The myth of the Fake Geek Girl and her perfidious sister, the Fake Gamer Girl, is like a pervasive popcultural weed. No sooner has the concept been debunked, uprooted and flung on the fire in one quarter than it springs up again in another, its scrappy rootlets osmosing sustenance from the plentiful strata of sexism, misogyny and wilful misunderstanding that underlie most internet forums. Such women, we’re told time and again, are whores and dilettantes: users who care about comics, games, cosplay or whatever other subset of geekdom you’d care to name only insofar as it allows them to manipulate the emotions (and, consequently, wallets) of shy nerdy boys so overwhelmed by the prospect of Actual Live Women that they promptly forget their dignity and roll over like dogs, unaware that the heartless objects of their unrequited affections are collectively giggling behind their perfectly manicured hands and mispronouncing Boba Fett on purpose. It’s like some bizarre high school revenge fantasy where the hot, popular girl who humiliated the geeky boy later tries to ingratiate herself with him for her own nefarious purposes by pretending to like Star Trek, but finds herself thwarted when, instead of falling for her sirenlike charms, he calls her a bitch in front of the whole school and somehow ends up a hero, pronouncing loudly all the while that she wasn’t REALLY hot, anyway.
It is, in short, misogynistic piffle of the highest order; but given our cultural obsession with blaming women for the abuse and sexual harassment they routinely receive, as though the act of simply being female in predominantly or traditionally male spaces is always and inherently an intolerable provocation, I started wondering: how does this logic hold in digital spaces, where one’s biological sex and gender expression are so easily concealed – or even altered – by the click of a button?
To be clear: the assumption that biological sex and gender expression are always obvious IRL – or worse, that they should be obvious – is part of the same problem. Violent, aggressive transphobia doesn’t care whether you’re a white, straight, cisgendered male Redditor who’s cross-dressing as part of a theatre performance or a trans woman of colour out walking with friends: if you don’t look “right” – where “right” means “visually conforming to a narrow gender binary, such that you meet the approval of your antagonists” – then the danger is very real, and frequently fatal. Trans, nonbinary and genderfluid individuals – and particularly those who are poor, women of colour and/or sex workers – are all too commonly the subjects of street harassment, aggression and abuse; hardly a surprising state of affairs, when the idea of a small boy carrying a purse, let alone wearing a feminine Halloween costume, is apparently a sign of the End Times, but the phenomenon is a harrowing indictment of our culture nonetheless. Small wonder, then, that it’s comparatively rare for men to cross-dress IRL in order to experience the male gaze for themselves – as one man recently did in Egypt, to help raise awareness about sexism and street harassment – when the potential consequences could well be more brutal than enlightening.
But online, it’s a different question entirely. Online, you can easily change or conceal your gender identity, whether that means adopting an androgynous username, trying out a professional pseudonym, actively pretending to be a different person on social media, or opting to play a genderswapped character in an MMORPG. And when it comes to analysing instances of sexual harassment online, what makes these examples so fascinating isn’t just the ease or regularity with which they occur, but the fact that internet users who either present as or are assumed to be female are still unquestioningly treated as women – with all the sexism and social baggage that entails – even when the harassers know how easy it is for the real end-user to lie. That being so, if the men who perpetrate misogyny and sexual harassment online justify their actions on the basis of female provocation – if they believe their targets deserve their scorn, not just for being female, but for being obviously, offensively and stereotypically female – then to what extent do their actions really result, not from any inherent feminine badness, but from confirmation bias, given that they also routinely behave this way towards individuals who are, in fact, male?
Consider, for instance, the experience of Boulet, a male cartoonist who, at one point, posted his work online under a female pseudonym and was stunned by the number of insulting, sexualised and misogynistic comments “she” received, having never experienced the like while posting art under his own name. More recently, a man who pretended to be a woman on OK Cupid – with the aim, ironically enough, of proving to a female friend that online dating was easy for women – quit after only two hours, shocked and disgusted by the deluge of gratuitous, aggressively sexual messages he received. And just last week, a male friend mentioned to me that, since he’s started playing a female character in an online game, he’s been getting hit on by other players – not grossly, but enough that he’s noticed the difference. That exchange prompted me to go on Twitter and ask if any other guys who’d had similar experiences would be willing to share them; what came back, however, was an even more interesting anecdote, wherein a female gamer noted that several men of her acquaintance have preferred to play as – and pretended to be – women in MMORPG environments specifically in order to scam male players.
Which opened up a rather breathtaking possibility: what if the respective myths of the Fake Geek Girl and Fake Gamer Girl are actively being perpetuated, not through the whore-user predations of evil ladies, but because a cynical, sexist subset of male geeks are using stereotypical, strawman portrayals of women to manipulate their peers? If this is what’s happening even some of the time, then not only might it account for the massive dissonance between female experiences in male-dominated gaming spaces (as documented by sites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty and Not In The Kitchen Anymore) and male accounts of the same exchanges, but for the ongoing pervasiveness of the stereotype. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I mused, to have some data on that!
So I went and did some research. And guess what? There is data.
