How People Explain Female Geeks

April 28th, 2008

A question that comes up a lot in the course of my research and blogging, both implicitly and explicitly, is why geek culture is typically described and understood as a male phenomenon, and why female involvement needs some sort of special explanation. This has been on my mind a lot lately for a few reasons, not least of which being the articles that occasionally cross my screen.

It’s no great secret that most of the pursuits thought of as “geeky” see greater participation among males than among females. Certain pursuits have traditionally been coded as “for boys” or “for girls,” so a large part of this may just be what parents think they’re supposed to expose their kids to. Another major factor may simply be that young boys get labeled as geeks and nerds (and bullied for it) much more frequently than young girls, setting one gender up for geekdom at a younger age on average. And, of course, there’s marketing bias, with video games, comic books, and science-fiction actively targeting male audiences, featuring men with super powers, for those who feel powerless.

These are cultural trends, not necessarily any reflection that geeky interests are naturally more interesting or involving for boys or men. Women can potentially get the same things out of media, technology, and popular culture that men get out of these things. Nevertheless, when girls and women are interested in things like computers or science-fiction, it’s often taken as worthy of special mention. Decidedly geeky activities that see higher female involvement—such as writing fan fiction—don’t seem to nudge popular perception of how the geek image is gendered, perhaps in part because they remain widely unknown outside hardcore fannish circles.

When essayists and reporters do take the time to specifically point out female involvement in geeky subcultures, it is often to make one or both of a couple assertions:

  1. Women like geeky stuff you might have associated only with men.
  2. Men might get one thing from geeky pursuits, but women get another thing.

The upshot of either assertion may be an implied question: Are female geeks unusual for their gender, or unusual within their subculture?

Consider, for example, a New York Times article from a couple months back, “Geek chic: Not just for guys.” This article implies that we should be surprised that teenage girls are more active in making homepages on the web than boys of the same age, but points out that boys are more likely to post videos of themselves at YouTube. In short: Making websites, which we thought was “geeky,” turns out to fill some need for women than men don’t as often feel the need to fill.

Another article on PopMatters (via Church)—“Move over alpha geeks, here come the fangrrls!”—seeks to highlight female participation at sci-fi fan conventions. It’s written and photographed by a couple women “working on a book together about women in male-dominated subcultures.” Echoing (and citing) Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers, it discusses what women get out of fanfic and fandom in general, at one point juxtaposing it with a guy who attends conventions alone just to acquire more collectibles. This, like the previous article, sort of suggests that female geeks are a special breed of geek, bringing some female sensibility with them into a male-dominated world.

The piece that really got me thinking about writing this post was by Suzanne “Zuska” Franks, who writes: “Women who love technology require an explanation; men who love technology are just being masculine.” (She’s building on some comments and observations made by others, as noted in her post.) She offers some tips for those who would interview female scientists and engineers, such as, “Are you planning on describing me as (A) not what you’d expect, (B) surprisingly pretty, (C) a rarity, or (D) all of the above?” and “Will you also explain how technology has unsexed me? (A) Yes, (B) Yes, while simultaneously infantilizing you, you ‘geeky super-normal enthusiastic girl’!” This touches upon the other angle of female geekdom, the question of whether being geeky marks women as unfeminine.

I rarely see articles which completely avoid the implication that there is something unusual about being both female and a geek. This is why I was so impressed with the “nerdcraft” article I linked to awhile back. It could have been pitched as “women bring femininity to geekdom,” but rather just presented tech- and game-oriented crafting as a new turn in crafting.

It is fair, of course, to point out that women have a different experience from men within geek culture. After all, the relative lack of women in geek cultures—and, more to the point, the frequent lack of experience with interacting with women, among many geek men—means that women end up being the objects of disproportionate attention or exclusion. Examples of this are unfortunately quite easy to find, but I’ll offer a new one now that just came to my attention.

Feministing has a heavily-commented post up about the “Open Source Boob Project” (link via Jordan). This was a sort of game initiated by male nerds at ConFusion, a science-fiction convention. There’s some dispute about what this “project” entailed (see the comments), but suffice to say, it involved men (for the most part) touching the breasts of consenting women (for the most part) at the con, a sort of exercise in cutting through social taboos in order to just get to do what some people wanted to do.

