced to consistent circling of the dealers’ room digging through boxes of things, patiently waiting for discounted prices, and deliberating over purchases.  This dealers’ room hunt is in some ways a reflection of the magnetic attraction fans feel for the rich range of things—commodities, cosplayers, fans–at a convention.

Cosplayers in the Anime Central convention lobby (image from metaxin)

Cosplayers in the Anime Central convention lobby (image from metaxin)

Observers rarely capture the emotional passions that are materialized and expressed at conventions.  In a digital fandom, fan passion certainly is clearly registered, but it takes a more idiosyncratic, experienced, and emotionally familiar form at a convention.  Much of the passion of fandom is registered most clearly in niche groups like cosplayers, followers of particular anime series, or fans of particular “official authors.”  The official authors of convention texts are the people who somehow control the key fan texts, such as artists, acting talent, or industry figures, and these figures are nearly always one of the features of a convention.  The people who hold sway over storylines and performances are privileged as having unique insight into and control over the master narrative:  some like George Lucas, for instance, hold enormous sway over geek franchises, and acting talent is closely associated with the most visible television and movie fandoms.  Yet increasingly even authors like Lucas do not have complete control over popular cultural forms, and acting talent is an interpreter of a text much as fans themselves.  Anime fandom tends to focus on the medium itself—that is, anime films as opposed to Star Wars itself—and it is perhaps less about stardom than other popular mediums like comics, television, and movies.  For instance, the nation’s largest Anime convention, Anime Expo, is hosting about 50,000 fans in Los Angeles this weekend, and its guests feature mostly voice actors and actresses and producers.

In a moment when digital fandom has shifted how we view fan communities, conventions bond fan communities in meaningful ways even as they commodify their fan passions.  The degree of participatory agency fans actually have over their fan passion is inevitably circumscribed, but conventions erase facile distinctions between producers and audiences.  Conventions and fandom in general are shopping opportunities, and conventions are of course ways to meet artists and other fans, but they also are ways fans perform their passions and establish some agency over the social world and imagine new possibilities.


Samantha Nicole Inez Chambers

2012 Anime: From Cult Following to Pop Culture PhenomenonThe Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications 3(2):94-101.

Anna-Maria Ruth Covich

2012 Alter/Ego: Superhero Comic Book Readers, Gender and Identities. Unpublished Master of Arts Thesis, University of Canterbury.

Laurie Cubbison

2005 Anime Fans, DVDs, and the Authentic Text.  The Velvet Light Trap 56(1): 45-57. (subscription access)

Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson (editors)

2012 Routledge Handbook of Participatory Cultures.  Routledge, New York.

Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson

2012 Introduction: What is Participatory Culture?  In Routledge Handbook of Participatory Cultures, eds Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson, pp.3-9.  Routledge, New York.

Rayna Denison

2011 Anime Fandom and the Liminal Spaces between Fan Creativity and Piracy.  International Journal of Cultural Studies September 2011 14: 449-466.  (subscription access)

Rayna Denison and Woojeong Joo

2011 Transmedia Japanese Franchising Unpublished document, Manga to Movies Project.

2011 Japan’s Contemporary Manga, Anime and Film Industries.  Unpublished document, Manga to Movies Project.

John Fiske

1992 The Cultural Economy of Fandom.  In The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, pp. 30-49.  Routledge, New York.

Robert Hamilton

2002 Empire of Kitsch: Japan as Represented in Western Pop Media.  60 Bad Subjects.

Matt Hills

2002 Transcultural otaku: Japanese representations of fandom and representations of Japan in anime/manga fan cultures.  Paper presented at “Media-in-Transition 2: Globalization and Convergence” conference, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Christine Weitbrecht, Chris Tokuhama

2012 Experiencing fan activism: Understanding the power of fan activist organizations through members’ narrativesTransformative Works and Cultures 10 <;

Koichi Iwabuchi

2002 Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.

Henry Jenkins
2006 Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture.  New York University Press, New York.

2012 Textual Poachers : Television Fans and Participatory Culture.  2nd Edition. Routledge, New York.

Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis

2012 Fandom at The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships. Cambridge Scholars Publishing Newcastle upon Tyne.

