Fangasm: Unreality and the Devaluation of Geek Cultural Currency
Fangasm is a SyFy reality show which employs the standard “bunch of strangers forced to live in a house for a few weeks” format. It’s produced by 495 Productions, the creators of MTV's exploitation hit Jersey Shore, but instead of “guidos” Fangasm is about “geeks” -- which is to say in the simplest way possible, passionate individuals drawn to a deeper understanding of creative works like comic books, video games, science fiction, fantasy and related genre entertainment. The six-part series has been hyped by the network and its associated principals as this really real... thing about geeks and our culture.
In reality (no pun intended), what we casually refer to as "geek culture" has in the last 10+ years ascended from a derided subculture to a massive consumer class actively serviced by virtually every commercial sector in America, a fact that's put an existential challenge to the nature of "geekdom," particularly its claim to underdog status. That Fangasm exists at all speaks to this notion of cultural currency, but unfortunately it's the literal currency that is the most basic and base element of the entire Fangasm enterprise, which we discover is even faker than the kinds of series -- to use the reality show parlance -- it throws under the bus.
However, it is through Fangasm's breathtakingly brazen expression of unreality and exploitation that we ultimately see the truth of how geek culture is understood by those to whom geeks pledge their once hard-earned allegiance, and perhaps by a generation of geeks themselves.
The first objection to Fangasm is that it's not a reality show (nor a “docu-series,” as the TV business likes to call reality shows now since “non-scripted” failed to catch on with the public) about geek culture or anything as potentially interesting as that. Rather, Fangasm is a multi-part infomercial meant to attract attendees to "Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo" in Los Angeles. The prestige with which this convention is discussed in the show must be viewed with some incredulity. Firstly, in 2011 (before Lee became a partner), Comikaze was hosted in a parking garage with panel discussion "rooms" separated by curtains. But even when we grant the convention has most definitely grown since then, the first episode of Fangasm describes Comikaze as “one of the world's largest fan conventions.” Well, it's not even the largest fan convention in LA. According to its own website, 2012's Comikaze attendance totaled at 45,000. Anime Expo was at 60,000 attendees this year. The convention’s founder and CEO, Regina Carpinelli, appears at the beginning of episode one of Fangasm to report that Comikaze wants 70,000 attendees in 2013, which helpfully provides us with the show’s raison d’être.
What is not disclosed in any obvious way is that Fangasm was cast and presumably produced in some capacity by Popular Productions/Doron Ofir Casting, which is run of course by the famous reality show mastermind Doron Ofir… who also happens to be a co-owner of Comikaze Expo. And Ofir’s not the only Comikaze stakeholder involved with Fangasm; as I said, Carpinelli is a recurring presence on Fangasm and the show features numerous appearances of and references to her fellow Comikaze co-owners Stan Lee and Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira, Mistress of the Dark). Additionally, Fangasm episode bumpers advertise ways viewers can win a trip to meet Stan Lee (as it turns out, those ways involve gaming social media trends).
With that in mind, we look at the stated premise of Fangasm: to “celebrate the incredibly unique, often misunderstood and infinitely fascinating fan girl and fan boy culture.” That’s really the second big lie about Fangasm; that it’s a true document that presents a subculture in an authentic way. Indeed, truth, reality and authenticity are all words the network, producers and some members of the cast have used repeatedly in promoting the show.
Say what you want about Jersey Shore, but true is what that show actually was; broadcasting the theretofore unheard of “guido” culture to masses beyond the tri-state area by throwing a bunch of its members into a house (or tanning salon, or nightclub, or gym, etc.) and watching them behave more or less naturally. That they were heinous individuals was incidental.
Fangasm does not award its geeks the same freedoms, because instead of documenting the cast members in their natural environments, leaving them to their own devices or otherwise permitting them to reveal themselves and their ostensibly very interesting culture in a truly intimate way (you know, like a documentary), they’re subjected to wholly contrived scenarios designed to make Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo look important, increase awareness of the event and drive up attendance (you know, like an infomercial).
The narrative mechanism by which this is achieved is by “hiring” the geeks as “interns” and making them perform ridiculous tasks that might be entertaining on television but have seemingly little to do with actually producing a successful event. One notable exception is in episode four, when the cast assists a professional artist with some busy work associated with creating a large, three-dimensional version of the Comikaze octopus logo. It is possible the producers have simply edited out the hours of logistics, booking, copywriting, graphics editing and other assistance interns would traditionally provide, but I doubt it.
Some examples of fake TV tasks:
- Creating fake “viral videos” to advertise the convention (because geeks love viral videos!). The "interns" are given no real resources to do this properly because it doesn’t even matter, none of it’s real and there are no consequences for failing — which of course they do, as evidenced by the fact that none of their videos have gone viral. The whole point was to watch them do it and through that experience a sense of the “fun” the producers wish to associate with the Comikaze brand.
