A question that comes up a lot in the course of my research and blogging, both implicitly and explicitly, is why geek culture is typically described and understood as a male phenomenon, and why female involvement needs some sort of special explanation. This has been on my mind a lot lately for a few reasons, not least of which being the articles that occasionally cross my screen.
It’s no great secret that most of the pursuits thought of as “geeky” see greater participation among males than among females. Certain pursuits have traditionally been coded as “for boys” or “for girls,” so a large part of this may just be what parents think they’re supposed to expose their kids to. Another major factor may simply be that young boys get labeled as geeks and nerds (and bullied for it) much more frequently than young girls, setting one gender up for geekdom at a younger age on average. And, of course, there’s marketing bias, with video games, comic books, and science-fiction actively targeting male audiences, featuring men with super powers, for those who feel powerless.
These are cultural trends, not necessarily any reflection that geeky interests are naturally more interesting or involving for boys or men. Women can potentially get the same things out of media, technology, and popular culture that men get out of these things. Nevertheless, when girls and women are interested in things like computers or science-fiction, it’s often taken as worthy of special mention. Decidedly geeky activities that see higher female involvementâ€”such as writing fan fictionâ€”don’t seem to nudge popular perception of how the geek image is gendered, perhaps in part because they remain widely unknown outside hardcore fannish circles.
When essayists and reporters do take the time to specifically point out female involvement in geeky subcultures, it is often to make one or both of a couple assertions:
- Women like geeky stuff you might have associated only with men.
- Men might get one thing from geeky pursuits, but women get another thing.
The upshot of either assertion may be an implied question: Are female geeks unusual for their gender, or unusual within their subculture?
Consider, for example, a New York Times article from a couple months back, “Geek chic: Not just for guys.” This article implies that we should be surprised that teenage girls are more active in making homepages on the web than boys of the same age, but points out that boys are more likely to post videos of themselves at YouTube. In short: Making websites, which we thought was “geeky,” turns out to fill some need for women than men don’t as often feel the need to fill.
Another article on PopMatters (via Church)â€”“Move over alpha geeks, here come the fangrrls!”â€”seeks to highlight female participation at sci-fi fan conventions. It’s written and photographed by a couple women “working on a book together about women in male-dominated subcultures.” Echoing (and citing) Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers, it discusses what women get out of fanfic and fandom in general, at one point juxtaposing it with a guy who attends conventions alone just to acquire more collectibles. This, like the previous article, sort of suggests that female geeks are a special breed of geek, bringing some female sensibility with them into a male-dominated world.
The piece that really got me thinking about writing this post was by Suzanne “Zuska” Franks, who writes: “Women who love technology require an explanation; men who love technology are just being masculine.” (She’s building on some comments and observations made by others, as noted in her post.) She offers some tips for those who would interview female scientists and engineers, such as, “Are you planning on describing me as (A) not what you’d expect, (B) surprisingly pretty, (C) a rarity, or (D) all of the above?” and “Will you also explain how technology has unsexed me? (A) Yes, (B) Yes, while simultaneously infantilizing you, you ‘geeky super-normal enthusiastic girl’!” This touches upon the other angle of female geekdom, the question of whether being geeky marks women as unfeminine.
I rarely see articles which completely avoid the implication that there is something unusual about being both female and a geek. This is why I was so impressed with the “nerdcraft” article I linked to awhile back. It could have been pitched as “women bring femininity to geekdom,” but rather just presented tech- and game-oriented crafting as a new turn in crafting.
It is fair, of course, to point out that women have a different experience from men within geek culture. After all, the relative lack of women in geek culturesâ€”and, more to the point, the frequent lack of experience with interacting with women, among many geek menâ€”means that women end up being the objects of disproportionate attention or exclusion. Examples of this are unfortunately quite easy to find, but I’ll offer a new one now that just came to my attention.
Feministing has a heavily-commented post up about the “Open Source Boob Project” (link via Jordan). This was a sort of game initiated by male nerds at ConFusion, a science-fiction convention. There’s some dispute about what this “project” entailed (see the comments), but suffice to say, it involved men (for the most part) touching the breasts of consenting women (for the most part) at the con, a sort of exercise in cutting through social taboos in order to just get to do what some people wanted to do.
