Hey guess what this is – yep, another post about being a geek girl and all of the frustration that comes with it! I might sound like a broken record, harping on this topic, but gosh, it never ceases to be relevant…
I read this article about the “Tumblr fans” who ostensibly go to conventions out of love for things they’ve only seen in pictures on the internet. That article and recent conversations have got me thinking about gatekeepers in geek culture. In this context, the term refers to people with certain credentials who attempt to control access to certain media and decide how everyone should consume and appreciate that media. Within geek culture, gatekeepers have traditionally been dudes, but that’s not always the case.
I’ve written before on my experiences being quizzed on my knowledge of something before being allowed to be a “fan.” I was talking to a cosplayer recently who told me that she went into a comics shop and was asked if she needed help finding a gift for her boyfriend. This woman was the picture of the kind of cosplayer who gets derided for making sexy “attention-seeking” costumes, but I never once wondered whether or not she was a “real fan” or any crap like that. We just wanted to talk comics. In contrast, a guy in my office has superhero toys on his desk and we argued about superheroes, but he admits he’s never read a comic. Yet he still calls himself a fan; a guy can do that, but a girl can’t be a “fan” of something unless she’s read and researched extensively, even in the eyes of other girls.
The cosplay community can be terrible with this, and that includes people of all genders. I constantly see people talking shit about cosplayers like the one I was talking to, who make costumes that show off their bodies and seem to get the most attention from photographers – I guess the work they put into their costumes is less valid because the end result shows more skin? And if your end goal in making a costume is to get lots of attention for it, I don’t know why you wouldn’t do whatever you could to increase its appeal to a large audience. This attitude seems fueled by the idea that some ill-defined prerequisite reading comes along with cosplaying – since intimate knowledge of a character is necessary to sew and build and create a costume. And that attitude extends into all areas of geekdom.
I get that it’s weird sometimes, when you assume a person shares your love for something based on what they’re wearing or saying, but they turn out to be a more casual fan. If that makes you uncomfortable, you can just walk away. Ultimately their fan “level” doesn’t have to have any affect at all on your life. Still, I feel that impulse too, that desire to maintain some concept of what being a fan does or doesn’t mean, although I don’t know that I can explain why. I guess we feel like it’s a part of our identities, so we want to see the label only go to people who have somehow “earned it.” But when I see fans’ love or knowledge being questioned, the targets are almost exclusively women.
This kind of fandom policing is so common that even though I know my shit, I find myself embarrassed when I think I might come across as a “fake geek girl.” I found some Daredevil comics at a used bookstore the other day, and I hesitated to pick them up because I knew how it would look, a girl getting into the comics because because of a popular TV show. I could imagine the guys at the counter (who, I’m not even making this up, were talking about all the porn they’d just gotten in) laughing at me after I left, “she probably just thinks Daredevil is hot.” And they would be RIGHT, Charlie Cox is a beautiful dude with perfect lips and a physique right out of a comic book. But more importantly, enjoying the show seemed like a good prompt to finally start reading about the street-level heroes, a huge part of the Marvel Universe I don’t know much about – but I couldn’t even take the books off the shelf. (Ultimately I didn’t buy anything because they didn’t have any trades labelled “Vol 1” and I’m not about to start in the middle okay). Now I’ve had plenty of great experiences in comic stores too, where I was treated as an equal and wasn’t shamed for things I didn’t know. I’ve even debated which Marvel hero would have the best butt with male pro artists (since everyone knows that it’s Nightwing at DC). But I’ve also argued with guys behind the counter about the name of a comic I was looking to buy, and I once watched a male artist at a con try to convince three women that women don’t buy or care about comics.
I should pause to acknowledge that this experience is even tougher for people with less-privileged identities than mine; they often have to deal with being completely excluded from the stories in question, and are silenced or bullied when they try to express frustration. As a privileged white cis-lady I don’t have as much to complain about. Thankfully, online spaces like Tumblr give us the opportunity to create safe spaces where we can have frank conversations about media that might not be possible elsewhere. My first experience going into a store to buy comics was fantastic (thanks, The Beguiling!), but it’s been Tumblr that’s ultimately helped me become the comics fan I am today. I’m now editing comics (even writing a bit!) and I would never have gotten here without connecting with other fans on Tumblr.
While I’d rather discuss social issues on Tumblr than Facebook or Twitter, the site has its own set of problems, especially where emotional, immediate responses tend to be louder than more thoughtful, nuanced commentary. And while it may be portrayed that way sometimes, Tumblr isn’t a hivemind – it’s made up of thousands of people with different opinions stemming from different life experiences, and because this is the internet, people loudly and violently disagree. There are tensions and contradictions even within “Tumblr fandom,” which itself isn’t free of gatekeepers, and this time they’re largely not men. I’ve witnessed the harassment of the so-called “Tumblr Fan” firsthand, posts where people were told to (and I quote) “fuck off and die” if they call themselves fans without doing some arbitrary amount of reading first. No matter where you go, unless it’s your own living room with some close friends, you’re likely to encounter these attitudes.
So let’s get some discussion going. Are there benefits to gatekeeping when it comes to creating and maintaining a safe space? Why do we get so angry with people in geek spaces who haven’t “earned” a space there? What separates a “real” fan from a “fake” one? What does being a fan or a geek even mean these days – how do we decide?