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The Mystique of the Girl Geek

I’ve always called myself a “girl geek” or a “nerd girl.” In the strange mix of sci-fi,  grammar obsession, zombie movies, computer parts, and feminism that is my brain, it’s recently floated to the surface that maybe I should take a look at those labels. So I’ve been wondering lately, why the qualifier? Why do women who enjoy traditionally “geeky” pursuits need a special label? Why can’t we just be geeks? I’ve come up with a couple of theories:

-Geekery (geekism? geekishness?) is still widely perceived as a male characteristic. Which is really strange, because there are so many women who would identify, or be identified, as geeks. There are a huge number of women who enjoy video games, sci-fi, computer programming, comic books, and other traditionally “geeky” interests, yet we’re still looked upon as some kind of elusive beings, the stuff of legends, rarely seen in person. That’s a load of bullshit. Women have interests just as varied and intellectual as men, but it’s still seen as unusual or remarkable in some way.

-Unfortunately, even in this day and age, men are people and women are women. “Male” is the default. So if a woman wants to identify or categorize herself, she’d better make sure to be clear: she’s not a “geek.” She’s a “geek girl.” Like a different species.

-We still have something to prove. How many female gamers have gender-neutral gamertags or male avatars? And how many did that because by identifying yourself as a woman, you open yourself up to not only the ridiculous and often horrifying treatment you get from other (male) gamers, but because when you play as a woman, you have to be better, faster, more aggressive, and more skilled than the guys who are playing? You’re a girl, so you’d better be exceptional if you want to get into the clubhouse. Guys are allowed to be mediocre. If not, it’s because they’re still getting used to the game, or they’re having an off day. If a girl is mediocre, it’s because she’s a girl.

-We want to set ourselves apart. We’re not “those girls.” We’re not vapid and stupid and concerned with superficial pursuits. That’s all well and good, except it’s self-defeating. By painting the female default that way, we’re making it harder on ourselves to show that being intellectual or nerdy or fun is normal. It’s not unusual or weird. Not to mention, I find very few guys who feel it necessary to justify that they like video games and Star Wars as well as being sports fanatics and gearheads. People are complex. I can lose an entire day watching a Firefly marathon and still spend an hour at Sephora looking for the perfect neutral eye shadow. I can build a computer or a network from the ground up and still get pissed if I break a nail in the process. I’m allowed to be multi-dimensional.

-We think it gets us respect. And, to an extent, it does. A little bit of nerd cred never hurts, and can be a huge asset in certain situations. Sometimes it catches people off guard, and that can be an asset too. It’s a little insulting to be judged on looks or gender first, and then intelligence as an afterthought, but it happens all the time.

-Guys like it. Yes, I’m rolling my eyes. No, I don’t personally care if guys like it, as I’m married and my husband is perfectly happy with my current level of nerdiness. However, the “hot girl gamer” archetype is so pervasive that it’s almost a joke. Since I mentioned Firefly already (and will do so whenever I have a chance), I’ll use this example. I follow Nathan Fillion on Twitter. I love Nathan Fillion. If Nathan Fillion ever retweeted or followed me, I’d devote a week of blog posts to subjects of his choosing. Recently, he tweeted: “Help me settle a bet! Hot girls play Halo! I know at least 5! Back me up, @Rileah!” (Rileah being Rileah Vanderbilt, a member of “Team Unicorn,” a group of very good-looking women who play video games and recently made a video parody to prove that geek girls do exist.) He got tons of replies; I’d guess hundreds, if not more than a thousand, many with pictures to prove it. Here’s my question, though: why does it matter if the girls are hot? Is it because a good-looking girl is made even more attractive by being interested in “male” pursuits? Does it not “count” when girls who aren’t traditionally beautiful-looking play FPSs because they’re doing it for their own enjoyment, not to impress dudes? I’m not trying to single out Nathan Fillion, but he brought up an interesting point, one that comes up all the time: do hot girls have more credibility if they’re geeks? Or do geeks have more credibility if they’re hot girls? Why can’t women just like to shoot things without trying to get attention for being a girl who shoots things?

One of these days, I hope we can progress far enough that geeks are geeks, regardless of gender, and that people will stop being surprised when girls are smart and interesting and multi-faceted. In the meantime, I’ll be in good company with some really awesome girl geeks.

Geek out with PoM at her blog, where this article originally appeared.

13 replies on “The Mystique of the Girl Geek”

One thing to keep in mind: For a lot of these (screwed-up, flawed) guys, their lack of success in traditional social hierarchies — particularly with women — is often their defining reason for being in geekdom. Many human beings feel a driving desire to feel like they’re in a respected place in some sort of social hierarchy, and when it becomes clear to them that the mainstream world will never acknowledge them in that light (as evidenced to them by their failures with women), they enter geek subculture.

Once in geek subculture, their inner defense mechanisms construct a narrative surrounding women that allows them to rationalize past defeats — “It’s not my fault that I’m unattractive and uninteresting, it’s that goddamn women aren’t into cool and interesting things like I am! Their loss blah blah blah blah”. And at a geek event where men are the driving thrust of everything, they can do their best to comfortably maintain that illusion. So their mind reaches as hard as it can for ways to dismiss the legitimacy of any female participant — “she’s just into Twilight and thus not a real geek”, “she’s just here with her boyfriend/husband”, etc.

Their fragile ego is directly invested in excluding women from these spaces, because admitting that women share these interests and passions directly invalidates the logic underlying their last-ditch attempts to maintain their sense of self-worth.

So, let’s be clear and call the problem what it is — for a lot of these man-children, the problem is not simply a lack of good manners or inadequate consideration of others. The problem is that their self esteem is based on the idea that you don’t exist. When they encounter you and do/say stupid shit, they’re not even perceiving you first and foremost as a person, but as the embodiment of their past failures and rejections.

