I Married A Fake Geek Girl; A Defense of Casual Fandom

March 5, 2013

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Kelly McCullough writes fantasy, science fiction and young adult fiction. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. He has nine novels in print and three more forthcoming either from Penguin/Ace or Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education, having written short fiction for NSF and co–created a science comic for NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Just for giggles, let’s start with bona fides. I’m going to be talking about fake geeks and casual fandom, after all, and I wouldn’t want anyone to take me too seriously on that front.

I am a professional science fiction and fantasy author, most notably of the WebMage and Fallen Blade series. I have twelve novels published or forthcoming in the field, all from big New York houses, as well as a heap of short stories and poems. This is my day job. I am also a Third Generation fan. I have a thank you note and picture from the cast of Star Trek: TOS for my mother and grandmother’s help in the letter writing campaign that kept them on the air. My wife is a physics professor, a Second Generation fan, and a hardcore console RPG gamer among other geek-girl pursuits. She recently wrote an essay for the Doctor Who book Chicks Unravel Time. Seriously, we bleed geek.

Crossed Blades by Kelly McCullough

We also cosplay. We even do it in fandoms we’re not seriously involved in. For example, neither of us have read the Narnia books in ages, and we’ve only seen one of the new movies—bad fan, no cookie. There is no question that while we are serious fans of some things, we are only casual Narnia fans. And yet, we have had the audacity to put on White Witch and Mr. Tumnus costumes and even to go out in the snow for a photo shoot of same. If you follow Neil Gaiman at all, you might have seen some of the pics. We borrowed his lamppost for the shoot: https://journal.neilgaiman.com/2011/02/once-youve-got-lamppost.html

Even worse, we did it for the sheer joy of it without a thought in the world of whether or not cosplaying outside our core fandoms might get us disbarred from the title of true geek. Also, and don’t tell anyone this, we did it in part because we know we both look good in costume, and that people like to see other people in costumes. According to the geek-girl fallacy that’s only about a half-step away from putting on a costume to lull other geeks into a false sense that we’re of their tribe or that we believe it’s possible to be both geek and hot. I’m not sure which is the bigger sin with those who are upset about fake geek girls since I find their arguments somewhere between incoherent and deranged.

Oh, in case you hadn’t guessed, this whole fake geek girl thing pisses me right the fuck off. So does the idea that only those who are hardcore fans of something can be considered to be TRUE GEEKS. Seriously people, cut that out. Not only is it okay for women to dress in whatever costumes they want for whatever reason without having to take a purity test on their fidelity to the fandom in question—men, too, for that matter, though no one ever seems to challenge that…huh—but it is also just fine to put on a costume for no other reason than because it’s a cool costume. It’s even fine to be a casual fan, period, full stop.

WebMage by Kelly McCullough

Confession time. I didn’t watch Firefly until about a year ago, and, while I liked it a lot, I haven’t watched it since. I’m not a Browncoat, nor am I likely to become one or watch the show again anytime soon. But, and I know this is heresy to some, I still think of myself as a fan of the show, because, hey, it’s cool and fun and I enjoyed watching it. Also, despite my familial role in the Star Trek production saga, I haven’t seen any new Star Trek television since the first half-season of Deep Space 9 aired. That was about the time my wife hit physics grad school—more with that fake geek girl credential burnishing—at which point she had to pick two of three: sleep, studying, TV. It wasn’t all that hard a choice and I pretty much stopped watching TV when she did. That doesn’t mean I don’t think of myself as a Star Trek fan, it just means I’m super-casual about it and that’s fine. Which brings me back to the casual cosplay question. Friends recently sent us a pair of shirts from the Star Trek reboot and there are already pictures of us wearing them on the Internet, and there may be more later because cosplaying is fun.

We’ve also dressed up as Codex and Fawkes from the Guild at CONvergence, though there I have to admit we are more serious fans. We’ve watched the hell out of the first five seasons, and are looking forward to season six coming out on DVD. Which, I suppose, means to some that we’re not real fans of The Guild either…after all, we aren’t watching it as it’s coming out. That means we miss out on the speculative discussions of what might be coming next, but it’s much more convenient for our lifestyle and we prefer to arrange my fandoms around my life rather than my life around my fandoms.

What about Doctor Who? We haven’t cosplayed that, though there is some talk of doing a group costume with friends during the summer con season. That would be me as Roman Rory, my wife as the ever lovely Amy Pond in the bobby dress—my wife is also a natural redhead—and our friends Matt and Mandy in the roles of the Doctor and River Song. You could call us hardcore fans there, maybe. It depends on who is doing the judging.

On the one hand, we aren’t currently caught up on the show, since this year’s DVD isn’t out yet. On the other hand, there’s that whole published fan essay thing, and we did watch a rough cut of The Doctor’s Wife with its author sometime before it actually hit the screen. On the other hand, neither one of us has seen a full episode of Doctors 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, or 8. At this point, I’m not sure whether that means that cosplaying from the series will be seen as an expression of real geeking or a fake geek sellout of epic proportions. Perhaps more to the point, I don’t give a damn.

