Responding to my post on default narrative sexism, commenter Kevin Veale reported the following incident:

It also reminds me, sadly, of a thread yesterday where an RPG author posted a question about how to shift cultural dynamics about gender in an RPG setting. The thread then proceeded to implode with a bunch of bullshit where people were citing other examples where authors had tried that as “bullshit” because “They’re doing unrealistic stuff purely to create a bizarro world where it’d be cool if women were cavalry,” rather than the listed intent of said author to create a different gender dynamic.

Being both a geek and a ladyperson, this phenomenon is one I’ve encountered many times before, and always felt frustrated by – so much so that I’ve decided to upgrade my response from comment to post.

The sort of incident mentioned above is sadly common in geek culture – a blind and subtle species of sexism-as-normative wherein any attempt to reverse established gender dynamics is written off as a nothing more than cheap attempt at novelty by virtue of the fact that the audience either didn’t expect it or doesn’t see the utility of it. Back when I first started playing D&D in highschool, I remember the pleasant feeling of shock and surprise when, on opening the handbook, I found that all the pronouns used to describe the hypothetical players and characters were female ones. When, seconds later, I remarked on this fact out loud, my then-boyfriend instantly expressed his irritation at it, saying something along the lines of, ‘They’re only doing it to seem cool and politically correct.’ And being sixteen, I instantly found myself agreeing with him: partly because he was my boyfriend (alas!) but mostly because it genuinely did look weird – by which I mean, of course, that I’d never seen it done before. And because I had no grounding in feminism at that point, and even though it had made me feel validated and welcomed as a girl geek just moments earlier, I took up his stance both then and for quite a while afterwards: that switching up the gender pronouns was just an arbitrary, pointless thing people sometimes did to look hip. Whereas, of course, the point was right there in my initial reaction: to make girls like me feel happier playing D&D, and – though it failed with my group of friends – perhaps to make male players more thoughtful and less judgmental when it came to women in general.

As far as I can tell, straight male geeks in particular tend to adopt this position – that is, Random Girls = Bad – for any of three main reasons:

1. Geek culture is so overwhelmingly dominated by images of hyper-sexualised women (anime, maquettes, comics, video games) that even though female characters are frequently shown to excel in traditionally masculine roles across all such media – as mechanics, hackers, warriors, engineers, gunsmiths, leaders and pilots, for instance – their visual, physical sexiness (and, frequently, costuming) is designed to signal that these attributes, rather than being markers of competence and equality, are instead intended as, essentially, masturbatory aids on par with their physical assets: the fantasy of hot women made even hotter by their (to the audience) unrealistic-yet-droolworthy possession of masculine skills. This is why fanservice, unrealistic bodies, ridiculous costuming and wildly impossible poses are so very, very frustrating to female geeks and feminists: because ninety-nine times out of a hundred, their sole utility and relevance is on the level of sexual exploitation. And though most straight male fans are self-aware enough to realise such bodies are meant as unrealistic fantasies, many still have a disturbing tendency to take the logic further, concluding that if women with ridiculous bodies and costumes are unrealistic – and if, given this fact, it’s similarly improbable that women who look, dress and act like that would actually go about their jobs that way in the real world – then logically, real women must not belong in those professions, because the idea that they might do is itself part of the fantasy.

2. Having realised that the depiction of women in games, comics, collectibles and anime is meant as part of a tailor-made fantasy, many straight male geeks, somewhat unsurprisingly, have become aware of something else: that as said fantasy has been explicitly created for and subsequently targeted, marketed and sold to them, there must be someone out there whose goal is to exploit – and subsequently profit from – their sexual desires. Rather than undertake an intellectual exploration of the relationship between sex, gender and advertising in a capitalist system, however, a disappointing number of these geeks make a different and altogether more prejudicial leap: that the presence of women in an otherwise male-dominated environment can be directly correlated with the efforts of corporations to take their money. Their willingness to pay for the product in this equation, whether pre-existing or not, is immaterial: women, and particularly sexy women, have become a red-flag event. Any attempt to insert women into a setting previously devoid of them must therefore come under immediate suspicion. Women are a cash-gathering exercise, the go-to weapon in some cynical marketeer’s arsenal to help Company A more readily collect the hard-earned monies of geeks everywhere; booth babes being a case in point. After all, straight male geeks are very aware of their own negative sexual stereotyping: the fact that they may conform to it at times doesn’t make it any less offensive when it’s being used to exploit them – and the fact that it is used exploitatively is why the sexy female character problem exists to begin with.