It’s kind of depressing to contemplate. Though there is the silver lining that simply by existing and participating in these spaces alongside these shitty dudes, you’re successfully warping their fragile little minds.

Honestly, the “geek” community only loses when they make it seem like their interests are so niche as to be unappealing to girls. In fact, I would go as far to say that the majority of girls are to some extent geeks – it’s pretty normal nowadays for women to be into comic books or to passionately love Lost or Firefly or Star Wars or Harry Potter. I think we “geeks” like to pretend that our interests are more abnormal than they actually are, I guess so that we can feel special?

The “hot geek girl” thing is like an extension of that, with added sexism for good measure.

I went to NYCC this year with my husband and a (male) friend, and Hot Girl Geek stereotype was fully in force. I hate having to prove my geek cred because I happen to be wearing makeup or whatever. This is my post-NYCC blog post, which touched a little on some of the geek girl issues.

“You’re a girl, so you’d better be exceptional if you want to get into the clubhouse. Guys are allowed to be mediocre. ”

THANK YOU! This is what always gets me. I spent my whole life trying to achieve based on this. And, while it’s obvious in geekdom, it really applies to life as a whole. I struggled with lots of school subjects, so I checked out early. But I remember the girls in class who were straight-A students and desperately wanted to stay that way. I’m sure some of them had strict parents. But I think a lot of it was them trying to be “perfect.” Ironically, no matter how perfect their grades were there were still plenty of guys who called them “stupid.” I know. I sat in the back of class. I could hear the boys whine when girls asked the teachers why their grades were bad or, you know, tried to get help for something. No matter what you do as a woman, you will be judged harshly by a man at some point. Possibly, actually probably for the very thing you wish to not “fail” at.

I was a “nerd” girl from the beginning. And for the most stereotypical reason. I was shy, bad at sports, didn’t have that many friends so I ran to sci-fi books, comics, and video games to fill the void. I used to be the girl (when I was 12-14) that LOVED it when guys told me, “I like you, you’re not like other girls.” And I felt so supreme for not being into “girly” things, but into “boy” things. It took me so long to get my head out of my ass and realize WHY I felt these things. For a socially-inept girl like me, I was ecstatic when a boy complimented me, even if it was as the expense of my gender.

It took me so long to realize that a man telling me I was basically a dude with tits was NOT a compliment. That “you’re not like other girls” compliment makes me want to vomit now. And for a couple reasons! First off, and this is me at 24, I’m pissed that people tell me I can’t own these things I love just because I’m a girl. I’ve loved this stuff for 15+ years now. If some bratty little 12-yr old boy gets to own these things (just because he’s a boy) then I, grown ass woman definitely do! And secondly, if a guy says that, then he must REALLY hate other women, since his reason for liking them is because I’m NOT like them. So I guess I’m supposed to “hide” all those girly things I do like get my hair dyed, shop for fun clothes, paint my nails, basically maintain all that stuff that is REQUIRED OF ME AS A WOMAN TO KEEP MY APPEARANCES UP, but do it secretly, so the boy thinks I’m speshul.

I’m a huge geek, by all standards. Love sci-fi, comics, techy stuff, etc. etc. This one time, I accompanied my at-the-time boyfriend to Best Buy. As we left, he apologized to me for taking so long. “Oh, don’t worry about it! I love going through all their electronics. Dude, I could spend an hour just looking at cables,” was my reply. He laughed, and said “You’re the perfect girl, y’know that?” I snorted. “No, I mean it. You’re the perfect girl, you know, for guys who can’t get someone more nor-”

He cut himself off, realizing that what he was saying wasn’t exactly flattering, and I laughed it off. But really, what he meant was geeky girls are awesome for huge nerds who can’t get an average hot girl. If you can’t have someone normal, then you might as well have someone who’ll share your interests.

Now, I don’t think every geek guy feels that way at all, but I do think there is a pretty huge divide between male and female perception in general (yes this is a gross generalization, please take it with a whole handful of salt.) A guy would rarely choose a girl because she loves Sandman and Firefly, he needs the extra “hotness” to feel she’s worth his time; whereas I at least routinely go for men who love things I love simply because it feels great to share them, and for me it makes a great starting point (in fact, people would routinely tell me I could do better looks-wise than the guy who made the comment, but it wasn’t about looks for me!) (Turns out I could do better though. He was also an ass. But that’s beside the point.)

I forget where I was going with this. But yeah, girl geeks who don’t adhere to traditional standards of beauty are clearly not in the same category as “hot” girl geeks when it comes to male perception.

Deep down, I’ve always been a geek. Sadly, I was too inundated by social “norms” that it wasn’t until I hit my late 20s that I was willing to slap that label on myself with pride. Prior to that I tried to keep up the facade of being a “normal” girl.

I think it’s when I picked up and became enthralled my first Sandman that I realized or accepted that dammit, sci-fi, comics, music, books, and various and sundry other geek pursuits is perfectly NORMAL. Just because the majority of the world doesn’t see it that way, doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Now I wave my geek flag proudly and often. I revel in my geekery and those who scoff at it are quickly taken to task. Embracing my inner geek made me a better person and if it means I have the label of ‘geek girl’, I’m ok with that for now. If being proud of that label makes young women and other girls feel OK with their geekery, then even better.

I remember being dumbfounded that no one at my pre-college camp/intro group was interesting in any of my comic books, not even the Star Wars ones. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by a complete run of Marvel’s Darkhawk? Eventually I found a geek who wouldn’t judge my collection too harshly (he’s way into Booster Gold) and got busy making little geeks. My son is quite proud that his mom knows more about classic Star Wars than his pals do.

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