I’ll leave aside the rightness or wrongness of this particular event, as there’s a lot of disagreement (indicated in the comments) about what really went on with this—who knew it was going on, what the likelihood was that people could be made to feel pressured, etc. Rather, I’d like to note a couple excerpts from the conversation that follows about how women can be made to feel unwelcome in male-dominated geek culture. One commenter, musing on this event and how it fits into geek culture more generally, wrote:

I’m a total geek myself, and the world I have to play in really does make me sad. It’s hard to find a good video game that has female characters I can respect and really want to play, it’s hard to find a series where the main female cast isn’t told to wear push-up bras, and I really hate it when I play Massive Multiplayer Online Games and get hit on when people find out the girl behind the female character is actually a girl (and I don’t even want to get into what they say about guys who play female characters).

I definitely get that whole devalued feeling a lot, and this particular proposition isn’t helping at all. I do think conventions are a place where people generally feel like they can lose the rules for a few days; I mean, you’re 25, wearing a full-body costume, and people won’t make fun of you for it (better yet, you get prizes for good work). Surrounded by people who have a like-mind, you feel a little less shy about approaching someone, because hey, you know that cute guy over there will actually be impressed instead of laughing when you tell him how many comic books you own.

Hm, but it doesn’t make this ok. What I guess I’m trying to explain is how people who normally seem nice would suddenly come up with a bullshit idea like this, and how people who normally have more sense to “just say no” would fall into this trap. I never had a date in high school, and I’m pretty sure if I didn’t have anyone to back me up, I would’ve said yes at that point in my life too. College has helped a lot with that, but even I can’t get past the fact that my opinion about Halo 3 just isn’t as valued at these places as a lot of men’s.

I thought this was an interesting and evocative example of one person’s experience as a female geek. I also thought, though, that it was really interesting that there was no implication that what she’s getting out of geekdom is somehow different from what men are getting out of geekdom. Actually, parts of her experience probably sound pretty familiar to male geeks, such as feeling embarrassed about revealing one’s interests around cute people the same age, and being easily abused out of desire for acceptance.

Another commenter’s note similarly indicated shared experiences behind how women and men come to identify as geeks:

If Tech-Dudes come away from high school feeling stigmatized, devalued and socially awkward—can you then imagine how most geeky girls feel? We aren’t even considered normative in our social niche of choice!

Despite this situation, female geeks aren’t necessarily considered the most authentically nerdy of all nerds. Rather, we often see the appeals of geek culture described in masculine terms, especially by academics. Guys get good at video games or hacking to satisfy their sense of competition, to gain a sense of mastery to compensate for lack of success in sports and dating. Guys read superhero comics to fantasize about what it would be like to be strong, compensating for their own lack of athleticism in reality. Geeks are now cool because computers skills translate into dollars, and so geeky guys can now compete in a widely-accepted domain of masculine power.

Let’s consider, though, that women might get most of the same things out of geeky pursuits that men get out of them. Does that mean that such “masculine” appeals as competition, mastery, and economic power appeal to some women as much as they do to men? Or does it perhaps mean that the usual “masculine” appeals that get flung around don’t make as big a deal as we think, that both men and women are finding more meaning and value elsewhere in geek culture?

The answer may be, of course, some blend of these. I think it’s safe to say that there’s variety among female geeks just as there is among male geeks. You’ll find some geeks who feel different from other women because they’re more like “one of the guys”; you’ll find others who conceptualize being a “girl geek” (or “geek grrrl”) as distinctly different from being a “geek”; and you’ll find others yet who identify as somewhere in between on this spectrum.

The interviews I’ve conducted with women leaned more toward the first of these, with several comments about those who felt like “just one of the guys” and “grew up a tomboy.” I must admit, though, that this might be an artifact of who was willing to follow up with a random male stranger looking to interview con-goers. Having a web page offers a less pressuring environment, so I’d like to encourage any of you reading to speak up, anonymously or otherwise. One of the most frequent questions I receive is some variant on “Can girls be geeks too?” I have my own set of answers, but I’d sure like to bolster them with yours.

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16 Responses to “How People Explain Female Geeks”

  1. Jordan Says:

    “Can girls be geeks too?”

