I’ve been telling myself to stay out of this debate. I’ve been assuring myself that any time spent reading rants, posts, and their circular comments will only make me feel resentful and defensive. I tell myself that the fight is over and no one won. I rationalize that only a few people are ruining it for the rest of us and therefore, those few should just be ignored. I vow to stop drawing attention to this ridiculous creature, to stop reinforcing the idea that the “Fake Geek Girl” exists.
“Why don’t you just drop it?” “Why can’t you take a joke?” “Why aren’t you over this?” I ask myself these things too.
The truth is, I don’t know.But, recently, I’ve been asked by Badass Digest to weigh in on why such accusations have a strong impact on our community, and to provide some of the psychological explanations for why we’ve reacted the way we have to the recent verbal attacks on female fans and to the accusations that some are “fake nerds.” Can we learn anything from this, beyond acknowledging that these claims are rude and unequivocally sexist? We know that it’s absurd. We do! So why does it keep getting dragged into our dialogue? And if we are accused of fakedom, why do we snap back in defense? We’ve been called some awful, demeaning things in our past. But this “F”-word seems to have climbed the ranks to become one of the most insulting labels. Why so much power? Why are we so deeply threatened by the notion of falsified fandom?
We’re told we’re overreacting.
I wish it were that simple. Trust me–I’d prefer to raise an eyebrow, flip my hair, and be on my way. But the much stronger reaction to the accusation of being “fake” can’t be explained by just one isolated feeling. This stronger reaction stems from years of repeated, accumulated experiences of insults, indignities, and demeaning messages from other members of the comics community. These experiences–the seemingly harmless comments, the sarcastic jokes, the subtle non-physical exchanges–are called microaggressions. The theory of microaggressions was developed back in the 70′s to denote racial stereotyping, but was expanded by psychologist Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. in 2007 to encompass a wide variety and classifications of these subtle and seemingly harmless expressions that communicate “hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults” toward people who aren’t members of the ingroup. These outgroup members might include women, racial/ethnic minorities, LBGT members, and others historically marginalized in our community.
Here are some examples of gender microaggressions in the context of female members of the comics community:
“You sure know a lot about Batman, for a girl.”
“You don’t look like a geek.”
“That’s nice of you to come to Star Wars celebration for your boyfriend.”
“Did your older brother get you into comics?
“You’re a nerd’s wet dream.”
I didn’t say that men are the only assailants when it comes to gender microaggressions. Women also deliver these seemingly harmless bites.
Why are microaggressions harmful? They seem silly, right? But these comments actually communicate messages that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person. Sure, these incidents typically appear minute, banal and trivial. Sometimes they produce a good laugh. But repeated experiences of receiving them can have a long-term psychological impact. For instance, here are the implied messages about women in the comics community:
“You do not belong.”
“You are abnormal.”
“You are intellectually inferior.”
“You cannot be trusted.”
“You are all the same.”
These messages can therefore be pervasive and potentially damaging to a large group of people. And the reason they are micro-aggressions, Dr. Sue explains, is that the person delivering them may be well-intentioned and non-threatening in nature, maybe not even aware of their own biases. They, too, are have their own experiences that have shaped their perspectives. In most cases, when confronted, the person will deny that they meant any harm, explain that they were joking, and tell the recipient that she is being too sensitive. I cannot emphasis enough the point here:
1. The recipients of microaggressions feel victimized and threatened.
2. Their assailants feel like they did no harm.
3. BOTH ARE CORRECT IN THEIR EXPERIENCES.
Thus the endless cycle of invalidation, misunderstanding, defensiveness and back to invalidation. We’re seeing the cycle play out now in the context of social media where there seems to be a huge misunderstanding about the definition of “satire.”
Let me be clear about what IS NOT a microaggression:
“You’re not comics.”
“You don’t know SHIT about comics.”
“You are what I refer to as CON-HOT.”
These are examples of actual threats, verbal assaults, and intentionally insulting remarks. There is no doubt they are sexist and I’m not tackling them here. But these comments do trigger an emotional response because they confirm past microaggressive experiences. That is, they reinforce the stereotypes, the deluded beliefs that women lack comics knowledge, that women who affiliate with geekdom shouldn’t look feminine/pretty/sexy, and that male members of the community are responsible for our membership. These instances are like knife-stabs in vulnerable places.
We’re told we’re invisible.
