The last time someone called me a nerd, it wasn’t done lovingly or respectfully, the way it should be. No, the last time someone said, “Oh, you’re SUCH a NERD!”, it was said with intent to jab or poke fun, a way to say “weird” or “out of place”. People will call you “nerd” and “geek” and “dork” like it’s a release for them, as if it’s a way of exhaling and letting go of all their own fears of being outsiders and being unique; it’s a quick remedy to “not fitting in”—make fun of someone else so you’ll look a little less… different.
Being deemed a “nerd” can be especially taxing if your second chromosome isn’t a ‘Y’. More recently, the powers that be have made some attempt at understanding the phenomenon that is the “Geek Girl”: this last year’s San Diego International Comic Con boasted a few panels geared towards “Nerdy Women”; HerUniverse brand tee shirts were being sold on corners and female fitting nerd gear towered over convention goers across the floor. Felicia Day, unofficial Queen of the Geeks, even hosted a few events in the Geek and Sundry Lounge at local favorite, Jolt’n Joe’s. At other events this year, women have been proudly standing up, Katniss-saluting the camera and joining up with the ranks of the comic-obsessed, the Whovians, the gamers, the bookworms and the hordes of Baker Street Babes. So, with all of this, what is it that causes women to still feel a distinctive push, from both sides of the spectrum, to stay out of Geek Culture?
When I approached this question, my knee-jerk response was to scream “MISOGYNY” at the top of my lungs, fling off my robes and jump out of the window. Instead, I took a moment to step back and instead pose the question to some fellow eagle-eyed Geek Girls.
Why is it, I asked, that women face such a struggle fitting in with their male counterparts? “I tried to play Halo online back in the day,” laments Caitlin Hammer, cosplayer and co-host of Kathy Hopkins’ AnxieTea Party. “I really wanted to. I had my headset on and my Y axis inverted. I entered the lobby. The usual chatter of insults and strange noises filled my right ear. Then I opened my mouth to join the conversation. Big mistake. It is as if these guys had never heard or seen a girl before in their lives. Taunting, flirting, lewd and obscene comments ensued. I beat a quick retreat and played on solo campaign mode feeling somewhat alarmed. Do [they] kiss [their] mothers with those mouths?” Her anecdote strongly resembles one my own brother, a serious gamer, once repeated: “Don’t expect [the guys] to be open-hearted and welcoming the first few times,” he advised. “They’ll probably put you through the ringer, ‘what do you do if ____’, ‘Say something hot’, blah blah blah,” he explained, somewhat sheepishly. “I don’t know if it’s a masculinity thing or if it’s just immaturity, but there’s something wrong with their wiring.”
If you’re thinking that this all happens well beyond the bounds of actual human contact, don’t be fooled. “I found myself this year, [even at Comic Con], being scrutinized as to whether I was really a geek because the guy ‘couldn’t believe I’d be into that type of thing,’” says Kathy Hopkins, a fellow cosplayer and creator of the AnxieTea Party podcast. “Why couldn’t they just ask WHICH geeky things I enjoyed and discuss from there?”
It doesn’t just come from the nerd boys, either. Just as you were hassled in the hallways at school, pushed into lockers and picked last in dodge-ball, today’s “cool kids” are all grown up… but still behaving badly. “People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs redefined what ‘being cool’ was,” muses Melinda Rosen, a stylist and self-proclaimed music-geek. “Shows like The Big Bang Theory and all of the big Superhero blockbusters that have been turning up over the last few years show you nerd culture has become more mainstream. I’m more of a ‘pop-culture’ nerd and love to talk with people about music… but, still: the minute I start on about comic books, some of these guys [tune out].” Nasty comments, behind-your-back quips about Trekkies, uncouth gestures and facial expressions when female colleagues express admiration for the latest Brian Cox documentary, all of these are ways the “clique” has clawed its way back up the chain to manifest itself in your adult life. It can be tough fighting a war on two fronts.
So. What’s a Geek Girl to do? The answer is often simpler than you think. “Don’t let anyone convince you that you shouldn’t love the things that you do,” insists Trish H., a gamer and sci-fi/fantasy nerd. “I’ve recently met more women playing video games and posting to geeky message boards than ever before. You still get instances of guys [saying things like] ‘OMG, you’re a GIRL?’ But don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not good enough.” She’s taking her own advice as well. A newlywed, Trish admits, “My [husband] and I actually wanted to go to Comic Con for our honeymoon! I love being a geek. I’ve always worn that title proudly. My personal motto is ‘Embrace Your Inner Dork’.”
Melinda agrees. “People who poke fun at you, whether they’re geeks or not, they’re jealous because you’re not afraid to show your true self and your individuality as a nerdy woman,” she protests.
“Explore different interests,” Kathy points out, “and don’t just settle on whatever everyone else [in the geek world] is doing if it bores you to tears. Is something else catching your attention all shiny object-like? Then TRY it! Anyone who tries mocking you for your interests is usually uncomfortable with new ideas.” Friend and co-host, Cait, adds, “I often find myself defending my own knowledge of things. Why should I have to prove to anyone that I actually like something? Nerdy girls and guys have all been through the same struggles so why can’t we just be a community instead of having a battle of wits, or holding court every time it is discovered that a girl happens to have a massive collection of Magic: The Gathering cards? You nerdy menfolk think these things are cool. So do us nerdy womenfolk. Let’s nerd-out instead of tearing one another down. It’ll be fun, I promise!”
So don’t just follow the Yellow-Brick Road. Don’t settle for blending in. Don’t let some wise-guy, nerd or not, tell you “Girls shouldn’t do that” or “You’re not a real nerd unless…” or “You don’t really like this stuff, you’re just doing it for [insert ridiculous notion here].” Remember to treat others the same way you deserve to be treated: when a fellow female asks, “What is this Star Trek all about anyway?” don’t scoff or say “You wouldn’t understand, it’s a nerd thing” or “Ugh, you just want to see it because ridiculously handsome Chris Pine is in it!”. Instead, say, “Oh, you’re interested in that show too? Here’s your welcome packet complete with Vulcan hand gesture pamphlet, red shirt, the compendium of Picard’s reign and a download of the 2009 Abrams film. Let’s get started.” That’s what being a Geek Girl is about: embracing your nerdy side and grabbing the hand of the woman next to you, because if you can’t make them take you seriously as individuals, smile and collectively buy all of the Joss Whedon panel tickets. (That’ll show ‘em.)
And by the way, the next time someone insults you, whether at a convention, over the headset of your latest game or while buying that new ultrabook that you’ve been ogling for ages, look them in the eye and tell them you’re sorry— sorry for the fact that they can’t deal with anything that doesn’t fit into their perfectly crafted world of sexist stereotypes. Tell them you’re sorry that the way they make themselves feel better is by putting down people who have enough sense to allow themselves creative freedom. Tell them that the way to win friends and influence people is not by forcing them into a suit of armor, but by listening to them and appreciating them.
Four for you, Geek Girl, you go Geek Girl.