Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Consumerism and Geek Culture

Happy Easter to all my Christian sisters and brothers! Today’s post is not going to be about anything involving Easter. Other than the Christ figures, there isn’t much Easter-oriented material in geek culture. There are probably a couple reasons as to why that is, but we aren’t going to get into that today.

Instead, we are going to discuss Christian ethics in geek culture. Particularly, we will be discussing issues of simplicity and voluntary poverty.

Shut-up-and-take-my-moneyRecently, I have been thinking about taking on the challenge of living a life of voluntary poverty. Voluntary poverty is an old idea going back to the monastics and hermits in the early Catholic traditions. The idea of lay (non-clergy) Catholics embracing the idea of voluntary poverty was made popular through the Catholic Worker movement, started by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. Living a life of voluntary poverty means to live as simply as possible, rarely buying possessions, and worrying less about making and obtaining money in order to dedicate one’s life to service and prayer. It’s a tough sell for many people, but it can also be very freeing. For most people, living a life of voluntary poverty does not seem to be an option. However, all Catholics are called to live a life of simplicity, not to be consumed with possessions or material wealth. I realized as I tried to realign my life in order to live more simply that I had a major problem. I’m a geek. And being an avid fan of all things geeky actually seems to be an exact opposite lifestyle to a simplistic Christian one.

BTmpSpLCcAAA8VJIn my apartment there are tons of posters depicting various super heroes or fantasy characters. I own a TARDIS cookie jar, Adventure Time costumes, an uncountable amount of geeky movies, video games, and TV shows, boxes upon boxes of sci-fi and fantasy books, an ungodly amount of comic books, and of course over half of my closet is filled with geeky T-shirts. I could go on, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just say I have a lot of really geeky shit. And I have an Amazon wish list full of more geeky shit that I want. That I want, but in no way really need, and I think that’s the problem. I certainly don’t own anywhere near as much as some of my fellow geeks.There was one man who boasted to me about his two-bedroom apartment and how he uses the larger of the two rooms to store his comic books. Various geeky documentaries about fans show people who spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on action figures, costumes, and other geeky paraphernalia.

Even at the less extreme end, just buying comics or movies all the time can end up being pretty expensive, and while I love and enjoy these things, they aren’t exactly conducive to living a more simplistic Christian lifestyle. For geeks, consumerism is a big part of being a fan and in our haste to buy all our favorite things, we might not realize how much money, energy, resources, and time we end up using.

Now, I am not saying you can’t be a geek and a good Christian, and certainly not everyone is called to something as extreme as voluntary poverty. Even living simply is difficult, whether you are a geek or not. But I think part of the problem tends to be that geeks, in a lot of ways, are expected and even required to have a lot of geeky items as identity markers to show that they are a “real” geek. For example, someone who really likes The Avengers, but doesn’t own any of the comics, T-shirts, action figures, or other items may be said to be a fan of the movie, but not a geek for The Avengers.

Geek gatekeeping is never a good thing. In just the same way that quizzing girls about gandalfgatekeepingBatman to “prove that they’re a real fan” is idiotic, so is judging if someone is a real fan based on how much geeky stuff they own. First of all, there are a variety of reasons that someone may not own a ton of geeky things. One reason could be income: actual poverty instead of voluntary poverty. By insisting someone needs to have a bunch of geeky products to be a “real” geek, we are actually being quite classist. Secondly, there are more reasons to avoid constant consumerism than just religious reasons. Someone who is serious about helping the environment may wish to avoid consumerism in order to cut back on using our already limited resources. No matter what the reason I choose to spend or not spend money, whether religious or not, that is no reason to claim I am not a “real” geek.

The point is, geek gatekeeping is never okay. No matter what, geek gatekeeping comes off as sexist, classist, anti-religious, or general weirdly insisting on knowing all details of a person’s life and how exactly they “geek”. No one should ever have to prove they’re a geek. If they identify as a geek, then they are one. Furthermore, I think geeks are so much more than just consumers of geeky products. Felicia Day discusses this in one of her videos for Geek and Sundry and calls for a redefining of the word geek.