Sometimes I feel like I’m standing right in front of someone and they still don’t see me. I’ve explained to people that the reason I sometimes express my geekdom superficially, through a ridiculous amount of fan-wear, is for the identity recognition. I admit, I have a deep and sometimes desperate desire to be seen for who I am, for my geek identify to be validated. There’s a part of me that is yelling, “Please see me!” And yet, despite my flamboyance, I’m still overlooked. In my experience, this typically happens in the form of a microaggression– a subtype called microinvalidation.
I recently traveled to a psychology conference, and, upon arriving at the airport for my departing flight, experienced an example of a microinvalidation. At security check, after my technology went through the scanner, I scurried over to gather my shoes and belongings. I picked up my Star Wars hoodie and wrapped it around my Batgirl t-shirt. The thirty-something male TSA agent pointed to my Kindle, the one with the Star Wars comics cover, and immediately looked at the stranger standing next to me: “Is this your Kindle?” The stranger next to me, a twenty-something looking guy dressed in plain jeans and a pale shirt, shook his head. “It’s mine,” I blurted. The TSA-man then leaned forward and said, giddily, “That’s really awesome. I love Star Wars too.” A compliment. But I couldn’t process the kind words because I was still recovering from being stunned by his assumption that my things do not actually belong to me. A reminder of the widespread belief that Star Wars is gendered. It’s male. The thing I love is for males.
The mistaken identity stayed with me. The negative thoughts of being invisible flooded my mind. Resentment became my in-flight entertainment. But because I insisted on obsessing over a microinvalidation, I dismissed a validating compliment and an opportunity to feel visible. And damnit, an opportunity to geek out with someone who liked my stuff. Ridiculous, huh? I’m guilty of perpetuating the cycle, too.
Photo by LJinto
Microinvalidations are just one explanation of why we’re incited when being accused of being an imposter. But it’s an important one because it refers to a basic human need. Psychologically we have a deep desire to be recognized and to belong. Our social identity– who we are, essentially, to the world– is greatly determined by the groups we belong to. We develop much of ourselves from our groups: self-esteem, purpose, a sense of belonging, approval. Thus, being accused of being an imposter is actually very damaging and fragmenting to our sense of self because it’s like someone is telling us, “you’re not who you say you are.” Again, these comments seem so harmless and silly, but they undoubtedly exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person. If we’re recipients of these messages, we experience powerlessness, loss of integrity, and invisibility.
We’re told we can’t keep up intellectually.
How are costumes in any way related to comics knowledge? Moreover, how are skimpy costumes related to comics knowledge? And what if these women who cosplay want to be seen in their costume and therefore want the attention? (GASP!). I have no explanation for this imagined fantasy that women who cosplay for attention cannot be actual nerds. But I have to acknowledge that the accusation of being “fake” stings like hydrosulphuric acid because of the underlying message that we’re not knowledgeable enough to read, enjoy and understand comics, especially if we’re wearing a costume that’s seen as provocative or revealing. “You’re too busy looking like a slut you can’t possibly have read all the issues of The Walking Dead.” I don’t get it. I simply can’t form a sensible relationship between skin and stupidity, because these two things operate on completely different, orthogonal planes. But nothing seems more damaging to a woman than the simultaneous attack on both her body and her brain.
Why are we threatened by the Imposter?
I’ve talked about how the “fake” accusation can be more than just insulting, how it actually taps into some deeper feelings stemming from accumulated negative experiences. But what IF some of these women in question were, in fact, “fake?” What if there are people out there conning us, putting on a guise, attempting to pass as one of us? Why does the imposter, who represents a small fraction of our community, seem to have grabbed so much focus and power? Perhaps we’re enraged by the “fake geek girl” accusation in the first place because we find imposters to be very threatening. Here are some reasons why we might be threatened by inauthentic members of our society:
1. The false notion of limited resources: Growing up, many of us experienced our fandoms in the context of collections, acquisitions, and serialized products. Our fandoms seem to manifest as measurable amounts of goods. Our vocabulary includes words like “exclusive,” “mint condition,” and “collectible.” We know that Comic-Con tickets will sell out. We know that Mondo will only offer 580 Olly Moss Lord of the Rings posters and 285 variant posters. Guess what? They sold out in 3 minutes. Like it or not, we think of our fandom as serialized and limited. We’re a possessive lot and it’s not entirely our fault.The notion of an imposter–someone who doesn’t truly care about the personal meaning and value of the items– is threatening to us because they may take from our precious, vulnerable pot.
The opposite is actually true if we think about intangible goods– the vast amount of knowledge across all geek genres from comic books to fantasy literature to video games. There’s such a large universe that the few imposters–if they really existed–are not realistic threats.