    I’m curious who asks this question. Girls? Guys? Geeks? All of the above?

    “we often see the appeals of geek culture described in masculine terms, especially by academics.”

    We often see the appeals of all culture described in these terms. You might be able to draw interesting parallels (or distinctions) between what women in geek culture and in “mainstream” culture experience.

    Women get a lot of attention in geeky circles. But the nature of that attention is pretty consistently negative. Take for example, Jade Raymond, booth babes at video game conventions, and prostitutes in GTA IV (not to mention III). Strong female leads in video games are rare. Not to mention the OSBP that you mentioned in your post, which, despite their purported intentions, does objectify women, and not men. Your original question was about “why geek culture is typically described and understood as a male phenomenon, and why female involvement needs some sort of special explanation”. I would argue that Female involvement gets special explanation because geek culture has been extremely misogynistic.

  2. Dan Says:

    @Jordan “I would argue that Female involvement gets special explanation because geek culture has been extremely misogynistic.”

    I’m not sure that I agree. All your examples of negative attention relate to the video game sphere, but that doesn’t hold true across the board. I find stronger female presences in other elements of geekdom, like literature, TV, and film. You get someone like Joss Whedon, who clearly has a particular appreciation for the role of the heroine, or characters like Syndey Bristow from Alias, Princess Leia, or even Sculley from the X-Files. In the case of Buffy, we have arguably one of the most beloved geek characters of the last twenty years.

    I think perhaps because video games are still a relatively “young” industry/medium, and that because the overwhelming emphasis has been placed on men going into that industry, resulting in an industry that is still male-dominated, we haven’t necessarily reached the levels that other media are now attaining (of course, most of those media are themselves largely male, but there are significant female presences both in front and behind the scenes).

    The signals often get confused, too. I’m not quite sure what to make of Lara Croft, but despite her, erm, prodigious charms, you could argue that she’s a positive female character. I think arguing that she’s nothing more than a pair of walking breasts is one-sided and superficial: there are more to those games.

    Something else about video games: they’re arguably subject to more mainstream appeal than other geeky pursuits like gaming or SF literature. I’ve met plenty of stereotypical jocks and yah doods who like video games; could not some of the misogyny you perceive in that arena be filtering in from the wider audience that video games have acquired (and thus the game developers market to)? I might go so far as to argue that much of geekdom is actually far less misogynistic than other arenas: professional sports, for example.

  3. Jordan Says:

    @Dan The OSBP was not limited to video games. And Jade Raymond’s controversy was certainly broader than video games — it was about how a portion of the internet audience (geeks?) portrayed and demeaned her because she was a successful woman working for a video game company. The other examples were from that sphere, but I think that’s more evidence of my interests than anything else. The television examples you mentioned are certainly positive steps, but I still see them as the notable exceptions in a field that is dominated by male leads. I’m sure your knowledge of pop culture is far more vast than mine, but I’ll propose this informal study as an example of what I’m saying.

    Specifically regarding video games – I would agree that video games are relatively “young”, but I’m not sure I understand why the “overwhelming emphasis has been placed on men” (even though I agree that that emphasis exists). Maybe answering that would help answer Jason’s question? I think it’s fair to say that Lara Croft is a strong female lead (arguably the first in a video game). However, the scope, context, and depiction of women in video games, on the whole, is vastly different than that of men (and I include Lara Croft in that). How often do you see a woman in a video game who is not either a) eye candy, b) ditzy, or c) helpless (or all of the above)? I *know* there are good exceptions, and that this characterization is evolving, but I’m focusing on what is typical. And I’m not trying to pass judgments on these games or the people who play them (i.e. I play them too). I’m just making a statement of what I observe. If other people happen to have the same observations, it might explain one part of why meeting female geeks is “newsworthy”.

    Finally, I don’t think there is evidence to support the claim that the misogyny in video game spheres is because of their exposure to a wider audience (via yah doods, etc.). It takes all kinds ;-)

  4. Jason Tocci Says:

    Thanks for your comments and input on why geek culture is male-dominated and often misogynistic. We are, however, still talking about men here, and my post was meant to help move the conversation away from men’s experiences a bit (as I must admit is often my focus here), and focus on women’s experiences.