I think one of the reason that it’s so difficult for geeks in particular to live a Christian path of voluntary poverty is because geeks, like all groups, use identity markers to signify that they are part of a specific group. I could have a ton of knowledge about Harry Potter, but without any identity markers like T-shirts or accessories, then people are uncertain of my geek status and thus less inclined to believe that I am a geek. There is a PBS Idea Channel episode that discusses that this is one of the reasons that people hate hipsters: because they wear identity markers that don’t belong to them. This same issue comes up with geeky Christians who want to live a life of simplicity. Not having those identity markers defines you either as a non-geek, or not a real geek.

Furthermore, not buying certain geeky things can label you a bad geek to fans. For example, fans are told to preorder comics to show support for them. And if you are a feminist and a comic book lover, you know that not buying comics about or created by ladies could have a negative affect on gaining more representation. So if I engage in voluntary poverty and stop buying those comics, it’s possible that my fellow feminist geeks would say I was being a bad fan (I hope not!). Basically, in some ways, it is choosing between showing that you have “faith” in the geeky things you love and trying to express your Christian faith through voluntary poverty.

Obviously geek gatekeeping is not the only thing that makes it difficult to be a geek and a Christian trying to live simply. Our society is generally a consumerist culture that is constantly trying to tell us that we need more stuff to be happy. Being a geek is not really what is out of sync from living a Christian lifestyle; it’s our overall culture that is. The idea that consumption is bad is extremely counterculture to our current society, and following a lifestyle of simplicity or voluntary poverty is hard enough without having to deal with things like geek gatekeeping. I think it is also important to realize that geeks can consume a geeky culture or product without necessarily being materialistic. The writer CompGeekDavid from the site Comparative Geeks also has discussed this issue of consumerism and geek culture, though from a more environmental perspective than I am doing. He makes, I think, an important distinction between consumption and giving into materialism. He writes:

However, while consumerism and materialism often go hand-in-hand, they are not synonymous. And here we get to the heart of the point I was trying to make. Geeks consume the culture – watch it, read it, play it, share it, blog on it, cosplay it, whatever – but they are involved in the consumption of cultural artifacts. However, they are also a group that might be alright without the materialistic side of consumption.

Think about geeks – they are the sort to, these days, be making the decision to go with Netflix and Hulu instead of buying movies and TV shows. The sort to go to libraries for books. The sort to digitally download movies and TV to watch them, to have Kindles and other readers that they are now getting books on.

Geeks seem to, more and more, be okay with these new and alternative means of consuming the culture. Means where maybe they don’t own the product but are renting or borrowing it, means where they have a lower material impact on the things they consume.

This might not help those Christian geeks attempting to live a life of voluntary poverty, but it’s a start toward living more simply while still enjoying all the geeky things we love. People are geeks because they enjoy certain things and express their deep love for those things without apology. That does not mean that one has to express that love by buying stuff, especially an excess of stuff. People read comics, watch movies, or play video games for enjoyment, and simply being able to express that joy should be enough to show that someone is a geek. Christian geeks, like myself, can take heart in the fact that we can experience and enjoy geek culture by defining geek as something more than being avid consumers of certain products. We experience geekdom and can enjoy being geeks in ways that don’t require money. From borrowing comic books at a library to reading fanfiction, there are many ways to be a geek and to participate in geekdom. 

parade_of_ever_fancier_toysHappy Easter!

9 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Consumerism and Geek Culture

  1. Happy Easter! Very interesting post. Thank you for writing and sharing it. I also have a ton of geek stuff and more on my wish lists. Over the past year, I have seen my money shrink down pretty badly and I’ve saved every possible penny towards a future move for the day I find a job. While I had already tried to focus on only purchasing things I really wanted (as a few years ago I sometimes bought things I wanted but not that badly) before this, being unable to go to the movies, buying the books and DVDs I’d love to, well it has definitely made me rethink of how I approach my geekness. In the end, I still feel as much as a geek as before, but in a way I am happy that I don’t purchase as frivolously as I might have once upon a time. It isn’t actual voluntary poverty but I know that this approach to what I purchase or not will last even when I have a job and am financially stable again. Being able to really sit down and think for a while about what I want most amongst different things makes for better (and for me more lasting enjoyment) purchases.

