St. Martin, 2010, 269 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-312-59105-2
Amazon’s recommendation engine usually has a good understanding of what I’m looking for. It has served me well in exploring the world of books about food, leading me from Pollan and Bourdain to Rayner, Sheehan and others I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. But it’s not perfect and when it starting suggesting Olivia Munn’s Suck it, Wonder Woman!, I should have been a bit more sceptical.
My first warning sign was asking Who is Olivia Munn? It turns out that Munn is a popular entertainer who has become something of a geek celebrity over the past few years: She has a growing number of small roles in TV show and feature films but also, crucially, co-hosts a geeky cable show named Attack of the Show! and shows up regularly at Comic-Con. Her attractiveness explains the endless stream of pictures that shows up above her Wikipedia profile in a casual Google Search.
Welcome to the age of the micro-celebrity, then: Munn has found herself a rewarding niche in the universe of young actresses by claiming the geek flag for herself. Suck it, Wonder Woman! is a slight attempt at an autobiography crossed with a humour book. Subtitled “The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek”, the book quickly shows its true colors as soon as it’s out of the Amazon packing box: Not content with a front cover design that highlights Munn’s cleavage, the back of the dust jacket urges us to discover the “Surprise on the other side”, which is to say a full-color pinup in a bikini and naval cap. Look inside the book and you will see that, aside from the photo-insert chapter introduction and occasional galleries, Munn can also be seen on every single bottom-right page corner doing a flip-book dance.
So, yeah: Cheesecake for so-called geeks.
I’m not going to comment upon Munn’s shtick as a sex-symbol for geeks: That’s a line of thought that quickly veers into misogyny. If Munn claims herself as a geek, then welcome aboard. I’m not even going to insist on how geek standard for sex-symbols don’t include many more requirements than “female with a pulse and no visible scowl at unwanted male attention”: It’s a good insulting line to get a rise out of geeks, but it also fails to acknowledge that Munn does stand out as an attractive woman no matter the surrounding crowd.
But what this book drives home are the reasons why I occasionally want to get as far away as humanly possible from the modern hyper-packaged definition of “geek”. It used to be that geeks were incredibly driven people with strong technical skills and weaker social graces: In any case, it’s their attitude toward the world that counted. Geeks were the high-school larval stage of more fully-rounded individuals who would learn how to fit in society, but would always keep their attitude of gentle manners and frequently intense curiosity about the world.
Fast-forward to 2010, however, and “geek” has become another marketing category for the entertainment-industrial complex. Comic-Con has become Ground Zero for the co-optation of the geek: Now, the word has become synonymous with the mindless consumption of dull comic-books, lousy genre movies, loud video games and lightweight books written by pretty girls who know which buttons to press in order to rouse their audiences. It used to be that geeks could be counted upon to know some valuable technical knowledge of interest to the world at large: Now, just buying Lord of the Rings figurines is enough to qualify as a Hollywood-approved geek. Newsflash: video-game trivia and glass shelves for Star Wars memorabilia don’t translate by themselves into useful contributions to society.
I am, obviously, overreacting: It’s in the nature of geeks to be picky, and nothing forbids me from charting my own brand of nerdiness. But as I was reading Suck it Wonder Woman! and taking in its assumed pandering, I ran mind-first into the contradictions between my own conception of geekiness and the now-approved cultural stereotype. Geeks may be socially inept, but that shouldn’t translate into a universe in which every video-game, comic book or genre movie representation of a female seems to feature enhanced pneumatics, plastic skin and personalities tailored to appeal to male interests. There’s something wrong if I either want to wash myself with bleach or send a neutron bomb to San Diego every time I dig into Comic-Con coverage, gaming advertisements or so-called geeky forums. My conception of geekiness, obviously, has a lot more old-world gentlemanliness than I first suspected.
But to return to the book I’m supposed to discuss, I’m not necessarily immune to Munn’s considerable charm: Her tales of growing up as an ethnically-mixed outcast in Midwest America touch a chord, as do her adventures as a nice girl abruptly thrown into the Hollywood cesspool. There’s a heartbreaking chapter midway through the book that tells us about the worst day of her life, and some of her relationship advice is amusing in a way that doesn’t necessarily relate to anything geeky. But her co-written book (take a bow, Mac Montandon, even though you barely rate a mention in the acknowledgements) doesn’t have much more content than half a dozen good blog entries. It’s thin, breezy and empty: rather the opposite of what I would be looking for as, ahem, a geek.
Obviously, the best possible reader for the book is someone who can answer the question Who is Olivia Munn? without having to resort to Wikipedia. Otherwise, accidental Munn readers are going to confront a lot of unpleasant questions about contemporary geek culture, and how it relates to women. I forget whether current feminism says it’s OK to get down with the boys as a trash-talking Princess Leia lookalike and, in doubt, would have to agree with anyone willing to fit into a brass bra. But much like there’s a reason why I prefer referring to myself as a nerd rather than a geek (never forget the etymology of both words), I also choose to opt out of the geek marketing segment if it leads to a half-empty shell of a book whose selling points include a dust jacket that reverts to reveal a photoshopped come-on. My ideal cheesecakes can seduce me with their minds.