In early March 2013, the Chicago Nerd Social Club Podcast invited the members of the “Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl” C2E2 panel for an interview. Although we had met individually, this conversation was actually the first time that Jen Dollface, Laura Koroski, Karlyn Meyer, Dawn Xiana Moon, Erin Tipton, and I had officially sat down together (Carlye Frank, our panel moderator, was down with the flu) as a group to talk about “the fake geek girl.” CNSC Founder/President Jeff Smith was a fantastic host and immediately made us feel at home (pro-tip: having Hershey’s Kisses on hand make for a great ice breakers and those little sugar boosts really come in handy during long conversations). His questions and observations helped generate a vibrant and congenial conversation that I continue to be very proud of.
This interview also has a special meaning for me since it turned out to be Jen’s only appearance with the panel. Unfortunately due to her EMT training schedule, she was unable to join us at C2E2. Jen is a close friend whose unique insights as a performance artist, dry wit, and deep love for all things Doctor Who contributed heavily to the shape our panel eventually took. I remain grateful that she was a part of the very first panel I ever ran and I look forward to being able to work with her again.
This podcast was originally broadcast in two parts, and was compiled into a single recording and reposted after C2E2 on the CNSC website. While the podcast can be listened to in the linked CNSC post, I’ve posted the full transcript for both parts here as well. Special thanks go to Stephen Poon of My Fair City for putting in the time and effort to complete this transcription.
NOTE: Some variations may exist between the transcription and actual audio due to casual discussion style. ‘Um,’ ‘so,’ ‘you know,’ ‘like,’ and other phrases may be omitted when it seemed appropriate.
“Fake Geek Girls” – Chicago Nerd Social Club Podcast, originally posted April 29, 2013, Chicago Nerd Social Club
[00:00 – Beginning of Part 1]
JEFF SMITH: Hi everyone, and welcome back to the CNSC podcast, the official podcast of the chicago nerd social club. I’m your host, Jeff Smith, and as you can tell, I’m a little bit hoarse. C2E2 weekend is finally behind us. The after party was a huge success, which is where I lost my voice, and it was really just a good time had by all. Our “Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl” was phenomenal, and we want to thank you for your participation and your attendance. We really, really apologize for those that couldn’t make it into the panel. I know Michi has expressed a deep, deep sense of grief that not everyone that wanted to see the panel could. But, it was recorded, and it will be released on the CNSC website as soon as it’s available. In the meantime, we thought we would bring you parts 1 and 2 combined into a single episode of our interview with the panelists of “Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl.”
I also want to give a special thanks to everyone that came out and participated and supported the C2E2 after party. It was a huge success. The nerdalogues put together an absolutely incredible night of performances: Plan 9 Burlesque, Raks Geek, SHOCK T’s, the Improvised Star Trek Show, the nerds against humanity show, it was all just a lot of great fun. Special thanks out to Kevin Fair, over at I Play Games, who will be over at the podcast most likely next week. Him and his team set up gaming stations all around the venue, and it was a lot of fun. People were really enjoying Injustice: Gods Among us. So if you didn’t get to make it, we’re definitely going to consider doing this again next year, and we’d love to hear your feedback. I know one of the big things was food, and we’re definitely going to address that net year, but logistics this year just didn’t make that quite possible. So with that being said, we’re going to bring you parts 1 and 2 combined of “Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl.” Thanks, we’ll see you next time.
JEFF: We’re here with the panelists for the C2E2 panel, “Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl,” a discussion about sexism and gatekeeping in geek culture. We’ve got a big discussion panel with us today, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, so I’m just going to start introducing everybody from left to right, starting with Michi Trota, CNSC board member, Chicago Full Moon Fire Jam coordinator extraordinaire, is that fair? And also recently launched the new blog, Geekmelange.com. Hey, Michi!
MICHI TROTA: Hey Jeff.
JEFF: So tell us a little bit about GeekMelange real quick, too.
MICHI: GeekMelange is a little blog project that I’ve been wanting to start. It will cover a little bit of everything, hence the term mélange. Movie reviews, TV reviews, anything that I want to talk about. Talking about geek culture through a feminist intersectionality lens. And pretty much anything having to do with chocolate or bacon, because food geekery is still geekery.
JEFF: That’s what I’m talking about. Chocolate and bacon. You have any Hershey Kisses, left? I’ll come to it later. I just forgot I have to introduce someone else. But while Dawn’s talking, I’m going to eat this. And to your left is Dawn Xiana Moon, producer and creative director for Raks Geek. And we actually had you on the show once before, we’re going to probably launch your interview prior to this one, so everyone will be familiar with you, but tell us a little bit about Raks Geek while we’re at it.
