There Can Only Be One: gatekeeping in feminism and geek culture
I am a feminist. I am a geek. Both of these labels have been used to insult me. To invalidate me. To dismiss me. I’m used to that. I can take it. So, some people still think geeks are mouth-breathing shut-ins who will never have sex. So, the guy in my American Woman class in high school thought feminists were “ugly women”. I know these people for the ignorant and out of touch fools that they are. I will fight them, with my words, my actions, and the courage of my convictions.
But the ugly truth is that the greatest impediment to being a feminist or a geek is feminists and geeks.
I have considered myself a feminist pretty much since birth. See, I was raised on Star Trek. As Voyager happened to be on when I was a little girl, my first examples outside of my family of what adult women should be like were Captain Kathryn Janeway, B’Elanna Torres, and Seven of Nine (which may explain some things). Here were women holding positions of power, no questions asked. As a child, I did not realize that this was not how things actually were. I do not remember when it was that I first encountered the notion that girls and women were somehow less competent or better suited to different roles than men, but I have rejected it ever since.
Likely due to this same early exposure, I have pretty much always been a geek. I grew up on Batman, Greek myths, and Star Wars. I didn’t really start reading comics until later, but there is no question that DC shaped my childhood. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, these iconic images, our modern myths, are not only familiar characters but loaded archetypes and hugely resonant cultural symbols. In college I was a double major in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion. My senior thesis was called “The Bard is Dead, Long Live the Bard: Contemporary Fiction as Modern Myth.” So these symbols clad in spandex and Jedi robes not only stayed with me but become more potent and more relevant as I grew and matured. Thus, when my local independent theatre advertised a screening of the documentary Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines and panel discussion with two veterans of the comic book industry, I was over the moon. History? Comics? Gender studies? Say no more.
I thought the worst that could happen would be an underwhelming documentary. Maybe someone at the theatre would stare at me funny for wearing a costume (they promised free popcorn to anyone clad in cape and tights). So my friend, dressed as a masquerade Harley Quinn, and I arrived at the theatre. A woman affiliated with the event was dressed as Batman. I was not alone. While purchasing my popcorn, an older gentleman took interest in my Green Lantern shirt. I had stopped wearing this shirt in public due to harassment issues, as it attracted unwanted sexual attention (usually from older and often married men) and judgement from those who thought I was a poser (since girls can’t possibly be geeks). But I made an exception for tonight.
Anyway, the gentleman sized me up and asked, “Are there any girl Green Lanterns?” I found this a little patronizing, but ignored it, explaining that each sector of space has its own Green Lantern so there are numerous female Green Lanterns, though they’re not human. The gentleman replied that he didn’t discriminate against alien girls and sauntered off. Probably the best interaction I’ve ever had in this shirt.
My friend and I despaired upon entering the theatre when, besides the ticket-collecting Batman, no one was in costume. We got a few unusual looks, but so what? It was a Wonder Woman screening. Their judgement was their problem, not mine. The documentary was thought-provoking and well-done. Sure, I didn’t agree with all of it, but I am not the lord and master of feminism. Or nerdom. I don’t have to agree with the people in the documentary about everything. I thought perhaps I could do a short post about the documentary on my blog, since it talks about the government crackdown on comics and the subsequent Comics Code Authority, which I have previously discussed on this blog, and how this censorship specifically targeted Wonder Woman and other female characters.
Then the panel discussion began. And my heart began to sink. The woman facilitating the panel seemed oddly hostile and didn’t so much ask questions as demand that the panel members (a female former writer for Marvel and a male comic book artist) account for the sins of their media. There was a great deal of pondering why women aren’t better represented in the media, why 97% of the decision-making positions in the entertainment industries are men, and why women don’t get into comics or start off interested and then grow out of it. All valid questions, but they seemed more interested in cutting each other off than listening to each other’s thoughts.
I began to grow uncomfortable with how this discussion was being framed and how hung up the two women seemed to be on portraying women, especially Wonder Woman, as loving, nurturing, maternal peacemakers because “women are different” are have different strengths. This bothered me, not only on behalf of women, but on behalf of men. Redlance from Elfquest is a wonderful example of a nurturing, caring, peace-loving male character. Pigeon-holing men into being muscular, gun-toting meatheads is no less problematic than casting all women in the mold of mother/romantic interest. Sure, one has more agency, but Redlance and Alien’s Ripley both deserve our acceptance and respect. They are who they are, our very recent social constructs about what they should be be damned.
