As I’m sure you’ve all noticed, I am occasionally struck with an intense (if not profound) need to question the workings and motivations of my inner geek, generally expressed via long-winded navel-gazing in the form of a blog feature. In today’s installment of this periodic ramble, I address the question of my outer geek, what that means and why. As usual, I’m coming at the question from a strictly personal angle, but though the bulk of this post is about my own experiences in displaying my fandom, I’m hoping to motivate the rest of you to tell me about your own.
The outward display of fannish/geek paraphernalia is certainly nothing new or profound. From t-shirts to full-out cosplay, fans like me dress up constantly to some extent or another and have been doing so for longer than any of us have been around. I’m sure there have been academic studies done on fan culture and so on which address the subject in detail. Something that has struck me lately, however, is how personal some of these displays can be–to the point where I question the object of wearing them in the first place.
Those of you who have met me will know that I wear a necklace featuring a serpent on a cross, familiar to manga and anime fans as the symbol worn by Edward Elric in Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s a common item, sold at cons and shops all over. I picked mine up at Tokyo Kid in Cambridge a couple of years back. I have a lot of little items like that–trinkets, figurines, etc.–but this one I wear pretty much every day, outclassed only by my wedding ring. Because of this, I get a lot of comments and questions about it, almost always from people who don’t recognize it for what it is. The most common of these is some variation on, “What a beautiful cross!” To these people, I simply say, “Thank you,” partly because having a discussion about my non-theism at the 7-11 is not something I especially wish to do and partly because I don’t want to make them feel sorry about being friendly (and after all it is a cross, if not perhaps the one they’re thinking about). Other common queries include, “Is that a medical symbol?” “Is that Wiccan?” or simply, “What is that?” Funny thing is, despite my determination to wear this symbol every day, I find that when asked, I really don’t want to answer. I stammer a bit, mumble something vague like, “Oh, it’s a geek thing,” and flee the scene as quickly as possible.
The truth is, the simple answer is too simple and anything more is too personal. Just as my interest in manga (including Fullmetal Alchemist) is much deeper than could be stated in a simple sentence or two, so is my attachment to that symbol. The true answer is two-fold. On the surface, yes I’m expressing my manga geekdom in very common fashion. It’s fun to have a piece of almost-normal jewelry that I can wear anywhere without causing distraction–both as a means of identifying myself subtly to others of my kind and as a semi-subversive way of bringing my geekdom into the mainstream world, unnoticed. Secondly, though–and this is where it gets personal–the symbol itself holds a great deal of meaning for me. I’ve read a lot about the origins of the symbol, its meaning (“fixation of the volatile”), and how it fits into alchemic principals, but what “fixation of the volatile” symbolizes personally for me is the idea of harnessing the inherently chaotic power of my deepest passions and focusing it in a meaningful and productive way. Though I expect my interpretation is pretty far off the historical mark, it is something that motivates me so profoundly I actually feel more powerful and focused when I wear the symbol, ridiculous though that may seem. With such deep meaning attached to it, I have difficulty explaining my necklace to strangers in surface terms, but since the more detailed explanation is too personal to go into with the guy at Jiffy Lube, I’m left basically speechless. Still, I continue to wear the necklace nearly every day.
Not all of my geek symbols are meaningful on that level (most aren’t, in fact), though they are frequently just as difficult to explain. Sure, the Hufflepuff scarf is easy in most company, but ever try explaining your “NUMFAR” license plate to someone who has never heard of Joss Whedon? Chances are not, but I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences with your own obscure items. On the other end of the spectrum, I have at least one item (a hat resembling Kino’s in Kino no Tabi) that feels so personal, I have never even worn it. So the question I’m asking myself is: Why? Why do we so love these symbols of our geekdom and what is our purpose for displaying them (or not) to the world?
Some potential answers are obvious. I’ll use the NUMFAR plate as an example. First of all, it was an exercise of the most fantastic, hilarious kind to sit around with my husband and think up six-letter words to appropriately express our then-rabid Whedon fandom. (“GACHNAR,” sadly, was too long. “SRNITY” was a possibility.) Of course, in our dreams we imagined giddy honks of solidarity from other fans on the road (this has never happened). So first we have a fun inside joke for our own enjoyment, followed by the hope of connecting with other fans. After that, things get murky. An obvious suggestion would be the opportunity to bring attention to our fandom–to spread the word to those on the outside. Yet, more often than not, I feel uncomfortable and even embarrassed when someone asks me about it, and I rarely give an adequate (or even coherent) explanation. So what gives? Is this merely a symptom of social anxiety, or do I actually not want to explain? I suspect the answer is a little bit of both and though I’m unsure of what that means, I’m a bit fascinated by the question.
So I ask all of you: From full-out cosplay to inconspicuous accessories, how do you express your fannish geek and why? Do you have particular fannish symbols that mean more to you than what they might represent to others, even other fans? How do you respond when someone asks you about them?