When the news broke regarding Star Wars: The Last Jedi actor Kelly Marie Tran quitting Instagram due to harassment from fans, I and many others made note of how utterly unhelpful it was to hear people express their sadness on the news but do so while prefacing their comments with a line on how they didn’t like her character/her acting/the film. It seemed detrimental to the point at hand, and there was nothing to gain through such an approach. Doing so implied that basic human decency required a disclaimer. A similar issue came up last week with the news that actress and cosplayer Chloe Dykstra had accused her former boyfriend, podcaster and founder of Nerdist Chris Hardwick, of emotional abuse and sexual coercion during their relationship. Too many smug tweeters couldn’t wait to react to the distressing news with a proclamation that they had always hated Hardwick. I’m not sure what response they wanted to such tweets. A high-five, maybe?
Chris Hardwick was as easy to love as he was to hate. He was the elevated geek who made his passion into a multi-million dollar endeavour; the fanboy who got to hang out with the idols of his childhood; one of the self-appointed leaders of the new age of nerdery, at a point when it became not only cool but profitable. Hardwick became the acceptable face of nerd culture: White, reasonably attractive, thin, charming, a willing servant to power, and eager to demand loyalty.
It doesn’t matter whether you liked Hardwick or thought he was a douchebag before Chloe Dykstra bravely released her story. Your personal tastes are of no consequence to issues this traumatic. However, it would be foolish of us to overlook the ways that Hardwick used what many saw as his inherent likeability to not only command a dedicated fanbase but to cultivate an image of commodified geekiness that made him immensely powerful. Hardwick has defined the 21st-century era of mainstream geek as much as any franchise or fandom, and we now know how he used that.
Hardwick was of the breed of geek that wore his hobbies as a badge of honour. It wasn’t just that he liked Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek, and the expected pop culture material; he defined himself as someone whose life was greatly improved by liking those things. Trivia became a weapon, much in the same way the worst gatekeepers of geek culture wield it for exclusionary purposes. Hardwick was at least savvy enough to have the essence of inclusivity in what he did - hey, that’s how you make all the money - but the same principles still applied. Listening to episodes of the Nerdist podcast demonstrate the ways that he could position himself as the almighty geek-in-chief through sheer force of the stuff he owned and facts he knew. Some episodes of the show are especially hard to listen to as Hardwick self-aggrandizes about how big a fan he is of a certain guest while never actually listening to them (see the David Tennant one). Much of Hardwick’s own actions betrayed that carefully manicured image of being Just One Of The Geeks, but he maintained an iron grip on it, even as he outgrew its boundaries.
A lot of Hardwick’s career seems defined by his desire to not have ‘the guy who hosted Singled Out’ as the first line on his Wikipedia page. I’ve seen people arguing over whether his geek persona is authentic or not - a fake geek guy, if you will - but that overlooks the seeming ease with which he managed to reinvent himself and become famous from it. There was a period where any woman who professed a love of Star Wars on a talk show would face immediate accusations of faking her geekiness to appeal to men.
This absurd misogyny relied on the notion that women were desperate to please men whose first instincts were to deny their place in such communities. It also pretended that sexist creeps would somehow be offended if exceptionally beautiful women dressed as Slave Leia and pretended to like sci-fi just to impress them. Women are never afforded basic acceptance under such circumstances. It’s not just enough to be a geek: You have to be an encyclopaedia of pointless knowledge on every single topic or you’re not really a geek. Guys don’t face this problem, or at least white dudes don’t. Hardwick never faced that barrage of doubt over his interests, even as he seemed to overcompensate with every interview. His intentions weren’t questioned either, even though, as we saw, this new persona became a fountain of revenue for him.
There is always something inherently flawed with the celebrity persona built on the unsound foundations of being ‘just like everyone else’. There really is no way to manage a public image based on relatability and an authentically level playing field when you’re clearly wealthier, more famous, and reliant on those fans’ labour to keep your place at the top. You can create a fan community and it can be one rich in love and mutual respect. it’s even possible to turn that into a successful business venture, but it’s not a dynamic that can stay perfectly balanced in the long-term. Eventually, the guy at the top becomes as famous as those he adored and becomes a standard bearer for the public image of what he represented. When you’re writing books about how to live life the nerd way and bragging about the Doctor Who décor in your massive house, the boundaries change dramatically on that relationship, and as it did for Hardwick, one side benefitted more than the other.
In her Medium piece, Dykstra signs off her article with a sly joke about being a former trophy girlfriend turned ghost. She’s a cosplayer and actress who works mostly in geek circles and is very good at it. However, this remains a community that is heavily hostile towards women. Cosplayers are objectified, writers are attacked, our words and ideas stolen when they aren’t being targeted for further abuse, and our seat at the table repeatedly removed for increasingly ridiculous reasons. Women don’t get to be geek ambassadors like men do - and women of colour even less so - because the default mode is still to label us as something between window dressing and nuisance.
Dykstra is not shy in her discussion of how Hardwick used her to bolster his own career, pushing her into a role in his media empire she did not want. Hardwick couldn’t just be the King Geek: He needed a queen, but one whose powers were only ceremonial (and can be ripped away by loyal goons, as Dykstra noted the way she was allegedly blacklisted from the industry following their break-up). It speaks volumes that he continues this public charade with his wife, model and heiress Lydia Hearst: She is the glamorous eye candy, while he is the goofy nerd posing on the red carpet and reminding people of how lucky he is as a geek to have landed such a beautiful wife. For Hardwick’s geek persona, every day is a chance to live life as if you’re in an episode of The Big Bang Theory, and we all know how well that show treats its female characters.
Hardwick’s name has been mostly scrubbed from Nerdist’s website, and in the short amount of time since I started writing this piece, much has changed. He released a statement denying Dykstra’s claims in a display of what can only be described as Gaslighting 101. He savagely attacks Dykstra, questioning her motives and going out of his way to paint her as an unreliable harpy. This playbook is familiar to most of us, especially over the past year or so given the influx of stories coming from the upper echelons of Hollywood power: Deny, dismiss, discredit, and shame. The response to Hardwick’s statement has been largely negative, with most people able to see through its hand-wringing. It couldn’t stop the drama, and he ‘decided to step aside’ from moderating AMC and BBC America panels at this year’s Comic Con. He’s also been pulled from his upcoming AMC show. It’s in the details where the most is revealed, such as the moment where Hardwick pulls the ‘future father’ line. Keep in mind that Hardwick and his wife are not expecting. They’re just hoping to one day have kids. This is a man who sees his ability to reproduce and possibly help create a woman as being inherently more trustworthy than a living, breathing woman.
The crown has toppled but there will always be men who jostle to be King Geek. The toxicity of white maleness in fandom and nerd culture has only festered over the past several years, and it’s no wonder women don’t even trust the ‘nice guys’ when they turn out to be Chris Hardwick. Chloe Dykstra’s strength is to be commended, particularly since we know the context she spoke it in: A powerful man who cloaked his darkness in the peppy warmth of geek charm and transformed it into a prized commodity. In such a world, we all end up as accessories to a wider, nastier game, but it’s Dykstra who has suffered the most, and it’s Dykstra, and people like her, whose voices should be amplified the most in this community. Chris Hardwick is but a symptom of this toxic cause, but it never hurts to find a cure for both.
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images).