All right. I’m putting on my feminist hat for this one. Haters to the left. Actually, in this case, would it be “haters to the right”?
Those of you who know me should at least suspect that I am a strong proponent of changing the way women are presented in the media and – as a result – perceived by popular culture. I used to skirt around the issue, not wanting to be labeled, laughed at, or written off, but I really don’t find that necessary anymore. Maybe I’m older and wiser, but this is doubtful. More likely, I see that keeping silent on issues that make my life less than it could be does nobody any good. Therefore, as a woman and as a geek, I have to ask: what is up with the way geek culture treats women?
I’ve already briefly addressed this topic in a blog post I wrote for skirt! magazine last week, but I felt it deserved a more in-depth treatment. Also, I am still a wee bit annoyed. Actually, I am perpetually annoyed at being treated differently by comic book store owners, at seeing strong female characters reduced to sex objects, and at the whole concept of the “fake geek girl.”
The pinnacle of my annoyance is the hoopla over the “fake geek girl,” a character I have never met, but who is apparently a clear and present danger to all I hold dear. A little background: in 2012, Forbes contributor Tara Tiger Brown wrote an article titled, “Dear Fake Geek Girls: Please Go Away.” In it, she decries what she sees as the dilution of geek culture as the internet makes once-obscure interests easy to access for just about anyone. She points to a growing group of people who claim to be interested in geeky things – gaming, scifi, etc – to get attention. Now, there’s nothing wrong with disliking inauthentic people. I’m not a fan of shameless attention-seekers, although that is mainly because I like to be the only one in the room. However, Brown’s argument isn’t about inauthentic people in general: she targets women and girls as the main culprits in the disintegration of geek culture as she knew it. How dare these women assume geek status just to get attention from males? She assumes that these women – whoever they are – did not go through the same bumpy childhood and adolescence that is typical of geek culture. Therefore, they should be exposed as frauds, so we can “protect” the sanctity of geek culture. Sheesh. We’re scifi nerds, not the Order of the Phoenix.
Also in 2012, CNN contributor Joe Peacock wrote “Booth Babes Need Not Apply,” an article where he trashes women who (apparently) only go to conventions to feel better about their appearance by “infiltrating a community to seek the attention of guys [they] wouldn’t give the time of day on the street.” He claims that he knows women who are both very attractive and “true geeks,” but the posers, he writes, are numerous. I wonder how one could tell the difference between an attractive woman who is also “legit,” and one who is clearly just there to torment the poor geek males by…I don’t know…being attractive around them? To be fair, at many cons, there are what we call “booth babes,” who are models – often scantily-clad – who are there to sell merchandise. Sex sells. We know that. Some conventions have banned the use of booth babes to sell merchandise, because it can create an environment that is uncomfortable for both male and female con-goers. There is a big difference, though, between objecting to a commercial policy and assuming a woman is ‘selling’ herself simply because of the way she looks. Trust me: if an attractive woman wants to feel good about herself by garnering male attention, there are easier and cheaper ways to do it than paying $50 or more for a day-pass to a convention and waiting in line for hours. Bars exist.
It’s not just civilian geeks who are targeted by this assumption. After a journalist accused geek heroine Felicia Day of being a “fake,” her fans across the internet rose up in arms. Day is a writer, first and foremost, and the notion that she doesn’t belong because she also happens to be a pretty woman was not well-received. However, part of Day’s appeal is her association with Joss Whedon, the granddaddy of geekdom (or at least its weird uncle). Being associated with Whedon gives her a level of security; after all, he gave the world Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, and Firefly, series rife with attractive, kick-ass women. So she’s safe, more or less, from the brunt of these attacks. Less safe is Olivia Munn, who rose to stardom as the host of G4’s Attack of the Show!, a series focused on tech reviews, pop culture news, and other minutiae from a geek perspective. She went on to work with The Daily Show. Munn has come under criticism from Peacock and his ilk, who lump her together with booth babes as an attempt by commercial interests to pander to geek males, who are apparently incapable of resisting attractive women. Peacock refers to “these Olivia Munn types” as a big problem in geek culture. Why target Munn? Because she’s sexy. She’s conventionally attractive, and thus she cannot know what it’s like to feel out of place, and thus she cannot be a geek. That’s the logic there.
What a load of nonsense. Geek culture began as a way of escaping the mundane, of finding a place for those who don’t fit into the mainstream world…and women aren’t welcome because they’re sexy? A brief glance at comic book covers or game release promotional material would suggest that geek culture doesn’t actually mind sexualized women. Gaming and comic heroines are more than likely to be portrayed in a highly-sexualized manner. With a few notable exceptions, women in comic books and games have Barbie-like proportions and apparently can’t buy pants. Don’t believe me? Tumblr’s Escher Girls finds comic book depictions of women that defy the laws of the human body, usually due to the famous “boobs and butt pose.” The Hawkeye Initiative shows how ridiculous the sexualization of female heroines is by redrawing female superhero poses, using the male hero Hawkeye. As a female comic book fan, it’s always bothered me that the women can’t seem to keep their clothing on. Or that nobody thinks pants are important when saving the world. Or that four-inch stilettos are absolutely necessary for flight. If I were a heroine, I’d want pants. And supportive shoes. And a little bit more breathing room in that jumpsuit. And don’t even get me started on how strong, single heroines usually get their series axed. Oh, Manhunter, we barely knew ye. Women in comics are totally sexualized, so why object to sexy women in real life?
