I’ve always found the controversy over so-called Fake Geek Girls more than a little preposterous, given the variety inherent in geekdom. My midichlorian count may be off the scales when it comes to Star Wars, but I’ll freely admit that my favorite Star Trek movie is the one with the whales, in part for its SDS references. I haven’t read the Wheel of Time, but I’m probably the mainstream feminist critic who’s spent the most time over the last few years writing about A Song Of Ice And Fire. And for anyone who doesn’t want to stamp my geek card until I’ve satisfied his or her knowledge of his favorite franchise, I’ll show you mine as soon as you break down the treatment of social inequality in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels. There is no Grand High Geek Council issuing citizenship papers, no border fence, and that’s one of my favorite things about joining the particular voluntary communities that have been so important to me over the years.
But it’s become clear that there are a lot of people who would like there to be. And the debate over whether there are women who are “fake geeks” or not has become a proxy for the conversation. The thing is, though, at the root of this conversation isn’t really about the inclusion of women, or certain kinds of women, in geekdom. It’s about a slow and uneven shift in which some geeks and some kinds of geekdom have accumulated an enormous amount of social capital. And that shift has revealed that we don’t always know how to spend it wisely, magnanimously, or in ways that don’t repeat the ugly marginalization of geeks that came before.
In a post on io9, Rachel Edidin, who is an associate editor at Dark Horse Comics explains why some geeks, like those who complain that female cosplayers only want attention—by which, of course, they mean those women only want certain kinds of attention and want to draw certain boundaries about how they’re treated in costume—explains why fandoms and geek communities can be so resistant to change:
Geek culture is a haven for guys who can’t or don’t want to fall in step with the set of cultural trappings and priorities of traditional manhood in America. At least in theory, geek culture fosters a more cerebral and less violent model of masculinity, supported by a complementary range of alternative values. But the social cost of that alternative model—chosen or imposed—is high, and it’s often extorted violently—socially or physically. The fringe is a scary place to live, and it leaves you raw and defensive, eager to create your own approximation of a center. Instead of rejecting the rigid duality of the culture they’re nominally breaking from, geek communities intensify it, distilled through the defensive bitterness that comes with marginalization. And so masculinity is policed incredibly aggressively in geek communities, as much as in any locker room or frat house.
It’s tremendously difficult to make the transition from being culturally powerless to being culturally powerful. And it’s even harder when a societal shift happens, when Steve Jobs is everyone’s favorite CEO, J.J. Abrams can do whatever he wants in film and television, when hackers become heroes and supervillians, and those social inversions don’t actually filter all the way down. Just because lots of geeky traits, like knowledge about technology, obsessive interest, and superheroes, have become assets doesn’t mean that, say, our preferred male body types have radically shifted, or that, movies like 21 Jump Street aside, high school’s shrugged off the quarterback of the football team for the captain of the Mathletes, or that on OkCupid, a figurine collection is suddenly more valuable than a job on Wall Street. Geeks are getting asked to be magnanimous, to be self-reflected, to open up communities as if they possess privilege that it may not always feel like they do. Of course, the question of whether you feel like you have privilege isn’t solely determinative of whether you do, and whether it’s acknowledged or not, having your cultural fantasies catered to is a kind of privilege. But the point remains: the range of how much social capital and privilege individual geeks have is gigantic. And that makes it very hard to move a community as a whole.
At Badass Digest, Devin Faraci has some suggestions for how geeks could productively clean house internally and exert our collective cultural privilege as supporters of a giant consumer industry. He writes:
The gender issue in nerddom is deeper than women dressed like Emma Frost. There are many more dangerous poseurs in the nerd community, many of whom have risen to the tops of our favorite properties and franchises. Phoniness abounds. There are fake geek girls and there are fake geek boys. But this sexism has to stop.
So instead of worrying about Fake Geek Girls, let’s celebrate Real Geek Girls. Let’s tell comic creators that we want female characters who are more than just excuses for cheesecake. That we want female comic characters who are rounded beyond their breasts and butts, who aren’t spin-offs or namesakes or girlfriends of existing male heroes. And when comic creators provide these characters, support them with your dollars.
These are fantastic goals, if we could get people to agree on them. But that requires people to start wanting better in ways that are substantive. On a creative level, geeks can nitpick a production to death, but just as often, we’re guilty of circling the wagons and defending even products that have dramatically fallen off. Rather than dismissing Twilight fans, for example, as “fake geeks,” it would have been fascinating to see fantasy fans point out to Twilight fans how they were shortchanged with rotten special effects, lazy rather than inspired directing a la the Harry Potter franchise, and careless casting in the movie adaptations and to help them mobilize to demand movies that would be both better genre pictures and more energized adaptations of Stephenie Meyer’s quartet. But there wasn’t anything close to a consensus for that. And as much as I wish it did, I’m not sure that there’s a consensus deep in the readership of comics (as opposed to the consensus of many critics) that the depictions of female characters need to change.
The thing is, if geeks want to consolidate our cultural power, the best thing we can possibly do is be as magnanimous and as forward-thinking as possible. Conventions are at the cutting edge of this recognition, financially if not experientially: there’s a reason they’ve had big Twilight panels but not instituted strong sexual harassment policies. Want to meet women at conventions? Think about why the kinds of interactions you want aren’t happening or why women aren’t turning out beyond the level of “she’s a bitch,” or “all the geek girls are fake.” Want to see your expertise count? Use it like you’re teaching padawans, rather than looking to knock off as many points as possible on someone’s Kobyashi Maru exam. Stop acting like everyone else has something to prove and recognize you have something to offer.