Tag Archives: John Scalzi

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Geek Tribalism and Sexism

In one of those terribly entertaining cases of foot-in-mouth that makes the internet both amusing and depressing, Tony Harris recently made some comments about female cosplayers and fake geeks that, quite rightly, caused the wrath of the web to descend upon him.

You can find two great articles here and here that either address the specific comments, or the wider issues that they spring from, and they sum it up far better than I ever could. But, there were a couple of thoughts that sprang to mind after reading the various conversations that have been sparked by this furore. I think there are actually two factors at play here.

Geek Tribalism

One of the problems is that many geeks take a perverse pride in being part of a minority, whether perceived or real. I’d suggest that there are a lot of people whose interests weren’t exactly considered cool at high school and peer group pressure and bullying created a sort of bunker mentality that endures long after school is done with. If you are getting victimised as a teenager and feel on the outer, it is only natural to form a group of your own where you can feel like you belong, and look down on those who aren’t part of group as meatheads or jocks or less intelligent so you can feel superior to the “cool crowd”. While it is natural, that doesn’t mean it is healthy, especially when you are still feeling the same way when you are in your forties.

It is hard for many geeks to accept that in many ways we have won the culture wars. Superhero movies or science fiction and fantasy based tv shows are no longer the domain of one social demographic, they are becoming increasingly acceptable in “mainstream” society, which means an influx of new fans. For some people this is threatening, when your identity is defined by being the most devoted or knowledgeable fan of a particular franchise there can be resentment of people you see as newbies coming along and suddenly claiming to be fans of “your” interest.

It’s no different than when people loved a band for years while they were below the radar getting frustrated when the band hits the charts and all of a sudden they have to share them with people they see as simply jumping on the bandwagon. I know people who will stop listening to a particular artist when they go “mainstream”, or see the new fans as “poseurs” and treat them with scorn – so it is certainly not limited to spec fic fandom! But, I think that feeling of being on the outer makes it worse, and create a more poisonous type of resentment.

I can think of two areas of my fandom where there has been a huge change in the makeup of the fanbase. The first is the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Since I got involved in the fan group of these books over a decade ago, their popularity has steadily grown and the recent HBO adaptation has meant that the books are suddenly part of mainstream conversation and extremely well known.

The second is Doctor Who. Since the relaunch, and especially over the past few years, Doctor Who is perceived very differently. When I was growing up it was a bit of a laughing stock, definitely not something you were quick to share with others. Now it seems too have become rather cool, I see lots of t shirts out and about and it is even going to feature at the Proms!

As a long term fan you can look at these things and get upset about people “trespassing” on to your sphere of interest, whether it speaking contemptuously of “floobs” (people who have only seen HBO’s series and not read ASOAIF) or disparaging those who hopped on the New Who bandwagon and how they don’t get the heritage of Doctor Who, or you can be excited that something you love is getting the recognition it deserves,

As I said to Neil Gaiman when we were chatting at a party (sorry, couldn’t resist haha), I was really excited by how well attended all the Doctor Who panels I was on at Chicon were, and how there were so many tween and teens there saying that they were happy to wear their Doctor Who tshirt to school and that it didn’t make them a target of mockery. As I pointed, when I was at school that would have gotten me beaten up – and I am not exaggerating, though I am sure that is an extreme case.

I am thrilled that when people at work ask me what I did on a Sydney trip and I say that I hung out with friends from a George R.R. Martin fan group they know who George R.R. Martin is! I love seeing people on planes reading his books and being able to have a conversation about it – if they want one, of course lol

Where is the logic in being upset about being marginalised and mocked for so long, but then not welcoming the fact that all of a sudden there are suddenly lots more people who share your interests and loves, and having common ground to make more friends? As a fan I want as many people as possible to know about the things I am interested in, there is not a finite amount of enjoyment to go around that is diminished by every new person that comes along. Instead, it truly is the more the merrier, the more fans there are the more vibrant a community we can build.