    I ended up writing such a long response, though, that I thought this deserved its own thread. Please feel free to pick up the conversation here. You’re welcome to comment wherever you think makes sense—this blog ain’t no dictatorship—but I’d like to encourage some conversation focusing on women’s experiences and identities. Thanks!

    Oh, and just to quickly answer Jordan’s question about who asks me “can girls be geeks”: academics and interviewers. Mostly men, but some women.

  5. Geek Studies » Blog Archive » Sexism and Misogyny in Geek Culture Says:

    [...] wrote a post yesterday exploring how girls and women identify themselves or get identified as geeks. In the [...]

  6. Jordan Says:

    I can’t directly comment on women’s experiences, but it seems like looking at the role women play in geek culture (both in terms of their identity and how their gender is portrayed), and then asking what they think of that role, is a good step. You might find some useful tidbits in the comments on the GTA IV feministing post I linked in my first comment here.

  7. warrior Says:

    I used to bristle when people called me a geek because it was akin to nerd and a bit insulting in my high school. Now I have impeccable technical credentials and a level 70 tank toon. So I really ought to understand the question, but I am struggling – there are plenty of women with technical credentials and plenty of women who play MMORPGs (although I know at least one who acts suspiciously like a man pretending to be a woman playing a set of female toons!)
    There are some people who were hired or promoted as eye candy, and as long as that goes on, I don’t mind if someone wants to verify my credentials.
    There are prejudiced people people out there who will never honor a female opinion, but there are many more who will take any help they can get. It does seem like I have to push a little harder to be heard or get credit, but that is part of gender communications – not specific to geekdom, whatever that is. Even women tend to listen to men first. And it helps to be taller. But in the end most everybody has to learn to either back up their opinions or go where credibility comes easier.

  8. Genevieve Says:

    First I want to respond briefly to @Dan. I find it extremely interesting that of the 4 female characters I feel I can confidently say that 3 of them are certainly NOT geeks. Being too afraid of the X-files when it was on I cannot speak about the Scully character.

    Princess Leia was a powerful female character, fairly intelligent, and directly involved with the rebel alliance, however none of those things maker her character a geek. She was in a science fiction movie that APPEALED to geeks (and many others) but I do not think she herself was a geek.

    Sydney Bristow was quirky, but not a geek. She was a covert under cover agent who was not so good at ice skating and very good at taking on personas for her missions. In missions she would occasionally play the role of a geek, but she would also play the role of a club chick. Her character was intelligent and needed to think on her feet, however I also would not classify her as a geek. Just because she is attractive, intelligent, and had her own memory erased does not mean she is a geek.

    I probably wouldn’t have said anything at all but you had to mention Buffy. I love the Buffy series, as did my whole family and many other people who are close friends. The character Buffy is about as far from being a geek as you can get though. Yes, she was a bit of a social outcast at her school because she spent her time at graveyards, but lets look at a few points here and see if they sounds like qualities of being a geek. 1. Did not like to go to the library (where Giles held court), read up on bad guys, or read at all. 2. Wanted to be a cheerleader and go to parties, and often did things to try to facilitate this to get out of slayer responsibilities. 3. Relied very heavily on her sex appeal to get what she wanted and not her brains. 4. Used other people’s brains to make her work easier so she didn’t have to think as hard (eg. Giles, Willow, Ms. Carpenter, etc). 5. Was terrible at school and really had no interest other than just passing to stay out of trouble. 6.Buffy was coveted by the geeks in the show because she was a hot cheerleader type who was not a nerd so they made their own robot version of her. Buffy very much was a hot and awesome character that was more FOR geeks.

    As for the female geek experience, I’m a geek. I think I always have been, and I was raised by geeks. I don’t fit into a lot of stereotypical geek profiles since I don’t play role playing games at all and I don’t even play that many video games. It often feels like in geek circles I have to do things to prove I can be considered a geek and in less geeky circles I open my mouth and am immediately classified as a geek. Sometimes I am just a geek by proxy because of my boyfriend. For the most part I don’t care since fitting into a niche has never interested me and I have a broader groups of people I know because of it. I will say this, in my experience I think men who are of a geeky persuasion are often both attracted to and intimidated by women who are also geeks (or whom they consider equals on some level). It’s their boys club and they like women who can keep up with them but they also want to be more powerful and more intelligent. I don’t think it’s that different in sports, business, law, or anything else really. As a woman, unless you are exceptional, there are many groups that are is hard to fit into.

