When I think of geeks, I think of the Terminator, too much make-up and an unfortunate erection. In our sixth-form college, there were two prominent geeks: Rob and myself. Rob was obsessed with movies and make-up. I was obsessed with writing movies and wearing Rob’s make-up.
To impress all the single ladies at a fancy dress party, we decided to cash in on the success of Terminator 2: Judgement Day by turning me into Arnold Schwarzenegger. I had the sunglasses, the black jacket and the height. But I lacked the bulk. I looked like a black felt-tip pen.
But I had Rob’s ingenious make-up. He gave me the Terminator’s red eye, placing a small bulb across my eye, gluing it to my skin with latex, which he painted silver to give the illusion of a metal endoskeleton. The girls loved it. For one night only, I was a babe magnet.
The only drawback was I controlled the red light with a switch that was the size of a TV remote control, which I kept in my underwear and operated through a hole in my jeans pocket. When a girl approached, she met a teenage Terminator with an unbelievable erection. I tried to explain, but soon learned that chasing someone across a dance floor whilst dressed as a cyborg killer with a huge bulge only made matters worse.
But to many at our school, Rob and I had reverted to type. We were social lepers, freaks who didn’t belong in the world around them. While classmates fixated on the usual teenage stuff—soft drugs, pornography and masturbation, often all at once—we discussed movie scripts, make-up and special effects.
Even our puberty-addled brains struggled with the bizarre incongruity of our situation. We were written off as weirdos when we were the real rebels, seeking life goals beyond shagging lots of women and driving a delivery van for a living (probably because I wasn’t capable of doing either).
I was both a geek and a ‘boff ’, both boring and clever, a vicious combination that denied entry to the cool club. A ‘boff’ was a fool, an idiot (an obvious contradiction, perhaps, but anti-intellectualism led to Trump and Brexit). I was the neighbourhood freak and any other number of pejorative terms used to dismiss outliers and those who go against the conventional grain.
There was even a movie, Revenge of the Nerds, to reinforce the message of ‘us and them’—the ‘us’ being weedy, bespectacled beanpoles in love with computer coding and the ‘them’ being sporting slabs of chiselled muscle in love with their own chest pecs, which looked one squeeze away from lactating.
The caricatures were broadly drawn, but proved stubbornly persistent. Rob now runs one of the largest special effects companies in Europe and has worked on Oscar-winning movies. I write columns about teenage phallic symbols for a living. Being geeks served us well.
And yet, interests and ambitions beyond the norm are still treated with a degree of suspicion, perhaps even derision by those desperate to be part of the in- crowd, the majority, seeking some sort of social safety in numbers.
A few years back, a reality TV show called Beauty and the Geek only reinforced the idea that the two were mutually exclusive. A geek remained at the bottom of the dung pile in terms of social hierarchy, smart but unpopular. But the beauty was still the social butterfly, the belle of every ball, even if she needed to use her thumbs to count into double figures.
To borrow from Friends, it’s Ross or Rachel, rather than Ross and Rachel, the university professor or the prom queen (and it’s interesting to note that Friends usually depicted Ross, the smartest man in the room, as the clumsy, socially awkward one and Joey, the dimmest of the lot, as the fun guy at every party).
Maybe that’s the point. Outsiders are not welcome to the party. Those who do not advocate groupthink are generally viewed with caution for not bleating with the herd.
For what are the essential attributes of a ‘geek’? Being different. Not conforming. Rejecting the status quo. Seeking an alternative path. By the very (narrow-minded) definition of others, geeks do not toe the line.
Rob and I didn’t conform. We rejected the very rigid expectations that were laid down, on our behalf, by others within our oppressive working-class communities.
We went our own, quirky way, just like the guy running my favourite vinyl record store, or the kitsch sellers at Haji Lane, or Louis Ng at ACRES, or Ivy Singh-Lim at Bollywood Veggies or any of the other outliers who rejected the off-the-peg lifestyles handed to them and tailored their own instead.
Geeks are not square or dull, but quite the opposite. They are true originals.
So it’s ironic that ‘geek chic’ has finally made ‘geek culture’ cool apparently because David Beckham occasionally wears thick-rimmed spectacles—with no lenses—and TV shows like Silicon Valley became popular, which proves nothing other than good comedy is simply good comedy, whatever the characters, and Beckham can be a bit daft.
Just as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg supposedly contributed to ‘geek chic’ by making IT gadgets trendy, when they in fact achieved the opposite. They made their products mainstream and commonplace. Outliers are generally neither. My mother-in-law now uses Facebook Messenger to inform me that we’ve run out of toilet rolls. How cool is that?
A geek isn’t a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles or a slogan on a T-shirt. It’s a state of mind. It’s being slightly out of step with conventional society and being proud of it. It’s a deep knowledge and passion for a subject at a time when ignorance is a celebrated political strategy. It’s a refusal to be pigeonholed by those who live exclusively in pigeonholes.
Geeks will continue to be ridiculed, in that patronising, sneering tone, because the criticism is laced with envy. Geeks are not particularly good at doing as they’re told. They tend to do their own thing. Such a state of affairs can lead jealous types to lash out, resorting to archaic accusations of ‘geeky behaviour’ in a bid to ameliorate their own social insecurities. Just ignore them.
Anti-geek bores can take their reverse snobbery and stick it where I stick TV remote controls.