In a recent interview on the terrific Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, Junot Díaz takes a remarkably clear-eyed look at the state of the geek community and its relation to mainstream entertainment. The Dominican-American author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao goes after Hollywood for its regressive whitewashing, and sticks up for the genre community as he sees it being “strip-mined” for moneymaking ideas by capitalism. But he also takes some well-deserved shots at the sexist and racist behavior that goes on when members of the geek community become the oppressors within their own ranks.
I would highly recommend listening to the whole episode, which posted back in September. In fact, I would go back to the start of the podcast and listen to them all, as I did when I first discovered it. Hosts David Barr Kirtley and John Joseph Adams are champions of genre fiction, but they treat the subject matter with an even-handed mix of respect and criticism. Too often, coverage of geek culture either worships its subject or turns it into a childish, cartoon version of what it really is. Geek’s Guide and this interview in particular are great examples of avoiding either pitfall.
I pulled some highlights from the interview. On lack of diversity in Hollywood films:
The amount of what they call race bending that goes on in Hollywood is extraordinary. I have sat down with agents who will tell me straight up, listen you write about Dominicans in New Jersey we’ll make an indie film about this but nobody in Hollywood wants to see anything but white leads…
When I heard that they wanted to cast all white characters in Akira, it just really shows you how little the Dream Factory of our popular culture has caught up with the diverse reality of our present. The nation which we live in, the world which we live in is so extraordinarily more like the future than the futures that we’re being sold on the screen and on television.
On whether geek has really gone mainstream:
I would be very, very cautious of thinking that simply because capitalism has decided this is a really great area to strip-mine so that it can make its big tent pole movies, and so that it can sort of pad its bottom line, to think that the average quote-unquote-geek is in any way more respected or less marginalized…This is a country that still creates hierarchies. This is a country that still has a very clear pecking order in how it likes to dole out privilege.
Kirtley asks his thoughts on how much of the marginalization of geeks is due to not fitting in, and how much of it is due to some of the darker, more antisocial behavior in the community. Díaz answers:
I’ve been to horror conventions and seen some of the crazy behavior that goes on, and I don’t mean crazy behavior that is kind of fun, but crazy behavior that is a little bit antisocial and certainly fundamentally sexist. You go to a convention where it’s overwhelmingly male, and it’s not exactly a safe space for women. Have you ever read the talkbacks whenever race comes up in geek culture? We don’t want to tar all nerds and geeks with the same brush because that’s not the reality of it, but I do think that we are not a special category…We have a lot of weird stuff afoot. Folks who are marginalized can be as oppressive as anyone else. There’s always a saying in Santo Domingo that there’s nobody more oppressive than the oppressed…
This is why creators like Alan Moore and Hideaki Anno are so important to us because they are people who look at the culture in which they operate, the geek culture in which they operate, they look it square into its shadowed heart and see not only what’s good about it, what’s exhilarating about it, the promise of it, but what’s incredibly dangerous about it. What is sort of retrograde about it, what in some ways is toxic about it. Where something that I find beautiful that I find interesting, but that I myself think is plagued by a lot of shortcomings and shortcomings that we can fix, that I think a lot of us are really interested in fixing and addressing.
Listen to the entire interview here.