  9. Dan Says:

    @Gen: I looked back at my original comment and realized that it could be interpreted ambiguously. To clarify, I didn’t mean to suggest that any of those characters are geeks, rather I meant to put them forward as examples of strong, capable women created by people who might be described as geeks. In that, I was attempting to counter Jordan’s assessment of geekdom as particularly misogynistic by arguing that the existence of these types of female characters demonstrates a strong respect for women in geekdom, or at least some sections of it.

  10. Jason Tocci Says:

    Thanks for the comments, all.

    I also wanted to post before I forget: There’s some additional interesting conversation going on about this over at cryptoxin.

  11. Angela Says:

    I think that there are definitely gender divisions in geekdom. For example, it’s acceptable for me to “sew costumes” but not for my brother to admit to sewing at all. It’s fine for him to say that he plays D and D, but not for me to admit it.

    On another note, do you know how excited I was when the pokemon games let you play as a girl character? For years I was “Professor Oak’s Grandson, Angela.” When I was younger, I thought it was so unfair that in a role playing game where you play yourself, I couldn’t be a girl!

  12. Geek feminism | dv8-designs Says:

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  13. emjaybee Says:

    I think geek culture is not necessarily more skewed than non-geek culture against women. But the disappointment for me as a girl geek, when hanging around the guys, is that there is a feeling that they of all people should understand why denigrating girls (or anyone) is crap. But that also happens in other subgroups; the civil rights movement was not kind to women at first, and white straight feminists were often ignorant or dismissive of nonwhite and/or gay feminists.

    I would imagine that if a white girl geek like me feels excluded by male geeks (to some extent)…how I would probably feel even more isolated if I were black, since black women are positively represented even less than white women in geek culture.

    In answer to your initial question, what attracts me to sci-fi, gaming, roleplay, and extensive reading is that these things are pleasurable and rewarding to me…I don’t like them for special “girl geek” reasons.

    My experience as a woman may affect *how much* I like or dislike one particular corner of geekery; I can read Sandman and more “literary” comics, and love the genre of graphic novels in general, but superhero stuff is a huge turnoff because so much of it is he-man wish fulfillment. And because of “woman in the freezer” syndrome whereby strong women get weakened/raped/killed/disappeared in comics storylines.

    Girls were not called “geeks” when I was growing up, btw, but “brains.” Said dismissively, as in “what are you, some kind of a brain?”

  14. Jason Tocci Says:

    Thanks for the comment, emjaybee. It’s interesting to draw that parallel with civil rights and feminism; those movements certainly came around to greater inclusiveness, of course, so perhaps we can hope for the same among geeks/nerds over time.

    And while I’ve seen some argue that the ways that stereotypically/traditionally geeky entertainment are “pleasurable and rewarding” for women may simply be different from the ways they’re rewarding for men, I think the overlap in appeals is pretty strong, as you suggest. Even a lot of the guys who read comics do so despite the hypersexual and anatomically warped portrayal of women in superhero material, not because of it.

    Also, readers here may be interested in a Metafilter discussion that has linked to this post recently. There were some particularly insightful comments there, including some brief personal anecdotes by velvet winter (who submitted the links that got the conversation going) that illustrate some of the hurdles women face in trying to interact with geeky guys.

    There are a few fairly ignorant comments as well, of course, but they are fascinating to read in their own way. One person even goes so far as to suggest that the sole reason women pursue interests traditionally culturally coded as “male” is because they want to steal what men have. (Some of the responses to that one are particularly clever.)

  15. links for 2009-08-07 « Embololalia Says:

    [...] Geek Studies » How People Explain Female Geeks I rarely see articles which completely avoid the implication that there is something unusual about being both female and a geek. This is why I was so impressed with the “nerdcraft” article I linked to awhile back. It could have been pitched as “women bring femininity to geekdom,” but rather just presented tech- and game-oriented crafting as a new turn in crafting. (tags: gender geek fandom media cons women) [...]

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