2. The misinterpreted sense of ownership. When we belong to a community, we develop a sense of deserved ownership. When I was young, I received fan club cards and membership letters to inform me that I belonged to a particular club, reinforcing the exclusivity of the group. Serial numbers, laminated cards, and now, e-mails and twitter groups seem to reify the notion that belonging to a group means we are shareholders and that others are not. Shareholding grants us certain conceptual privileges: We get to decide who else is in or out. But, really, apart from the tangible products, what do we really own?
3. Resentment of the changing culture. Some of us grew up hiding our geek identity for one reason or another. Maybe we felt insecure; maybe we got bullied for being “out.” Some of us hid or masked our identities as geeks well until adulthood. For many of us, when we see individuals who appear to have recently joined the community we feel uncomfortable with their different identity development. We had to suffer the bullying! But now that it’s “cool” to be geek, here they come in droves! God, they even look happy. Let’s stop that. That’s a whole lot of projection on people we don’t know. And they don’t deserve it.
The feelings of being threatened, invalidated, and overlooked can happen to any one of us in this community–some psychologists argue that when the threats are ambiguous or subtle (like microaggressions), they can be more damaging because there is no certainty and the assault is denied or ignored. They say that we don’t do any good for ourselves if we latch on to the few experiences that give us the greatest pain–we have to escape the cycle. We should point out the real threats, defending ourselves, correcting lies, demonstrating that it’s not incongruous to be sexy and smart; we’re a disservice to ourselves if we miss opportunities to highlight and celebrate the healthy validation and recognition happening by both men and women in this community.
In other words, we’ve got to stop being exclusive. All of us have, at one point or another, experienced bullying, invisibility, insult, attack, or violation. This is the human condition. But I seriously wonder if we’ve pulled these abilities from the dark, awful places of our childhood, lashing out quite expertly to newcomers or strangers, in ways we know are the most painful.
Dr. Andrea Letamendi is clinical psychologist who writes in-depth perspectives about heroes and villains from science fiction, fantasy, and comics. She is a consultant to writers and creators in the comics industry to help ensure the accuracy of psychology as depicted in fiction. She regularly speaks as an expert panelist at comic conventions around the country and, in her spare time, obsesses over all things Batman and Star Wars.
[Editors Note: You can find Dr. Letamendi on Twitter: @ArkhamAsylumDoc or at her website: Under the Mask]
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My girlfriend’s youngest sister came over to our apartment last weekend with her hair in a Katniss braid. She hadn’t been to a convention or a movie screening. That was just how she wanted to go out into the world that day. The Hunger Games has been consuming the majority of her brainpower lately. She’s been binging on the soundtrack, and she got through Catching Fire in seven hours. At a recent family dinner, she put up her hands and walked away from me when I said I preferred Gale to Peeta (I’m sorry, I do!). She gets like this about books and movies. She’s read The Silmarillion multiple (!) times. We have talked repeatedly about how much we’re both looking forward to The Avengers.
But while she was over the other day, she said something offhand that surprised me. She and her friends won’t go to our local comic book and SF/F store. Setting foot in there, apparently, makes you a geek.
Now, it is obvious to both you and I that this young woman is already a geek. But we also know what she means by it. When she says “geek,” she means “a social outcast with no hope of getting laid.” She means “forever alone.” I bit my tongue, because, I, too, was once eighteen, and I get how important those social markers are at the cusp of adulthood. But I did think a lot about how different our definitions of that word are. When I identify myself as a geek, I’m not saying anything about my personality traits or my ability to socialize. What I mean is that I am perpetually passionate about video games and science fiction, that I enjoy healthy samplings of high fantasy and comic books, and that I feel that same giddy rush towards scientists and astronauts as some do towards rock stars.
…but that’s different than what it means for you to be a geek, right? (Or a nerd, whichever you prefer; I believe the definitions of the two are nebulous enough to be used interchangeably.) You might not like gaming or sci-fi at all. Maybe you like urban fantasy or mathematics. Maybe you like programming or kitbashing or writing fanfic. We might have some similar interests, you and I, but quite possibly, we may not like any of the same stuff at all. Yet here we are, sharing the same virtual space, feeling kinship in our geekhood. Just look at the topics that have been covered on The Mary Sue over the past few days. I see stories on natural science, popular culture, historical figures, celebrities, visual art, and My Little Pony. Am I personally invested in every single one of these topics? No. But I — and you, too, most likely — instantly recognize all of them as valid components of geek culture.
So, then, if being a geek isn’t about social aptitude, and it isn’t about one shared set of interests…what does being a geek really mean?
