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On femmephobia and geek subcultures.

May 4, 2011 3 comments

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: ,

Truly Inclusive Gender-Based Mysteries

March 1, 2011 16 comments

This started as a comment on a friend’s blog post on the recent Pantheacon transfail, and it started frolicking into teal deer territory, so I decided to just make it a post here. Beware, this is going to be ranty.

To summarize: a Dianic group advertised a public ritual in honor of Lilith at Pantheacon, which is a pretty big and well-known Pagan con, except they neglected to mention in their announcement that the ritual was meant for ciswomen only. So they ended up turning away trans women and men at the door, after they’d waited in line for ages. Yeah. Cue the usual sort of cissplaining garbage and transphobia from the straw RadFem bigots and their apologists. Wild Hunt has it covered, but as usual, you probably don’t want to read the comments unless you’ve got about a gallon of your favorite adult beverage handy. This response to the issue from a priestess of Lilith is pretty rad, though.

Personally, I’ve done enough hulkraging about this bullshit that I don’t want to rehash it, only to say, again, this is a) why I can’t stand 90% of Dianics and b) why I am solitary, too many privileged assed Pagans out there, and not enough wanting to check their privilege going on. What I wanted to talk about was a comment someone made that mentioned they don’t understand gender-exclusive ritual and don’t agree with it, making comparisons with Odinist white power groups.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think you can put a truly inclusive women-only or queer only ritual in the same box as the white Odinist stuff. Context matters, and history matters. It’s the same reason why it’s not “racist” for college campuses to have affinity groups for black or Asian-American students. Marginalized groups frequently experience life in much different ways than the privileged majority, and having a safe space to deal with those issues and challenges amongst ourselves is helpful and critical for our own well being and for the work we do in anti-oppression. I don’t think spirituality is any different in that regard, but I’m also not one of the people who puts “religion” in one box away from the rest of my life.

Being queer, female, and black in a racist and heterosexist society (much less a frequently racist and heterosexist Pagan community) informs my spiritual experience as much as anything else in my life does. So does my social justice work. I grok that not everyone approaches things that way, and I respect that, but that’s just my deal. I don’t have a choice to ignore my race, gender, or orientation when it comes to my spiritual practice, because the minute I try to, without fail I’ll get reminded of it.

I get reminded of my race when being stared because mine is the only brown face in the circle, or getting accosted in a New Age store by some over-enthused white lady dressed in the entire Pyramid Collection catalog about this or that orisha or how she was an “African shaman” in her past life. Or asking me what the colors on some kente cloth mean. That is when I’m not being followed in the store because they think I’m going to shoplift. (Mentioning that I used to work in an occult shop, as well as loss prevention in mundane retail and telling them that following the brown patrons around just means the white teenagers have a license to steal? Usually does the trick.)

I was sure as hell reminded of my orientation every time I participated in a Wiccan circle where heterosexuality was pretty much celebrated as the central mystery of the ritual, via the Great Rite, even when it was in token. I’m reminded of it every time the discussion turns to sacred polyamory and nothing but heterocentrist models are used. Hell, this could be an entire other post right here.

My gender? Well, that’s a trickier can of worms, but no less relevant. While women may not be as marginalized in Pagan communities as in the larger society, per se, Pagans are still raised in the some kyriarchal mess everyone else is and will bring that to the table as well. And as women, we’re raised and socially conditioned with a very different set of expectations than people who are perceived as male, and we face different challenges and issues to unravel as a result. That’s what Women’s Mysteries mean to me, it’s not about dancing skyclad around a giant paper mache vagina singing about how awesome periods are. It’s not just about biology, or even mostly about biology. Yes, it’s important to reclaim the sacredness of female bodies because they’ve been so denigrated for so long, but that’s not all there is to it, and even on the biological tip, female bodies don’t all look the same. FFS, if we can understand and celebrate that women’s bodies are beautiful and sacred no matter if they’re fat, thin, or disabled, white or brown, hairy or scarred or anything else, why is it such a fucking stretch to include that female bodies that came with different or ambiguous genitalia are also beautiful and should be celebrated? Why is the set of chromosomes we got in the cosmic genetic lottery even relevant to our sacredness as women? It’s why most Dianics make me hulkrage, because I feel they’re missing the forest for the trees.

It’s also why I seriously don’t understand this incessant need to exclude trans people from these rituals, if anything their own unique experiences of transgressing gender expectations only add to the understanding taking place. That’s not to say Magical Trans Women Are Here for Cis Lady Enlightenment, merely that their experiences are every bit as important to what constitutes Being a Woman in every possible sense, and that all women can learn from that. Goddammit, Women’s Mysteries means exploring all the mysteries of womanhood, be it cis or trans, butch or femme, queer or het, white or PoC, young or old, working lady or SAHM, childfree or mama of 5 bad assed kids, and all the awesome gray areas in between all of these labels. Because women are all these things, you assgoblins! Fuck, this is not rocket science. Trans women’s experiences are important to me as a cis woman because even though I don’t live them, they’re just as much a part of the mystery of womanhood as my own experiences. By denying my trans sisters, I’d be denying a piece of myself. By acknowledging their pain and their triumphs, I’m getting new insight to my own, and what it means to be a woman in a world that constantly denigrates that. Trans women represent the full gamut of Goddess archetypes and were acknowledged in our ancestral mythologies and belief systems. This is not new, people. So why act like it is, and shun it? You’re only contributing to your own ignorance in the end, much less the pain and hardships of women who have it rougher than almost any other group of women on the planet. How can you purport to work toward ending violence against women and dismiss our trans sisters, when they suffer violence at a disproportionate rate, particularly trans women of color? How can you pretend to celebrate female strength when it takes a special kind of strength just waking up everyday living your life in a world that sees you as sick, deviant, and broken? Who are you trying to fool here, really?

FWIW, I think Men’s Mysteries are important for similar, albeit slightly different reasons. Kyriarchy damages men too, just in different ways, and I think men can and should be allowed to explore what masculinity means to them in a spiritual context if they feel the need. But that doesn’t mean excluding trans men from that either, because (say it with me now), trans men’s experience is part and parcel of Men’s Mysteries. Because, you know, they’re men. And hell, we should make some Genderqueer Mysteries too, while we’re at it. Do we even have those? Why the hell not, if not?

If you take absolutely nothing else from this post, take this: if you truly hold a worldview that the Divine is immanent, and that everything is sacred because of this, then you must strive to make that worldview reflected in every aspect of your life or else you have entirely missed the point of the path you purport to walk. It does not demand perfection, merely the deepest yearnings for it, and the strenuous working toward making it a reality. If your life does not reflect your practice, perhaps you need to seriously examine both.