- The cast are directed to dress up in costumes (because geeks love cosplay!) and get strangers on the street to sign “petitions” in support of making “Geek Pride Day” an actual holiday, as a way of promoting the convention. Even if we set aside the fact that members of the cast solicited their own Twitter followers to help populate this staged event, it’s still an absurd purpose. And like the fake viral video task, there are no consequences for failure when the cast actually forgets to bring their petition forms.
- Some of the cast are “allowed” to go to the E3 gaming convention on the condition that they promote Comikaze by handing out flyers at the event. Because the entire task is fake, there are no consequences when they don't merely fail to pass out the flyers, but actually throw them away. It’s a classic example of reality show reality, where there is documented proof of a transgression, yet that truth is never acknowledged.
- The cast are “given the chance” to “pitch” Stan Lee an “original superhero concept.” This is perhaps the fakest activity of all, because of course the cast are not professionals in any relevant field that would give them legitimate reason to be pitching anything to Stan Lee. They are are only there because the convention requires Stan Lee to be seen as a reverential figure. Additionally, some of the cast pitches their ideas with sub-amateur quality artwork and in some cases even modeling cheap, homemade costumes. This is obviously not how pitches are made under any circumstances, but someone reading an email at their desk is not very exciting television, I guess. But as with the other tasks, there are no consequences for failure because it’s not real; Stan Lee is never going to work with any of these people. Whereas in real life, getting your foot in the door takes talent and effort and getting turned down means all that work you did wasn’t good enough and you must try again.
In these ways and more, Fangasm is less a celebration of geek culture than it is one of those insidious television dramas we see in Mad Men, where unscrupulous media buyer Harry Crane orchestrates storylines to sell viewers not just specific products but a vision of a desired lifestyle associated with those products. The lifestyle is that of the geek, the product is Stan Lee and his ticketed event.
TL;DR version: the show doesn’t celebrate geek culture. Fangasm is nakedly exploitive of geek culture.
Another oft-repeated Fangasm lie is that the series is not a typical reality show that mocks the weaknesses and insecurities of its cast; that the show actually honors the people on it.
“When people come in they have complete misconceptions about themselves. We do our thing, getting them to reveal themselves in the worst way.” - Doron Ofir, 2010
See, when Fangasm isn’t just exploiting its geeks to promote Comikaze, it’s playing the same old reality show tricks in exploiting the classic geek stereotypes for our voyeuristic pleasure.
- The geek boys — who naturally tend to wear glasses, have unkempt hair and present themselves in otherwise conventionally unattractive ways — act like hopeless imbeciles around the more socially adept and conventionally attractive girls. “Consequently” exploitive reality show veteran Adrianne Curry — a celebrity in the geek community because she’s a beautiful famous person who also cosplays and watches Battlestar Galactica — is brought in to train the boys to have the most basic flirtations with women before sending them off into the faux-wilderness of a hip Hollywood Blvd restaurant to hit on two attractive blonde plants. It’s about as authentic as The Big Bang Theory, except it’s making fun of real people.
- The cast is taken to the Saddle Ranch, a well known meat market where women are paid to dance sexily and female patrons are encouraged to get drunk and gyrate suggestively atop a mechanical bull. This is obviously not somewhere these geeks would choose to go, but they’re placed there to make the geek girls look like slut-shaming prudes and the geek boys look like gross, sexist creeps.
- The girls coax the boys into “dressing up” (we’re shown that some of them need help with this) and going to a downtown Los Angeles dance club — the kind with guest lists and go-go dancers and VIP bottle service and everything, but that’s also available for filming (again, the fakeness) — where we’re meant to again laugh at the boys’ uncool clothes, watch them complain about the loud house music, and hang our heads as they strike out with a few more attractive women.
- Most recently, one of the geek boys is thrust into a nerdy version of the classic Alex P. Keaton Dilemma, where he’s on (pseudo-)dates with multiple women at the same party, flirts with a another who has expressed profound disgust for him, is reprimanded by the rest of the cast, and is forced to make pathetic apologies to each of them. All in zombie makeup.
But of all the geek stereotypes on Fangasm, the most pervasive is the blind worship of Stan Lee, who for all his legitimate achievements remains a complex figure in comics history, to say the least. Given the over-the-top palpitations they have at the very mention of his name and their numerous references to Lee as the sole creator of Spider-Man and “basically the entire Marvel Universe,” it’s very difficult not to ascribe ignorance or ambition to these geeks. Either way… not a good look.
Finally… to quote one of my favorite geek films, “There is no right or wrong. There is only fun and boring.”