But that doesn’t excuse their knee-jerk reaction to and blaming of women themselves: sexism and the system are at fault, not women as entities. And yet, the niggling suspicion of straight male geeks that girls are just there to take their money ends up tarnishing not only legitimate, unsexualised instances of female characterisation, but the efforts of actual geek girls to be taken seriously. All girl gamer group? Yeah, they’re just a novelty act – we’re only meant to like them ‘coz they’re pretty. Girls reading comics or playing video games? Hot, but they’re probably just doing it so boys will like them. Girl geeks in costumes? Total attention whores – they just want men to throw money at them. The same thing happens in music circles, too, among other places. All girl rock band? Fuckable pop-moppet posers – they only got signed ‘coz they look good on a poster. And on, and on, and on.

3. Genuine incomprehension. This is the kindest blindness – a benevolent sexism found in straight male geeks who have nothing against women, per se; it’s just that, all unaware of their own privilege, they’ve never had to think about sexism or exploitation or anything like that, so if the issue comes up offhand, they’re unlikely to see the utility in trying to make women more visible, or to change the way they’re depicted – and if there’s no utility, why do it? After all, women have the vote now, right? And equal opportunities and laws and stuff? And it’s not like anyone’s forcing them to play video games or read comics or watch anime or whatever, so why is it our problem if they don’t like how it works?

Depending on the personality of the geek in question, any conversation after this point can go one of several ways. The most positive, assuming both that you have the time and inclination to explain sexism in geek culture from first principles and that your interlocutor is willing to listen, is that they realise the problem exists and see the utility of female inclusion. The most negative will devolve into angry defenses of the status quo along the lines of the points raised above, with (if you’re very unlucky) a side-order of genuine misogyny thrown in. I mention this because, while the first two points follow fairly specific trains of thought, the reasons for ignorance are wide-ranging; as are potential reactions to the prospect of enlightenment.  Nobody likes to be told they’ve been complicit in something they might otherwise hold in contempt, and particularly not when you tie that complicity to the things they love most, no matter how significant the connection is.

And this, really, is the crux of the problem. Thanks to several decades’ worth of abuse and mockery from the mainstream, geeks as a culture are used to seeing themselves – ourselves – as underdogs. This creates a false sense of certainty that, being outcasts together, we can’t possibly be discounting, belittling or abusing anyone, let alone other outcasts, in the way that we ourselves have been discounted, belittled, abused. Which premise rests squarely on the demonstrably false assurance that people never become what is done to them; that no victims ever become perpetrators. And as I have said again and again, intentionality only takes you so far, and it isn’t very. Intend all you want to be a responsible driver – but if you run someone over by accident, they’ll still be just as dead.

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Comments
  1. gregstolze says:

    I’m the author who came up with the female cavalry setting. I’m STILL boggled over the backlash, years later. Real life gave us foot-binding, Flat Earthism, arsenic-as-complexion-aid and Mayan eye-crossing, but an irrational fertility taboo relating to riding astride? THAT’S CRAZY, MAN.

    -G.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I hear you, and second the boggledness. I mean, why is it that so many geeks – who spend their days adventuring in worlds full of magic, dragons, superpowers, laser swords, space battles, aliens and time-travel – draw the ‘not realistic’ line at human women doing things that we are actually capable of doing?

    • Brendan says:

      Haven’t gamers ever heard of side saddles?

    • A bit late, but, a negative reaction is very strange – partially because there are RPGs which feature such things (I’m thinking of the Unicorns in Legend of the Five Rings which have an all-female heavy cavalry thing – it’s not a game I play much I’ll admit) and because historically such was very unusual but did happen; there is evidence that the Briton men and women both fought from chariots, and the Persian Empire (and through the Middle East) there were regular and irregular female fighters – including entire regiments.