DAWN XIANA MOON: Raks Geek is a collaborating between a bunch of fire spinners and a bunch of people from Read My Hips travel belly dance, which is a belly dance troupe. So it’s belly dance and fire taking on geek themes.
JEFF: That’s awesome. That chocolate is good, too [laughter]. And to your left, Laura Koroski, writer of ChallengeByGeek.com and you just had a fantabulous post about Doctor Who and sexism with some of the Doctor’s companions, we’re going to delve into that, but tell us a little bit about your blog.
LAURA KOROSKI: So Challenge By Geek is just, sort of, very similar to GeekMelange, but with my own thing. My big thing is just challenging everything. I like to take an opposite view, see why something is the way it is, and question. Yeah.
JEFF: That is the epicenter of nerd culture, too. If you ever go to any comic book blog, it’s like, nobody is ever satisfied, right? Everything sucks and this is why, it’s like, this is probably one of the best selling issues ever! [laughter] You know? Like everyone’s like, “Aw man, this whole Obama Spider Man thing, you know, it’s such a pain that people are trying to get money off of it” “But you’ve got like five issues, dude!” “Well, shit’s gonna get popular!” [laughter] “I wanna be on it” – right? OK, oh my goodness, we got out of order, my notes messed up. I’m like, you’re not Karlyn!
ERIN TIPTON: What gave it away?
JEFF: We’ve got Erin Tipton, theatrical lighting extraordinaire. How are you doing?
ERIN: Good, how are you?
JEFF: Good. Are you working on anything at the moment?
ERIN: Currently on hiatus at the moment, but hoping to get back into doing some shows. I’ve got some friends who are getting a Kickstarter project going so hopefully we’ll be able to turn that into a production of 12 short plays that are all tied together –
ERIN: – so yeah, we’re working on things like that.
JEFF: Keep us posted on the Kickstarter so we can link it.
ERIN: Yeah, will do.
JEFF: Karlyn Meyer, she’s going to be a panelist at the panel at C2E2. Also an avid gamer, I believe?
KARLYN MEYER: Yes, I’m definitely a gamer, and that’s pretty much. I don’t do a lot of interneting. I have a lot of opinions but I kind of keep them to myself, I guess, unless I’m on a podcast or panel. [laughter]
JEFF: That’s a rare thing on the internet. Everyone’s like, no, here’s my opinion! I’m gonna stick it down your throat! And last but certainly not least, we have Jen Dollface, jackass of all trades, and blogger at razorbladecupcake.com. How’re you doing, Jen?
JEN DOLLFACE: I’m alright, how about you?
JEFF: Good, tell us a little bit about Razorblade Cupcake. Sounds delicious but dangerous.
JEN: I’m involved in pretty much every aspect of performance art that there is, from puppets to theater to fire to bellydance to you name it. I make clothes, I take pictures, I kind of get my hands in as many cookie jars as I can.
JEFF: I am so singularly focused on shittiness. [laughter] Like, I’m seriously going to have to up my game here. So, we’ll start with just an overview of the panel, Michi. SO what is this panel about? What are the kind of conversation topics you guys are gonna be covering?
MICHI: So the panel came about because all of us are very, very heavily invested in geek culture, because it’s something that we love. We love being geeks, we love participating in geek culture, in various forms of fandom and activities. And we wanted to kind of deconstruct the fake geek girl phenomenon and demonstrate how it is not only a gatekeeping form and how it’s specifically a sexist form of gatekeeping. Because not only is it a way – it’s specifically directed at women who participate in geek culture. We also want to talk about how it’s something that women experience in multiple different formats, and we definitely do want to make sure that we address the question that, yes, it is sexist, even though there are women who are also participating in pointing fingers at other women in the culture and calling them fake.
JEFF: One thing that just kinda popped in my mind, too, I’m sorry to talk about it beforehand, does it tie in at all to the fake geek girl meme that was going around, too, for a long time? I kind of caught on to that late, I didn’t know that was a thing.
MICHI: There was the fake geek girl meme going around, and then there was also a movement to reclaim the fake geek girl meme and kind of turn it on its head and show how ridiculous it was.
JEFF: Kind of like what we’re doing with nerds in general.
MICHI: Yeah, pretty much, but we’ve got, unfortunately, our moderator,
Karlyn Carlye Frank, was unable to be here today because unfortunately she’s ill, but she’s put together a really good sequence of questions, so we’ll be able to go through things in a fairly logical sequence, hopefully, but we want to address a lot of things on gatekeeping, on sexism, and the question of, if women are participating in calling other women “fake geeks,” why is it still a sexist phenomenon?
