How Geek Chic Works

Stephanie Pakrul, better known on the Internet as StephTheGeek.

What is geek chic? Is it a style, a trend, a movement, a cultural shift or just a love affair with all things uncool? First off, what is a geek? If you're getting ready to argue about this definition, you might be one of them.

A geek has obsessive, esoteric knowledge about mass media, pop culture and technology. Geeks are generally smart, they're passionate about things most people don't care about, and most of them tend to be early adopters when it comes to the latest gadgets. Geek message boards talk about the latest casting rumors for "Watchmen," not who's going to win the Super Bowl.


Geeks are one thing. But what does it mean to be geek chic? Think of Alyson Hannigan's character Willow in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." During the first few seasons, she is a geek, and her hair and attire reflect that. After a few seasons, she gets her hair cut and colored to a more vibrant red and adds some flattering clothes to her wardrobe. Voila -- from geek to geek chic. She's still the same old Willow with the same interests, but she's polished.

­Some more famous examples of geek chic? Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of "Flight of the Conchords" went from indie New Zealand band to stars of their own HBO show. (Geek trivia: Bret was in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." LOTR fans fell for him, despite the fact that he never spoke, and nicknamed him Figwit, which stands for "Frodo is Great -- Who is That?" Peter Jackson gave Figwit a couple of lines in "The Return of the King" as a nod to fans.)

Tina Fey, former head writer for "Saturday Night Live" and the force behind "Mean Girls" and "30 Rock," exemplifies a geek chic girl. She's brunette, for one, she's smart, she wears hip glasses, her cultural satire is merciless and hilarious, and she was a drama club girl in high school. And who wouldn't want to hang out with her?

Andy Samberg, also of SNL fame, sports a goofy clown smile and some awesome digital shorts under his belt (pun not entirely intended). Check him out in the YouTube hit "Lazy Sunday" to "Sloths" and "Laser Cats," along with a certain "Special Box." Rivers Cuomo, the frontman of Weezer, plays Dungeons and Dragons. Oddly, so does Vin Diesel. Quentin Tarantino's films are total geekfests. Elvis Costello, Justin Long, Parker Posey, Jack Black, Beck and Adam Brody all make the geek chic celebrity list. Natalie Portman even won a little geek-girl cred for her role in a few of the "Star Wars" movies.

The look of geek chic is the easy part. You take key pieces of a typically geeky wardrobe and wear them with purpose and aplomb, to make a point. Not because you're clueless and out of the fashion loop, not because you can't afford Ralph Lauren -- because you want to. Think thick black glasses, pinstriped suits with skinny ties, sweater vests, pocket protectors -- a hipster vibe with a nerdy edge. T-shirts like this one from thinkgeek with slogans like "There's no place like" (the IP address of your home machine) make the cut. It's about reclaiming the geek identity as something not only meaningful, but also stylish.


The Right Attitude

That's right: being geeky and stylish are no longer mutually exclusive.

Now that you understand the geek chic look, let's talk about the geek chic attitude. The kids who spent their high school years outside the popular crowd have come into their own, with a defiant, open-armed embrace of what makes one a geek: love of books, computers, video games, comic books, horror films, technology. It's cool to be smart. It's cool to do what you love -- bonus points if what you love requires exhaustive knowledge of obscure things.

VH1's "World Series of Pop Culture" is like the trivia-obsessed Geek Olympics. Remember "Freaks and Geeks," Judd Apatow's critically acclaimed and much-beloved TV series that NBC now wishes it hadn't cancelled? With the success of "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," you'll keep seeing "long wait" status on Netflix for the season DVDs. You'll also see a big celebration of kids on the fringe, those outsiders who were outsiders for a good reason -- intelligent, complex characters struggling to deal with the horrors of high school.


In "Freaks and Geeks," the character of Neil Schweiber (Samm Levine) delivers a line about high school romance that will resonate with most geeks: "The dance is tomorrow. She's a cheerleader, you've seen 'Star Wars' 27 times. You do the math." In high school, that equation means one thing, but the opposite sex might now find that quirky sensibility quite attractive.

That knowledge and borderline obsession can translate into a certain snobbishness. In "High Fidelity," Rob Gordon (John Cusack) claims this as the reason for his record store's success: "I get by because of the people who make a special effort to shop here -- mostly young men -- who spend all their time looking for deleted Smith singles, and original -- not re-released, underlined -- Frank Zappa albums." In the film, he refuses to sell a record to a customer "because you're not a geek." The customer then counters by saying that the staff is a bunch of snobs who think they are unappreciated scholars.

Well, yes. The fanboy is a natural extension of this obsessive quality -- utter devotion to one geeky topic (the merits of Linux, for example) and aggression toward all detractors. Consider Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons" or the boy decked out in Halo gear in Gamestop who accosts you and demands you list the merits of PlayStation on the spot.

Geek chic permeates the mainstream. The Harry Potter phenomenon brought back reading as a trend, while librarians the world over rejoiced. Making reading cool is a big enough feat, said the English major, but reading about wizards? That's taking a page from the WOW crowd. J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" left the backpacks of high school dorks and leaped onto the screen, complete with Orlando Bloom. The Matrix movies made major bank, and comic book movies like "Sin City," "V for Vendetta," and the X-Men and Spider-Man movies dominated the box office. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was a huge hit on TV. "Star Wars" no longer remains the exclusive property of the geek faction -- the prequels filled the theaters. Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman's names are starting to mean something to the non-geek.

David Tennant, The Doctor on "Doctor Who," with a sonic screwdriver: pure geek chic

The real geek-chic mafia are the geeks with the money and the gadgets, the hard-core Slashdot addicts who were trading patent information about the iPhone for months on Apple fan blogs and were first in line for its release (or blogging endlessly and passionately against it). In the information age, geeks are making the money and spending the money. Steve Jobs, Apple's former CEO and the original techy geek, could probably have started his own army if he had felt like it. The Slashdot Hall of Fame yields threads on politics, Creationism, hackers, Google, Microsoft and Scientology -- hot-button topics, computer stuff and politics. The geek chic are cooler-than-thou, intelligent, hyperconnected and passionate.

What does it all mean? You can have a retro computer collection and still get a date.


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