Then it got a lot more uncomfortable. The only people in the audience joining in the conversation in the beginning were men. Their brand of female empowerment seemed to be pushing the idea that women are inherently more peaceful, caring, and virtuous and the world would be better off if they were in charge. A positive stereotype is still a stereotype. Then the facilitator suggested that women grow out of comics because they are responsible and have to make their kid’s lunches, cutting off an interesting comment from the male panelist about how adult men are allowed to retain their childhood interests (video games, comics, etc) and have the freedom not to grow up completely, whereas women may feel a social pressure to abandon these hobbies. I found myself agreeing with most of what the male panelist said and found the self-proclaimed feminist female panelist’s comments increasingly outdated and borderline offensive. At this point, I had a very bad feeling.
But I decided to speak up. I began to explain that part of the problem, especially with the nurturing peacemaker vs. gun-toting badass tension, is that male characters are not representative of all men. Batman is not the be all end all of ideal manhood and the world would be pretty screwed up if he was. There are always multiple male characters, with varying personalities, roles, and values. This offers multiple options for boys seeking role models. Women, however, do not often have this luxury. A female character invariably ends up representing all women, so there is an increased burden on their representation (too sexy, too violent, too perfect, too weak, too whatever). They have to be strong to show that women are strong and overly competent to show they can compete with the boys, so we end up getting perfect little pod people like Kim Possible that no one can relate to. This is usually because movies and comics tend to have only one female character, despite women making up over half the population. As the only relevant female, this character’s personality ends up being ‘girl’ in the same way that minority characters are often defined by their ethnicity. It’s tokenism and it makes them a demographic bingo square instead of an actual, fleshed out person.
The answer is neither maternal peacemaker nor “masculinized” badass. It’s both. It’s variation. Women are not one entity with the same traits, desires, goals, and weaknesses. There is no one perfect role model that all girls can identify with. The answer is multiple examples of female role models with different strengths and flaws, flaws that are their own and not some indictment of all women everywhere.
I cited Avatar: The Last Airbender (the Nickelodeon show not the travesty Shyamalan vomited onto the silver screen) as an example of something with options, as it has a diverse female cast, whatever Mattel may think. Katara is strong, loving, and maternal. Toph is strong, no-nonsense, and tough as nails. Then there’s Suki, Azula, Ty Lee, Mai, Jun, Zuko’s mother, Azula’s advisors, the other Kyoshi warriors, etc. Some are more feminine than others. Some are sexy, some are brooding, some are smart, some are cunning, some are joyous, some are brave. A sexy woman or a smart woman or a cut-throat woman or a selfless woman should not mean that all women must be sexy and smart and cut-throat and selfless, but that they have the option to be should they so choose. The more characters, the more options, the more little girls can find a role model that speaks to them.
However, as soon as I said Avatar, a girl in the audience made a very loud, obnoxious retching noise because obviously I was not citing the correct example. It was crushing and outraging all at once. After a documentary about empowering women to find their voices and a discussion about why women don’t like comics, don’t get involved, don’t speak up, or don’t try to change things, this girl was completely invalidating me for speaking and sharing my thoughts on the matter. And she couldn’t even do it in a mature way. You want to disagree with me? Fine. But use your words. Don’t make retching noises like a petulant five-year-old. Show some amount of respect to other people when having a discussion, otherwise it just breaks down into name-calling and petty arguments that get us nowhere, as evident by the state of politics in the US.
I found myself flustered, unsure how to react to this rude and dismissive action. Suddenly, the confident, opinionated woman disappeared and I was back to the insecure, awkward fourteen-year-old who hid in the back of the classroom with her nose jammed into a Vlad Taltos book to avoid judgement or ridicule. My face went beet red. I quickly stammered out my other example, Star Trek: Voyager, and how B’Elana, Seven, and Janeway are very different women (batshit crazy warrior, sexy and calculating pragmatist, feisty and clever bookworm), but they are all strong women in different ways and bring a variety of skills, ideals, and values to the table.