Geek Sexism

While that tribalism is a bit sad and I don’t agree with it, it is understandable to a degree. But, as has been pointed out, there is an even darker side to this whole issue, and that is the double standards applied to males and females when it comes to true fans. I don’t really feel qualified to talk too much about this, and Foz and Tansy have both done a far better job than I could of addressing it, all I can talk is from my own experience. There is a great line in Tansy’s post where she says:

(Frankly in the case of many female superheroes, the concept behind the character can actually be a whole lot more empowering than the reality of the stories featuring that character.)

I am sure this is true, and I am not arguing against or even using it to prove my next point. But, it made me think of the fact that for me that it applies to the majority of comic book characters. I am a huge Superman fan, but I have read maybe three or four comic of the thousands of character arcs that have been created for him. I much prefer the prose books I have read, or Smallville, or the DCAU series. Could I tell you what happened in Action Comics #234, what the hell happened with Red and Blue? And, I think I am a hardcore Whovian but I am only about half way through New Who and I’ve never listened to any Big Finish productions.

Given all that, if you had to guess, how many times do you think I have had my credentials as a fan questioned, or my right to be on as many panels on the subjects as I have challenged? If you said zero, you would be spot on. It is hard not to think that my gender has a huge amount to do with that. And that is just not right – why should female fans have a bigger burden of proof placed on their shoulders?

I do think that a lot of this comes from the fact there is a percentage of male geeks see the opposite sex as the enemy. After a life time of slights and rejections, real or imagined, sometimes people veil hurt and vulnerability under a layer of contempt and misogyny. The way they treat women is a projection of the insecurity and self loathing they feel, after all, it is much easier to blame someone else than take ownership yourself. Rather than run risk of being rejected, they would rather be on the offensive, the only way they can feel safe is by trying to put themselves in a position of power by denigrating others.

Saying that, while you might see why they would act that way, it doesn’t make it acceptable. Like people who were bullied becoming bullies, I have never seen why you would not treat people the way you would wish to be treated yourself, if you’ve been marginalised why would you not want to be inclusive? And, treating the object of your desire in such a fashion seems rather counter-productive, it’s unlikely to make them want to spend time in your company! It’s amazing how effective treating someone like a human being, equally deserving of their own interests and opinions, is in building friendships. Funny that.

As for the treatment of female cosplayers, I think that Foz hits the nail on the head when she says:

Can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that a straight white male comics artist – that is, a professional member of a fraternity whose members frequently get froth-mouthed with rage at the VERY SUGGESTION that maybe, just MAYBE, consistently drawing female heroes in skintight, skimpy clothes, viscerally sexualised poses and impossible bodily contortions MIGHT JUST BE a little bit sexist and demeaning – is now saying women who dress as those selfsame characters are slutty? Like, do we not see the contradiction, here? How is it fine to rabidly defend the hypersexualised portrayal of comic book heroines as being no big deal, aesthetically justified, representative of their characters, traditional and all that jazz, but then start body- and slut-shaming actual, real live women who choose to cosplay those outfits? If the costumes themselves had no overt sexual component, or if such a component was present, but ultimately benign – as most comics apologists tend to argue – then the idea that actual women could dress that way specifically to prey on the sexual sensibilities of men who like those characters should be fundamentally ludicrous, regardless of the depth and breadth of their personal comics knowledge.

Seriously, angry comic guys: you cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that female comic heroines aren’t hypersexualised, and then claim that, merely by donning their costumes, real live women are sexualising themselves, and that their primary motive for doing so must therefore be to mess with you. No. THEY’RE DRESSING THE WAY YOU INSIST ON WOMEN DRESSING, AND THEN YOU’RE SHAMING THEM FOR IT.

As a male there are lots of characters I could choose to dress up as whose bodies are not accentuated by their costumes. But, if I chose to dress up as Superman, in skin tight lycra and my underwear wantonly exposed on the outside, am I trying to entrap the innocent women around me? If you think so, you obviously haven’t seen me in lycra! What I am doing is emulating a character I admire by faithfully reproducing their outfit. The difference is, I can do it without being called a slut.