Hye-Kyung Lee

2010 Cultural Consumers and Copyright: A Case Study of Anime FansubbingCreative Industries Journal 3(3): 235‐250.

Sean Leonard

2004 Progress Against the Law:  Fan Distribution, Copyright, and the Explosive Growth of Japanese Animation.  Unpublished document.

Susan J. Napier

2001 Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation.  Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Annalee Newitz

1994 Anime Otaku: Japanese Animation Fans Outside Japan.  13 Bad Subjects.

Louisa Ellen Stein and Kristina Busse (editors)

2012 Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series.   McFarland, Jefferson, NC.

Carolyn S. Stevens

2010 You Are What You Buy: Postmodern Consumption and Fandom of Japanese Popular Culture.  Japanese Studies 30(2):199-214. (subscription access)

Mark W. MacWilliams (editor)

2008 Japanese Visual Culture : Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime.  M.E. Sharpe, New York.


Anime Central image from metaxin

Anime Expo image from sklathill

Anime Expo Hall image from radagast

Anime Expo poster image and Cosplayer Angie image from Danny Choo

FanimeCon image from Cliff Nordman

FanimeCon 2013 image from coolmikeol

Katsucon Princesses image and Katsucon cosplayer image from Fred Dunn

Geek Tees: T-Shirts and Geek Culture

T-Shirts for sale at the Philadelphia Wizard World Comic-Con

T-Shirts for sale at the Philadelphia Wizard World Comic-Con

Most pictures of the geek experience highlight the aesthetic and material visibility of geeks: that is, we can “see” geeks, who signal their social distinctions with material style ranging from clothes to super-hero statues to backpacks to body form.  Among the pantheon of geek material goods, perhaps no element is more visible or common than the prosaic t-shirt, and geek t-shirts provide a compelling if somewhat novel mechanism to illuminate geek-ness, the notion of “geek culture,” and the intersection of geeks, style, and marketing.

The idea of a geek culture carries with it some intellectual baggage rooted in conventional anthropological definitions of culture, and the problem of defining geek “culture” is common to definitions of many other contemporary social collectives.  Anthropologists have been destabilizing the idea of culture—the very concept that defines the discipline—since the 1970’s, complicating the facile distinction between the West and the Other that characterized colonial analyses of the world.  We live in a moment in which something approximating a global consumer culture has collapsed how we see difference, imagine community, and craft distinction, leaving us in an interconnected world in which “us” and “them” are not especially useful polarizations.

Culture is a somewhat mechanical concept if we approach it in terms of bounded membership (e.g., “real” geeks and poseurs) or simply oppose it to some caricatured foil (e.g., geeks as a contrast to the “mainstream,” “sports/jock culture,” or some other stereotype of “normality”).  For some anthropologists, culture is produced for specific sorts of social reasons; that is, culture is not something essential like where you were born or your skin color, but it is instead constructed to represent distinction and create a sense of separateness.  When geeks appropriate the moniker of “culture,” they perhaps stake a clumsy claim to the social legitimacy, authenticity, and distinction associated with traditional definitions of culture.  Social groups like geeks routinely celebrate themselves as a “culture” because that concept distinguishes them as a unified and distinct group separated from the materiality, taste, and practices of the masses.  We can literally see those differences in mundane things like distinctive t-shirts.

Zombies and Doctor Who are among the most popular geek motifs, sometimes even crossing over onto the same shirt (image ShantyShawn, Red Bubble)

Zombies and Doctor Who are among the most popular geek motifs, sometimes even crossing over onto the same shirt (image ShantyShawn, Red Bubble)

Few elements of geek material culture are more common than the t-shirt.  Every convention is now crowded by a host of merchants selling every possible geek motif shirt; specialty stores and increasingly more mainstream shops hawk geeky t-shirts; and many more firms and individual sellers cover the internet with countless geek icons (e.g., Star Wars), crossovers (featuring two or more franchises), and individual creations paying homage to the likes of zombies, Lovecraft, and Minecraft.

