The Problem With Geek Culture's 'Female Role Models'

Two major aspects of geek culture are supporting outsiders and rooting for underdog. So can someone please explain how it turned itself into its biggest villain: A giant, self-congratulating fratboy?

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Two major aspects of geek culture are supporting outsiders and rooting for underdog. So can someone please explain how it turned itself into its biggest villain: A giant, self-congratulating fratboy?

Over the weekend, this image made the social media rounds to the tune of over 4,500 likes, more than 2,500 Facebook shares and plenty of cheers:

For those too busy reading War and Peace, that's Jersey Shore's Snooki, Kristen Stewart/Bella Swan, Kim Kardashian, Kat Von D, and Lady Gaga on the top row. While Aeryn Sun from Farscape, Zoe Alleyne Washburne from Firefly, Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5, Jadzia Dax from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and Samantha Carter from Stargate, all make up the second row according to Leah Jane at the Quixoticautistic blog.

It's not very difficult to get the sentiment (or 'grok' it, as geeks might say): Little girls should model themselves after fully-clothed, badass science fiction heroines instead of binge-drinkers, sex tape-makers, and the world's biggest pop star who champions of a vision of anti-bullying, anti-hate... Oh, wait, what exactly did Lady Gaga do to wind up on the wrong side of this culture war? And that's just the beginning of where this self-congratulating meme starts to fray.

There's the fact that the women on the top row (assuming we're talking about the twitchy Stewart and not Bella Swan) are all real women and that the women on the bottom of the graphic are all the stuff of (science) fiction. As Jane points out:

Wouldn’t a more compelling, interesting, and challenging comparison for celebrating an alternative to mainstream role models for girls have been real-life women who are involved in geek culture? How about Lauren Faust, creator of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic? Or Lindsay Ellis, the Nostalgia Chick? Rebecca Watson, from Skepchick? Jane Goodall, the world-famous Primatologist? Dr. Alice Roberts, from Digging for Britain? Lisa Randall, the Harvard Physicist? Kate Beaton, the brilliant comic artist? Or Mayim Bialik, the actress turned neuroscientist turned actress?

The author of The Vicious Pixie blog points out the varying degrees of slut-shaming and lack of diversity in the meme. Not to mention there's a twisted message of violence trumping sex, and the à la carte picking and choosing of what is and what isn't acceptable for women.

And in that mega-thread, there were also these other self-congratulatory memes floating around, one of which bordered on homophobia:

And another waxed on masculinity:

So apparently nerds can objectify women in their activities and  male role models in the geek universe have way better hair, pout less and have less obtrusive pectorals?

But the bigger takeaway may be that geeks, or whoever seems to be speaking for them with these images, are quite adept at giving themselves pats on the back and overlooking their own issues. Whether this is from the years of coddling and pandering by Hollywood, Silicon Valley, TV networks, and online content creators, we don't know. We've seen our share of Hollywood starlets pander to nerds (presumably to up their geek cred or ignite a nerdy grassroots campaign) even cheered when geeks called bullshit on people co-opting "geek" and "nerd" to turn an otherwise mainstream thing alternative, the way a food maker might throw around "artisanal" or "organic" to entice buyers.

But whatever spurred this new-found self-admiration among geeks, we'll just say we don't really enjoy it.  Not only because of the problems we've already mentioned, but especially because this smug "better than you" message is coming from a culture where fans are supposed to root for the outsider and where heroes are celebrated precisely because they don't fit into conventional notions of heroism (see: Slayer, Buffy the Vampire; Parker, Peter; Scott, Allan, aka, Gay Green Lantern).

And more infuriatingly, it seems to celebrate a fantasy world where hypersexualized women and men (whose abs have abs) live in total abundance. As Vicious Pixie writes: "Think about comic books—consider the physically impossible contortions of female superheroes showing tits and ass at the same time, or the completely unnecessary reboots that distort a character concept beyond all recognition. And think about how all those images come from series that originally and/or primarily follow a male main character." Is it really helpful to counter "negative" stereotypes of women (and men) in pop culture with completely imaginary stereotypes that are more unattainable given that they're totally fake?

Hence this rival graphic making the rounds:

We aren't saying that you have to pick and choose pop versus geek, nor are we saying that there aren't disdainful role models out there wreaking havoc in both worlds. Maybe we're just disappointed because we thought the rise of geek culture didn't have to come at the expense of other people. Or perhaps we just didn't think we'd ever have to defend Kim Kardashian.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.