According to a 2008 study by Zaheer Hussain and Mark D. Griffiths, which was written up in their joint paper, Online Virtual Environments and the Psychology of Gender Swapping, 57% of gamers have played gender-swapped characters in MMORPGs. Broken down further, the statistic revealed that 54% of men had played female characters, while a massive 68% of women had played male characters. (Which suggests the rather interesting possibility that, at least some of the time, you’d be better off assuming that the majority of female characters are, in fact, being played by men, more of which later.) Similarly, when asked to explain their decision to play a character of the opposite gender, there’s a marked difference in the responses given by the men and women surveyed. One woman reported having made a male character “because I was tired of creepy guys hitting on my female characters”, while another noted:
“I make a male character and don’t let anyone know I’m female in real life. It’s interesting how different people treat you when they think you are male”.
By contrast, two men openly admitted to playing female characters in order to get special treatment from other men. “If you make your character a woman, men tend to treat you FAR better,” said one, while another remarked:
“If you play a chick and know what the usual nerd wants to read you will get free items… which in turn I pass them to my other male characters… very simple. Nerd + Boob = Loot.”
Interestingly, a different study from 2003 – published as Online computer gaming: a comparison of adolescent and adult gamers, by M.D. Griffiths, Mark N. O. Davies and Darren Chappell – found that “adolescent gamers were significantly more likely to be male [and] significantly less likely to gender-swap”, with only 45.5% of adolescents gender-swapping compared to 61.8% of adults – which detail, when put together with the subsequent study, might suggest that the sort of man who plays as a female character in order to manipulate desperate male geeks is more likely to be an adult. However, given that only 6.8% of adolescent gamers surveyed were female, compared to 20.4% of the adults, the reverse could also be true, as implied by the fact that the Nerd + Boob = Loot respondent was only twenty. It’s also worth noting that, according to Nick Yee’s comprehensive 2001 study of Everquest players, The Norrathian Scrolls: A Study of Everquest:
“There was no significant effect in gender of the participant. The gender of the presented character [however] produced a significant effect… and it was found that female characters received significantly more assistance than male characters… It was also found that female players offered significantly less assistance to male characters than male players offered to female characters.”
In other words, while female players were treating male characters and female characters more or less identically, male players were disproportionately favouring female characters regardless of who was playing them. The same study also noted (my emphasis) that:
“[while] female players who did gender-bend were significantly more likely to do so for gender exploration… male players who did gender-bend were slightly more likely to do so because of in-game advantages…
The direction of the gender-bending also produced a significant effect, and it was found the male-to-female gender-bending was significantly more troubling than female-to-male gender-bending…
When asked whether they found their characters of the opposite gender were being treated differently, both male and female players talked about the in-game advantages that came with being a female character… Female characters who have tried playing male characters commented that male characters were treated more seriously, and given more respect.
When asked whether they had learned anything about the opposite gender, many male players talked about what they learned from being constantly harassed by male characters… Thus, about 48% of the female characters you meet in the game are actually played by male players. “
Let me break that last bit down for you: even though nearly half the female characters were played by men, male players were still not only offering female characters special perks on such an epic scale that many men were playing as women purely to gain advantage over other guys, but the men who were playing male characters were sexually harassing both men AND women in equal measure, so focussed on the character’s gender that they forgot that the player’s might be different. So even though some women who played female characters received spill-over perks on the basis of their presumed gender, so too did many men, who did so, not as the result of playing as their own gender, but through the deliberate manipulation of the sexist assumptions of other male players. The women, meanwhile, despite the “perks” of playing as themselves, were opting for male characters in large numbers in order to avoid the constant sexual harassment of male players.
I could list more studies, but I think I’ve made my point: that the twin myths of the manipulative Fake Geek Girl and Fake Gamer Girl are rooted, not in female cruelty, but in male sexism. By setting female geeks on a pedestal while sexually harassing them as a matter of course, male geeks have created the very system they’re now so angrily raging against: one where many women, deterred by the culture of misogyny in gaming and other digital spaces, either disguise their gender or steer clear altogether, such that their thwarted harassers place a premium on “real” female company. This in turn leads to a manipulative subculture of opportunistic men pretending to be women in order to gain advantage over their male peers, who, somewhat understandably, grow angry and jaded at this treatment. Rather than blaming their troubles on individual users, however, these men generalise their experiences as being typical of all women in geekdom; actual female geeks are attacked, misogyny pervades, and the cycle is complete when women, once again, are driven away by each new wave of sexism.
That being so, the idea that some inherent, toxic femaleness is the ultimate cause of male sexism is proven absurd: it’s all just a misogynistic shell-game of confirmation bias, one where merely seeming female, regardless of one’s actual gender expression, is enough to prompt the sort of harassment, abuse and belittlement that women are told is an unmistakable consequence of our biology and socialisation; a hateful, inherent cocktail that no man should be able to imitate. Misogyny isn’t about what women are, therefore, but about what men perceive women to be. That’s nothing new, of course; the many prejudicial ways culture has of declaring the feminine inferior and the inferior feminine are as old as the proverbial hills. But now, perhaps, with the emergence of digital spaces – when it’s easier than ever for men to assume the unquestioned mantle of female and see what happens next; and when, as a consequence, the inability of sexually interested men online to magically distinguish men from women should surely prove that coquettish, improper female behaviour isn’t the cause of sexual harassment – we can finally start to move forwards.