The emergence of the branded t-shirt is a relatively recent phenomenon.  The superhero and sci-fi shirt market once stopped at middle school sizes just as Batman jammies transitioned to teen sizes and adult styles.  Concert t-shirts—the obscenely over-priced confirmation you did indeed see Grand Funk Railroad—were one deviation from that t-shirt market (the first concert souvenir shirt was apparently a 1956 Elvis shirt, and the Monkees sold shirts on their 1967 American tour), and some resorts began to produce branded shirts advertising their resorts in the 1950’s.  Popular franchises like Planet of the Apes and Doctor Who were long tied to branded goods like toys, but adult clothing was an uncommon branded item.  Kids’ clothing was sold in department stores alongside other children’s fashions, and toys had a dedicated department in most stores, but adult t-shirts were mostly available only as undecorated undergarments in the men’s underwear section.

ET flies across the moon's face with a new Alien cargo (image from runstop, Red Bubble)

ET flies across the moon’s face with a new Alien cargo (image from runstop, Red Bubble)

An emerging marketplace in the 1980s and into the 1990s was sci-fi conventions. Fans had gathered at science fiction conventions like WorldCon (1939) since World War II, but they were joined by many more fans with the introduction of Gen Con (gaming) in 1968,  Comic Con in 1970, Eurocon (European sci-fi) in 1972, the World Fantasy Convention in 1975, Comiket (anime/manga) in 1975, the North American Science Fiction Convention in 1975, DragonCon (multiple genres) in 1987, and a host of more specialized and regional conferences and ever-more comic and sci-fi shows in the past 20 years.

Fueled by the explosion in geek conventions, the most significant expansion of the t-shirt market—and many other geek commodities—came in the past 20 years, and much of it has been driven by internet sales and marketers’ increasingly aggressive appeal to geek consumers.  The scatter of homemade silk screens and DIY shirts made in the 1970s and 1980s now pale in comparison to the legion of shirts that are marketed internationally online.

Any Doctor Who fan will know that the Doctor has two hearts (image Okse, Red Bubble)

Any Doctor Who fan will know that the Doctor has two hearts (image Okse, Red Bubble)

As with all things geek, the conditions that qualify a shirt as geek are somewhat ambiguous.  Mass marketers aspire to manage brand symbolism, so somewhere in the flood of officially branded Iron Man or Walking Dead shirts there are corporate efforts to structure the meaning of the franchise and manage fan demand for the goods.  In a do-it-yourself moment, though, a crowd of modest artists, fans, and marketers appropriate those brands; legally we cannot make and sell Portal shirts, but the corporate legal effort of shutting down every modest seller on Red Bubble and ebay may not be worth the cost, and it is certainly counter-productive in fan communities.  The result is an absolute flood of shirts in every possible motif, some officially sanctioned and many more fan homages.

Within days of the President's reference to a "Jedi Mind Meld," this shirt appeared placing the POTUS in both Star Wars and Star Trek (image from tee craze)

Within days of the President’s reference to a “Jedi Mind Meld,” this shirt appeared placing the POTUS in both Star Wars and Star Trek (image from T Shirt Laundry)

This flooded market has yielded symbolic geek riches.  Perhaps the central geek value that shapes the meaning of t-shirts is novelty.  Geeks value clever and novel plays on shared symbols—for instance, the “Ewoking Dead” hybridizing two geek franchises (zombie crossovers range from Peanuts to Hello Kitty to Tron), Mad X Men, or various interpretations of icon scenes like ET riding an airborne bike in the moonlight.  A “good” shirt is inevitably a subjective notion, but the most compelling motifs seize on geek franchises (e.g., the universe of Doctor Who shirts knows no bounds), employ phrases familiar only to insiders, or are timely (e.g., within days of his reference to a “Jedi Mind Meld,” a t-shirt appeared featuring a Vulcan Obama in a Jedi robe; a “Red Wedding” shirt from Game of Thrones was available the day following the episode).

At major conventions it is increasingly more common to find that very few people are wearing the same t-shirts.  The sales floor of every convention is always its busiest space, and a series of web pages like T-Shirt Roundup and Hide Your Arms do nothing but inventory t-shirts for sale on any given day.  The highest geek fashion complement today may be “Where did you get that shirt?,” yet this is a tribute to shopping resourcefulness as much as it is flattery to taste: demonstrating t-shirt style requires a geek to be as good a shopper as many of the masses so commonly dismissed by geeks, so t-shirts underscore the geek immersion in consumer culture.  Certainly many t-shirt sellers are individuals managing modest operations and celebrating their favorite geekery, but a host of firms now sell a vast volume of t-shirts and assorted commodities explicitly marketed as “geek.”

