I remember being a little girl, staring up at the dimly lit television in my parent’s bedroom as the adventures of the USS Enterprise played on late night TV. Captivated, I joined Captain James T. Kirk, Spock, Mr. Sulu, and Uhura as they boldly traveled the far reaches of the universe. As the original series turned into movies, I felt outrage alongside Kirk as he screamed, “Khan!” and genuinely grieved when Spock sacrificed his life for his crew mates.
I cried the first time I saw Spock’s coffin slowly drift through space, and then a teasing voice said to me, “I’m so sad he died. Can we change your name to Spock?”
The voice belonged to my dad, my personal guide through all things sci-fi.
It was through my father that I was introduced to the epic space odysseys of Star Wars and Star Trek. Later, he’d introduce me to fantasy series like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Charmed. I took his influence and ran, immersing myself in books, comics, and video games that fed my love for these far-off places. Superheroes, space explorers, kickass magical girls — I adored them all.
While my nerdy interests didn’t win me many friends in middle school, geek was chic by the time I was a junior in high school. Unfortunately, that’s also when I first encountered cultural gatekeeping.
Specifically in this case, I had my first experience with men trying to convince women they aren’t “real” sci-fi fans.
It started with a guy in my English class. He was smart, loud, and quick to share his opinions — but that wasn’t the problem I had with him. The actual problem started because of a Star Trek button attached to my school bag.
That little piece of flair was just something fun I picked up from my days strolling the mall, but it became a target. Our conversation started innocently enough — he asked if I watched the show. Naturally, I answered yes, excited to meet who I thought was a fellow fan. But instead of a friendly discussion, I was drilled with increasingly obscure questions. Eventually, I realized what was happening: I was being tested. And as frustrating as it was, it wouldn’t be the last time I encountered gatekeeping.
A gatekeeper is someone who takes it upon themselves to decide who can or cannot belong to a community. And, unfortunately, it’s women who are most often policed.
As sci-fi and fantasy grew more popular, a misogynistic mentality formed — one that targeted “fake geek girls” and insisted that sci-fi content is not for everyone. You had to like sci-fi before it was “cool.” “Posers” had no place in fandom, so you had to be prepared to prove your devotion. Female fans were put on notice.
The “fake geek girl” trope describes a woman who is only interested in fandom because of her boyfriend.
She isn’t taken seriously. Her conventionally feminine interests are “too girly” to be “geek.” She is scorned by “true geeks”and “real sci-fi fans” (just think about how boys and men mocked girls who were excited about Twilight — not a sci-fi masterpiece, but a vampire fantasy that was successful for a reason). Fanboys create a culture where “fake geek girls” have to be called out by true fans because they have no place in the sci-fi and fantasy communities — thus the need to quiz them about their interests.
And it’s not just fangirls who are harassed, but women creators. In 2015, a male author’s Amazon review of Dark Beyond The Stars, a sci-fi anthology written by women, went viral for its sexist language:
The policing of sci-fi fangirls and the “fake geek girl” trope is outright misogynistic, but it also makes no sense.
After all, the very genre of science fiction was created by a teenage girl, author Mary Shelley.
While deeply immersed in the Romantic movement of the 1800s, Mary Shelley spent long nights debating philosophy, science, and nature with husband, writer Percy Shelley, influential poet and politician Lord Byron, and other enlightened minds. It was during one of these nights that Lord Byron challenged all of these writers to come up with the scariest story they could craft. 19-year-old Mary’s legendary tale of a doctor hellbent on defying death and his monstrous creation, Frankenstein, obviously won the contest.
And the science fiction genre was born.
While this revelation may be a fun fact to throw out next time someone tries to police your interests, Mary Shelley isn’t the only reason why the “fake geek girl” label is a fraud. The bottom line is that there’s no quiz to validate worthiness. Niche-media may become more mainstream, but that doesn’t mean its new fans are any less worthy of enjoying it. Popular culture is for everyone.
When I think of the countless times I’ve encountered gatekeeping around my fandom, I realize how those conversations could have all gone so differently. Instead of giving me the third-degree, we could have celebrated our shared interests, free from unnecessary policing. And that’s how it should be — fandom isn’t a gated community.