While I love my geek community to little tiny pieces and love that both my wife and I earn our bread in geek approved fashion, I am somewhat less enamored of the purity tests that some in our communities seems dead set on imposing. I absolutely understand the deep love we all have for our own geekish passions and the joy we have in finding people who share those passions to the same degree. At the same time, I really think that this need we sometimes have to exclude from our various tribes anyone whose love of something is one jot less than our own is very nearly as silly as the hating of other people’s “lesser” fandoms—on which, more later.

First off, it’s deeply counter-productive. Do you know what lots and lots of casual fans means? More money flowing to whatever they are casual-fanning about. If Firefly had had a ton of people who watched it but didn’t burn for it with the love of a thousand tiny suns, the show might still be going because great ratings lead to show renewals. And, if those casual fans had wanted to casually cosplay Firefly characters, there might even be a strong secondary market for things like Firefly props and costumes which would mean more cool geek toys. What’s not to love?

Secondly, there are about a gazillion things to be a fan of, and there’s simply no way to be a hardcore fan of all of them. There isn’t enough time in the day. That’s not only fine, it’s fantastic. It means that there are a ton of cool fandoms, and more springing up all the time. If you start out as a casual fan of one of them, it might help that thing draw more resources and get bigger and cooler, and some day it might develop into something that you find is worthy of True Fandom. Yes, casual fans sometimes become true fans.

Casual fandom might also inspire a person to go out and create something wonderful. Here, I risk the charge of egotism, but, hey, I’m an author and that’s always a risk. Take a look at those Narnia pics. Neither Laura nor I nor our photographer, Matt Kuchta, is a Narnia true fan, but I think we did something pretty cool. A lot of people have called them beautiful or awesome and taken joy in them. If we’d let ourselves be limited by the idea that only real Narnia geek girls—no casual fans allowed—get to dress up in Narnia costumes, then the photos never would have happened, and I think that would have been sad.

For that matter, as an author, I have taken inspiration for my own work in many places, among them, works of which I am only a casual fan. You may or may not like my work. Hell, there’s a good chance you haven’t even heard of it, but I have casual and true fans of my own, and I am grateful for all of them. Some of them have done amazing fan art that took its inspiration from my books, including a full sized mural of the Furies from my WebMage books : https://kellymccullough.com/other-stuff/cool-book-stuff-album/ (second picture down). There have also been WebMage cosplayers and I think that’s freaking awesome.

Which brings me back to my point about not hating on other people’s fandoms. As an author, I know that there are people who aren’t going to like my work. Some will even hate it. No big deal, it comes with the territory and there’s stuff that I hate, too, some of which is among treasured fan favorites. I don’t get terribly wound up about people not liking my stuff any more than I get terribly wound up about bad reviews. It’s part of the game.

But I do go out of my way not to say nasty things about the stuff I hate to the fans of that stuff, because all it does is harsh their squee—a phrase borrowed from Apex’s own editor, Lynne M. Thomas. Harshing people’s squee is seriously not cool. It’s also closely related to the whole fake geek girl thing in that it’s a way of othering those who aren’t just like us. I realize that exclusion from the social group is a pretty typical part of being human. It’s one of the main ways in which we as social primates establish the boundaries of our various tribes, but it’s also something that many people in the geek world have experienced in a deeply scarring way, particularly in their school years. Being unpopular in school is a huge sub-thread in geek art for a reason. I would hope that experience would teach us the harm that othering does and help us to avoid doing it in our communities, but the entire fake geek girl mess suggests we have some distance to go on that front.

So, I think it’s worth reminding the community that othering people because they don’t share your fandom to the same degree that you do is not only not-cool, it’s exactly what happened to many of our fellows before they found a home in fandom. It sucks just as much and is just as wrong when we’re the ones doing it. Especially when we’re doing it to each other.

So, to bring this back to where I started, let me note for the record that I married a fake geek girl. There’s no two ways around that. Not only does she cosplay characters from a fandom that she is no more than casually interested in, she does it in part because she looks fabulous doing it. Hello, White Witch, will you marry me? In fact, when I met her at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival twenty-three years ago, she was also wearing a casual costume that looked fabulous on her. She was a customer, you know, a casual Renn Faire fan. I was a long time multi-fair performer, i.e. hardcore—true geek.

Yes, she ensnared me with her fake geek girl wiles. We fell in love. We’ve been together ever since. Isn’t that the worst fear of the anti-fake geek girl crowd? That somehow they will draw us into their whiles? Forget that I, too, have done more than my share of casual cosplay. No one’s ever accused me of being anything, but a serious geek. That might be because I play life on the lowest difficulty setting: https://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/ But let’s leave that alone for the moment and look at the core argument here. My life is the nightmare scenario for fake geek girls. Trapped forever in a deeply-loving and wonderful marriage by casual cosplay.

Drat, shoot and darn.

I married a fake geek girl and I am grateful for it every day of my life.