When I finished talking, I was so embarrassed. My cheeks were hot, my heart pounding, and I just wanted to disappear. I was shocked that someone’s mean and petty actions could still get this kind of reaction out of me. I’m used to people disagreeing with me. Loudly. Passionately. And indignantly. It’s the price of internet access, political views, and having attended an activist-heavy educational institution. Good god, I survived last year’s election. Why did some immature anime hipster at a movie theatre cut me to the bone?
I hung my head in shame, both at the girl’s actions and at my failure to call her out or say something. I wanted to disappear or run or cry. A man two rows in front of me smiled and gave me a thumb’s up. I gave a weak one back and mouthed a ‘thank you.’ My friend pointed out that the facilitator and female panelist both totally dismissed me and went back to complaining and demanding nurturing women, even dismissing a woman who brought up real life women in combat by saying guns aren’t the answer and that men have guns so women should have something else, again asserting that women and men are different and need to embrace good feminine qualities, rather than make female characters be men in skirts. Um, I think Zoe Alleyne, Alanna of Trebond, Sarah Connor, Xena, Leeloo Dallas, and the real life Boudicca have a few words for you. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing but was too shamed into silence to say anything. The male panelist did bring it back to my point, saying my comment was very astute. I tried to thank him after, but was so embarrassed and upset that I couldn’t really form words. I mumbled a nearly inaudible and jumbled statement that soundly vaguely like “‘S’nice” and hurried off too quickly to hear his response.
It was just bizarre. The women wouldn’t listen to me and it was men who validated my thoughts and opinions. It was men who helped me feel a little better after the women made me feel small and weak. It was men who thought I had something worth saying. It was men who didn’t deny me agency in a conversation about women’s own experiences and stories. What rabbit hole of inverted social justice had I fallen into?
Upon getting home, I threw my utility belt (still full of uneaten candy) to the ground in a fit of rage. I couldn’t believe how powerless I felt. How one girl could make me clam up and feel so self-conscious and invalidated. I didn’t understand. I love comics. I love superheroes. I love feminist analysis. Yet one stupid comment had poisoned them, making me feel shame where once I drew strength, hope, and inspiration. Somehow a documentary about empowering women had left me feeling less empowered than ever before.
I realized that I was braced for sexism. I was braced for the ignorant comments of uninformed or close-minded men. When a man gets in my face about feminism, women’s rights, or gender politics, I don’t back down. I don’t get scared. Men can’t stop me. Men can’t silence me. Men can’t make me doubt myself.
But women can.
This is not the first time it’s happened. I spent high school being called a man-hating lesbian because I read feminist books and was vocal in class about women’s rights and representation. Somehow, even in a women’s history class, that got me mocked and ostracized. But I knew the rest of the world wasn’t like that. College was waiting, with its feminist studies and political activists.
But college was not quite the ivory-towered refuge I had expected. I went to a liberal, rather unorthodox institution called Hampshire College. There are many wonderful things about Hampshire and I do recommend it highly. But it also has a lot of drama and a lot of politics. And, frankly, a lot of bullshit. My second year, I somehow became the scapegoat of a very angry young woman who decided I represented everything wrong with the world. She labelled me as anti-feminist, constantly decried my alleged sexism, and dismissively called me a “second waver” on more than one occasion.
It was truly unnerving. I had taken enough abuse from men and women who hated feminism or misunderstood it (it always amazes me how many people think feminism is a bad thing, especially women). I had never expected to get such abusive treatment from other feminists. And frankly, the things this woman said and did were far more biting and cruel than anything a chauvinist pig has ever said or done to me.
This girl accused me of being sexist, homophobic, prudish, sex-hating, racist, and generally supportive of the patriarchy. The racist label really bothered me, especially as she herself had made some rather inappropriate remarks about me dating someone with a different skin color. I couldn’t understand why I had suddenly become her punching bag. I had always spoken out for gender equality, passionately so. I thought intolerance and prejudice were the greatest evils in the world, whether religious, cultural, racial, or gender-based. I had supported gay rights since my mom told me homosexuality was natural when I was five. Besides, when you’re five, anatomy and sexual mechanics aren’t really big components of your views on what marriage is and what purpose it serves.
