And now for my first piece of original content exclusively for GendErratic! Again I wish to extend my gratitude to Ms. Tieman for inviting me to contribute to this blog, and I can promise there is plenty of theoretical analysis and discussion of cultural issues to come in the future. Now, for the article.
Proposition: Complaining About “Fake Geek Girls” Is Not Misogyny
Feminism’s engagement with “nerd” culture has, for the most part, come entirely from a critical and contemptuous angle; one of these criticisms is that “nerd” culture is allegedly a “boy’s club” which excludes women. To prove this, feminists point out the fact that females claiming a geek identity will be interrogated to see if they are “real” geeks or fakers.
This is not misogyny. Demanding “geek girls” prove themselves would only be misogyny if the treatment were motivated by an animus towards or prejudice against women as a class. Nerd culture would be equally suspicious of “fake geek guys.”
Wait… fake geek guys?
The fact that there is no such thing as the fake geek guy is in fact an important piece of the puzzle. Some feminists would argue that the lack of fake geek guys is evidence yet again of discrimination against women, but in reality it is because the status of “geek” has never been desirable for men to claim.
No ladies, we are not discriminating against you because you didn’t dance with us at the prom. We have no problem with you being girls. Our problem is due to the fact that fake geek girls (not to be confused with real geek girls, who do in fact exist and have been part of geek culture ever since the beginning) are subcultural poseurs claiming an identity which they in fact lack.
The Essential Characteristic Of “Nerd”
There’s a reason why Spider-Man got ruthlessly beaten up in high school. There’s a reason why Loki grows up as the undervalued intellectual in a society of macho warrior brutes. There’s a reason Steve Rogers was originally skinny and frail and got beaten up regularly. There’s a reason for the “Revenge of the Nerds” films.
Being a “nerd” isn’t about just liking certain things. It is about having culturally atypical interests and experiencing social persecution as a result.
It is a subculture which embraces esoteric and often intellectual interests that go against what is expected of “real men.” This is why there are “sports fans” and “automotive enthusiasts” and “petrolheads” and “aviation buffs” (all acceptably masculine interests) but to be into comics or video games or analog synthesizers makes one a “nerd” or a “geek.”
Nerdiness is about being set outside the mainstream, often with violence. It isn’t merely about a specific set of interests, but about the social consequences of these interests.
Nerdiness is a culture primarily composed of socially emasculated males – a culture of “not real men” – a culture which has paid the price for failing to measure up to our society’s standards of masculinity.
Female nerds are also outside the mainstream – but their experiences rarely include being beaten up for this. Being intelligent and possessing a rational temperment is also gender-deviant because traditional gender roles see women as fundamentally emotional. But even if they don’t necessarily face the same violent retribution for gender-nonconformity that male nerds do, they share the experience of being socially alienated (to at least some degree) from one’s same-sex peers, of being gender-atypical, and of not having “normal” interests.
Nevertheless, we need to recognize that the gender system is far more willing to be suspicious of gender-deviance amongst males; as I have argued before, the gender system treats femininity as an innate characteristic and masculinity as an earned status that needs to be guarded, demonstrated and socially validated – hence why the Tomboy is just “going through a phase” (and is also perhaps worthy of some encouragement for proving she can compete with the boys) whereas the boy who plays with dolls is instantly suspected of being defective/damaged/gay/etc.
As such, it isn’t surprising that the experience of being socially de-gendered due to atypical interests is more common amongst males than it is amongst females (although perhaps potential on-average tempermental differences between the sexes may play some role too, but that’s another discussion). The primary narrative of nerd culture is the narrative of the “Omega Male” (the “not-real-man”) – this is a narrative of being bullied, brutalized and victimized for not being “one of the guys.”
The Case Of Video Gaming
The “fake geek girl” issue is often discussed in relation to video gaming – a pasttime which (in its super-hardcore manifestations), in the pre-PS2 era, was an extremely effective method of social suicide performed by spending exhorbitant amounts of money on 3d-capable bleeding-edge graphics hardware.
Console gaming at the time was primarily seen as a children’s toy – Sony’s Playstation platform was the first to deliver 3d gaming with mature themes alongside the low cost and relative convenience of a console. But the Playstation was relatively easy and inexpensive to develop for, meaning a wide variety of different kinds of game could be created.
