The Folly of Subcultural Gatekeeping, or WWXD?

 

My favorite superhero comic property has always been The X-Men. Their powers were varied and interesting, the individual heroes had deep backstories and complex relationships with each other, so much of what they did was just so incredibly cool. But what I loved about the X-Men most of all was what they stood for: these heroes were mutants. They were different, shunned by society, told they were dangerous and shouldn’t exist and yet with all the hate thrown
their way they chose to use their powers to try to make the world a better place. The followers of Professor Charles Xavier put their lives on the line to protect the same people who would just as soon see them dead. What could be more heroic than that?

Obviously I’m not alone in my adoration of the X-Men. There have been 10 blockbuster movies, 3 animated television shows, and thousands (and counting) of individual comic issues. People love the X-Men and many people relate to them. Super-powered mutants on the embattled fringes of society work as metaphorical stand-ins for anyone who is off the mainstream; from racial and ethnic minorities to LGBTQ people to your garden-variety outcast or nerd (that last one would be me – hi!) Many people who love the X-Men do so in part because they know what it’s like to feel like they don’t fit in with the rest of the world, but that they still want to make a positive impact on it.

So I really have to say – it confuses the hell out of me when fellow geeks try to exclude people.

Let me just pause here and explain what I’m talking about: there’s this thing that some nerds sometimes do where they try to test and see if you’re a “Real Nerd™”. They may casually throw some quiz questions into their conversation with you, or make an obscure reference to see if you catch it, or suddenly quote something to see if you provide the next line. If for whatever reason you fail these tests then you have proved yourself not a “Real Nerd™” and will therefore get the cold shoulder or some snickering remark about how you probably never read any of the comics anyway. It doesn’t just happen with nerds trying to see who belongs in the clubhouse, it happens in all sorts of subcultures, professions, and social circles. People do it because they think for some reason (usually superficial) that the person they are dealing with doesn’t belong in the same group they do. It’s an insecure, childish behavior and it has a name: Gatekeeping. At the lowest levels, Gatekeeping is people telling others that they can’t be “Real Nerds™” or “Real Fans” or whatever and giving them the brush off in a social setting. At the highest levels, Gatekeeping shuts people out of careers, neighborhoods, countries, entire parts of their lives. Pretty shitty, huh?

To be fair, I say that it confuses me when geeks (those typically shunned and shut out for as superficial a reason as being slightly awkward and liking nerdy things) engage in this behavior, I can extrapolate why people do it. Sometimes it’s a feeling of ownership: comics are “their” thing and other people could not possibly share their deep personal connection to them. Sometimes it’s a feeling of vulnerability and mistrust: the person that they are eyeing suspiciously reminds them of people who would normally ridicule them for liking comics so they must only be feigning interest to gain a hurtful new advantage over them. Sometimes it’s a certain element of snobbery: they have spent countless hours dedicated to learning all about these comics, this casual interloper has no place among the Hard Core Fans like them!

My rebuttal to all of this is basically, grow up.

Comics, superheroes, nerdy stuff in general is not just for you. Unless you are a wealthy Renaissance patron you probably don’t have an entire stable of artists and writers creating content for you, personally. Comics creators create their work hoping that as many people as possible will enjoy it since you know, that’s how they make their living.

No adult is going to spend their precious free time and money going to crowded comic conventions or digging through longboxes in the local comic shop just so they can find your weakness and get some zinger in at you. As disappointing as it may be, we live in the real world, not a middle-school made-for-TV special where mustache-twirling villains scheme to hurt your feelings.

I take special umbrage with the “Real Nerd™” snobbery of being a more casual, or just less experienced, fan. Not having the hundreds of hours (and thousands of dollars) investment into a fandom doesn’t mean you are any less sincere or enthusiastic. It is often just a question of access. I grew up in rural Maine, you know what my local “comic shop” was? Rite Aid. Yeah, the pharmacy. They carried maybe 4 different superhero comic titles on their magazine rack (plus Archie, of course!) On top of that my parents didn’t “believe in” allowance (yeah, I don’t know either) so I almost never even had pocket money to purchase those comics with until I was old enough to drive myself to a part time job. By the time I left home for college I had only ever read maybe a hundred out of literally thousands of X-Men comics. There was no way I was going to catch up and become a “Real Nerd™” before I started my freshman semester! I would be forever shamed!

Because I was going to college to get my degree in comics.

You see, despite not being able to find, purchase, and therefore read many comic books, I always loved them. I was drawing comics before I knew what comics were. I had always loved to draw, I had always loved to write, so I did the two together my entire life until I realized that it was really the only thing I wanted to do and skipped off down to the Savannah College of Art and Design to maybe learn how to actually do it well. Along that winding path there were so many people, “Real Hard Core Nerd™” people, who saw my enthusiasm and drive and welcomed me in and helped me along. From the English teacher who first suggested I look into SCAD, to the Comic’s Lit Book Club organizer who shoved Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” into my hands after the first meeting I attended, to all my college professors, to friends I made over conversations that started with, “oh, you haven’t read that? You should totally check out this…”

I would never have gotten this far in my amazing comic-creating journey without those people, the ones who saw someone who maybe didn’t quite fit their notion of “belonging” but welcomed them anyway. I have definitely encountered my fair share of Gatekeeping trolls – occasionally to my social or professional detriment – but I am eternally grateful for all the people who decided to embody the inclusive spirit of the X-Men and help me on my way instead. It may not be fighting Apocalypse to restore the timeline, but they put themselves out there in small ways to make the world a better place for people that may not have been just like them.

That’s the thing, really: you can’t tell from a quick look or nerd-password-test who you’re really talking to, who could end up being a great friend, or even a creator of some of your favorite comics some day. So the next time you think you’ve encountered a casual comics’ fan, someone who’s only into superheroes because of the CW, or any other less-than-fully-vetted nerd, and are tempted to quiz and cold-shoulder them, just take a moment and ask yourself, “What would Xavier do?”


Amanda Kahl is a comic artist and writer and the creator of the fantasy webcomic “Age of Night.” She also illustrates for the tabletop gaming industry and likes to play games, hang out with her kids, and read. Check out some of her comics at www.ageofnight.com!

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2 comments on “The Folly of Subcultural Gatekeeping, or WWXD?

  1. Wilfredo Martinez says:

    Amanda, our experiences were very similar (except I’m not an artist) and I completely agree with your points. Congratulations and here’s wishing you more success. 🙂

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