© Kelly McCullough


  1. @PedanticEric

    Another crazy aspect of that level of judgment when it comes to costume choices is this: what the hell is wrong with making/wearing a costume just because you think it’s fun or looks cool? At Halloween no one asks if you’re really a doctor or nurse if you go to a party wearing scrubs, or if you’re enough of a pirate aficionado to wear that eye patch, stripey shirt, and hook over your hand. And perhaps more to the point… if you’ve never read a single comic book but decide to do a costume of Wolverine or Silk Spectre or Two Face or Wonder Woman because you think it looks cool and would be well suited to you so you could pull it off well, maybe that actually means your specific brand of “hardcore fandom” is costuming/cosplay.

  2. Kelly McCullough

    Paul, thank you. @PedanticEric, yes, exactly. The whole idea of policing what other people can or can’t wear and what it means about their relative geek or other commitment/seriousness/etc drives me more than a little crazy.

  3. giliell

    Making costumes after movie or book characters is something beautiful and deeply fullfilling. It also means great dedication. Not necessarily to the particular fandom, not to that particular character, but to costume making and creating. And there’s the great fun of wearing the stuff, of slipping into another character and role, even if just for a foto or so.
    So, three cheers to whoever finds joy and creativity.

  4. Lee Carlson

    As an inveterate costume maker and wearer, I say “thank you” for the casual fan, who likes to dress in something other than street clothes. My preference is for period clothing-I’m slowly working my way up from the medieval times-and then finding a place to wear them. Does that make me a fake geek-girl? (Or in my case, older woman.) Okay,fine with me. I’ve had lots of titles in my life, another one won’t break my back. Besides, I’m having too much fun in my costumes.

  5. Alexa Kristensen

    Went ahead and posted this on a blog! (Gave citation/linked it back here). This was a really positive, refreshing read after having to argue with tons of people about “fake geeks girls”. It gets exhausting having to defend yourself/your friends. I’m really happy that someone who’s a name in the Geek World is speaking out about this! We need more of you! Yeah!

    You definitely won my support over and I’m going to skedaddle my Fake Geek Girl Ass on over to the bookstore and pick up some of your stuff. 😉

  6. Tyler Tork

    I’m tempted to make a costume that’s completely invented. Then when anyone asks me what it’s from, I can say, “What? You don’t know? May I see your fan license, sir?”

  7. Kelly McCullough

    giliell, I agree, it’s fun and you get to add a little wonder to the world, what’s not to like?

    Lee, 😀

    Alexa, glad you liked it enough to share. I hope you enjoy the books!

    Tyler, I love that. Fabulous idea.

  8. ERose

    There does seem to be a notion among some geek men that wearing costumes is something done for their benefit. This piece does a great job of noting that wearing costumes is something done for the costume-wearer’s benefit.

    Something that didn’t really come up in this piece, but that I probably see more of than your wife because I have no husband and so don’t go to cons with one: There also is an element of the whole “fake geek girl” thing that equates genuine fandom with social (and often sexual) availability.
    I can tell you there is an odd sense that if you show up in costume without obvious male “supervision” you are obligated to talk to whatever random stranger comes up to you.
    Paradoxically, exercising the freedom to be left alone is the trigger for “just wearing the costume for attention,”especially if you later do feel like talking to someone else.

  9. Kelly McCullough

    ERose, that’s definitely a big problem. One of the things I love about my big local con, CONvergence, is the signs everywhere that say “Costumes Are Not Consent!” and the change that is slowly happening in at least some convention cultures.

  10. David Birkhead

    People who hate so called “fake geeks” obviously have issues with their own validity as geeks.

  11. Angela

    Thank you for this article — very interesting perspective you bring to this issue. I would like to add, with absolutely no malice (seriously, this is just an observation), that there does some to be a certain amount of invitation inherent in cosplay, and by that I mean a visual invitation to conversation (not touching, not harassment, not uninvited picture-taking — NOTHING like that). If you make something you’re proud of, then it would only be natural to share that with others. You’ll certainly draw attention from people who dig the fandom you’re representing, and they’ll want to interact with you — if, nothing else, to say, “Hey, rad costume!” But they may also assume you know things about the fandom, and want to engage you further.

    That’s not a crazy assumption; it’s not like you’re going up to total, random stranger, wearing a Static-X t-shirt, wanting to talk to them about Babylon 5. You’re going up to someone dressed up as Delenn. But you have to know, putting on that costume, that people are going to want to fan with you. And how terrible would you feel if you put a shit-ton of time in a costume, then no one said jack about it?

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume a person cosplaying as Delenn would know something about Babylon 5 (not like, have memorized every line from every episode, but SOMETHING). And getting indignant when people ask you things like, “Hey, what’s you’re favorite story arc?” or “Do you think character X and character Y should have gotten together?” — and then accusing the asker of being a nerd-dom gate-keeper…I mean, for real?

    Anyway, I kind of debated posting this, but I want to assure everyone who gets pissed about my post, that I really feel like all the rights are with the cosplayer, and having the ability to make a costume is something to be proud of. What I’m critical of is this backlash against people who want to engage cosplayers — because I’m sure not every “questioner” is trying to be a “gate-keeper”. Sometimes people get excited about seeing a great cosplay, and then let down when the cosplayer is largely ignorant of the fandom. That’s not crazy.

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