Why Does the Internet Hate Lady Geeks? (part one of many in “Sexism of the Interweb”)

I’m feeling very ranty these days.  Perhaps this is because I have too much time on my hands, and because I spend too much of that time on the internet.  But I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about sexism, misogyny, and the problems caused by gender roles.

It’s one of those things that comes up every day, and which I’m acutely conscious of.  Sexism affects my work/job hunt: I’m at a fairly large disadvantage looking for school counseling jobs because I have lady parts.  Yes, we are now affirmative-actioning the majority population to the point where the principal who said he was “really impressed with” my answers during the interview hired a guy because, well, he wanted a guy.  Even men in the field have admitted that they have an unfair advantage.  I encounter the damage that misogyny and gender roles cause in the online dating world, but that’s an entirely separate post that I’ll get to.  I see it when I play co-ed volleyball, and I get treated like a weak child who couldn’t hit a ball if she had eight extra arms.

But one of the scariest places for sexism and misogyny is on the internet.  This, again, is subject matter that it will take me several posts to wade through, so for today, I’m just going to consider sexism as it shows up in geek culture.  Now in order for this to make any sense, I should define what geek culture actually is.  The original derived from the word for fool, then was used to describe a carnival performer who would bite the heads off of chickens (why they needed a performer to do something this disturbing is beyond me.  Maybe Ozzy Osbourne has some insight).  Next, it meant a socially inept person.  Today, I think the definition we most identify with is an obsessive enthusiast who has great knowledge, usually in an area or areas that aren’t part of mainstream culture.  This is pretty broad.  There are computer geeks, gaming geeks, Star Wars/Trek geeks, comic book geeks, academic/book geeks, RPG geeks, music geeks, and many many others.  And the internet makes it 10,000 times easier to obsess about these things.

Somewhere along the line, we got this weird idea that geek culture was created by men, and therefore owned and practiced by men and boys worldwide.  Some of this may be a result of TV and movies: Revenge of the Nerds, and brat pack movie, Weird Science, the Big Bang Theory, the IT Crowd, and hundreds of other films and shows present us time and time again with the same basic formula: nerdy (okay, I realize these words are not exactly synonymous – nerds tend to err more on the academic side of geekdom, and usually have more varied interests, but for the sake of making my points, I’m going to use them interchangeably, as I believe they fill the same cultural space)  guy(s) are shunned by the majority of the population (high school, college, the office), and the pretty ladies ignore them or find them not worthy of their time.  Usually at least one of these geeky guys has a crush on a popular, attractive woman, often one who already has a boyfriend (a football player type).  He acts awkward around her, wonders why women don’t seem to like nice, nerdy guys, and wins her heart by the end of the movie/show (to the movie’s credit, while that storyline is central in Revenge of the Nerds – and culminates in a scene that is, at best, worst, rape, and at best, a total dick move – another main character does actually fall for a fellow geeky girl – who knew they existed?).  So our culture built this narrative of the loser geek guy who eventually gets the hot girl.  But it’s not about the conquest aspect, at least not yet.  Right now, I’m just going to just deal with what that sets up: an all-male cohort of geeks and nerds and dweebs that is in opposition to the popular people, and, more importantly to women.

Let’s look a little more closely at one of these “non-mainstream hobbies”.  Okay, video games.  For whatever reason, games seem to be the default way to prove membership in the geek culture, above really any other geeky hobbies. Depending whose stats you read, between 40-50% of the US’s total gamers are women.  Insert cries of “but the wimmin don’t play the hardcore games, they only play the games on Facebook and on their phones!  Because there’s an unspoken hierarchy in video game culture (at least, it goes unspoken until anyone starts talking about women in video games) that certain types of games are more “legit” than others.  Computer games have a different rank than phone app games, and console games yet another.  God forbid you play Angry Birds or The Sims: geeks will mock you.  But, you know, in anonymous online forums.  There is an unbelievable amount of social posturing that goes on in online spaces that are overflowing with people who claimed to be unpopular in high school.

