In my sophomore year of high school, I met a guy in my driver’s ed class. After talking for a while, I happened to mention that I really liked Dragon Ball Z. “I’ve watched it three times,” I admitted, because, yes, I have watched the Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z series three actual times in my life.
“Oh,” The guy said in response, like he was confused. Like this was the single most confusing thing he’d ever heard in his pimply little life. “Well, I’ve watched it four times.”
What followed after that was a conversation about our favorite characters and favorite moments in the series. Except not. In hindsight, our “conversation” was less an actual conversation and more a weird interrogation. It’s only now that I know that he was quizzing me. This wasn’t an interaction between two people who liked the same thing. It was an interaction between one person who liked something and another person who had to prove that they liked the thing enough.
It was my first-ever experience with Gatekeeping. And, unfortunately, it wasn’t my last.
For the uninitiated (bless your lucky souls), Gatekeeping, as defined by UrbanDictionary, is when “someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.” Basically, when someone decides that they get to decide who’s allowed to like what.
The guy I talked to that day was a Gatekeeper. I mentioned that I liked something that could be considered a “nerdy” thing, and he immediately jumped at the chance to prove that I wasn’t a “true fan.” Unfortunately for him, he didn’t succeed (I repeat: I actually, legitimately have watched Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z three times), but if he had, he would have walked away feeling accomplished, like he’d defended geekdom from the clutches of the unworthy.
As if, you know, you have to be worthy of enjoying something.
Gatekeepers tend to be white, cisgendered, heterosexual nerds. They cling to a residual resentment of how nerds used to be treated way back when (think the pre-Star Trek and Star Wars era) and get defensive when someone who’s not the same brand nerd tries to talk about a piece of media that they happen to feel entitled to.
In a strange way, I get it. There’s always an underlying fear of being bullied about the things you like. But, the fact of the matter is that nerds are the mainstream now. No one is going to make fun of you for watching and reading nerdy things, because they’re most likely watching and reading the same nerdy things. And if they do make fun of you, they’re an outlier, not part of the majority. The fact that there’s a new generation of Gatekeepers cropping up is baffling, because the rise of the internet, and the subsequent rise in fandoms, has normalized all of the stuff that they’re trying to defend. So, they don’t actually…have to defend it anymore.
I think that the real root of New Age Gatekeeper culture – or second-wave Gatekeeping, if you will – is that nerdom used to be a really concentrated niche. It was specifically catered to the white, cisgendered, heterosexual nerd. Take Superman: nerdy reporter by day, superhero by night. Captain America used to be Steve Rogers, a weak kid from Brooklyn who was given a supersoldier serum so that he could punch Hitler in the face. Spiderman? Bullied kid turned masked hero. And so on.
There’s nothing wrong with stories like these. But, there’s a problem when they’re the only type of story. Nowadays, as women, LGBT+ people, and racial and ethnic minorities are pushing to get their own stories told, the white nerd feels threatened. They lash out by trying to treat their community like some sort of secret club, like something that can be exempt from rightful criticism (#GamerGate, anyone?), and the problem is: it’s not. Nerds currently are at the forefront of mainstream culture, and Gatekeepers are giving them a bad name.
So, to the Gatekeepers (even the unwitting ones!) who may be reading this: chill. Just because the person doesn’t know the exact color glove that character was wearing in that scene, doesn’t mean that they don’t like the thing. That’s not for you to decide.