I’ll leave aside the rightness or wrongness of this particular event, as there’s a lot of disagreement (indicated in the comments) about what really went on with thisâ€”who knew it was going on, what the likelihood was that people could be made to feel pressured, etc. Rather, I’d like to note a couple excerpts from the conversation that follows about how women can be made to feel unwelcome in male-dominated geek culture. One commenter, musing on this event and how it fits into geek culture more generally, wrote:
I’m a total geek myself, and the world I have to play in really does make me sad. It’s hard to find a good video game that has female characters I can respect and really want to play, it’s hard to find a series where the main female cast isn’t told to wear push-up bras, and I really hate it when I play Massive Multiplayer Online Games and get hit on when people find out the girl behind the female character is actually a girl (and I don’t even want to get into what they say about guys who play female characters).
I definitely get that whole devalued feeling a lot, and this particular proposition isn’t helping at all. I do think conventions are a place where people generally feel like they can lose the rules for a few days; I mean, you’re 25, wearing a full-body costume, and people won’t make fun of you for it (better yet, you get prizes for good work). Surrounded by people who have a like-mind, you feel a little less shy about approaching someone, because hey, you know that cute guy over there will actually be impressed instead of laughing when you tell him how many comic books you own.
Hm, but it doesn’t make this ok. What I guess I’m trying to explain is how people who normally seem nice would suddenly come up with a bullshit idea like this, and how people who normally have more sense to “just say no” would fall into this trap. I never had a date in high school, and I’m pretty sure if I didn’t have anyone to back me up, I would’ve said yes at that point in my life too. College has helped a lot with that, but even I can’t get past the fact that my opinion about Halo 3 just isn’t as valued at these places as a lot of men’s.
I thought this was an interesting and evocative example of one person’s experience as a female geek. I also thought, though, that it was really interesting that there was no implication that what she’s getting out of geekdom is somehow different from what men are getting out of geekdom. Actually, parts of her experience probably sound pretty familiar to male geeks, such as feeling embarrassed about revealing one’s interests around cute people the same age, and being easily abused out of desire for acceptance.
Another commenter’s note similarly indicated shared experiences behind how women and men come to identify as geeks:
If Tech-Dudes come away from high school feeling stigmatized, devalued and socially awkwardâ€”can you then imagine how most geeky girls feel? We aren’t even considered normative in our social niche of choice!
Despite this situation, female geeks aren’t necessarily considered the most authentically nerdy of all nerds. Rather, we often see the appeals of geek culture described in masculine terms, especially by academics. Guys get good at video games or hacking to satisfy their sense of competition, to gain a sense of mastery to compensate for lack of success in sports and dating. Guys read superhero comics to fantasize about what it would be like to be strong, compensating for their own lack of athleticism in reality. Geeks are now cool because computers skills translate into dollars, and so geeky guys can now compete in a widely-accepted domain of masculine power.
Let’s consider, though, that women might get most of the same things out of geeky pursuits that men get out of them. Does that mean that such “masculine” appeals as competition, mastery, and economic power appeal to some women as much as they do to men? Or does it perhaps mean that the usual “masculine” appeals that get flung around don’t make as big a deal as we think, that both men and women are finding more meaning and value elsewhere in geek culture?
The answer may be, of course, some blend of these. I think it’s safe to say that there’s variety among female geeks just as there is among male geeks. You’ll find some geeks who feel different from other women because they’re more like “one of the guys”; you’ll find others who conceptualize being a “girl geek” (or “geek grrrl”) as distinctly different from being a “geek”; and you’ll find others yet who identify as somewhere in between on this spectrum.
The interviews I’ve conducted with women leaned more toward the first of these, with several comments about those who felt like “just one of the guys” and “grew up a tomboy.” I must admit, though, that this might be an artifact of who was willing to follow up with a random male stranger looking to interview con-goers. Having a web page offers a less pressuring environment, so I’d like to encourage any of you reading to speak up, anonymously or otherwise. One of the most frequent questions I receive is some variant on “Can girls be geeks too?” I have my own set of answers, but I’d sure like to bolster them with yours.