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Olivia Munn and Why There’s No Such Thing As ‘Appropriating Nerd Culture’ (Commentary)

Game developer Cliff Bleszinski says Munn is appropriating nerd culture, but that’s not a real thing.

There are few things funnier to me than the concept of “appropriation of nerd culture.” It’s a completely meaningless concept, and one that’s been leveled at me from time to time just because I’ve been known to make jokes about the so-called subculture of nerddom. By any possible measure, I’m as much a part of nerd culture as anybody could be.

This is the part where, according to the rules of nerd culture, I’m supposed to list my bona fides so the other nerds will know I’m legit. I’m not gonna do that, though. I have nothing to prove in that regard, and whatever nerd cred I have or don’t have doesn’t matter anyway.

I’m talking about this right now because Cliff Bleszinski, best known as the lead designer on the Xbox 360 video game “Gears of War” and presently the head of his own independent game development studio in North Carolina, wrote this tweet on Friday.

Bleszinski, aka “Cliffy B,” had a bone to pick with actress and former “Attack of the Show” co-host Olivia Munn. He was talking about her because he’d read a blog post decrying Munn’s weeks-old comments about doing her own stunts in “X-Men: Apocalypse.” 

“She’s still a horrible person. Shocker,” Blezsinski tweeted just before making the above comment. 

For some reason, Cliff chose this particular stupid terminology to have that out. That terminology is irrelevant to what he was actually trying to say, which is that he doesn’t like her and thinks she’s a bad person. That doesn’t have anything to do with nerd culture, but it’s telling that he used that as the reason why the rest of us shouldn’t like her either.

So why do people like to claim that people they don’t like are appropriating nerd culture? Well, as humans we all have a persecution complex. It’s why some white Americans can claim they face meaningful racial discrimination, or why some adherents to the single largest religion in the US might feel like the government is out to get them. We can’t help but invent conflicts for ourselves. I’m personally an expert at doing that.

The nerd way of doing that is to cling to the idea that nerd culture is a fringe culture belonging to a small group of likeminded social outcasts. Anybody who has checked the box office receipts for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” should know that’s not true — everybody watched the damn thing — but we just like imagining we’re scrappy underdogs out to game the system.

The “appropriating of nerd culture” rhetoric is a defense of that flawed line of thinking — yes, anybody can watch a Marvel movie, but only real nerds, of which there are relatively few, have wiki-like knowledge of every character’s history. But that’s just a different tier of nerddom, not a better or more legitimate one.

Nerd culture is a different kind of culture from one that’s location-based like, say, Japanese culture. You can’t be born into nerd culture the way I was born into Southern culture. My parents lived in Alabama when they had me and I grew up there. I didn’t have a say in that. But everybody has a say in whether they want to be a nerd.

Participation in nerd culture, then, is entirely voluntary and as simple as reading a comic book, playing a video game, watching a movie or TV show or tweeting threats at women and people of color for “appropriating nerd culture.” Anybody can do those things or whatever else that counts as a nerd activity. You don’t need somebody else’s permission to watch hentai. You also don’t need somebody else’s permission to decide you never want to watch hentai again. And should you choose to never watch hentai again, it doesn’t change the fact that you were being a huge nerd when you did watch hentai.

This is why the idea of “appropriating nerd culture” is so laughable. Participation in nerd culture is at-will, and your motivations are irrelevant. Olivia Munn co-hosted “Attack of the Show” on G4 (you know, the video game channel) every day for six years. Even if she thought all that nerd stuff she talked about was dumb and was only doing it for the money (which, frankly, is easily the most legitimate reason to host a TV show), it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe those things are true, and maybe they aren’t. Maybe she’s an asshole, and maybe she isn’t. I don’t know anything about that. I do know that CNet this morning published an amusingly timed interview with Munn in which she said, “We’ve moved past whether you’re a geek or a nerd. It’s just part of our life.”

Since, as she accurately claims, all this nerd stuff is just part of our lives, there can be no real requirements whatsoever to enter nerd culture.

Cliff, on the other hand, has always been the sort of guy who is, like, a cool nerd instead of your typical lame nerd. Yeah, he makes video games, but he also has a hot wife and wears Affliction t-shirts and has been known to bleach his hair. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that he was appropriating nerd culture for personal gain by branding himself as the “cool nerd” who puts rad stuff in his games like the chainsaw machine gun from “Gears of War.”

Taking that a not-too-big step further, you could also say that he was appropriating nerd culture by claiming this woman he has a person beef with is appropriating nerd culture for personal gain.

He could have just said he thinks she’s an asshole and that her comment about doing all her own stunts in the upcoming “X-Men” movie is emblematic of that flaw in her character. But claiming that somebody you don’t like is appropriating nerd culture is the kind of thing a “true nerd” would say.

Bleszinski used that specific gatekeeping language to blatantly pander to a certain irritating segment of the nerd population (of which GamerGate is a part, though he’s decried that “movement” enough times that I wouldn’t claim he’s one of those people) and doesn’t even have anything to do with his complaints about Munn. It’s just an opportunistic accusation of opportunism. If I were feeling charitable I might posit that he didn’t really grasp the full baggage inherent in what he was saying, but Cliffy B is the most famous person in the games industry and so doesn’t get to make that mistake. Plus, he tweeted this as a follow up the next day:

Anyway, who cares? I wish I didn’t have to, but I write provocative articles about nerd things for personal gain. Have a great day.