A wall of t-shirts at Wizard World

A wall of t-shirts at Wizard World

A t-shirt is perhaps a somewhat distinctive geek commodity, since it is worn outside the confines of conventions and comic shops and confirms in public space the consumer’s attraction to Game of Thrones, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sherlock, Firefly, Lord of the Rings, and myriad other geek realms and franchises.  Some symbols have pretty universal recognition (e.g., Superman and Batman), but others are much more of a niche that may be incomprehensible beyond geek circles (e.g., the Torchwood Institute symbol).  For some observers these shirts are homing signals that identify fellow geeks and weed out those who cannot recite Roy Batty’s final soliloquy.  Nevertheless, such symbols are not purely “other-directed” and meant to establish affinities with other geeks: geek symbols are perhaps equally if not more important for how they make the consumer feel.  Batman, for instance, could be a sign of law-and-order, rebellion, or style, and none of those meanings are exclusive to each other or necessarily even articulate.

We can circumspectly acknowledge a body of social practices that distinguishes “geek culture,” but at the same time it is firmly embedded in broader marketing patterns and consumer values.  The notion of a clearly defined mainstream culture against which geeks are contrasted is mostly a rhetorical maneuver that evades the deep impression of geeks in consumer culture, if not their centrality in that society.  Any efforts to define geeks—call it a culture, subculture, post-subculture, tribe, or any other term–need to examine who we imagine ourselves to be; what socially unites a circle of people attracted to games, sci-fi, cosplay, and comics; and how dominant ideologies and market structure shape the expression of geek selfhood.  Culture is partly an idea that imagines self and others; it is partly a document of shared experiences, a common everyday life; and it is partly a set of structural material conditions.  Any reflective understanding of geeks needs to examine all of these interconnected dimensions of geekhood and contemporary life.


Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson

1992 Beyond “Culture”: Space, Identity, and the Politics of DifferenceCultural Anthropology 7 (1):6-23. (subscription access)

J.A. McArthur

2009 Digital Subculture: A Geek Meaning of Style.  Journal of Communication Inquiry 33(1): 58-70. (subscription access)

Jason Tocci

2007 The Well-Dressed Geek: Media Appropriation and Subcultural Style.  Paper presented at MiT5, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (29 April).

Johnny Yu

2007 Looking Inside Out: A Sociology of Knowledge and Ignorance of Geekness. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 5(2): 41-50.


Wizard World images from author

Dawn of the Doctor shirt image from ShantyShawn on Red Bubble

Doctor Who Hearts image from okse on Red Bubble

ET/Aliens shirt image from runstop on Red Bubble

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Consuming Geeks: Subculture and the Marketing of Doctor Who

Doctor Who cosplayers at the 2010 Chicago TARDIS convention.

Doctor Who cosplayers at the 2010 Chicago TARDIS convention.

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.”

The Fifth Doctor's TARDIS at the Doctor Who Experience in London.

The Fifth Doctor’s TARDIS at the Doctor Who Experience in London.

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.”

A Dalek does battle at Chicago TARDIS 2011

A Dalek does battle at Chicago TARDIS 2011

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.’”

Consumption at London Comic Con 2011

Consumption at London Comic Con 2011

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.

Piers D. Britton and Simon J. Barker

2003 Reading Between Designs: Design and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who.  University of Texas Press, Austin.
Dick Hebdige

1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style.  Methuen, New York.

Matt Hills

2010 Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-First Century.  I.B. Tauris, London.

David Layton
2012 Humanism of Doctor Who: A Critical Study in Science Fiction and Philosophy.  McFarland
Jefferson, North Carolina.

David Muggleton

2000 Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style.  Berg, New York.

Steve Redhead, Derek Wynne, Justin O’Connor (eds.)

1998 The Clubcultures Reader:  Readings in Popular Cultural StudiesBlackwell, New York.
John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins (eds)
1995 Science Fiction Audiences : Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Their Fans.  Routledge, New York.

Peter Wright

2011 Expatriate! Expatriate!: Doctor Who: The Movie and Commercial Exploitation of a Multiple Text.  In British Science Fiction Film and Television: Critical Essays, eds. Tobias Hochscherf, James Leggott, and Donald E. Palumbo, pp. 128-142. McFarland and Company, Jefferson, North Carolina.