The issue, I think, is that there’s a difference between being sexualized and being sexy. Half-clad superwomen are safe; they can’t talk, they can’t think, and they can’t be real people. To some extent, booth babes, by their very remoteness, are also safe for geek males to ogle. When I say geek males, by the way, I am referring to those who buy into the “fake geek girl” myth. In many ways, geek culture has long cherished the same kind of self-sacrificing “courtly love” that made Crusaders so very tiresome. Women are some kind of divine, untouchable mystery in this mindset. Objectified, they’re safe. When a real, breathing, attractive woman – especially one who knows she’s attractive and enjoys being so – tries to break into the Good Old Boys Club of geekery, she is often met with suspicion. The Olivia Munns of geekdom, strangely enough, have to overcome being beautiful. Now, I know what you’re thinking: boo hoo, it must be so sad to be an attractive young woman. In this context, though, it is.
It’s similar to slut-shaming, in which women are shamed for their sexuality. In both cases, a patriarchal system assigns motivations to women based on their physical appearance, gender, and sexual choices. In slut-shaming, women who do not conform to a specific set of rules about sexuality are shamed. In the “fake geek girl” culture, attractive women are seen only as sexual objects. Only in this case, the patriarchal culture imposes a further level of prejudice: because these women are attractive, the culture sees them as “out of the geek guy’s league.” Because they are deemed unobtainable sexually, they lose all value as human beings. In fact, they’re demonized because they are accused of dangling sexuality in front of the poor geek guy’s nose like a carrot and then whisking it away. In slang terms, all pretty women must be teases. In this faulty line of reasoning, the Olivia Munns of the world are not available sexually to the average geek male, and that is their fault. In standard practice, female geeks too often latch onto the prejudice and add their own levels of hate to it. Because women (even in this sub-culture) are often told that affirmation comes from male attention, they lash out at women they perceive to be their competitors, or who make them “look bad.” Ironically enough, these women and girls often target “fake geek girls,” accusing them of striving too hard for male attention.
On the other side of the coin, women are torn down for not achieving the standards of beauty that the Olivia Munns of the world are condemned for. Sasha Trebane, Dr. Who fan, cosplayed (dressed up) as the TARDIS, the Doctor’s police box/mode of transportation through Time and Space. Her blue ballgown was handpainted on the inside, so that the dress looked “bigger on the inside,” as the TARDIS is supposed to be. Here, you can see the dress, as well as the unwanted Facebook commentary. Here, you have a beautiful fan, who has made a fantastic contribution to the fandom, and who clearly has so much passion and imagination that she is modeling a work of art. And what is the reaction from members of her community? Harsh critiques of her body. Because apparently it doesn’t matter what you look like as a woman: you’re either desperate for male attention or you clearly can’t get any. As women, these standards mean we can’t win. Here’s a heads-up: we’re not here so that judgmental males can have a reaction to us. We’re here to engage in what we love and to connect with other fans, both male and female, provided they accept us and allow us our subjectivity. Women, no matter what they look like, are not objects.
The myth of the “fake geek girl” is all about objectification. It’s about looking at a woman and imposing false motivations upon her based on the way she looks or dresses. This myth, the harsh criticism of women who don’t fit these standards, and the general sexualization of women in comic books all stem from objectification. It’s the need of a patriarchal culture to control female sexuality and to reject women who do not fit into this worldview. In this culture, women must be incredibly sexualized, but submissive – so submissive that they aren’t even real. Women who own their own sexuality are feared, while those who do not conform to the physical ideal are mocked mercilessly. And here’s the kicker: we’re better than this. We’re geeks. We made it to the Final Frontier. We envisioned a thousand worlds where human beings rose above unthinkable odds to liberate themselves. We can and we must liberate ourselves from a mode of thinking that would keep half of us from being agents of their own fates. We have the capacity to change the rampant sexism in our culture into acceptance and empowerment.
No personal experience justifies the assumption that a woman – any woman – exists to gain some kind of male attention. You can be sexy, confident, and geeky at any size and age, and that does not make you worthy of criticism. I’m no model; however, I’m healthy and I like the way I look. I’m confident, and I like to express myself through what I wear. If I wore a Slave Leia cosplay, it would be because I like the way my abs look in it, and also because I think Leia is an awesome character. If I cosplayed as Cherno Alpha, it would be because big robots are badass and I like the way I feel like a boss in it. I wear a bikini, and I’m proud of it. I wear makeup because I like it. I never go to a con, or a comic book store, or a scifi movie marathon to get male attention. That’s not to say that I don’t like male attention or feeling attractive. I do. But it has nothing to do with my geekiness. I might not be “into” every minute detail of gaming, techy stuff, or other fandoms, but that doesn’t delegitimize me as a member of this community. More importantly, I shouldn’t have to legitimize myself at all. Like this fantastic video claims, We Have Nothing to Prove.