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.