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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: ,