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Women and ‘geek culture’ August 14, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Feminism.

As noted last week, the Incomparable is an excellent, albeit niche, podcast, and one that for all its focus on popular culture has been aware of issues of gender and representation. A particularly interesting example was The Incomparable 198, “A Critical Mass of Lady Geeks” which explored the experience of Lisa Schmeiser, Erika Ensign and Brianna Wu, all of whom are involved in gaming, development and commentary and are also into SF and Fantasy and how isolated they felt in their interest and how marginalised they were sometimes made to feel was dispiriting. Of course ‘geek culture’ is – if one looks at it in its broadest sense, an area where sexism is often manifest.

As one contributor, I think of Brianna Wu of the all woman Giant Spacekat developers team, noted, ‘I definitely think it’s become more accepted but I also think there are all kinds of things around geek culture that are real no girls allowed signs that are really invisible to guys – they don’t understand it, and it’s sometimes in big ways you know like a Comicon will have a girl with her chest hanging out on one of the advertisements, in ways SF tends to typically sexualise the lead female characters – Star Trek has been tremendously guilty of that – it’s all these things about the culture, that it’s a thousand little things but at the end of the day it’s men standing there saying this is our space, this is our culture and it pushes you away and I think the women that push back and stay in the field and stand up to their interest and I think we kind of develop thick skin necessarily.’

This is what really irritates me about the response from those who see red at the very mention of the word ‘feminism’, a sort of willing blindness (as it were) on their part and an inability to recognise how heavily stacked the structures are against women in not necessarily obvious ways, and how when combined all too often operate as barriers against them. And this is in what is meant to be a reasonably relaxed space, an informal shared interest sort of area of ‘geek culture’, which merely underlines how bad things can be elsewhere in the society.

One contributor noted the performative ‘alpha male’ aspect of parts of geek culture, which genuinely shocked her, hoping for something better (I’ve seen that in political activity too – no doubt many others have as well – and it shocked me too).

She continued talking about how – and again I could identify strongly with this – SF had attracted her because it was all thought experiments, how would different societies operate if definitions of majorities were flipped or whatever, ‘and I had assumed that there was this questioning of current societal mores and this reexamination of social interactions was something that everyone shared in fandom. I hadn’t realised that everyone brought in these external expectations about gender roles or what women could or shouldn’t do…it was a huge shock to me…’

I had a not entirely dissimilar experience when getting involved at a very low level with some SF organisations and coming to the rapid conclusion that being an SF fan didn’t mean in the slightest necessarily that one had any particularly openness to radicalism of any sort, that the imaginative and in parts progressive aspects of it simply didn’t seem to translate into an appreciation of radicalism or progressivism in a concrete form whether socialist, feminist, lgbt, ecological or whatever – indeed for some those elements just sailed right over their heads.

Anyhow, disappointment apart, there’s a fascinating discussion about geek culture and how this all functions commercially, how SF toys – for example – are pushed into the boys toys sections in toy shops… and as one contributor noted ‘this is incredibly dangerous’ when they’re so gendered, so determining of future roles.

They discussed for example how at young kids outings happy meals for boys have one sort of toy – say a Spiderman tie-in something active, and the girls one’s are ‘notebooks’, the obvious message being that boys ‘do something’ and girls ‘sit’ (yeah, yeah, I know, it’s follows the tropes of Spiderman, but… fundamentally that is the dynamic beneath it). I’ve seen precisely that dynamic at work in the last number of years and it’s again dispiriting.

But that aside, this is well worth a listen. And one concluding thought from a contributor, just on toys and tie-ins with films…

It’s not just the gendered aspect, it’s this message that women are inculcated even before women can think straight [due to their being very young] that keeps us out of geek culture.

And so many other parts of the society.


1. An Sionnach Fionn - August 14, 2014

Personally I’ve always found the Irish geek scene pretty open and liberal. I think everyone I’ve talked to online or in real world would be broadly on the Left of Irish politics and carry fairly leftish views of society, gender, etc (when they bother with such things, of course). I’ve yet to meet a right-wing (genuine) geek in Ireland. They must exist?

The same would apply to my more limited exposure to geek culture in Scotland, Britain or over in Germany. Maybe I’ve just been luckier than your good self.

On the other hand I’ve encountered quite a few Rightish types in the United States, especially those who enjoy the sub-genres of military Sci-Fi or apocalypse fiction.

Most Irish, British, European authors of SF and Fantasy are to the Left. Many Americans seem to the Centre-Right/Right (Orson Scott Card, Frank Miller and so on). I think that is reflected to an extent in fandom.