The Playstation 2 was not, but it achieved phenomenal market success and essentially turned 3d gaming into a pasttime the general population (many of whom bought it for the DVD playback) could partake in.
But the generation following the Playstation 2 was even more difficult for programmers and developers; the jump to HD gaming as well as the increased difficulty to program both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 (relative to their predecessor consoles as well as the PC) further increased the costs of developing games, particularly multiplatform ones. Publishers, having to fork out larger amounts to make competitive and cutting-edge games, were becoming more cautious with their money. The used game market on consoles as well as piracy on the PC substantially cut into developer/publisher margins. At the same time, however, the market was potentially extremely lucrative and becoming even moreso due to the attraction of mainstream audiences.
This essentially led to the “blockbusterization” of video gaming as a hobby; instead of the niche markets of the past, gaming targeted the mass market. In order to attract mass market, games began to pander to this market; even games from traditionally “hardcore” genres began to emulate (to varying degrees) mass-market games in the hope of winning the money of “the CoD crowd.”
At the same time, Nintendo’s success with the Wii console as well as the success of small online games (via platforms such as Facebook) led to the proliferation of lower-cost and sometimes free-to-play casual gaming. This genre ended up migrating mostly to smartphones and other portable devices.
The ultimate result of this series of technological and economic pressures was that gaming ended up subdividing itself into three “markets” –
First, the original “hobbyist gaming” market segment, the nerdy gaming culture which we all know.
Second, the casual gaming market, which was mostly situated on Wii, Facebook and smartphones.
Third, the AAA “Blockbuster” gaming market, focused on best-selling (and sometimes annualized) sports and action titles like Madden, Call of Duty, FIFA, Halo, Battlefield, Medal of Honor and Gears of War.
The focus which once lay on Hobbyist gaming took a backseat to the newly-ascendent Blockbuster and Casual sectors of the market. Economic pressures forced a formerly niche-market hobby to conform to mass-market tastes.
The Absense Of Fake Geek Guys
In light of the above, we can address the absense of fake geek guys. For men, geekiness has always been a ticket to social emasculation, but with the arrival of Blockbuster gaming, one did not have to be even remotely geeky to game. Blockbuster games were aimed squarely at mass market gender-typical male tastes (and were rewarded with billions of dollars for doing so). A subset of games were essentially de-nerdified.
Thus, the cultural link between gaming and nerdness was cut, at least with respect to certain franchises and genres and subject-matter. The target audience – an audience which genuine nerds describe (and often still describe) disdainfully as “the dudebros” – did not claim a nerd identity. They didn’t want to do so due to gender pressure, and with the mainstreaming of certain video game franchises the identity would not be forced upon them from the outside.
This is why “fake geek guys” don’t exist; of course there are males who play games without belonging to geek culture! This has even been acknowledged by Mark Rubin – executive producer of the latest iteration of Call of Duty (see http://ign.com/articles/2013/10/21/call-of-duty-players-arent-hardcore-gamers-says-infinity-ward), as Rubin was clearly using “hardcore gamers” and “gamers” to refer to “Hobbyist gamers” (i.e. the nerdy subset). But because guys have no incentive to identify as nerds or geeks, they don’t claim to be such unless they genuinely are (and even then, sometimes they’ll dodge it because it is a persecuted subculture).
In the early days of geek culture, women faced some disincentives to identify as geeks or to at least keep their geekiness secret (and these days they still face some – certainly there are many women who probably would face some degree of ridicule or derision if they confessed to reading and/or writing slash fanfiction.. although in some cases that may be due to the quality of the writing rather than the subject matter). These days, however, the disincentive to be a female nerd is significantly lower, and indeed it is arguably the case that women face incentives to identify as nerds.
Princess Poindexter (This Phrase Is A Keeper!)
The idea that women may benefit from entering nerd culture is hardly new; Rebecca Watson, an internet atheist who has made absolutely no contribution to atheist philosophy or theory or rhetoric and has built her entire career off the relative rarity of her sex in the atheist community, said it best:
“In the land of the nerds, the double “x” chromosome is queen. The lack of women getting actively involved in skepticism has led to a peculiar deification of any female brave enough to dive into debates, engage in philosophical arguments, or just withstand the flirtatious banter that permeates online forums. The skepchick is held up as an ideal in an intellectual community – a woman who is smart, interesting, and most of all, approachable.