This woman was not alone. I have since encountered many people who seem to think that their particular brand of feminism is the only feminism and that there is one set of correct behaviour. Many of my friends have been accused of supporting the patriarchy by wearing dresses or heels, shaving their legs, dating, not dating, having sex, not having sex, putting on make-up, having vanilla sex, engaging in certain sexual acts, staying home with their kids, and any number of other things. I even had a professor declare that I was sexist, using a quote from a rapist character, who clearly was not given moral authority in the story, as an example of my woman-hating tendencies. I was beyond outraged. I did not put up with four years of being called a man-hating, lesbian feminazi by some dumb hicks in high school to get called a woman-hating, asexual chauvinist.
I find this rigid judgement of what is or isn’t correct feminist behaviour to be extremely problematic. What someone does with their body, how they choose to adorn themselves, who they date, what career path they follow, how they balance work and family, and when/where/how/why they have sex are personal choices for both men and women. One is not inherently more or less feminist. Some people like to shave their legs, some don’t. Some people prefer practical footwear, some like pretty shoes. Some people prioritize their career, some focus on their children (the next generation of feminist men and women). These things do not dictate one’s character or commitment to equality.
The judgements about sex bother me even more so. Being monogamous or a virgin or vanilla does not mean someone is not a sexually liberated woman. Sexually liberated women are women who know what they want and aren’t afraid to demand nothing less, whether that means polyamory, a committed relationship, casual sex, or not prioritizing romance/sex at all. Maybe you’re a total Sith in the sheets, but haven’t found that special Jedi who can appreciate you yet. Maybe you need to feel comfortable in a relationship first. Maybe sex just isn’t something you’re looking for right now. Maybe you have some sort of trauma that makes sexual activities triggering. All of these are valid and anyone who tells you otherwise, male or female, does not comprehend consent or respect. In addition, I find number judging (shaming or judging people for not having had enough sexual partners) and slut shaming to be equally creepy and controlling. They both are ways for people to impose their own values, morals, and ideas of what is “correct” or “normal” behaviour onto other people’s sex lives. People will have sex when they damn well choose to and no one is allowed to pressure or ridicule them because of it. If polyamory is right for you, go for it. If monogamy is your thing, more power to you. If casual fun is what works for you, by all means. If you want to avoid all the drama and just be happy with your unattached self, awesome. Do what is right for you personally and accept that your perception of normal, your values, and your priorities are not universal. Do not assume that someone is easy or settling or prudish or confused or inexperienced or irresponsible just because they don’t want what you think they should. I don’t care if you have one sexual partner or a hundred; as long as you demand the respect that you deserve, your relationship(s) cannot invalidate your feminist principles.
Feminism is all about choice. That includes making your own decisions about heels, lipstick, shaving your legs, and spawning/child rearing how and when you see fit. Yes, women get a lot of pressure from the media to look or act or be a certain way, but not everyone shaves or dresses or makes career decisions to please society’s preexisting standards and imposing more rigid ideals and pressure to conform will not fix this. I honestly think that’s why a lot of women don’t identify as feminists. They don’t want to deal with these politics or got chased away when someone disapproved of them or accused them of not being feminist enough. I still identify as a feminist and think everyone (male, female, or variations thereupon) should be able to get on board with gender equality, but gatekeeping and judgement are not the way to bring the greater community into the fold. Gatekeeping, by its very nature, keeps people out. Not the best way to change hearts and minds.
Which brings me to geeks. There was a great internet shitstorm last year due to so-called “fake geek girls” and institutionalized sexism in the nerd/geek community. For a good synopsis of this debacle, I recommend this video and this. It is by all means true that it is hard to be female in geek/nerd/gamer circles, either due to sexual harassment/unwanted romantic pursuits or because the community on the whole remains a largely hostile place to women where they must prove their geek cred and knowledge to those think women don’t really like comic books/games/whatever, don’t know enough about them, don’t like them for the “right” reasons, or don’t like them the “right” way. Sure, guys, women spend all their time and money researching and preparing intricate cosplay garb and accessories and flying to conventions just to get your attention so they can turn you down. That seems likely.
