On female geeks and their fight to stay visible
By Mahnoor Yawar
There is no doubting that we are, historically speaking, in the prime of geek supremacy. More than three quarters of the highest grossing films in Hollywood belong to franchises involving science fiction, fantasy or superheroes. Storylines focusing on geeks and adaptations of fantasy and graphic novels continually dominate the airwaves, year after year. While sales of print books drop all over, there are more critically acclaimed fantasy and sci-fi books in the market than ever before. Nerds like Steve Jobs, Steven Moffat, Joss Whedon, George R. R. Martin and Mark Zuckerberg have become the ultimate cult symbols. The geeks have, at last, inherited the Earth. But have they also inherited its more insidious societal biases?
Last year, Carolyn Petit, reviewer for gaming website Gamespot, rated Grand Theft Auto V as one of the best video games of 2013. She rhapsodized about the game’s graphics, its astounding improvement in controls, and the sheer beauty of the game design overall. In addition to naming it “editor’s choice”, she gave it a whopping score of 9.0 based on being “one of the most beautiful, lively, diverse and stimulating worlds ever seen in a game.”
The gaming community went berserk. The review received over 20,000 comments, many of which hurled a litany of verbal abuse and personal threats directed at Petit herself. Tens of thousands signed a petition demanding she be fired from Gamespot. Her entire credibility was called into question over the sheer audacity to nitpick, while one commenter dismissed her saying, “It’s GTA. Of course it’s misogynistic. Fuck your feelings.” Her perspective, informed far more broadly than the average gaming enthusiast, was essentially invalidated by those claiming superiority over the medium.
This came in the same year where, according to statistics, over 90% of the lead characters in cinema were men. An even greater number failed the Bechdel test. The year’s top grossing franchises geared towards geek appeal included brand new installments of Iron Man, Thor, Wolverine, The Hobbit, Star Trek, and even G.I. Joe, with the additional entry of Man of Steel into the fray. With the notable exception of perhaps Catching Fire (the second offering in the Hunger Games trilogy), not one of these movies features a primary, non-token female character with a role more pivotal than one serving as (potential or actual) love interest to the lead male character, or just to be “fridged” so the lead can exact his mighty revenge.
There is no shortage of dismal narratives, either, from female cosplayers who have been subjected to varying degrees of harassment and body-shaming at conventions for years. They are forced to compete in visibility with a barrage of images purposely designed to appeal to the male gaze — from the physically impossible contortions on comic book covers to the large-breasted anatomical anomalies featuring in video games. Image after image of falsely enhanced and misrepresented avatars are shoved down everyone’s throat as the only acceptable visual identity for women. In turn, the women who partake in these events are either excluded (as “fake geek girls”), or objectified (as “booth babes”), ergo conveniently shut out from actively participating in the very public space that exists to nurture their chosen community.
This overwhelmingly hostile attitude towards women at conventions and in online communities, the overall dearth of female representation in popular franchises, and an absence of marketing strategies geared to sell popular culture to women forces one to ask the question: why is everyone so afraid of female geeks?
Psychologists have long studied the variety of gender micro-aggressions directed at this particular subset of the community, but they are now faced with the more damaging subcategory of micro-invalidations. The systemic misogyny embedded within the geek community is more detrimental because it seeks to homogenize a community that found its roots in acceptance. What do we make of such a community that so aggressively enforces invisibility on its most outspoken subset? And so quickly rises to attack and intimidate the ones who dare to raise issues?
Female geeks have quickly become a marginalized community within a once marginalized community itself. Their sense of belonging is consistently questioned by the far more visible male geek population. Women are subjected to greater scrutiny in terms of sheer knowledge of the fandom they choose to subscribe to, and are made into lesser members of their community. Rachel Edidin of Dark Horse Comics explained this false sense of entitlement as thus:
“Geek culture is a haven for guys who can’t or don’t want to fall in step with the set of cultural trappings and priorities of traditional manhood in America. At least in theory, geek culture fosters a more cerebral and less violent model of masculinity, supported by a complementary range of alternative values. But the social cost of that alternative model — chosen or imposed — is high, and it’s often extorted violently — socially or physically. The fringe is a scary place to live, and it leaves you raw and defensive, eager to create your own approximation of a center. Instead of rejecting the rigid duality of the culture they’re nominally breaking from, geek communities intensify it, distilled through the defensive bitterness that comes with marginalization. And so masculinity is policed incredibly aggressively in geek communities, as much as in any locker room or frat house.”[ii]
Even marketing executives are responsible for reinforcing the prevalent narrative. Market research for all these franchises know that the male community is where the money comes from, so profit margins would be maximized by narrowing down the target audience. Doing so will inevitably involve appealing to a preexisting superiority for the target group over those that are excluded, essentially selling male power fantasies and alienating female buyers. This cultural reinforcement of an already prevalent trend is as old as capitalism itself — advertising doesn’t manufacture the “boys club” narrative from scratch, it piggybacks on it and helps it grow. Women are appeased instead with an exclusive product line of their own, slathered in pink and sparkles, that wouldn’t interfere with the existing marketing strategies. It is a moral and ethical misdirection, sure, but it is part of a cycle that society created for itself.
This does not absolve any creator of blame, though. In a panel last year that included Gerry Conway (creator of The Punisher), Todd McFarlane (Spawn) and Len Wein (Wolverine), Conway claimed that, “the comics follow society. They don’t lead society.” But this is ignoring the considerable power that creators and industries wield in the construction of societal culture. As writer Alyssa Rosenberg put it, “The decision to stay within the narrow lanes of your own fantasies is a choice, not biological determinism.”[iii] Testosterone-laden fantasies may have been the genesis of the superhero genre, but surely story structures have evolved enough to discard the idea that good writing has to make any concessions in order to be more inclusive. In writing female characters, there exists a spectrum beyond the duality of the “damsel in distress” and the one-dimensional “strong, emotionless warrior.”
The imbalance of this very representation — the lack of material with realistic views of masculinity and femininity — lies at the core of the social anxiety behind geek micro-invalidations. Men feel the need to adhere to this unwritten code of conduct, while women are measured against the idealistic physical standards afforded to them by media. In turn, women are told to strain the very limits of their emotional bandwidth by ignoring the abuse, suffering in silence, or rejoicing in the fact that we are significant enough to garner such attention. Are those really our only options? Indifference, shame or celebration?
Media critic Anita Sarkeesian (of Feminist Frequency) very aptly christened this attitude as the “gamification of misogyny”, referring to the backlash against her Kickstarter campaign that involved creating abusive Internet games, with harassers awarding each other virtual points for lashing against her. Being part of a subculture does not waive the necessity to be critical of it. Being aware of the damaging tropes being perpetuated in a certain cultural milieu does the very opposite of limiting its view and its fanbase – it only lends further intellectual credibility. It is high time that the social acceptance of geek culture trickles down to within its own ranks, and being self-critical aligns with a greater acceptance of the diverse definition of the term “geek” itself.
Mahnoor Yawar is Deputy Articles Editor for the magazine.