Knocking Down the Geeky Gatekeepers

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.

Image via this fantastic article at Comics Alliance

Image via this fantastic article at Comics Alliance

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?

Saying Goodbye to Leslie Knope

I knew I was going to have a pretty strong emotional response to the finale of Parks and Recreation last night, but it ended up hitting me harder than I expected. Alasdair Wilkins captured my feelings in his review of the finale for The AV Club:

As the episode moved back and forward in time to plot out the rest of its characters’ lives, I felt keenly aware of how tonight was just one small moment in my life, one built on past experiences both good and bad, and one leading to some unknown future destination. Don’t worry, I’m fully aware of how silly that sounds, and my own presence in this observation is beside the point.

Part of the reason the episode resonated with me, I think, is that I’m on the precipice of changes in my own life. I’m less than a week away from starting a new job, possibly a new career, in an industry that’s completely foreign to me. I’m excited for a new start and the opportunities this job will bring, but I’m also anxious – as anyone is when trying something completely new. Add on all of the editing and writing I’m doing on the side, and I could really use a flash-forward to assure me that I’m going in the right direction. Even if that’s impossible for me, it was comforting to see that the characters we’ve come to love after 7 seasons of Parks and Recreation will go on to be happy. And I appreciated that not every one of them has a straight path to success; April isn’t entirely confident that she wants to have kids, and Tom has to lose everything once more before he can find his true calling. This being a sitcom, there was never any doubt that thing would turn out just fine for everyone, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying to watch. Even if only briefly, I felt like everything in my life might be okay too.

sobEven beyond resonance with my specific current situation, Parks & Rec has always seemed much more real to me than most sitcoms, despite its often broad humour. I think that this is largely due to its heavy reliance on character growth and relationships, and even under the cartooniest characters lay grains of recognizable emotional truth. Much of modern comedy relies so heavily on nastiness, whether that be raunchiness or plain mean-spiritedness, that the essential optimism of Parks & Rec has always felt refreshing. This last season was careful to give happy moments even to the hapless Gerry/Larry/Garry Gergich, a character who in some ways would have been more at home on a more cynical show like 30 Rock. The source of that sense of heart has always been the characters and the variety of unique groupings of character relationships the show produced. As someone who has largely grown weary of romance being shoved into every story out of some sense of obligation, I appreciate how organically most of the Parks & Rec romances developed. Even more than that, I loved the friendships on the show. Ann and Leslie mirror friendships in my own life (to the point that Ann’s departure last year and her reappearance in the finale had me weeping uncontrollably), and I value the different forms that friendships could take between, say, Ron and April, Donna and Tom, or Chris and Ben. These were characters with different goals and personalities (not to mention the diversity the show incorporated), but they found ways to support and relate to each other.

leslie and annIn a show that gave us Galentine’s Day, the “child size” soda (it’s the volume of child, if liquified), and Knope compliments, the most important thing Parks and Recreation gave the world was probably Leslie Knope herself. Moving past the first season, Leslie was an optimistic and determinated machine, and nothing could stand between her and what she wanted (and what she wanted, much of the time, was to make her friends happy). She had her flaws, of course, but in the end she was a woman who never took “no” for an answer. Given their real-life friendship, it’s difficult not to compare Amy Poehler’s character to Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon. We can all see ourselves in Liz Lemon, but it’s often ourselves at our worst, especially as the series progressed. As much as we love the idea of shotgunning a whole pizza, Liz’s poor dating skills and alleged unattractiveness were frequently invoked, although anyone with eyes can see that Tina Fey is a bombshell. I love Liz Lemon, and I don’t mean to be down on her, but the show frequently emphasized her flaws more than was maybe necessary for a woman struggling to hold together a team of unmotivated weirdos and have a life on top of it. As this article at Medium points out, Parks and Recreation gave us more that that. Leslie had her own flaws to make her relatable (who hasn’t desperately wanted to intervene when we think our friends are making bad choices?), and if you can’t relate to her, maybe you see yourself in Ann (who shares Liz’s awkwardness in the dating scene, although not to the same extent), or in April or Donna, or maybe Ben or Tom. Even if Leslie’s manic ambition isn’t her most relatable characteristic to everyone, she gives us something to aspire to – you can bet your ass she never held her bra together with tape.

