Friday, May 31, 2013

Inspiring the She-Geek: Betty & Veronica

Hi! I'm Emilee. In January I drove from Minneapolis to Oklahoma City to watch the Fringe series finale with 50 other Fringe fans. And I am an Anomaly.

I never fell into the mold. Not entirely. It’s hard to say if anyone really does, because appearances can be so deceiving, but using the stereotypical “mold” or “archetype” to paint a familiar construct of “fitting in” as it pertains to the pre-teenage years, I think you can understand the differences between those who own it and those who try too hard. I never fell into the mold no matter how hard I tried. And believe me, I tried.

Looking back on my childhood I often cringe at certain efforts I made to keep up with the in-crowd. The irony is that my efforts worked, for reasons that are completely beyond me and my jaded visualization of that awkward fifth grader permanently embedded onto my memory. On more than one occasion I developed a very close friendship with a person who had once been on my “unattainable” list (that list of kids who are in the crowd everyone wants to be a part of and for which few outsiders ever obtain a VIP pass). But it was when I kept pushing to make those friendships most advantageous to my reputation, to acquire a broader base of associations and rise above “average”, that I can most potently see how vain my efforts were.

Over the past ten to fifteen years I have had plenty of opportunities to throw myself a pity party for the person I strove to be. But I am very much over that now. I have embraced geekdom with open arms and thrive off of the individuality I no longer suppress. It was a long road, as I am sure it was for many of you Anomalies out there. It’s a rare, but not altogether non-existent, gift to have skipped over congeekversion (the process of becoming a geek). Most of us bear the burden of overcoming a period of denial; which not only makes us stronger, but incredibly important to the She-Geek Conversation.

Beginning with this post I am going to do a series of character analyses on women in my Bubble (comics, books, movies, television, history) who have been inspirational She-Geeks to me personally or to the Conversation at large. My personal definition of a geek comes in three parts:

  1. Passionate hobbyist (I know what I like and I like what I do)
  2. Non-conformist (I won’t change for you)
  3. Oblivious to, or unconcerned with, the rules of conventional behavior (I don’t care that I am the way I am)

There is a little bit of rebelliousness associated with geekdom, particularly a She-Geek. A little rebellion, a little stubbornness, a little Type A; a little bit of country and a little bit of rock ‘n roll. But the absolute beauty of geekdom is that it comes in all forms, stretches across all genres of television, movies, and books, and occurs within any niche. It occurs in nature and it occurs without the ability to irrevocably change, merely to understand and embrace. And these are the aspects I want to emphasize through character studies.

Admittedly, the type of geek that inspires me generally falls within the same general paradigm. However, because this is the first of hopefully several chances to unveil those riveting She-Geeks who have brought me into the fullness of geekdom, I am reaching very far into the past and pulling out the very first geek who ever spoke to me.

Archie Comics began in 1939 and is still currently in publication. My mom and aunts collected these comics as young girls in the 60s and 70s and by the time I reached reading age, a trunk full of Archie Comics was available at my leisure. They’re kept at the cabin, which is where I am writing this post from now. After my realization of where my First Encounter took place, I knew I had to get my hands back into these comics.

Worn, from forty-three years of lovin’, but nonetheless intact, I found the comic I want to share. From April 1970, Archie Series No. 27 published Betty and Me, a Betty Cooper-centric series of comic strips. The cover photo is displayed to the left. In Archie canon, Betty is a blonde, pretty, girl-next-door, jack-of-all-trades bookworm. She is eccentric and silly, awkward and easily excitable. Betty Cooper is an anomaly. She loves Archie Andrews, but Archie usually only has eyes for Veronica “Ronnie” Lodge (epitome of the in-crowd), who, incidentally, is Betty’s best friend. Betty spends much of her time seeking out Archie’s affection while he slaves after Ronnie and, as a result, often tries too hard in an effort to make herself more desirable than her bestie.

If that last statement sounds familiar, it is not a coincidence. Archie comics are riddled with stereotypes of the 60s and 70s, but the dynamics between characters are still as relevant as ever. As a woman who spent the 1990s with her nose deep into these comic books, I find no shame in admitting how torn I was between who I wanted Archie to “be with”. Aside from Pebbles and Bam Bam, the Archie/Betty/Veronica love triangle was my first real experience with shipping. Drawing from my own adolescence, I could understand the attraction Archie had for Veronica, but I saw myself in Betty.

Betty’s behavior is often cringe-worthy. This particular issue exemplifies her inner geek in conjunction with how it affects her socially. Take the comic strip entitled “Help the Needy”. In this story, Archie leaves Betty’s house looking dejected and muttering: “I just don’t believe it… and she’s a girl, too!” Betty’s father sees Archie leaving as he enters the house and asks his daughter what happened. “He’s probably still overwhelmed with the new me! I’ve decided to show Archie I am a woman of the world! One who can be depended on in an hour of need!” Her father is completely unaware as to what she is talking about and she elaborates by saying that she showed Archie how a woman can be self-reliant. “Beauty is not enough these days, Daddy!”

