Home > Feminism > On femmephobia and geek subcultures.

On femmephobia and geek subcultures.

I know this is a seemingly odd choice of topic for a post on a blog that’s ostensibly about Paganism, but with the huge amount of overlap between the Pagan community and geek subcultures, I thought it was relevant. And, well, it’s my blog, piss off if you don’t like it, because this post really needs some signal boosting.

I think that when we engage with this bullshit, it’s important to remember that the source of this mess is a kyriarchy that consistently values women’s worth solely by their “fuckability” according to the heteronormative male gaze. And it’s also a culture in which geeky pursuits are firmly coded as masculine, and where female geeks until very recently have been mostly invisible. I think a lot of female nerds are understandably resentful that we went years and years without having any acknowledgment that women could be nerds at all, and when we finally started getting some, it was only a very narrow range of women getting all the attention, generally for all the wrong reasons: because male nerds thought they were “fuckable” according to conventional standards. When was the last time we saw a female nerd/geek in pop culture that wasn’t conventionally pretty, since Revenge of the Nerds? Even the rare women who are expressly coded as “nerds” rather than as the unattainable “hotties” nerd boys drool over are attractive (ie. Willow Rosenberg, anyone played by Felicia Day, etc). The message then becomes that the only female nerds worth talking to/about are the “hot” ones. Even in the one subculture that supposedly values intellectual pursuits and the socializing doesn’t (ostensibly) revolve around sex or dating rituals, looks are still the only thing that matters about a woman.

This, after years and years of strict policing by our male counterparts: don’t be too girly, or you’re not a True Nerd. And if there’s one thing nerds of any gender fear more than anything, it’s the “you’re not a true _____” argument. Even nerdy pursuits within the subculture are subject to this: the sheer amount of vitriol hurled at “fangirls” on sites like TV Tropes, the amount of abuse given to fandoms/fannish pursuits that are dominated by women (ie Twilight, fanfiction, The Sims, casual games), the whining by misogynist dudebros that “girls are ruining ______”, etc. A startlingly and not-at-all-coincidentally high number of feminine-coded things are enough to get you tossed out on the curb as not a True Nerd. The ever-present threat of being outcast-even-from-the-outcasts is a scary thing, especially for the younger ones among us.

Mix all this together and season liberally with a toxic culture that denigrates anything and everything feminine even as it pretends to put it on a pedestal, and it becomes all too obvious where this internalized misogyny in nerdgirls comes from. Unfortunately, instead of fueling much needed critiques of sexist pop culture, this resentment boils right back into the same femmephobia and nerdgirl policing that’s been the price of admission to geekdom for women since time immemorial. There’s a good reason why some of the loudest misogynists in our nerdy subcultures are women, it’s because there’s only three categories for women in it: Nerdgirl, DM’s Girlfriend, Squealing Fangirl. And you won’t be accepted into the first one (the only one that gets any kind of respect) unless you’re suitably de-sexualized/de-femmed/not threatening to male supremacy. If you’re a little too femme, a little too pretty, a little too fond of shipping/fanfic/slash, a little too willing to call out misogyny? You get outcast to the other two boxes, which might as well be Outer Siberia for all the respect they get. That there is now a Hot Chick category emerging is cold comfort to a lot of women (particularly those of us who are brown, fat, unable/willing-to-pass-trans, disabled, etc. and thus are automagically excluded from the Hot Chick category by 90% of mainstream geekdom no matter how hot we are; more on that in a bit). More times than I can count, I’ve specifically been able to mark a distinct difference in how I’ve been received and treated in nerd spaces depending on how femme-looking I am at a given time. I’ve worn the exact same geeky t-shirt and gotten completely different reactions if I wore it with jeans or a skirt, or had makeup on or not. Without fail, if I’m more femme-presenting or even slightly deviate from the Acceptable Nerd Girl Uniform (jeans, neckbeard-sized geeky t-shirt, and at most plain chapstick)–even in an alt-femme/femmegoth manner–I alternately get hit on or dismissed as DM’s Girlfriend and not to be taken seriously. There’s hostility and suspicion that I’m an interloper, a “muggle” that doesn’t belong.