This could be another case of right timing, but Leslie Knope is probably the most important TV character to me since Buffy Summers. I watched Buffy when I was 16, which was the perfect age to get caught up in her supernatural melodrama, but Leslie leaves our screens while I’m an adult. Unlike Leslie, I wasn’t writing my career aspirations in my kindergarten dream journal, so I’m still looking for direction, but this new job is a start. I felt a bit guilty leaving my old team in the midst of organizational changes, but Leslie reminds me that when I find something I want, I should go for it and shouldn’t apologize for my passion or ambition. Beyond that, she would tell me not to take shit from anyone, especially dudes who don’t like what I have to say (her brief shut-down of some men’s rights activists in a recent episode was truly inspiring). But on the other hand, Leslie is always there for her friends to help them problem-solve with detailed binders, or just to give them the best birthday present ever. No matter what, Leslie will support the people closest to her. I see myself in Ann’s awkwardness and Ben’s nerdiness, but Leslie is the person I want to be. I may not share her political ambitions, but I strive to emulate Leslie’s enthusiasm, her compassion, and her perseverance.

yes on knopeYes, I am aware this is a fictional television program, but as Wilde once said, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” We are far more affected by the plight of our favourite fictional characters than some of us might like to admit, but if that means that I absorbed even a little bit of Leslie Knope, I’m perfectly okay with that.

Elitism and Film Hierarchy

Last week, I won tickets to a free advance screening of I, Frankenstein in Toronto. The theatre was peopled entirely with other contest winners – not one of us paid to see this movie – and yet the two dudes sitting next to me spent the whole movie complaining about how “stupid” it was. A movie they didn’t have to pay for, and yet decided to come down to an advance screening for people who mostly, presumably, did something to win those tickets. And all I could think is where is your sense of fun?

Do I think that I, Frankenstein should sweep the Oscars next year? Should it be recognized as a cultural milestone? No, of course not, but this is completely unfair criteria by which to judge a film. I get really frustrated when people dismiss genre films (sci-fi, horror, fantasy, etc) for failing to be… well, serious. Sure there are the exceptions to that rule, but in general, “geeky” movies aren’t taken seriously by more sombre film critics.

Award-winning films have become so predictable that sociologists have found a way to measure “Oscar bait.” Terms like “family tragedy” and “domestic servant” play well, and obviously these are meant to be the best films of a given year – but does anyone really think that Crash deserved to win? And as much as I adored The King’s Speech, The Social Network is probably going to be more clearly remembered in a decade or two. I feel like a lot of people don’t take these awards too seriously – if I watch at all, it’s for the dresses, not the awards (but that still won’t stop me from screaming if Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t win). But they dominate cultural conversations for a few months every year. Award season is a cultural touchstone where the dark, gritty seriousness of Nolan’s Batman films was apparently deserving of recognition but the fun romp that was The Avengers was mainly overlooked.

I guess the question is whether or not “entertainment” is a noble goal to have when setting out to make a film, and in my book, it is. That doesn’t mean that a purely entertaining film should be free from criticism, but I think that we have to adapt our reference points from film to film; we should judge the success of a film based on its ability to achieve what it sets out to do. I, Frankenstein knows that its audience is here to see some goofy action sequences, so it develops its characters and mythology only to the point that the plot is possible, and puts most of its effort into fight choreography and special effects. Last year’s Pacific Rim was slammed by some for lacking subtlety – but its tagline was “Go Big or Go Extinct,” so it seems to me that the problem with that assessment is with the reviewer, not the film itself.

And you know what these films have in common that is absent from many award-nominated films this year? Minority representation. Pacific Rim, while having one of the most boring white dude protagonists in the history of film, was really about Mako Mori – it’s no 12 Years a Slave in terms of examining race relations, but it has some cultural significance for having a leading lady of colour who isn’t an exoticized caricature. Geek spaces are dominated by white straight male voices, but sub-genres and cult films are havens for minority groups – look at something like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. That film will never be remembered for mainstream appeal, but that doesn’t make it culturally insignificant.

If I go into a horror movie, I want to be scared, and that’s going to be the standard by which I judge the film. I don’t think that all horror movies are worthy of widespread accolade, but I don’t think either that they should be summarily dismissed for not meeting some kind of film standard that’s skewed toward emotionally manipulative dramas. Movies can be art, but they can also be pure entertainment, and not everyone wants to leave a movie theatre feeling like they’ve changed as a person. If goofy action flicks aren’t for you, that’s fine, but don’t put them down because they aren’t Quentin Tarantino movies.

Which, by the way, wouldn’t exist without the B-movies he lovingly imitates.

I’m a film lover because I know the heights that films can hit, in terms of emotional resonance but also in engrossing me in a story. Some of the most engrossing stories are told in faraway galaxies, about people accomplishing the unfeasible. Oscar Wilde once said that life imitates art far more than art imitates life, so give me stories where people beat impossible odds and good prevails, I don’t care if it takes a plothole or two for us to get there.