Then Betty recounts Archie’s visit for her father. Archie tried to play her a new song he wrote on the guitar, but Betty takes the guitar from him and shows him how to play it better. Archie challenges Betty to a game of checkers, and Betty smokes him five times in a row. Upping the ante, Archie brings out chess, but Betty beats him at that too. Finally, Betty asks him to Indian arm wrestle (remember, 1970s). “Arm wrestle? But you’re a girl!” Archie says. “So what? Come on. Put ‘em up,” Betty says. And, as you can see from the last page I’ve included here, it does not play out in Archie’s favor.

It’s hard to remember how exactly I responded to these comics as a young girl, but I can remember being revolted by the slavish way in which Archie panted after Ronnie, but equally disgusted with the way that Betty pursued Archie. Can’t Archie see how great Betty is? Can’t Betty see how much better she can do than Archie? These are very conflicting thoughts! I wanted Archie to chase Betty so that she could see how little he had to offer her.

More than seeking out resolutions, I was seeking out identity. How can I continue being who I am? How can I fit in? Time after time when Betty would let her know-it-all geek drive the wagon she would miss out on an opportunity with Archie, and Archie would go running back to Veronica. How do you avoid the pursuit of the in-crowd when the results of your own quirks leave you with the unhappiness of loss?

Take the next two images included. These are from a story called “That’s The Breaks”. Betty comes home ecstatic that, for once, Archie asked her on a date over Ronnie. She literally cannot contain her excitement. In frames not shown, she is depicted dancing across the living room, debating what to wear, and singing at the top of her lungs in the shower. Cringe-worthy (at least for those of us who can remember being there). Then, in the final frames, she is so prepared for her date that she puts on her roller skates before making her way down the stairs, which results in a catastrophe prohibiting her from going on the date with Archie. While Betty watches from her couch, wrapped in bandages, Archie tells Veronica that he’d better not ask Betty out anymore because it’s too much of an emotional strain on her. Not only does Betty’s excitable personality keep her from her date with Archie, but her reaction to the date has the potential to affect Archie’s interest in her.

The answers I found weren’t fully encapsulated in the comics themselves. Comics, at least Archie comics (if not Zits, Calvin and Hobbes, or Family Circle), are designed to comically relay truths and exaggerate or make light of the outcomes of social interactions. I might not have been able to recognize these comic strips for what they were as a kid, but the effect of the stories exists whether its specific methods are known or unknown.

The effect anyone has, socially, is linked to behavior. Those who can hold it in are easier to be around because they can operate on a level with which no one need compete. They don’t draw attention to awkward or quirky behaviors. “Normal” is the absence of individuality, where everyone decides to meet on a plane that is devoid of the most defining aspects of their personality. Geekdom glorifies the differences and reserves space for the quirks that accompany passion. How dare you attend Comic-Con and roll your eyes at cosplays! It says, “Here we can be geeks… just don’t take it too far!”

No. Geekdom is geekdom, the place where all can quit suppressing the eccentricities too powerful for the workplace or for a school environment. Betty’s stories demonstrated so many of the characteristics I saw in myself before I was able to embrace my inner geek. I am excitable. I laugh loud and hard. My voice gets really low when I’m telling stories. I over-think social interactions. I talk about television and movies like they’re real. I correct everyone’s grammar. I do crazy favors for anyone. I arrive way too early to social functions. And I always have something to say about anything.

Imagine those character traits in an eleven-year-old. Now imagine them in a twenty-six-year-old.

This issue of Betty and Me does not reward Betty’s characterization of an excitable, geeky girl. In fact, the last comic, once again, concludes with Archie driving off with Veronica because Betty ruined her dress while fixing Archie’s old jalopy. Comically, there are voice bubbles coming from Betty’s house and her mother asks her why she’s making such a big fire. Betty claims she is burning all of her car manuals. If I had taken this comic seriously, I might have thought it best to rid myself of that knowledge that prevents others from wanting me around. But, as it goes with most geeks, that is impossible. It works for a while, sometimes Betty gets Archie, but in the end Betty cannot help who she is.

Unfortunately, Betty, Archie, Ronnie and the gang are perpetually locked inside that high school paradigm. Seventy-five years living the same years of high school over and over, but adapting to the decade in which the comic was published. Betty was a great symbol of a She-Geek for me because she was proof that my social roadblocks existed elsewhere. Seventy-five years later, her personality still exists, still has the same effect, and is essential to the love triangle that endures despite all that stands in her way.

At a certain point I realized that it was only me standing in my own way. I overcame the obstacle of shame that comes from society telling me that I have to conform in order to be accepted. But how do I keep my knees from giving out when something is too funny? Why shouldn’t a chill run down my spine when Clark began to float while slow dancing with Lois? I choose to feign ignorance of how convention tells me to behave. I’m much happier this way. I’m happy being an anomaly!

Staff Writer for Anomaly
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