That aside, so what if women do dress up in deliberately sexy costumes? What right does anyone have to tell them that makes them less than genuine fans? Personally, there are things about cosplay that do make me uncomfortable at times, some of it does seem over sexualised and there sometimes seems to be  an unhealthy exhibitionist/voyeur dynamic going on (in a minority of cases). But that’s not their problem, that’s probably mine. Just like other things that I personally can’t get into, like the SCA or filking or LARPing, I take a live and let live approach. If dressing up in costumes makes people happy and enables them to build a community and to enjoy whatever their fandom is, who am I to stand in their way? Life is unhappy enough without curtailing people’s happiness unnecessarily and forcing your tastes on them. If it doesn’t hurt anyone else, people should be able to express their fandom the way they want without having to prove its worth to people who have elected themselves the arbiters of geekdom.

The reason why I love fandom is because my experiences of it have been of inclusivity and enthusiasm and tolerance. I want everyone to have that same experience regardless of gender or orientation or race or whatever. People like Tony Harris don’t speak for me, but I think it important that those disagree with those attitudes speak up or nothing will change.

Scalzi and the Game of Life

Like about 98% of the internet, I came across this post from John Scalzi where he attempts to explain privilege via a gaming analogy. It is a brilliant post, and I would encourage you to read the whole thing (he has started discussing topics like this a lot more regularly of late, and is doing a magnificent job).

Dudes. Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?
 
Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.
 
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

Like any analogy, it breaks down or falls short in a few places, which I am worried will be seized upon by people with an agenda as a way of invalidating the whole thing. Of course, Scalzi is more than capable of defending himself!

He has expressed the concept far more eloquently than I ever could, but that’s not going to stop me from sharing my thoughts, after all that’s why we have our own blogs, isn’t it?

Firstly, I think it is important that he points out he is talking about being born in the Western world, because that in itself is a huge advantage from the start. I think we often forget how much we take that for granted. Working for an international not for profit I am constantly confronted with how much even the worst off person in Australia has compared to someone in the Third World. That’s not to say that there is no suffering here, there is, but it is of a different kind.

The one thing I think he doesn’t make quite clear enough is that you don’t choose the settings in the game. Race, orientation, gender, the class you are born into, the initial settings are all decided for you. You can’t do anything about this, all you can do is play with the stats that are rolled for you. I don’t believe that I need to feel guilty for being born with the advantages of being a straight, white male. That doesn’t make me good or bad in itself, it is simply what is. What is important, though, is what I do with those advantages.

There is a passive response, where I do my best not to use my advantages to make the game of life harder for other players who don’t have them. That means being aware of my privilege, not discriminating, not participating in behaviours that disadvantage others, not buying into whingeing of other SWMs about how hard done by they are. But, is that enough? I don’t think so, I think that being born with these advantages requires more of me.

I think that I have a responsibility to make an active response. That means trying to change the fact that there are advantages to the circumstances I was born into. It means actively trying to change the mindset of other SWMs around me, of speaking out against discrimination, of agitating for social change and trying to let my awareness of my privilege inform everything I do. I spoke about this briefly in an earlier post.

While I don’t feel guilty about being born a SWM, I do feel guilty about the times where I have been content to enjoy the privilege that comes with that, without thinking about those who aren’t so lucky. I feel guilty about my lack of self awareness. I feel guilty that for a long time this didn’t even register for me. Even now, my understanding of all this is limited, something I readily acknowledge. I am trying hard to educate myself, and hopefully every day I get better at seeing the ways in which my privilege exists, and better at doing something about it.

It’s not fair that certain people start off with these advantages. But, what is important is that they use these advantages to try and change the way the game works so that, however gradually, the default setting becomes fairer and fairer. I think it is wonderful that John Scalzi has taken the advantages he has been given as a SWM and is using them to try and raise awareness, to try and change the way things are. I hope more of us start to do the same so that one day we won’t have any advantages simply because of the way the game works.