Let me lay out the things that are most easily recognized as geeky fields of interest: science fiction, fantasy, video and tabletop games, comic books, science, technology, and math. Purely by definition, what do these things have in common? Honestly, not a lot. We can draw parallels between some of them — SF/F and gaming is the easiest — but what is the one thing that all of these fields share? What does a cosplayer have in common with a molecular biologist? What does a dungeon master have in common with a case modder? What do dragons have to do with black holes?
Details. All of these things are chock-full of tiny little details, just waiting for a curious mind to patiently examine them. Want to write code? Mind the details. Want to develop a good strategy in a game? Pay attention to the details. Really like that sci-fi book you just read? You’ll enjoy it even more when you look at the glossary and the galaxy map. They’ve got tons of details.
The thing that all geeks have in common (other than carbon) is not what we are interested in, but how we go about consuming our interests. “Consuming” is the perfect word for it, because geeks are rarely a passive audience. We devour our interests. We are driven to know how things work. It isn’t enough for us just to enjoy something. When something piques our interest or elicits an emotional response from us, we have to know why. We have to dissect it, put it under a microscope, and come to understand it on a molecular level. This mental process is the same, regardless of whether we are talking about breaking down narrative structure or sequencing a genome or designing a costume. The impulse to engage with the world in this fashion comes to us instinctively, and allowing ourselves to explore makes us excited. Since a feeling of excitement is initially what spurred us to dig deeper, this means that our interests drive us into this wonderful cycle of bliss in which every detail we uncover makes us even more stoked about the thing that got us so stoked in the first place. The more details there are, the happier we become. This is why we love things like DVD commentaries and roleplaying rulebooks and insanely intricate fanart. We enjoy seeing things that were made by like-minded people. We like making things that require us to be meticulous. We like using our brains, and we like to interact with other people who like using their brains, even if we don’t use our brains for the same things. We can remain interested in a topic or story for decades, even for our whole lives, so long as the details remain enticing. Once we run out of details, we get bored. But that’s okay. There are always new things to get interested in. You will be hard-pressed to find a geek who isn’t currently obsessing over something.
We are, perhaps, the most enthusiastic people on the planet.
That said, being a geek doesn’t require you to be a walking encyclopedia. As Susana discussed at length in her post about “fake geek girls,” some have this weird elitist view of geekery, as if we are some sort of secret cabal that only the most dedicatedly knowledgable are worthy of joining. Just because you like details doesn’t mean you have to know all the details. It’s an inclination, not a mandate. Being a geek is all about your own personal level of enthusiasm, not how your level of enthusiasm measures up to others. If you like something so much that a casual mention of it makes your whole being light up like a halogen lamp, if hearing a stranger fondly mention your favorite book or game is instant grounds for friendship, if you have ever found yourself bouncing out of your chair because something you learned blew your mind so hard that you physically could not contain yourself — you are a geek.
I’m incredibly biased, of course, but based on that last paragraph, I think we geeks sound like pretty awesome people to be around. So why, then, the lingering social stigma? The obvious answer is that stereotypes die hard. And yeah, some geeks are socially awkward. We could examine the why of that at length for hours, but the core reason is that because some people are socially awkward. Engaging in activities that tickle our detail-oriented brains has nothing to do with our ability to socialize (and honestly, if socialization is hard for some, why should we begrudge them finding an activity that makes them feel more comfortable?). People who want social interaction will always seek it out. In my experience, very few geeks are loners. We may engage in some different social activities than others, and our conversation topics may be different, but we still go to bars and cook dinner for our friends and start families and all that normal, social stuff. When someone with that tell-tale mindset says “I don’t want to be a geek,” what they are unwittingly saying is “I don’t want the potential to meet other people who share my enthusiastic interests.” That sounds pretty lonely to me. I’m not saying you have to personally identify with the term, or kit yourself out in geeky clothing, or go to conventions, or any of that. I just think there are an awful lot of geeks in hiding who haven’t let themselves really explore their interests or those interests’ surrounding communities, purely because they’re afraid of the social ramifications (from where I stand, those ramifications are fantastic).
There’s not really anything to be done about the negative connotation of being a geek except to just wait it out. I do think that public perception of geekery is changing. The explosion of the digital revolution and the emergence of mainstream SF/F series (Harry Potter, Battlestar Galactica, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and so on) has definitely given us more cred than we used to have. Personally — and again, I’m biased — I think that laser-focused, playful mindset of ours is a real asset to society, and the fact that the term “geek culture” exists at all shows that we already have a foothold as a cultural entity. As for my girlfriend’s sister, she can call herself whatever she likes. I’m considering coaxing her to try out Dragon Age with me. I think she’d really dig it.
Image credit: XKCD.
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.