Of course there are also people who are just horrible human beings and use any excuse to be so (as the poor daughter of Robin Williams has found out in recent days). Never discount the misanthrope factor rather than simply the misogynist one.


WorldbyStorm - August 14, 2014

It’s an interesting question as to how much geek intersects/overlaps with SF fandom. There are intersections and overlaps but they’re not exact. Though in fairness given how leftist are few enough on the ground where’s the surprise. I’d agree that geeks tend to be leftish, but on the other hand I’ve met quite a few in tech who would be essentially PD (again, how much/little tech overlaps with geek is another question again).

It’d be useful to know what women in Irish geek culture think.


An Sionnach Fionn - August 14, 2014

Probably terribly old fashioned of me but I don’t think one can be a “geek” as such unless one has an interest in Sci-Fi and/or Fantasy Fiction as the primer. The interests in books, comics, graphic novels, art, TV shows, movies, games (board and electronic), technology, etc. is built upon that base. I love SF/Fantasy books and art first which includes comics/graphic novels, with TV/cinema, technology following behind. No real interest in gaming, etc. any more (though I was a fan of “Games Master” back in the Dominik Diamond days: the very definition of “blokish” geekdom!).

I’ve met a few PD-types in the IT industry but none were genuinely into geek stuff. Many who were simply did so because it was the latest trendy thing, more a “Big Bang Theory” than “IT Crowd” geek.

That probably sounds terribly snobby? Making I’m guilty myself! 😉

My ex-girlfriend was/is a hardcore geek. Only thing she complained about on the Irish scene was verbally constipated men when she walked into a room 😀


WorldbyStorm - August 14, 2014

That’s a bit worrying, our experiences seem very diverse and you seem to have had the better one! 🙂

Still, the way people come to geek can be so different, some by games, others by film, comics. And I’ve found SF and comics while similar don’t necessarily map entirely. It’s like liking the new Marvel films. They’re not exactly SF, at least not as I’d define it.


An Sionnach Fionn - August 14, 2014

You have my sympathies! 😉

Yeah the Marvel phenomenon is a real pop-culture one. My youngest sister is not a Sci-Fi fan at all but she loves the whole Marvel, Hunger Games thing while having little real interest in the wider geek culture. That said she is developing a little bit more interest of late (with some subtle prodding from me). Perhaps Marvel is the “gateway drug” to proper fandom? 😉


WorldbyStorm - August 14, 2014

It’s funny, I came exactly the opposite way, not from comics at all, but through books and tv. By the late 80s or early 90s I loved Gaiman’s stuff and Hellblazer, but then I didn’t bother for years and it’s only in much more recent years that I got into Vaughn, or Warren Ellis or whoever. In a way part of the problem is there’s so much out there. Where’s the time?


2. EamonnCork - August 14, 2014

Thanks for sticking this up Wbs, must discuss it with the daughters this evening. One of them is a particularly avid comics fan and is also immensely practical, embarking on huge Lego and Meccano and even Airfix projects that I wouldn’t to be honest have a hope of completing. Also a hater of princesses, dresses and glitter. I don’t think the ‘this is a girl’s thing’ has ever occurred to her at all.


WorldbyStorm - August 14, 2014

Their observations will be good to know. That’s brilliant that your daughter has developedsuch an outlook.


EamonnCork - August 14, 2014

Her first comment was to remind me that whenever we go to Supermac’s they always ask for a boys gift bag because they’re much better than the girls one. She’d be a big Gaiman fan, he did two brilliant childrens books, The Wolves In The Walls and Fortunately, The Milk. And there’s Coraline of course. She’s pestering me to write a children’s fantasy novel but I don’t think it’s in me. Though I’d have to say I’m reading more and more fantasy these days, John Crowley being the gateway drug for me a few years back.
Her older sister seems to tally with what ASF says about his daughter, not much interest in the F & SF side of things but obsessed with the Hunger Games, has the pins and everything.
It’s nice to talk about the kids like this, puts a bit of a face on people I think.
Isn’t it interesting the way Sci Fi has almost been entirely eclipsed by Fantasy in the wider popular imagination? There’s no Sci Fi writer who comes within an asses roar of Martin, Gaiman, Pratchett, Pullman, Rowling in terms of sales or public profile. Most people couldn’t name one. Or maybe it’s migrated to TV, Battlestar Galactica being to my mind a better series than Game of Thrones and, blasphemy coming up, something that might stand up a bit better than some of the big HBO crime dramas. Maybe it’s that reality has surpassed Sci Fi.