      This is a very interesting article which may be of some interest: http://www.kavehfarrokh.com/iranica/the-women-of-persia/the-persian-lioness-iranian-women-in-history/

      One of the greatest thing about RPGs is that you can take a different look at things and enjoy the difference that it makes – explore differences rather than sticking to very similar things every time.

  2. [...] Normative Sexism: Geek Edition [...]

  3. Brendan says:

    Over at The Escapist “Movie” Bob Chipman does videos on Nerd/Geek culture. He has done a few on sexism and here is his latest: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/the-big-picture/5436-Not-Okay

  4. I’d love to think that geeks are better and/or more enlightened in someway than ‘the norm’ simply because I number myself among them. Sadly, it’s just wishful thinking.

    • fozmeadows says:

      It’s always distressing and confronting when people who identify as being like you in some way do abhorrent things, and particularly when they do so in the name of whatever-it-is you share in common. It makes you think, ‘Can I still be this thing and call myself a good person? Am I tainted by it? It would be easy to say that person was never one of us, but if I do that, aren’t I just saying my group contains no flawed people? Am I like that, too? Are there other people who think of me that way? Will this change how others think, not just of my group, but of me personally? And what if my group actually condones that behaviour en masse? How do I dissent without losing my identity? How do I make things better?’

      People of all different races, ethnicities, orientations, genders and cultures have been dealing with these questions forever. Once upon a time, maybe geekdom was small enough to be immune, but it’s not a monoculture anymore, and hasn’t been for decades. We NEED to be asking ourselves these questions.

      • Beautifully put and I couldn’t agree more. I hope that as time goes by and the culture expands and more and more women become involved that the man-children involved will grow up and stop being such entitled jerks.

        Fingers crossed anyway.

  5. kveale says:

    Thanks for this response! You’ve incisively dug into the heart of the problem: men folding the entire context of popular culture around themselves so that it’s somehow all about them even when people are talking about women.

    The horrifying thing is that, having read your post, I’ve been reminded of a comment in the Thread of Doom that inspired my comment the other day. Initially, I’d discarded it as someone poking fun at the position of some other people in the thread, but now I’m not so sure.

    I want to be sure that it was satire. I really do. This is san-loss territory for me: “Strong female characters break my sense of immersion.”

    …I mean *look* at it. That’s the wrongiest thing since Wrongzilla escaped from Wrongtown.

    And as a different bugbear rolled in with it that I know has roots in me teaching media studies, but “Female character”? Really? Or “Female protagonist”?! THOSE HAVE LINGUISTIC IMPLICATIONS THAT GENERALLY “Characters” or “Protagonists” ARE NOT FEMALE. THAT KIND OF STRUCTURE IS PART OF THE PROBLEM.

    AND WHY NOT JUST SAY “WOMEN.” WHARGHBARGLE.

    Anyway. *wipes rabid foam off chin.* That’s my problem, and I’m dealing with it.

  6. [...] Normative sexism: Geek edition [...]

  7. Emily says:

    Trying to explain sexism and how/when/where it comes into play to male geeks is quite possibly one of the hardest parts about being a female geek. Its simply so ingrained in so much geek culture that many/most have a hard time comprehending that its even there, even if/when its pointed out to them.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Agreed. At times, it feels a bit like you’re a drowning person trying to explain what water is to a fish. “What? You mean you can’t breathe or swim in this stuff? But there isn’t anything else! It’s *meant* to be like this!”

  8. [...] Foz Meadows writes about normative sexism in comic and video game culture. [...]

  9. [...] This is an interesting read on sexism in geek [...]

  10. [...] I’m yet to see someone who objects to the supposed historic inaccuracy of, for instance, female cavalry regiments (which – surprise! – is totally a thing) raise similarly vehement objections to any other [...]

  11. Reblogged this on On Trichonormativity and Neckbeards and commented:
    As a fellow geeky woman, I fully agree.

  12. […] group. I’m yet to see someone who objects to the supposed historic inaccuracy of, for instance, female cavalry regiments (which – surprise! – is totally a thing) raise similarly vehement objections to any other […]

  13. […] This is an interesting read on sexism in geek […]

  14. […] the Dark Ages, or really any typical Western fantasy context, but Martin is inaccurate in so many ways and if you have half a brain you should know that already, so I feel this is unnecessary. If you […]

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