Despite what I saw as a distinct willingness for men to accept and embrace (sometimes literally) skeptical women, there were just not that many around. Somehow, the word was not getting out.”
(Watson, R (2005), Skepchicks International, eSkeptic, http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/05-11-03/).
Did she talk about how oppressed she was? Does she sound like she is complaining about being held up as an ideal or being deified or being embraced? Does she claim atheism was a ‘boy’s club’ aiming to keep her out? No, she shounds like a shrewd businesswoman spotting a market niche full of attention which was ripe for the harvesting!
Note that she described the atheist community as “the land of the nerds.” She clearly didn’t have a problem with their attention (assuming, presumably, it didn’t get expressed in a small confined space like an elevator).
This enjoyment of men’s attention is another facet of traditional gender roles; traditional gender norms treat men as subjects and women as objects, men as innately disposable instruments and women as innately precious and fragile. Men are thus encouraged to gain feelings of self-fulfillment through exercising agency, whereas women are encouraged to gain these feelings through enlisting male agency with innate feminine preciousness and specialness; being the center of attention, being considered extremely special and precious and worthy due to one’s innate value as a woman (and thus worthy of men doing things for you) is the essence of the female power fantasy under the traditional gender system.
Combine this with a culture which, historically, has very few women and thus very few competitors.
No matter what one may think about Ms. Watson, it is clear she acted with incredible business acumen. It should also be noted that at the time she wrote this article, the atheist community was gaining significant energy as an opposition to the Third Great Awakening and the growing influence of the Religious Right during the George W. Bush administration. She, in a sterling display of economically rational attention whoring, demonstrated that “the land of the nerds” is in fact a goldmine for women looking to benefit from traditional feminine norms.
Just as Rebecca Watson managed to be part of New Atheism during its time in the sun, the feminist engagement with geek culture seems rather conveniently timed to have occured only after Blockbuster games started making more money than Hollywood.
This mode of behavior – coming into a space and refocusing it on oneself – is extremely gender-traditional. It is also extremely unlike the actions of genuine female nerds; after all, like male nerds, female nerds are gender-atypical. Female nerds, like male nerds, typically possess what Myers-Briggs Temperments would classify as a rational temperment (xNTx) – NT’s are statistically rare in the overall population, rarer amongst women than men but still a small minority within both sexes (after all, male nerds are gender-atypical too). Thus, this mode of behavior or things resembling it come off as a “red flag” – an indication of being into the culture not due to sharing its interests but for other motivations.
In all fairness, it is quite plausible that many women who are genuinely interested in video games have been unfairly suspected of faking it – we couldn’t have all been born early enough (or had enough money) to be part of the golden age of PC gaming. But when a significant uptick in feminine interest in nerd culture (something which was significantly more atypical than male interest in nerd culture) seems to happen in ways which make sense as products of traditional feminine behavior patterns, there are grounds for skepticism… particularly in light of the extreme stigma nerdiness used to carry merely one-and-a-half console generations ago.
It certainly doesn’t help that there is footage on Youtube (courtesy of thunderf00t) of Anita Sarkeesian openly admitting she hates video games because she finds them too gory.
So, in a world where video gaming is far less stigmatized than it used to be, women can enter gaming culture and gain attention, receive adulation as an innately special creature simply for being there, and apparently get a warm welcome. They can, as Watson pointed out, be treated like princesses, and doesn’t every little girl want to be a princess? They can also receive praise for confronting “the boy’s club” and be heroines fighting against oppressive sexism – the cheers of “you go, girl!” rain down upon them.
Compare this to the treatment men have historically received for being affiliated with nerd culture. Hell, compare this to the treatment which actual female nerds receive (indeed, you could argue that the feminist influx has made it worse for them – they get accused of being gender traitors now for being ‘one of the boys’).
Marginalized subcultures have always hated poseurs – those who claim the identity without knowing what it truly means. The goth subculture went through a strong period of rooting out perceived “fakes” in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings, particularly focusing on anyone who was considered too fond of Marilyn Manson (one of the artists most blamed in the aftermath of the massacre, even though the killers in fact did not like his work).