That’s basically the mantra of everyone involved with reality shows, from the creators to the casts to the viewers. To enjoy most of these shows (particularly those by Fangasm creators 495 Productions and Doron Ofir) you need to get your head in a space where expressions of grotesque narcissism and euphoric nihilism aren’t repulsive but actually thrilling. But because Fangasm’s purpose is mainly to promote the Comikaze Expo, the show fails on that baseline test of a reality show: drama. There isn’t much in the way of actual entertainment in Fangasm because there can't be. There are no introspective breakthroughs because there can't be. There is no pathological vanity because there can't be. There is only the invocation of surface-level signifiers like "Marvel Vs. DC," the most tired comic book geek topic of all time.
Don’t misunderstand; these are likable people, and it was gratifying to experience their enthusiasm for zombies and special effects makeup when they were given the opportunity to interact with professionals in that field. Take Dani, the heroine of Fangasm's narrative (such as it is), who expressed an endearing, geek-like passion for the special effects art form which in turn prompted personal reflection about her life, education and career goals (also, her R2-D2 impression is legitimately amazing). Along similar lines, an early episode shows geek boy Andrew, probably the series’ breakout star if there is one, meet George Takei and explain tearfully how a shared love of Star Trek had facilitated a close relationship with a family member, a scene which as of this writing remains the series' only depiction of personal catharsis.
These moments are genuinely humane but are undermined by the inescapable fact that they could not have occurred if these people weren’t on television, meeting celebrities not as a consequence of a personal journey but because someone's agent got a call, and absolutely surrounded by Comikaze/Stan Lee/Elvira iconography. All of this reminds us that Fangasm is not about these individuals' understanding or emotional experience with any kind of creative work or culture; it’s about what they represent in a commercial calculation: “They are just like you; everything is chill; buy tickets to our event.”
If we accept Fangasm as the reality of geek culture, then this reality is the worst of all possible timelines. It says geek culture isn’t a community of human beings brought together by a shared passion for interesting and creative things that have enriched their lives, but about reflexive, unchallenged brand loyalties; celebrity worship; and enduring social exile. It says that unlike the “guidos” of Jersey Shore or the artisans of Heroes of Cosplay or the cooks of Top Chef, there is nothing unique or special or misunderstood about being “a geek”; that geeks or fans or nerds or whatever you want to call them are at worst just the same bad stereotypes they’ve always been, and at best just ferocious consumers in Batman t-shirts.
But honestly... I’m not sure that’s not actually the truth.
It's a question I've asked myself very seriously since it was announced last year that Peter Jackson's The Hobbit would expand from a dubious two-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's 310-page novel to a plainly abusive nine-hour trilogy. It was about this news that The Mary Sue blogger Jill Pantozzi wrote, "The good news? We get to prolong our fandom..." I suspect Pantozzi didn't intend to imbue her remark with the weight I'm giving it, but I truly thought about that statement a lot. The implications hit me kind of like a bolt of lightning... but, like, if lightning could shoot up from beneath the ground and scare the hell out of you.
We get to prolong our fandom? Is that what it's all about? Is that what fandom is? Indiscriminate consumption of any junk food that's packaged similarly to something we vaguely remember loving?
Well... kind of. Yeah.
In the American comic book industry, retail and distribution is such that our conversation is dominated by books that nobody will read for three months, books that in most cases haven't yet been drawn or even written. But we talk about them a lot. We conduct and read interviews about them. A version of this shallow scenario plays out across nearly every dimension of commercial entertainment. It's a multi-platform system that evolved with the geek as a cultural and economic player, and with geek entertainment concurrently becoming a dominant market force. Consequently, the audience (and the media who caters to that audience, admittedly), their critical and visceral engagement with those materials has become increasingly incidental to the process. That something exists is the thing. What it is is not. What we take onboard, what we make part of ourselves -- that's a conversation we as a culture rarely have anymore.
In that sense, the reality of Fangasm is very depressingly true.
In this reality, the word "geek" has become almost meaningless. So we call it geek chic, geek pride, geek power. It feels more like geek cannibalism. Geeks were once the human beings who pointed their righteous, snobby fingers into the world's tasteless, ignorant face and said, "UM, ACTUALLY." Today we're a punch-drunk collective too distracted by the shiny thing to administer the same admonishment to ourselves. In Fangasm, the shiny thing takes the form of comforting invocations of things we recognize -- icons, celebrities, costumes and t-shirts -- but stripped of emotional meaning. It takes the form of outright fabrications. It takes the form of fake experiences performed in service of a really big, fake viral video, all of it devised to service a consumer class -- a culture -- that needs to realize it’s grown far too powerful to put up with bull**** like this.