Last week, I saw a link from @TheNerdyBird to a recent post by Joey Heflich on Guerrilla Geek, titled "Not all geeks are misogynists". In it, he discusses some issues on the perception of women in geek culture.
Recently a lot of words have been thrown back and forth between people debating whether or not women are accepted in geek culture. Some say that male geeks tend to create hostile environments unwelcome to women. Some say that beautiful women dressing up as Wonder Woman aren’t really geeks and are only pandering to us. Others say that being a geek girl means being subjected to a lot of undue prejudice. Almost no one is saying that we’re all equals. It’s all a lot of ugliness, something not normally associated with our culture and it has to stop.Given some controversies that have broken out in the geek online community in recent months regarding geek girls, this is a topic worth discussing, and the post received many thoughtful comments. One commenter pointed out that the use of the term "geek girls" where there is no male counterpart (few ever refer to themselves as "geek guys") may "invite some of the unwanted attention that some female geeks receive". This is a valid point--that when we use the term "geek girls" we necessarily set ourselves apart from geek non-girls--and the commenter recognized that the attention gained this way is unfair. I bear him no ill will. However, I was inspired to respond to the comment in an attempt to defend the use of the term "geek girl". It's not a term that I really used until I started making friends in the online geek girl community. Now I embrace the term, as I associate it with all the friendly, awesome, and geeky ladies I've met through these social channels.
My response to the comment wasn't the tightest argument ever*, but one of my points was that in the current culture, the word "geek" defaults to male. Thus, some may use the term "geek girl" as a necessary clarification. From my comment:
I was on the subway** this morning and there was this huge geek explaining to a friend what the “Han shot first” debate is and how it’s actually a bit of a misnomer.This leads me to the survey I mentioned, which Joey put together in part to investigate this hypothesis of the "default male geek". He presented a situation with two geeks (Geek A and Geek B) described in gender-neutral terms, and asked survey-takers to indicate which gender they thought each geek described was. See the survey questions and results here. The survey was written fashioning Geek A after a male geek and Geek B after a female geek. The vast majority of respondents (86 to 10) identified Geek A as a male, but about half (49 to 47) identified Geek B as a male as well. This is in spite of only 3 of the 93 survey takers claiming that being a geek is a "guy thing".
Can you picture the scene? What does it look like? Is the geek a guy or a girl? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most likely, you’re picturing a guy. Heck, I’m even picturing a guy, and I’ve had this conversation myself in a public place. My point is that males are widely perceived as the “default” for geeks.
Now, Joey admitted that this survey is informal and unscientific. I'm no sociologist, but I imagine it would be difficult to draw any strong conclusions from this study. Still, it's a good start, and there's at least enough in the results to provoke a conversation. The respondents to the survey, all geeks themselves (56:44 male:female), tended to assume that a geek, without any gender-specific information, was a male. Of course, it may be that the majority of geeks are male, so people who guessed that both Geek A and Geek B were male were just making the safest bet given the odds (not that there was a "right" answer in the survey). But it's one thing to recognize a majority and another to ignore the minority to the point of feeling comfortable assuming a default gender. If such a default gender is assumed, then perhaps it is appropriate for female geeks to clarify their gender with the term "geek girl".
Looking at the survey, there are a few issues I'd be interested to see investigated further:
1) What would happen if more geeks were described (in separate questions, in separate situations), with some fashioned after male geeks, some after female geeks, and some meant to be entirely ambiguous?
2) What if survey takers were not asked directly what gender they believed the geek to be (which may make them second guess their initial assumption)? This might be achieved by instead asking survey takers to write four complete sentences about, for instance, what Geek A did for breakfast that morning. Since it is remarkably hard to write multiple sentences in the third-person without using gender-specific pronouns, this could reveal which gender respondents pictured the geek to be without asking.
3) How geeky do survey respondents think a person is given their gender? For example, "At a con, Geek A is dressed as Han Solo. Geek B, his wife, is dressed as slave Leia. How many times do you think Geek A has seen Return of the Jedi? How many times do you think Geek B has seen it?" or something to that effect. Basically, is there a perception that he's the geek and she's just wearing the costume to make him happy? Or does anyone think it's the other way around?
Here I am asking a lot of questions, but I do want to put forth another question along with my hypothesis and some reasoning behind it. All of the people who took Joey's survey identify themselves as geeks. That is what the survey was made for: to look at gender perceptions within the geek community. What would the survey results be if the questions were posed to the general public, non-geeks included? I hypothesize that the geek community is much more aware than the non-geek community of the presence of female geeks. If you've been to a con, you've seen plenty of geeky women there as well as men. If you read gaming, comics, sci-fi, or fantasy websites, you've read columns written by women. But I think many people outside the geek community*** see geeks as much more stereotypically male.
I like to bring up the example of "The Big Bang Theory". It is one of the most popular sitcoms on television right now, an accomplishment it couldn't achieve by having only geek viewers. Four of the show's five main characters are true and total geeks. They are also men. Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj are nerdy, dorky scientists who love video games, comics, science fiction, and fantasy. The fifth lead of the show is Penny, an aspiring actress who never really understood these geeky interests of theirs (she prefers shoes). In seasons 3 and 4, the show has introduced two regular guest stars who are both female scientists, showing that indeed women can be nerdy science lovers as well (though in biological sciences--leave the engineering and physics to the men). Still, who's at the comics shop every Wednesday? Maybe I missed it, but I have not noticed these ladies geeking out about comics, sci-fi, gaming, or any of the common geeky subjects that the men of the show love to gush about. This, dear readers, is the general public's weekly dose of geek culture, their window into the geek world. As much as I love the show and hope that it's helping non-geeks appreciate how lovable geeks can be, I wish they'd gone a step further to make one of their girls a geek. Who knows? Maybe Bernadette speaks Quenya, or Amy likes to cosplay as Zatanna. I guess there's still time to find out.
geek, geek, non-geek, geek, geek
* Have you ever found yourself typing a response online only to discover that what should have been a 15-minute internet-surfing break has blossomed into a forty-five-minute essay-writing session and you should probably get back to work before your advisor comes by and learns you still haven't made any progress? Happens more often than I'd like my advisor to find out. Also, see http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=813
** Not sure why I chose the subway--we don't even have a subway in Honolulu. Oh well.
*** People like Ginia Bellafante