So…what happens if you go into these spaces as a lady geek?  Sometimes they are openly hostile.  This is mostly true if you present yourself as a feminist who tries to alter any part of gaming culture.  I don’t typically follow video game news outside of reading the occasional posts from Facebook friends, but I read enough about sexism in culture and general geekery to hear about things that happen to women like Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic known most recently for her videos in a series titled, “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” in which she criticizes sexism in games, frequently in regards to the roles women play, often in the background, as victims of abuse, or as damsels who need to be rescued.  Granted, I identify as a feminist, so there’s a good chance that I would find some merit to her arguments, which I’ve heard are fairly academic and generally well sourced.  But not everyone is going to agree with her analyses, and of course, some will want to argue back.  That’s completely fair.  But…that’s mostly not what happened.  Some people got PISSED.  People have emailed her rape threats, and threatened to kill her on her Twitter feed.  They created images of her being sexually assaulted and sent them to her.  She recently had to call the police when a particularly scary Twitter user claimed to know her address, and threatened to kill not only Sarkeesian, but also her family members.  Because she made youtube videos about sexism in video games.  Apparently, making a video that someone disagrees with is now an offense worthy of rape, humiliation, vitriolic comments, and death.  She discusses the misogyny displayed in imaginary worlds…and then some internet morons prove that it’s out in the real world, too.  It doesn’t matter how offensive you find her critiques, or if you think she scammed people out of money (this is something no one can seem to agree on) – this is NOT the appropriate way to treat anyone.  Maybe a serial killer, or a convicted serial rapist/child molester.  But a media critic?  Come on, people.  This is lunacy.  The truth terrifies some of these people, though.  Something similar happened with another woman, Zoe Quinn, who developed a game, and then supposedly slept with a game reviewer in order to garner attention for her creation.  Again, no one can prove that this happened this way, and no one can prove that it can’t.  But it doesn’t matter.  It’s not an excuse to slut-shame her or use her as an example of why the industry is the corrupt.  She…clearly would have had to sleep with…someone else?  Why does HE not get a buttload of complaints for this unethical behavior?  Oh, right.  Because he’s in a more powerful position, and because he has man parts.  It’s Bill Clinton all over again.  A naive and foolish intern fools around with him in the Oval Office, and he keeps his job, and, after a few years of typical American amnesia, his reputation.  But Monica Lewinsky lost her job, and she will always be known for that one offense.  Let me know when the same thing happens to a man.

Another symptom of this oddly exclusive culture is that, even if you don’t get overt misogynistic responses when you announce your female gender in a gamer space, there are notable differences in how you will be treated.  Many WoW players have observed that when they admit that they’re women, men offer them more help and assume that they don’t know what they’re doing.  Other times they get hit on.  And in a lot of gaming forums (fora?), once you confess to ownership of lady parts, you suddenly are required to prove that you have the right geek cred.   You have to show them that you play the right games, whatever they are (and you have to know what they are).  Or, less often, that you know the right comics.  Get the right Star Trek reference.  Any assertion you make is called into question, until a guy backs you up.  Sure, there are some guys there who claim they are glad women are joining the ranks, so there’s hope that this won’t last forever.  But why are these geeky guys so threatened by the presence of women in their little club?  Especially when women have been their all along, sitting in the bleachers and standing on the sidelines.

I hear some men profess that geek forums and gaming are their “safe spaces”, where they can be themselves around like-minded folk.  After years of high school persecution, they have larger social outlets that they can rely on for comfort.  What they don’t realize is that many of these girls endured the same persecution, but were often even more isolated.  While not a big gamer, I was definitely (and still am) a nerd, especially in the academic sense.  I suffered from social anxiety, and spent a lot of my time alone with a book.  With lots of books. I didn’t know where to find other nerds to spend my time with. I’ve spend most of my life feeling like an outsider.  It’s expected that nerds will be boys, so there doesn’t seem to much of a place for female nerds in school culture.  And because of that, it seems like utter nonsense to me to reject others from any group I’m part of (unless they’re huge jerks).

In these kinds of geek spaces, I fall epically short.  I can out-Harry Potter most folks, and I know my academic subjects pretty well, but I’m not obsessive enough about most of it to pass any geek litmus test.  And frankly, I’m not sure I really want to anymore.  I’m the opposite of Groucho Marx – I don’t want to be a part of any club that doesn’t want me.

I used some references for this, but I’m too lazy to cite them, because this is a blog entry and no one’s grading it.

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