It’s early August here in Atlanta, which means we are mere weeks away from one of the biggest science-fiction/fantasy/pop culture conventions in the world descending on our fair city. Over 40,000 self-proclaimed geeks and nerds will march down Peachtree Street and claim the downtown hotels as their own for four days over Labor Day weekend. Thousands more will attend just to see the handmade costumes that take the better part of years to meticulously craft, or in hopes of catching a glimpse of a celebrity guest. It is Dragon*Con, the East Coast haven of geek culture, and it is the event for which I save, plan, and save some more all year long.
Within this geek culture lurks a dark side, however. It is ingrained in decades of tradition, rooted in erroneous thinking, and capable of destroying weekends and even lives. It is the stereotype of the female geek, namely that she is incapable of being a “true” geek and is merely present for her outward appearance. A recent internet article added fuel to this fire by claiming that there are girls who will don a somewhat geeky t-shirt or a sexy Catwoman costume and flaunt around sci-fi/fantasy conventions, solely to revel in the attention they receive from female-starved male geeks, and that such girls make up the majority of female convention-goers. Whatever the intended spirit of the article, all it did was make life for true geek girls (who not only exist, but exist in the millions), that much more difficult.
Most people can recite any of several stereotypes of a male geek. It’s a murky area however, determining what truly constitutes a geek. What is clear is that the definition of a male geek is changing rapidly with geekdom becoming socially acceptable, and more and more of the male population willing to admit that they enjoy Star Trek, animes, or fantasy RPG video games. Disappearing are the days of the high school geek being shoved into a trash can or the nerdy boy hiding in the dark of his bedroom with his Xbox. Male geeks are recognized for their intelligence, their desire to make the world a better place, and the simple fact that they are just as worthy of love and respect as the rest of the human race.
The problem is that the female stereotype of a geek is not changing as quickly, and is in fact moving backwards in some ways. When attractive girls talk about being geeks or into geek culture, they are labeled as poseurs or lying to get attention. When unattractive girls talk about being geeks, they are labeled as harpies, or worse, ignored outright. There is precious little recognition for female geeks for their intelligence, their desire to make the world a better place, and the simple fact that they are just as worthy of love and respect as the rest of the human race.
This lands girl geeks squarely into a Catch-22. They will be ignored if they are not pretty, but their opinions will be similarly disregarded if they are pretty. What this means is that we’re not hearing the girl geek side of the story. We’re not seeing the day-to-day struggles of the girl geek, and that means that these double-standards will never be challenged. It’s time for this to change.
Let me shed some light on what it means to be a girl geek. It means that I am called sweetheart, honey, baby, princess, darling, girl, chick, and many other condescending nicknames every day. It means that I am overlooked, looked through, or blantly avoided at my job at a video game store. It means that customers ignore me, or worse, lavish condescending attempts at flirtation on me. I’ve been told that I’m pretty in a dozen ways, and never once was it said to me in a way that didn’t suggest objectification. When I make a mistake, it’s ok because I’m cute. When I go out of my way to make a customer happy, it’s because I’m a woman and we worry about others’ feelings. When I don’t feel well, it’s because I’m a female. When I talk about an “ungirly” video game, I see shock on customers’ faces far more than I see excitement about a shared interest. I have had customers touch my shoulders, my head, my hands, even my waist, all uninvited. I have had male customers lift their shirts and bare their chests twice while talking to me. All of these things have happened even within view of the store’s security camera. I’ve been lucky and been able to disengage from these customers quickly and decisively, and it is far from the norm for my customer interactions. It is what happens at a male-dominated workplace in a male-dominated industry, however. My coworkers are all wonderful guys, but there’s not much anyone can do when a customer decides to buy into a stereotype.
Sadly, this attitude isn’t limited to the workplace. When I walk into my local comic book store, I am either greeted with looks of surprise or looks of loathing from male customers. Even though I have been there every month for a year, I am still an outsider. When I attend a convention, I am subjected to the same sort of treatment. I have to fight to be taken seriously as a fellow geek, and I find myself avoiding conversations with male con-goers. I am missing out on meeting people who share my interests because experience has taught me that male geeks do not want to listen to me debate Kirk vs Picard or Tennet vs Smith. They want me to wear a corset, smile for a picture, and not pretend to be as knowledgeable about Battlestar Galactica as them.
I am not outwardly beautiful, and I do not wear skin-tight costumes. I am not the girl that the boys are fantasizing about, and I am certainly not the girl that the boys are lining up around the block for. I am simply a girl with a genuine smile and green eyes who wants to be able to enjoy Star Trek and video games without being talked down to, leered at, or stereotyped. I want the guys who share my interests to see me for me: the girl with a Master’s Degree who can’t find a full-time job, who sings in the car when she’s alone, who pours her heart out in the written word because she can’t always get her spoken words in the right order, and who may be relatively new to the Star Trek fandom, but can swear in Klingon with the best of them.
I am a girl geek, and I will not let stereotypes stand in the way of me pursuing my interests. I love who I am, flaws and all, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Despite this, it would be nice to just once be seen for all that I am, rather than just which secondary sex characteristics I possess. I know that I’m not going to break down decades of stereotypes in 1300 words, but if I can make one person stop and think twice about that girl in leather boots and a mask, then maybe that change can finally begin to happen.
So as Dragon*Con 2012 approaches, my wish is this: that all the girl geeks and all the boy geeks be seen as simply geeks, sharing the same five-hotel radius, the same quest for a decent meal, and the same desire to pursue their interests without fear of judgment, if only for four days out of the year.