Gatekeeping does nothing to help the geek/nerd community and merely assures that women will buy their comics in trade form at Barnes & Noble rather than supporting their local (and hostile) comic book store or leave the subculture all together, denying games, books, comics, shows, movies, and collectibles the money they would have received. One of the reasons The Avengers was such a success in the box office was because it got out of its boys only treehouse and actively marketed to women, bringing in an additional demographic and all the money that came with them (Harry Potter and The Hunger Games enjoyed similar success, likely due to similarly wide demographics). This money is what lets companies keep creating the things you love and hate other people for enjoying because you liked them “before it was cool”. And let’s face it. Some of these things have been around for a long time. So what if someone only started liking Thor because of The Avengers, a lot of people started liking Batman because they watched The Animated Series as a kid. Unless you read Detective Comics in 1939, you don’t get to be a Batman hipster. Gatekeeping also insures that the industries themselves remain boys’ clubs where women cannot or do not want to work, thus perpetuating the problem.
However, I have also encountered this gatekeeping attitude from other women, often to a much more vicious degree. It’s bizarre and I don’t understand it. If anyone should understand that women can like anime or comics or video games one would think it would be other geek girls. So why are these women as hell-bent on keeping other women out of their boys’ club as the boys are?
The thing is that geeks and feminists are both historically disenfranchised groups, born out of alienation, judgement, and exclusion. Yet, through the decades, the geek/nerd subculture and many feminist circles have become places of judgement that exclude and alienate with the same disregard and cruelty as those who once wronged them (and often still do). Perhaps this is the inevitable destiny of all spurned peoples, to go from excluded to exclusive, judged to judgmental, persecuted to persecuting, to die a hero or live long enough to see themselves become a villain. As Victor Hugo once said, “Slaves would be tyrants were the chance theirs.”
But I don’t believe that. One does not need to exclude other nerds to be a nerd. In fact, being a nerd is all about expressing your love for your hobbies or interests. So why turn other people away or judge them for their love? Geek out with them. If they haven’t read all of the comics you consider required reading, don’t chastise them, suggest some titles to them. They’ll probably thank you for it. Similarly, one need not put down other women to be an independent woman. That attitude belongs in Mean Girls, not the feminist movement. No confident woman should ever need to tear someone down to build herself up and no empowered woman should make any other woman feel like anything less.
When that girl booed me, she was not helping anime or comic books or women’s involvement in any kind of media. She was shooting all of them in the foot. What sense is there in complaining for twenty minutes that women aren’t involved in the conversation and then completely dismissing another woman when she does join in? This problem is widespread and counterproductive. This does not negate what men do or somehow get them off the hook by shifting the blame onto women. But it does mean that some women are as much a part of the problem and need to examine what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and whether or not it is helpful for what they are trying to achieve. Gatekeeping is destructive to any subculture, community, or movement and ultimately comes down to one question: would you rather feel superior and remain part of some exclusive club or get your message out and actually see some real change?
That doesn’t mean people can’t disagree. Disagreement, debate, and discussion help challenge the status quo and brainstorm some awesome ideas. But women shutting down other women for not being the right kind of feminist or liking the correct geek media does nothing to get the conversation started or to foster any kind of encouragement for women to get involved, get inspired, and go out and create the next generation of feminist role models and media. It’s hard enough being a feminist in a sexist world or a woman in a male-dominated industry. Why make it harder? Why do women have to fight, struggle against, and argue among each other instead of joining forces to combat the actual issues they both clearly care about or at least getting out of each other’s way?
I’m still a feminist. I’m still a geek. I just wish I didn’t have to defend that to feminists and geeks. I hope my daughters, I hope all our daughters, won’t have to justify either of those to anyone.
Tags: Alanna of Trebond, Alien, B'Elanna Torres, Batman, Batman: The Animated Series, Boudicca, Captain Kathryn Janeway, CCA, comic book industry, Comics Code Authority, DC Comics, Detective Comics, fake geek girls, female role models, feminism, feminism Wonder Woman, feminist analysis, feminist role models, Firefly, gaming industry, gatekeeping, geek culture, geek subculture, gender roles, gender studies, Green Lantern, Harry Potter, heroines, Leeloo Dallas, nerd culture, Ripley, Sarah Connor, Seven of Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, superheroes, Superman, The Avengers, The Hunger Games, women in comic books, women in comics, women in fantasy, women in pop culture, women in sci-fi, women in Star Trek, women in the media, Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman documentary, Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines, WPLongform, Xena: Warrior Princess, Zoe Alleyne
About boundandgaggedbooksShannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.
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