In the history of geek culture, almost every single geeky pasttime was the subject of a moral panic; The Seduction of the Innocent argued that comic books would turn your sons into juvenile delinquents who fantasized about being Robin while Batman sodomized them, Dungeons and Dragons was accused of promoting Satanism and suicide and occultism by the religious right during the Satanic Panic, and every single school massacre brings out a gaggle of “blame Grand Theft Auto” from several psychologists, religionists and political personalities.
Combine this with how nerds have been social outcasts pretty much since day one. In the light of this, resentment of poseurs is hardly surprising. Again, the goth example is illustrative, and goth is a relatively gender-balanced subculture in terms of its adherents; the resentment was against poseurs rather than any specific sex.
Another factor which has made nerd culture defensive of its distinctiveness is the prominence of Blockbuster gaming and how its success encouraged several gaming franchises to aim for more mainstream appeal (“dumbed down for the dudebros”). To someone who has literally been beaten up for playing video games, seeing a beloved hobby start to cater to people who may be perceived as the same kind of person as those who inflicted the beatings feels almost like a betrayal. Hobbyist gamers have already felt like “their” hobby was being taken away from them and formatted towards a different target audience – the fact that some women (particularly women who haven’t shown any interest in games until recently) seem to want to do something similar naturally comes off as a threat (of course there is nothing wrong with catering to all audience niches, but until relatively recently this seemed impossible due to the dominance of Blockbuster gaming – thankfully this situation seems to be getting remedied but that’s another story).
Indeed, the gender-flip of the fake geek girl, from the perspective of nerd culture, is the bro-who-plays-CoD-with-his-bros-on-saturday-but-isn’t-a-nerd. The salient difference between the fake geek girl and the CoD-bro-who-isn’t-a-nerd is not that one is a girl and one is a guy, but rather that one is claiming to be part of nerd culture and the other is not.
We are not seeing sexism here, we are seeing typical dynamics one would find in any marginalized subculture, even one with a far less skewed gender composition. Marginalized subcultures resent poseurs; the reason that the poseurs in this case are only from one sex is due to the way our society’s gender system creates different incentives for the sexes to affiliate with the subculture in question.
The culture of nerds has always been a culture of those who are gender-atypical due to cerebral temperments and specific hobbies. It is a culture born of the experience of those alienated from their peer group and persecuted for not fitting in. It is a culture of not-real-men and women-who-think-too-much-and-this-may-scare-boys-away-from-dating-her.
It is a culture of gender-nonconformists, built upon the experiences of these men and (admittedly much less frequently and influentially) women. It is a culture defined by its outcast status.
But, certainly these days, a female does not automatically commit social suicide by playing (or claiming to play) video games. Some men might even find her nerdiness cute. The incentives to be a nerd are like the incentives to identify as bisexual – the incentives are much more positive for women than for men, and in the case of nerd culture particularly so for women with relatively gender-traditional desires (which are typically not those of actual female nerds).
As such, suspicions of fake girl geeks, whilst obviously not always correct, are hardly indefensible bigotry. We are not seeing misogyny but rather a disdain for poseurs common to all marginalized subcultures – a disdain which would clearly be gender-neutral if the poseurs in question included members of both sexes.
There are real female geeks. There are also fake girl geeks. Fake girl geeks do not share the values or experiences of real female geeks or male geeks. Marginalized subcultures will expel those perceived as external invaders irrespective of the invaders’ sex – the problem with fake geek girls is not that they are girls but that they are fake.
Perhaps as the world becomes more accepting of genuine geekiness, geek culture as we know it (i.e. built in the context of persecution) will disappear. However, acceptance of genuine nerds grates against our society’s gender system; the system has no affection for not-real-men.
Irrespective of this, to claim that the only reason suspicions of “fake geek girl” are raised is sexism is false; if there is any gender issue that explains the lack of ‘fake geek guy,’ it is the fact that nerd culture is a culture built from the experiences of socially emasculated men (and to a lesser extent gender-atypical women); men lose their real manhood by being nerds, but women usually lose less and (these days) in some cases can make substantial gains from being geeky. In the light of this fact, it makes sense that many women want in (even if they are not nerds), but most men do not (sometimes even if they are).
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