Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sexism exposed in growing geek culture

With the DVD release of “The Dark Knight Rises,” nerds everywhere are surely celebrating, as they have in decades past with the releases of “Monty Python” and “The Wrath of Khan” and the newest Dungeons and Dragons manual.
But now, they’re not the only ones celebrating.

Movies like the “Dark Knight” trilogy and “The Avengers” have made being a nerd “cool,” or at least more mainstream for both men and women. It’s no longer a subculture but a cultural trend, less of a way of life and more of a choice. This doesn’t mean the end of nerds. It doesn’t mean no more geeks, eagerly anticipating the release of special edition books. It doesn’t mark the end of comic cons and “Firefly” revival campaigns.

There’s a shift within geek culture.

Being a nerd is no longer a division between being “cool” and being a “nerd.” Now it’s a spectrum. You can be a classic nerd who has seen William Hartnell as the first Doctor. You can be a nerd who plays Minecraft and can sing the Portal song (bonus points if you know who wrote it). You can be a new nerd who has come to comics through the films Avengers” and “Dark Knight” and “Scott Pilgrim.” You could be all three.

I am not one to label someone as a “fake geek” just because their interests are different than mine, or their passions less intense. Sometimes you discover things later. I wasn’t even born when most of the things I love were first released. Instead, I subscribe to New York Times best-selling author John Green’s definition: “Nerds are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff...nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it.”

Unfortunately, the “classic” versus the “cool” nerd isn’t the only divide wearing on the geek community. As more and more women embrace (or expose) the nerdy sides of themselves, they are being greeted not by happy nerds but by misogynists.

Within the geek community, women are forced, again and again to prove their nerd cred. Men can walk around wearing Batman shirts and never be asked how many issues they’ve read. They can go see “Skyfall” without any idea of who Moneypenny is. They can claim the title “gamer” without being forced to list the games they play.

An Internet meme called “Idiot Nerd Girl” has been circulating, perpetrating the stereotype that women are not “real nerds,” but instead are posing for attention. Not only is that insulting to the women who could recite all of the riddles from “The Hobbit” or who know the Konami code or who understand the meaning of “42,” it implies that even women who do know those things aren’t actually fans.

There are certainly individuals who abuse the nerd moniker, who think because they have a crush on Tom Hiddleston or change a friend’s status on an open Facebook, they are geeks and computer hackers, and those individuals are certainly frustrating — but to insinuate that only women make such comments is absurd.

There’s an effort to take back the meme, started by Dark Horse Comics editor Rachel Edidin, turning the taunts against women into statements that reflect the reality of the situation. My favorites include “Marginalized by girls for being a nerd; marginalized by nerds for being a girl” and “Wore perfect recreation of super-heroine outfit; called pathetic whore by dudes who drew it.”

The Hawkeye Initiative is another current effort to raise awareness about the treatment of women in geek culture, specifically in comic books and graphic novels. It mocks the impossible anatomy of female superheroes and raises awareness of their over-sexualized positions by replacing such characters with Hawkeye.

An argument usually heard against the sexism in comics is that men are portrayed sexually as well, and actual men are also set against impossible standards. The men in comics are powerful, commanding, in control. But this argument brings up a false equivalence: Both the depiction of men and women in comics play to male fantasies, whether it be the aspiration and identification with the male figure or the desire for the female.

Now this is not an indictment of the graphic novel. It’s an effort to raise awareness about the treatment of women within geek culture and from where such treatment might have found its footing.

For a group that used to be inclusive, which would welcome anyone with open arms, a motley crew of outcasts who were thrown together only because they were thrown out of acceptable high school society, these shifts are not only interesting to follow, they are disheartening. They pit classic nerd against casual nerd, cool geek against new geek. They reinforce gender stereotypes, assist in the suppression of women and passion, and, worst of all, forget what it really means to be a nerd.


  1. As a phd sociology student who studies gender and self identifies as a sub-t geek not a ex-t geek, I sincerely appreciate your words. Your article is well written and very insightful. I will make sure to spread this as far as possible. Thanks for the great work.