An Sionnach Fionn - August 14, 2014

I think Iain Banks got fairly close to fame outside of geek circles (though more so because of his “mainstream” writing and far too early death) but I agree that Fantasy seems to rule the roost when it comes to genre fiction. Tolkien, Martin, Pratchett, Gaiman and Rowling are the big names that most non-fans know (at least in the Anglo-American world). Can’t think of any Sci-Fi names of the top of my head who have had the same impact upon pop-culture.

I vaguely remember when Arthur C. Clarke was the name everyone knew. Though again that was probably for non-SF work like his Mysterious World show on TV which I was absolutely fascinated by as a kid. I even collected a biweekly magazine which was a sort of similar in tone (do those collectable magazines even exist any more?).

Most popular SF now is strictly movie/TV related, or perhaps game tie-ins.

Not sure why Fantasy Fiction is more popular than Sci-Fi. I do know that many women find Fantasy an easier inroad to the whole thing than SF which still tends towards male only characters or 2-D female characters. It is changing though.

Oh, that was the younger one of my two sisters. I’m too grumpy to have kids! 😉


3. EamonnCork - August 14, 2014

And in fairness to Geek Culture I think there’s more of a female presence on Tor.Com than you’d get on many a sport or political website. The gender wars going on there at least show that the questions are being asked. And four of the last six Nebula awards for best novel have been won by women which is a better strike rate than the Booker. I could be wrong, given that I’m only in the odd time, but Forbidden Planet doesn’t seem like an all male redoubt either.


sonofstan - August 15, 2014

I’ve never been that into SF, Philip K. Dick apart, and detest fantasy (couldn’t even finish the Fellowship of the the Ring), had a passing interest in comics for a while…..but I did work in a bookshop specialising in all three for quite a while, and even 25+ years ago, we had a sizable female clientele. I’m pretty sure by now it would be close to a majority, especially as girls tend to read far more than boys and on into adulthood. I would also suggest that the Harry Potter phenom has been a gateway drug into fantasy for a whole generation.


4. NollaigO - August 14, 2014

SF and fantasy ! Be careful out there!

On topic:

A woman has just won the Field’s Medal, the Nobel Prize of mathematics, for the first time.


5. sonofstan - August 14, 2014
6. Michael Carley - August 14, 2014

Hope it’s not a stupid question, but how would people define `geek culture’ as distinct from an interest in SF or fantasy?


An Sionnach Fionn - August 15, 2014

Personally I don’t think that one can be a geek if there is no interest in SF and/or Fantasy at all. That doesn’t necessarily mean just books but comics/graphic novels. movies/TV shows, illustrations, games, etc. That to me is “geek culture”.

That said there are many people who like the whole “Big Bang Theory” style of geek culture. The geek-chic look without necessarily being into geekish stuff. They wear the Converse shoes, the Marvel tee-shirts and the Buddy Holly glasses but wouldn’t know their Johnny Alpha from their Johnny 5! 😉


WorldbyStorm - August 15, 2014

I always felt geek was more tech and games oriented though . But that was just my perception of it back in the day. SF fandom – particularly written SF seemed to me at the time to be a very different area. Big crossovers of course and more as time has gone on.. But even with SF, for example, having been at a Star Trek con once in the 1990s, there were peopel there who had next to no interest in other SF. So it can I guess be as broad or as limited as one likes. That’s a great point re Big Bang Theory as another element.


7. doctorfive - August 15, 2014

I know the broad sci-fi and tech worlds are not necessarily the same thing (maybe one is ‘geek’ and the other is ‘nerd’?) but there is enough overlap for me to point people towards this site. Some great writing on issues that much of the happy clappy startup talk seeks to cover.



An Sionnach Fionn - August 15, 2014

So good articles there. GRMA!


EamonnCork - August 15, 2014

Thanks. Already found one very useful article and there look to be a few more.


8. Ivorthorne - August 15, 2014

Another interesting development in the Sci-Fi area is the popularity of video games.

There are plenty of Halo or Mass Effect addicts who would probably never even watch something like Star Trek. They might even buy the books and comics associated with the game but that does not transfer to other “geek” products.

By the way, somebody who hasn’t been mentioned here yet is Robert Kirkman – the author of The Walking Dead. That’s another geek show/comic that has gone mainstream.


WorldbyStorm - August 15, 2014

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of truth in that. It’s more as if geek can describe a lot of sub groups who may or may not interact. Just seen a guy on youtube who does cosplay who did characters from Spirited Away by Studio Ghibili and it struck me that it would be entirely possible for him to have no particular interest in literary SF at all.


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