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Privileging the Normal October 27, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in Armchair philosophy.
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The thing I hear people complain about the most when it comes to fan conventions is the smell. I will never, ever understand this. It’s a stereotype, an ugly one, and I don’t think it’s at all true. I have never noticed any untoward smell, and I have a rather sensitive nose (such that a friend of mine once remarked that my ability to find food carts on city streets seemed like some kind of superpower). A fan convention is no more malodorous than rush hour on your average public transit, or indeed any other large and crowded gathering of humans. I think the stereotype comes in because people assume that nerds have terrible hygiene. On average, I think nerd hygiene is no worse or better than the hygiene of any population of humans – some of them will smell funny, most won’t, and that’s that. Conventions, perhaps, get that reputation because the vast majority of the attendees are staying for three days in a hotel room and not sleeping, but again, I’ve never noticed a convention as being any worse than any other large gathering. Indeed, most concerts and dance parties I’ve been to have been far worse.

Perhaps it’s because society privileges the ‘normal’. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is ‘normal’, so no one is going to complain about the dust or the sweat of a few thousand tourists in the Washington DC summer sun. A Boyscout Jamboree is ‘normal’, so no one is going to complain about the smell of unwashed adolescent boys wearing peculiar uniforms. But a fan convention is outside the norm, so when you have to stand in line behind a girl with huge plastic wings, a kid in an orange jumpsuit with little whiskers drawn on his face, and a guy with a gigantic plastic sword, you are going to complain about these damn nerds getting up in your life and disrupting your every day routine. Again, to use the Folklife example, or DC’s Cherry Blossom Festival – you probably have more people around during those events, and they are probably going to cause more problems with lines, empty ATMs, and traffic, but you can see the geeks. Or in regards to the smell – if you’ve traveled a few thousand miles to get to your favorite convention and you have to deal with a guy in line with you who smells like seven day old socks, you are going to notice him more. You will blame it on him being a nerd. Yet you probably have a co-worker you have to deal with every day at your boring nine-to-five job who smells as bad if not worse, who never showers, and who is for the most part a normal guy whose idea of ‘fandom’ is to go to a Sox game. It’s all a matter of perspective.

So why do we privilege the normal? Why is it that traveling thousands of miles to see a favorite baseball team or spending thousands of dollars on a ticket to a concert perfectly fine behavior, but spending forty dollars to go hang out with friends for a weekend and catch up on the latest Marvel releases is ‘weird’? Why is the stinky co-worker at work well… it’s not okay, but why is that reek associated with fans when it’s clearly a larger problem? I meet more fetid normal people than I do geeks. So why the stereotype?

It’s a pervasive attitude among nerds too. Nerds are shy about their nerdiness. The other day I had a conversation with a girl I know who I think of as a non-nerd, as an ‘outsider’, but it turns out she plays World of Warcraft and used to play Ragnarok Online; she hung out on Gaia and had a few hundred dollars worth of rare items before her account got hacked into and then banned. We talked about online gaming and trolling, about our latest Tumblr finds and wallpaper, but the second other people walked in the conversation stopped, and she started talking about boys and booze again, and I just retreated into my normal shell (I have little to say outside fandom, most of the time). There’s a kind of embarrassment, which I’m guilty of myself. I don’t like to admit that I have a huge Transformers collection; I don’t like to admit that I waste most of my free time pretending to be fictional characters on the internet. Even in my writing I try to avoid the subject, to pretend that my obsessions aren’t as deep as they are. It’s embarrassing. It makes me feel somehow less of a person.

I know why I do this, at least in part – as a child I, like every other nerd on the planet, got bullied for my geeky interests. But the reason I got bullied for my geeky interests stems from that very problem – we privilege the ‘normal’.

I think I’m talking about a problem that hundreds of others have spoken of before, and in a far more eloquent manner. Doubtless some well-meaning person will link me to a dozen essays and websites and books on the subject.

For now I’m going to end this little ramble.

Note: the first person who ‘corrects’ my uses of the words ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ in here gets punched and/or banned I swear. Take your grammar nazi attitude and go back to the MLA.



1. Patrick - October 27, 2010

Oooh, I really like this post.

I think that this is essentially deterministic; the normal are privileged because they are normal, in the sense of “common.” This is the same reason that minorities get screwed.

Also, nerd solidarity is not the same thing as, say, sports solidarity, because no two nerds actually have the exact same interests. The only thing that might unite two given “nerds” at a convention is the mere fact that they have interests that are not mainstream. A gathering of nerds is therefore a very loose agglomeration. Even in focused fandoms such as Transformers you get people like you and I who aren’t interested in it for the same reasons and have entirely different experiences within fandom. When all you have is that you’re not “normal,” then you don’t have a strong association.

Granted, the lack of social power of nerds actually is starting to change due to the sheer *number* of people in our society who are nerds to some extent.

Also, quite frankly, some people DO take their interests too far. And then other people remember the extreme cases, so that’s what they think of when they meet someone with an “abnormal” hobby that they just don’t get at all.

Lucien - October 27, 2010

re: determinism – that seems like a reasonable explanation. The fact that minorities are screwed too though is an example of why privileging the common sucks.

re: nerd solidarity – again, you’ve got an excellent point! I actually think that’s one of the things I love about nerd subculture: we only have that one commonality, so there’s a huge array of interests and you’re much more likely to meet vastly different people. I learn so much by being in fandom.

That said, I’d also point out that sports fans can be vastly different too, even if they both like the same team. If you have two Sox fans, one might be a huge history buff, the other might be obsessed with a particular player; one might be upper class and one might be a total Southie. but I still think you’re right; fandom is much crazier.

re: taking it too far – The problem here, I think, is that nerd-dom has a much stronger reputation for the ‘taking it too far’ thing. I have definetly heard of sports fanatics or car buffs or whatever who have taken it to extremes that are quite frankly absurd. The people who decorate their whole houses in nothing but Ravens memorabilia, for instance. Yet, 1. in the case of Ravens memorabilia, that’s still less stigmatized than the guy who decorates his whole house in Gundam memorabilia and 2. nobody assumes that ALL sports fans are weirdos who do nothing but obsess over sports and get into fights over their favourite team.

Take internet roleplaying, for example. I’m always reluctant to talk about it because there’s this stereyotype that internet roleplayers only play bad slash, that they forgo normal activities for said hobby (including their job, school, etc), that they ‘believe’ they really are the character. None of these are true – I don’t do any of these things when I roleplay. I’m just trying to write something silly so I can unwind after doing Serious Business writing for a day. But people instantly assume that stuff if I mention that I roleplay, especially the slash part. Conversely, if I were to say “I play fantasy football” no one would assume that I forgo work/school/actual relationships in lieu of fantasy football!

That said, glad you enjoyed.

Lucien - October 27, 2010

… I think I had some grammar/definition fail in that last reply. Meh.

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