Also, note that a fair bit of this is racially charged: if you’re a WoC or otherwise othered, even if you manage to slip into the Hot Chick category, you have to defend your cred twice as much, because WoC get even less representation as nerds than white women do. Does anyone really believe Felicia Day would be remotely as popular if she were fat and/or brown and/or trans, really? She constantly gets held up as a Nerd Chick icon, while Rosario Dawson and Mila Kunis (who as a dark-haired Russian is “swarthy” in comparison and exoticized)–both just as thin, cis, and pretty–constantly get their nerd cred questioned. Aisha Tyler is another one who undergoes scrutiny. Things that make you go, “hmm”, indeed.

For a group of people who are outcasts basically everywhere else, all of this is some pretty powerful incentive to STFU and play ball with a fucked up system. For far too long, it wasn’t immediately obvious that there was an alternative to femmephobic assimilation if you wanted to be a female nerd and participate in nerd culture, especially if you were young and socially awkward to begin with. We’ve always been our harshest critics in large part because we’ve been terrified of that sort of shunning. This really ought to be another Geek Social Fallacy, btw, because that’s just how prevalent it is.

So what’s the answer? Other than continuing to call it out where we see it, and talk and talk and talk this shit out? I think it’s critically important to continue to seek out and build our own nerdy spaces where heteronormative male gaze bullshit is not centered. Backlash be damned. I don’t think it’s coincidental that I only began to unpack and dismantle my own internalized femmephobia when I stopped hanging out so much in straight white cis dude fannish spaces and more in female and explicitly queer dominated spaces. I’m not advocating separatism for everyone, by any means (personally, it’s how I manage to keep my blood pressure to a reasonable level, but do what you gotta). But, seriously, there’s enough decent nerds out there that we don’t have to put up with this nonsense, and we don’t have to engage in this kind of self-destructive policing. We never had to–not really–but there’s just no excuse for this bullshit now, in 2011. There’s a metric fuckton of us and we need to recognize that and keep on creating our own communities, where this kind of nonsense gets checked at the door. My life got infinitely better when I found some and was able to be myself. It’s no longer important to me whether or not some theoretical dudes recognize me as “one of the tribe” anymore, because my participation in nerd culture doesn’t rely on them or their approval.

It’s why I laugh off microaggressions like the recent trip I made to GameStop, in which the male clerk informed me that “I didn’t look like a gamer” (another notch on my belt for identities I possess that I “don’t look like”, next to queer, poly, and Pagan. I’m a fucking ninja!) and proceeded to hit on me, after I coolly informed him that I’ve been gaming probably longer than he’s been alive. The simple truth is I feel like I’m at an age where I have nothing to prove to anyone as far as geek cred goes. My back issues of Macworld sit comfortably on a shelf next to copies of French and Italian Vogue, and my Anne Rice novels sit right next to my copy of the Dune Encyclopedia (mint hardcover obtained for $80, thank you). I design recipes based on fictional video game and fantasy novel cultures. So if I waltz into the local comic or game shop in a corset with my face covered in MAC Studio Fix, you can give me the stink eye all you want to. You’ll be hating me even more when I get home and roflstomp you in Soul Calibur 4.

Categories: Feminism Tags: ,
  1. August 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Howdy. I wondered here from your WM3 article (linked via Shakesville), but was drawn to this post as an ardent member of the anime fan community and a newcomer to feminist thought.

    I wanted to ask some pointed questions about empathy regarding your post in the hope of maybe finding the shape of this problem, since I–as a member of the “majority” (?) don’t experience these kinds of discrimination.

    I am curious as to how much of this vitriol and bigotry comes from fear and anger at the kinds of discrimination and gender policing these male nerds have received themselves. True, nerdery has moved towards the mainstream, but judgement still gets applied to those who prefer comics and dice (or magical girls and moe in my case) over football and cars. Those who take a social hit for their hobbies (fewer friends, less in common with their proximal peers) likely harbor some jealousy over the more socialized geeks who don’t appear to suffer in the estimation of the uninitiated for their tribulations in pursuit of their hobbies. And, you know what it makes a little sense (not that it’s right, but it makes sense). That woman who arrives in her R8 to the gaming store, sets up her beautifully painted Grey Knights army with the help of her loving wife and then wipes the floor with you on the table? Yeah. You SHOULD be jealous of her. She’s living the life you want.

