Geek Culture: A Girl’s Dilemma

The other day I walked into a comic store to get a new comic, a one-off, so I couldn’t be sure where it was being kept on the shelves. Well, it was in a counter-intuitive location alphabetically, so I spent a few minutes staring at all of the books. Part of me wanted to ask the sales guy who was standing right there, but I was terrified of being judged by the 12 or so male customers whose eyes I could already feel on my back. No, I don’t mean they were doing anything untoward, but I looked like I didn’t know what I was doing, and I could tell that they were judging me for it, in a way they weren’t the browsing male customers. The only other women in the store were the woman working cash, and a female customer heatedly conversing with the aforementioned sales guy. Seeing such a heavy male-to-female ratio is a common occurrence in comic stores, as anyone can attest who’s ever been in one. And sometimes, especially if there are already a bunch of guys in there, it can feel intimidating to just be a woman – which is a problem I’ve noticed in all of geek culture.

I use the example of comics, which is a new thing for me, but this is far from a new phenomenon. This is the sort of problem faced by women in all aspects of “geek” culture; women gamers are constantly viewed as being less skilled or knowledgeable (as a recent Oatmeal comic clearly demonstrated), and can face all kinds of harassment if they try to play online. When I was a kid, boys were constantly questioning and testing my love for Lord of the Rings. I’d be asked if I’d ever played the video games, exactly how many of the appendices I’d read, and minute trivia about the books and movies to see if I was actually a fan. Issues with “real fans” being judged by encyclopedic knowledge aside, I would always “prove” myself in their eyes. I was a “fanboy” by every aspect of the definition, other than the physical. I still am forced to identify as a fanboy rather than a fangirl, because the latter comes with a depressingly negative connotation. I’d love to call myself simply a “fan” but that doesn’t quite hold the right weight. A fanboy can show you every instance of visible sound equipment in a given movie and write an essay on why, exactly, Han has to have shot first. A fangirl cried the first time she saw Edward Cullen onscreen and she only watches her favourite shows for the hot boys. Do I think these are fair definitions? No. Yes, there are people out there who conform to these definitions, but they are in no way entirely representational. However, ask most people in fandom, and they will admit that these are the stereotypes.

One of the reasons that fans seem to be overwhelmingly male is simply that most of the creators are too. Most stories in any medium are about men and from a male gaze. Twilight may be poorly written and horrible in its portrayals of gendered interactions (or so I’m told, I couldn’t get past the third page), but at least it’s about a woman and uses a distinctly heterosexual female gaze – so it makes sense that it would be popular among young women who don’t want to read about shopping or whatever it is teen “chick lit” is about. I actually have no idea. I’m generalizing, and I’m sure there is a lot of great literature out there that I haven’t read yet, but I have always gravitated toward the more traditionally “geeky” stuff. While I do avoid the more blatantly misogynist examples (like Kevin Smith’s Comic Book Men), many of my favourite “geeky” passions are about men. However, there are prominent creators out there, Joss Whedon most famously of all, who are trying to write interesting, relevant stories about strong women. Now, Joss’ work is not without flaws certainly (River Tam is one of the most pathetic attempts at a “strong woman” I have ever witnessed), but Buffy Summers, Fred Burkle, Zoe Washburne, and recently his version of Marvel’s Black Widow are shining examples of women whose stories can appeal to men and women alike. Natasha Romanoff was so well received in her Avengers role that a prequel movie is allegedly in the works. Whedon alum Felicia Day is gaining fame with her webseries The Guild, and showing that a cool, funny girl can be as huge a geek as your average fat, cheesy-covered weirdo living in his mother’s basement, and women are slowly becoming more prominent in other areas of geekery – except maybe DC Comics.

If you didn’t hear about this, DC Comics has been meeting a lot of backlash since only a measly 3% of their staff are women, and then again for some horribly sexist representations of prominent characters Catwoman and Starfire. Their response to this backlash was basically to tell fans that the issues are not important. Nice one, DC. Not to say that other comics are pristine, but Marvel is trying – Ms Marvel, one of their most popular women, is getting her own series this summer, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick. That said, this will be their only female-helmed series after they cancelled X-23, their only comic left with a woman protagonist. EDIT: I’m oblivious to DC, but kind reader Kelly has reminded me that their current Batwoman (or Batgirl?) series by Gail Simone is excellent, and portrays the leading lady in a very favourable light. I’ve also heard excellent things about their Wonder Woman series, in the interest of being fair to the company.

