Unpacking an ongoing Internet spat
If you've ever been to a con, you've seen them. Girls. Girls dressed up as Batgirl, or Seven of Nine. Girls clutching light sabers or miniature Tardises. Girls who are clearly too hot—or just too girl—to be dressed as Batgirl or clutching light sabers. One look at them and you can tell that they don't really know the origin of Bouncing Boy. They don't have a clue about the tragic fate of Earth-C or Earth-C-Minus. They just want you to watch them in those costumes. They are...the fake geek girls.
I know the Internet, and I know geeks. And therefore, I can say with some certainly, that there are many people out there who are looking at that first paragraph and are saying, "Fake geek girls?! The Atlantic just learned about fake geek girls? That's so 2012, people. Pitiful."
Of course, this sort of reaction is exactly why the fake geek girls meme/Internet spat took hold in the first place. For those not in the know (or, if you prefer, for those marginally less in the know than I), "fake geek girls" is a term used to describe, "pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention" as Joe Peacock put it in a post on CNN. The idea is that hot women go to cons, dress up in sexy cosplay outfits, and pretend to care about Star Wars or Spider-Man in order to...do what isn't exactly clear. The logic rather breaks down at this point. Something about attention whores, something about taking advantage of geeks, something about male paranoia and a big fat dollop of misogyny seems to be the basic reasoning. Such as it is.
A number of folks have pointed out that the fake geek girl meme is repulsive and depressing. Most recently, Andrea Letamendi at The Mary Sue wrote a lengthy piece explaining that the "fake geek girl" is part of a long tradition of sexism in the geek community, explaining how painful this is for women, and suggesting that men cut it out.
I, too, wish geeks would cut it out. I wonder, though, about whether they can do it—or, more precisely, whether they can do it while remaining geeks.
Most of the folks who write about the fake geek girl phenomenon take at least a minute or two to establish their geek credentials—as, for instance, in this piece by Alyssa Rosenberg, where she points out that she writes about George R. R. Martin all the time and knows more about Star Wars than a con-ful of Jedi, thank you very much. In contrast, I'm not going to offer up my bona fides, in part because I'm afraid that doing so encourages folks like Peacock rather than discouraging them. That's because geekdom is built on cultural knowledge; on how much you've consumed; on what you've consumed; and on how long before everyone else you were able to consume it. That knowledge is—deliberately, essentially, intentionally—used, and meant to be used, as an identity, and, therefore, as power.
The geek identity, knowledge, and power are all insistently gendered. Rachel Eddin in an excellent article on io9 points out that geek culture has long been defined as alternatively male, in opposition to traditional, physical, less-cerebral masculinity. On the one hand, then, male geeks use knowledge as an alternative way to demonstrate competence, a less martial way to be manly. At the same time, though, male geeks position on the margin is unstable—which is why they're nervous about geekdom being feminized. If women are "passing" as geeks, it starts to raise the question of whether geeks are "passing" as men.
Eddin concludes that "insularity and identity-policing will consume geek culture faster and more thoroughly than any legion of imaginary interlopers." I don't necessarily disagree with that...but at the same time, I wonder if the identity-policing and insularity is simply a caducous part of geek culture, or whether it's not a more integral organ. As long as geek identity is constructed through knowledge—as long as it is essentially defined by who knows the most about a particular collection of purchaseable cultural commodities—then it seems to me that its borders are always going to demand policing. Which means that, given geekdoms' relationship to masculinity and femininity, a lot of that policing is going to be gendered and misogynist.
For me, then, the "fake geek girls" meme doesn't so much call into question the bona fides of the women in question as it calls into question "geek culture"—real or otherwise. Eddin praises geeks for being wiling to "challenge cultural norms"—but are you really challenging the norms of a capitalist society when you define yourself by your relationship to the crap you buy?
I'm not saying that people shouldn't love the art they love. But I am suggesting that the mean-spiritedness of geek culture—a mean-spiritedness that is often, but by no means always, directed at women—is not an accident. A culture that values knowledge and access above all things is going to be a culture dedicated to hierarchy and to power—to defining who is in and who is out. Such defining involves, and is meant to involve, a good deal of antagonism, score-settling, back-biting, and cruelty. There's not much point in defining yourself as the knower if you cannot define others as those who do not know.
Geek communities can be wonderful in many ways. Lots of people find strength and friendship and love in being part of them. I've found all those things through them myself. But I've also found a lot of petty turf battles, a lot of intolerance, and no small amount of misogyny. Rather than assuming that "geek" can mean the good things without the bad, I wonder whether we might not need different kinds of communities—ones, perhaps, centered more on our hearts, and less on our heads, or our pocketbooks. How we get there from here I don't know. But maybe we could start by considering whether geek culture, for all its good points, might ultimately be a problem rather than a solution.