    The problem is that instead of looking at her as inspiration, our immediate reaction is to call into question her devotion to Warhammer IN SPITE of the fact that the hours of model painting is right in front of you. If Warhammer is all you have and she’s better at it than you, you have to recover face somehow right? Wrong. Someone, somewhere along the way was SUPPOSED to teach you that preening isn’t the response here. But it’s a lesson that has to by taught by your community.

    Which is why i think I’m against segregation as a way forward for the female geek community. I understand that the current spaces are hostile, but by refusing to engage with them, you help support the idea that you are not fans in the same way as the dickish, male, cis-gendered, white fans, which is plainly not true. The only way to cure them of their narrow mindset is to show them that there’s another way, and that requires engagement. Niche fan communities are used to being left alone and finding solidarity in isolation, and as a result, Isolating yourself from them won’t solve much.

    From where I sit, a lot of the nerdboy rage at nerdgirls comes across as insecurity and response to a perceived threat. In abstract, I find little wrong with a voire dire process (Every newcomer to a community poses some kind of threat, so I can understand the need to demonstrate yourself as nonthreatening), but highly disapprove with the checklist.

    Now granted, I come at this from a position of relative strength and privilege (when wearing a polo shirt only my K-On! keychain prevents me from appearing as sub-species dudebro), but I am curious as to your thoughts because I am aware it’s people like me who need to pick up the slack in being more welcoming, so am interested in your thoughts.

    • August 19, 2011 at 4:39 pm

      No problem, glad you made it here. I hear what you’re saying, and I agree with a lot of it, but at the same time I also feel like some of this argument is the same one I always hear from folks with privilege re: safe spaces for marginalized people in general, which is, “keeping to yourselves won’t solve anything”, etc. Which, frankly, is nonsense. I teaspoon as much as I can, but sometimes I’m just not in the mental space to be able to fight the same 101 stuff over and over again, especially in a space where I’m ostensibly there to have some escapist fun. Sometimes people just need respite from that. After all, we get plenty of it in our day-to-day lives at work, school, etc. And it’s not nerdgirls’ job to teach misogynist nerdboys how to act right. As marginalized people, more often than not we’re written off as hysterical man-hating feminazis on the rag that want to Ruin Everything with our PC cooties (see also: anything having to do with Penny Arcade). The onus, as always, has to be on the people with the privilege to clean up their act, such as dudes that do not in fact have their heads up their asses.

      Every community needs to have standards, sure, and I don’t doubt that a great deal of this hostility stems from insecurity, but the question becomes, just who becomes the arbiter of community standards? People who put themselves in those gatekeeper sorts of positions almost always end up defaulting back to worn out stereotypes and assumptions. The thing is, nerdgirls are not newcomers to anything. We’ve been rendered invisible for so long that it seems that way, but almost every adult nerdgirl I know has been one for life, or at least a very long time (some are second and third-generation nerds). Most of us have stories about being The One Girl in the nerd herd, the Anybodies if you will, or at least one of a minority. My 70-something aunt still has her badge from the very first Star Trek convention, and still squees about the time she met Shatner and Nimoy at a con in Vegas, when she was in her 60s. We’ve always been around, and basically ignored. And I think a lot of that has to do with Nice Guy syndrome and a sense of entitlement. “Hot women” have nothing to do with them, therefore “hot women” are automatically suspect, and nerdgirls (the categories are mutually exclusive, remember) don’t even exist on the radar.

  2. August 22, 2011 at 7:54 am

    Thanks for clarifying it for me.

    I think I personally worry about the alienation of the marginalized because the internet-as-sounding board will quickly amplify the collective ignorance and vanilla-taste of the “core” group into something that 1. doesn’t grow and 2. becomes increasingly hostile and stagnant.

    Policing your friends is hard, soul-searching work, and comes hard to people like me who prefer to be conciliatory than combative. But, the more I read stuff in this vein and the more people I meet, the more I feel like fighting.

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