Even from the links I’ve provided here, it’s obvious that I am not the first person to notice this issue. But how couldn’t you notice, when women are subjected to this kind of crap? (Edited in later, but this example was too golden not to include). Award-winning comic artist Tony Harris went on a rant against women cosplayers (dressing in costumes to attend conventions), claiming that we only cosplay for male attention while shunning it in the real world, that we “aren’t hot,” and that worst of all, we don’t actually read comics. It’s a really fun read if you enjoy rage-induced aneurysms. Thankfully, many people of all genders in the community and in the industry explained to Harris exactly why he was wrong, but he hasn’t backed down from his original statements, and many men expressed agreement on the original post. Women get the short end of the stick in all forms of media, let’s get real here, but I don’t find such overt hostility in most other areas.

Boys, having some female superheroes aren’t taking away from the male ones. I like a lot of stories the way they are, but sometimes I want to see ME – or at least someone I can aspire to be – reflected back to me in the stories I love so much. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

EDIT: Here’s a really excellent article from The Mary Sue about “Fake Geek Girls” Check it out.

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  1. This is a great post :3 And I have had similar experiences about being challenged to prove my true knowledge, or being condescended, and being concerned that asking would confirm stereotypes in people's minds. :\The whole negative connotation of fangirl really bugs me too. >:\ I know a lot of other female geeks who don't like being labelled by that term because of the weight behind it, or say they are more like fanboys.There's a paper written about it that's in an anthology of superhero essays actually… and I'm in it! xD (I'm the single example of the fangirl that proudly calls myself a fangirl >_> ) Anyways… that's random >_>*thumbs up* :DAlso, Silver Snail is actually the one store in Toronto that doesn't really intimidate me because of how mainstream it kinda is, and usually has the most amount of women in it. At least to me >_>

  2. Thanks Ami! I know, I hate the whole "stupid fangirl" thing too. We need a new gender neutral term that's still stronger than simply "fan". But tbh, I'll refer to myself as either.I'd love to read this superhero anthology – I didn't realize you were published! Send me a link here or on Tumblr or something :)And yeah, I actually love the Silver Snail, and I find their staff is generally really sweet and helpful. I was in there browsing once and a guy was getting coffee for all of the staff, and offered to pick something up for the customers in the stacks too. In terms of atmosphere, The Beguiling is probably my favourite in Toronto, but I love Silver Snail and 1000000 Comix as well. The latter is where they actually hold my pull (because it's close to a subway stop), and the dudes are usally really awesome and chatty – if you start the conversation. In my experience it's more the customers than the vendors who are dicks about this stuff. Staff probably realize that ladies DO know what they're talking about, seeing as they must see a lot of us every day!Also I'm fangirling here a little bit that you liked this. I wanted to work in actual depictions of women in comics and stuff, but that was a whole 'nother can of worms, and I felt like this was getting a bit heavy on the comics side, when it's kind of a problem everywhere.

  3. I feel like we're on the same wavelength regarding this. Definitely. The more I see, the more I can't unsee, but at least kickass women such as ourselves are willing to call people out on it, buck the trends and say a loud "NO! This is not acceptable!"With regards to DC Comics, I've purposefully avoided Catwoman and Red Hood after the controversy and want the head of the company said infuriated me. I also hate what they've done to Harley Quinn. BUT I will say that Gail Simone is incredible and the best female comics writer out there and I'm a huge admirer of hers. She is fabulous and if you read into her history as a feminist female comics fan who actually landed a job in the industry. She's pretty rad! I'm following her Batgirl series and I honestly think Batwoman is the best comic from DC at the moment in terms of female heroines, great art and a character you can believe in. It may be their sole redeeming comic atm.But basically, we've got to keep fighting the good fight for stromng female heroines who aren't sex objects and for female geeks to be accepted as equals, not objects. 🙂 I'm right there with you! *hugs*

  4. I've heard amazing things about Gail Simone and that series (I've added her to the post, thanks Kelly). I should really start reading it soon, I'm just intimidated at the prospect of trying to sort out ANOTHER huge comics mythos, although I guess that's what the new 52 is for right? Maybe I'll grab the collection or something…

  1. Fake Geek Girls: The Only Kind, Apparently | Prodigious Leaps!

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