    • Holly and I have similarly had to deal with a decrease in funds, so we’ve been making similar decisions! We tend to decide based on really wanting something before we buy it, and also making sure we catch sales. We’re not seeing movies in 3D, which sometimes dictates when we can go to the movies. And it’s also led us back to the libraries, where we have been amazed to find comics, video games, and more!

  2. I really appreciate your insightful post, because even though I’m not christian at all I’m very much into the conscious consumerism and “de-clutter your life” thing. I’ve moved quite a lot cross-continentally during my adult life which made minimalising a necessity, and recently I had to deal with the remains of the “collector / borderline compulsive hoarder” lifestyle of a deceased relative – so I’m not that much into “having lots of stuff around” in general. I’ve always been wondering how that fits together with geekdom, which is based on collecting, consuming, buying, merchandising etc. …

  3. I’ll admit I one of those people who would rather spend a monthly to yearly fee for something then buy it one at a time. Partly because if I’m only going to use it once, or twice whats the use of owning a physical copy. But then I’ve never seen the point of collecting things, they just take up room. I think I might be the second type though, who would rather consume the things, but doesn’t feel the need to own them.

  4. Hi, thanks for the extended quote! That was one of my better posts, I think, so good for it to get some love ^^

    And I suppose I was approaching from an environmental side, but there are many sides to that. Another would be piracy.

    There are a lot of great subscription services these days, which I see a lot of people using or that we use ourselves. Hulu Plus, NetFlix, GameFly. We dropped cable, but actually kept HBO – we have that instead of NetFlix for movies. Amazon Prime. Marvel Unlimited (where I have a huge list of comics I want to read – for one annual subscription, you get access to all of their digital comics they have, 6 months old or older).

    I am also a librarian, so I can tell you, your local libraries either are – or need to be – getting some other things in you can check out. Graphic Novels, DVDs, even video games. And if they don’t have it locally, you can probably check it out from a library in their network. And if not there, you might even be able to get it through inter-library loan from a library further away! We’re reading all of Locke and Key right now from the library, because they had all 6 volumes. It’s been amazing. Amazon also has started a Kindle-owner’s lending library, with hundreds of thousands of titles.

    I guess my point is, one way to approach still enjoying things as a geek, but not giving in to the consumerism that even Felicia Day describes in her video (geeks becoming a consumer base), is to turn to subscription services and libraries. That way, you’re still “tapped in” to the culture, but not buying any and everything.

    Another couple of thoughts, however, on how a Christian might approach geekdom. One is to do geeky things in community – with others. Where we still do a lot of our geeky buying is in board games and card games. We get together with friends and family and play games all the time. Games are great for fellowship!

    And another thought that I remember hearing from a theologian is just that as Christians, we tend to have less time in our lives to experience all of the non-Christian elements of culture. So in some ways, we have to be a bit selective in what we do consume, to go for the things we like the most, are most interested in, have the best benefit (for instance, supporting female comic writers – the first issue of Lumberjanes was fantastic!) – rather than just whatever the next big thing is.

    Whoa, that was almost a post in reply! Fantastic post – you’ve got a new follower in me! Sounds like Holly was already following you 🙂

  5. DIY geekery is the way to go. 😉

    I’ve bought t-shirts before because I felt strange claiming to love Batman without owning a batsymbol t-shirt, for example. It was really more about connecting with other fans, though, not trying to prove I’m a real one. Until Man of Steel came out, my Superman shirt was my “making friends” shirt, because if people complimented it, I knew they weren’t just bandwagoners, they actually knew and liked Superman in some way shape or form. And for me, it really is all about interacting with the media, not necessarily just owning the stuff for the sake of it. I do try to be as thrifty as possible though — almost all the geekery I own was received as a gift or purchased at extremely cheap used-item prices — for many reasons. Being green, being responsible, having money to donate elsewhere or being literally unable to spend on nonessentials.

    Long story short, I think this is a good discussion to be having, and geek gatekeeping is absolutely not cool. I think it should be about something other than just owning stuff, or having to prove your geekhood.

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