When is a geek not a geek?

26 Jul

Apparently, I’ve lead a sheltered life.

But I know why.

First, a rec from the man behind Wesley Crusher:

http://wilwheaton.net/2013/07/nothing-to-prove/

I have only been aware of this misogyny-in-geekdom problem in the past year or so via blog links and posts on the topic. The short version is that a lot of women and girls who pursue an interest in gaming, comic books, fan conventions, or other aspects of “geek” culture have found themselves facing insults, rude and/or sexist behavior, and down right ostracization from men and boys in many circles. So these women, and their male friends, have been speaking out against it. And the backlash against their protests has gotten ugly.

I’ve been a girl geek all my life, but I never got any flak about it from the males of that species, that I recall. I suspect that has to do with the fact that I never made my geekiness into a broader social thing until 1999. As a kid in the ’70’s, I had my little group of geek BFFs, which included my brother, who wasn’t any the wiser than me that Real Girls Can’t Be Geeks or that Geekiness is a Boy’s Domain.

My geek resume (what I remember of it in my decrepit middle age):

  • Watched the original Star Trek in syndication. Over and over, and as, for example, over.
  • Invented my own language when I was ten. Read everything I could find on linguistics, codes, and ciphers.
  • Invented my own planet in junior high, complete with maps. Wrote fiction about it.
  • Was really bad at both cooking/sewing and changing the oil in a car. Also, both Barbies and sports. I preferred books.
  • Read lots of science fiction short stories and novels. Stopped reading them if the female characters were two-dimensional or non-existent.
  • Went to see the original Star Wars (now episode IV) eight times in the theater during its first run. Same for the next two movies of the original trilogy (hey, I didn’t have a VCR until 1987, nor was I paying my own movie entrance fees for the first two movies).
  • Was fannishly obsessed with Escape to Witch Mountain, Logan’s Run, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series, Island at the Top of the World, Star Wars, the original Star Trek, the original Battlestar Galactica, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Terminator, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, 2010, and Star Man (just to name a few). Read the original novels, or TV show/movie tie-in novels as well. Read everything by Alexander Key (Witch Mountain’s author).
  • Was fannishly obsessed with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
  • Never went to a convention for Trek, or anything else (prior to the All Things Philosophical On… gatherings). Wasn’t interested. Some of that was textbook anti-socialness. Some of it was internalized Geekophobia (“people who go to those conventions are weird, I’m not” syndrome).
  • Added a double major in computer science to my already-chosen major, psychology. And did honestly look for a way they could be combined (human-computer interaction/ergonomics, artificial intelligence, to name a couple), before just embracing them in different ways.
  • Got my first Macintosh computer in 1987. Have owned one (or two) ever since.
  • Had subscriptions to Omni, Discover, Science Digest, and Scientific American.
  • Was never much of a gamer. Tried D&D once. But I had a huge crush on a girl who loved video games and would watch her play for hours (does that ruin my cred?).
  • Was fannishly obsessed with all the later Treks (not Enterprise so much, but it was killed just as it was finding itself). In fact, I still refer to the 1990’s as the “Golden Age of Genre Television.” I mean, you had the Treks, X-Files, Highlander, Buffy, Angel, Lois and Clark, Babylon 5, etc, etc…. Say what you want about what came after, these were the pioneers who made it all possible.
  • Have a Master’s and Bachelor’s Degree in psychology, a Bachelor’s degree in computer science, a Master’s in philosophy, and a Ph.D. in philosophy.
  • Worked as a programmer/developer for 17 years (and counting), off and on.
  • Once titled a Match.com online dating profile, “Star Trek, not Softball.” Lesbian dating when you’re a geek, believe or not, is hard. Just as many “norms” in that pond, and it’s a much smaller pond to begin with.
  • Stayed up all night to watch Voyager pass Neptune. Glued myself to NASA.gov to watch Curiosity land on Mars. Wandered out of my cubicle at many a job to check out solar eclipses and wondered why none of my colleagues were joining me. And those are just a few examples of my on-going fannishness of Cool Outer Space Stuff.
  • Webmastered one of the arguably geekiest Buffy websites online, All Things Philosophical on BtVS/AtS. Proud to say the associated discussion board was a haven of intelligent fun-having for guys, gals, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri alike. The fact that I made my social debut into mass fandom on a board dedicated to a show about a girl hero (the original WB buffy.com Bronze) probably explains a lot about why I didn’t face sexist nonsense.
  • Made a visit to CERN the grand finale of my recent European vacation.

If all these things together add up to me not being a “real geek” because I have boobs, well, then I have to ask: what’s a “geek”?

And that’s the crux of the issue. As a friend of mine has commented,

“…while geeks [are still] looked down on in some places, the rise of computers to everyday objects and associated with making lots of money, means some geeks have also been venerated, while geeky things like movies based on comic books are pretty mainstream. So there may be some people who need to assert that they are truly geeky (and individual and unique and also downtrodden) precisely because the things that set them apart are no longer viewed as weird or unusual.”

Since the Revenge of the Nerds era, those who would be labeled “geeks” and “nerds” have co-opted these terms as terms of pride, nay, terms of superiority. Superiority over those whose interests and abilities classify them as “normal” and “mainstream,” whose interests and abilities make them accepted, even popular. Among geeks, the term “geek” means you are somehow smarter, more passionate, and “better” than the average person, and it feels good to think of yourself that way.

The mainstreaming of many aspects of geek culture has meant tightening the borders of what is considered “geekiness” so you can maintain that illusion. You can’t just be good at software development anymore to qualify. You need to be writing in cutting-edge or underground code languages, or have the savvy to navigate the tangled nexi of computer networks. You can’t play just any role-playing game, it has to be one of a (constantly shifting) subset that’s still off the beaten path. And you need to see yourself as misunderstood and disdained: by society, by the popular kids, by the girls you liked. So there is a tendency to make any pretty girl part of this “Other” as a way to lick the wounds of rejection. And you certainly don’t want to risk a girl–pretty or not–entering your circle and being better than you at that Obscure Technical Thing that gives you that illusion of superiority. So you decide up front she never could be, and doesn’t belong there.

Which makes me glad that the men that who frequented my circles have at very least been accepting of my presence, and most times, comrades in our mutual endeavor, and, occasionally, when it was warranted, mentors who encouraged me.

One last personal thought on this: I have certainly at times felt judged and disdained for my “geek” interests, as a child and as an adult. I was not conscious of that being a gender thing, although I suspect sometimes it was. But when it was, I got that attitude from other women. Friends I made in other contexts who were judgmental or dismissive of my “geeky” interests; social princesses who sniggered at the fact that my friends and I played make-believe at recess up through junior high. But I always interpreted that in a “Geeks don’t get respect” thing, rather than a “Girl geeks don’t get respect” thing.

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