JEFF: Right, and I definitely want to touch on that a bit, but I want to be the Luddite in the room for a second, and ask the question, what has kind of been the impetus for this surge in popularity in geek culture and women? Because I remember growing up, I mean, women in geek culture was like a unicorn, right? Like, [laughter] you know we just never encountered them. And when we did, it was awesome, right? So now it seems like, you know, I don’t know if it’s the internet that’s allowing geek women to connect and say, hey I’m a geek and I’m out here. What was it that kinda kickstarted this whole thing, or am I blind and it’s been there all along?
ERIN: It’s been there all along. I think, I mean, we’re all of a relatively similar age group. We all can trace our nerdiness back to childhood.
JEFF: And just a quick – what age group is that?
ERIN: We’re all mid-twenties to mid-thirties. And we can all sit there and say, I remember sitting there with my parents as a little kid completely geeking out over Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or, you know, like personally, my dad and I had great bonding time watching The Original Series and completely loving every second of it. So I don’t know if it’s so much been a matter of, there were never nerd girls out there. I think it’s become more a matter of recognizing that the stereotype of the nerd girl with the glasses, the pigtails, the braces, that sits there and is socially awkward and doesn’t know how to interact with everyone, is a complete myth. That the nerd girl sitting next to you looks like any other girl you could possibly be talking to. And that we’ve always been there, but we’ve been able to become a lot more vocal as the idea of nerdom has expanded to not just a very specific stereotype.
JEFF: Right, right, and I think that’s one of the things that we deal with commonly, is when we talk about nerd, there’s a particular prototype . . .
JEFF: . . . that we have in our heads, and especially when you’re dealing with female nerds, it’s like, there’s a very specific stereotype for lack of a better word, and I encounter it too – news flash I’m black [laughter] – I’ve encountered it too in the past. It’s a completely different animal because it’s two different approaches, but it’s something that’s becoming more and more prevalent and I think nerdom in general is just becoming more mainstream. Would you agree?
DAWN: I think so. I also think one of the things – Michi and I have a lot of conversations about this –about how when we were younger, maybe we didn’t really have much fashion sense, because that wasn’t a priority. We were more interested in books. We were more interested in, you know for me, theater, and music, and doing all these other things. So fashion wasn’t something that I really understood. And then as I got older, I kinda gave myself permission to be a little more into some things that were traditionally girly. I rejected a lot of that when I was younger, and I’ve become a little more okay with that as I’ve gotten older and gotten more comfortable in my own skin. So I think maybe sometimes people are seeing more of that too.
JEFF: Right. And here’s a general question for all of you, because I know men experience this too, and I’m assuming it’s gotta be similar for women. Was it difficult integrating with people that didn’t have the same interests as you when you wanted to watch Star Trek, and they – because I remember growing up, I wanted to watch Star Trek, and everybody’s like man, let’s put on the Knicks game, and I had trouble finding people of similar interest, and I really don’t think I went full on nerd until I moved to Chicago, maybe about six years ago, because I had a particular subset of friends I could be nerdy with, but then I had to put on my other suit when I went out with other groups of friends. Did you guys experience that at all?
KARLYN: I definitely did. I was going to say, this kinda goes to the last things you asked, is that I definitely had kind of a coming out of a nerd, where I always knew that I had my interests, some of them were really insular, like I would play my computer games at home in my room, and then you know when I get into adolescence and into college, and I realized, oh yeah, you’re a gamer. That means you’re playing first person shooters with the guys. And I had this thing where people would say, “Oh girls can’t play videogames, they’re not good at it,” and I would say, “What have I been doing for the last fifteen years?” you know? [laughter] And so realizing that this whole nerd explosion, I was kinda considered to be excluded from it, even though it’s like, that’s what I’ve been doing! So kinda having to reconcile what the culture has kinda has come to be understood to be, when you’ve been fitting it, you just still have to prove yourself and say, “No I was there, I just, you didn’t know because I was in my room playing my computer alone.”
JEFF: Right. And I think the internet is kinda helping us connect as well, nerds in general. I know that we’ve definitely been experiencing that with Chicago Nerd Social Club. We’ve got people that are like, “Oh my God, I had no idea something like this existed.” And it’s so beautiful. We actually had one member who had been following Nerd City on Twitter. And it’s basically like a New York version of us. And she just happened to ask the question, “I wish something like this was in Chicago.” And they were like, “Well, check out Chicago Nerds.” And it was like amazing to her.
JEFF: Like, “Oh my God, they’re here, they’re right here! Oh my God!” So the internet’s definitely helping with that. I wanted to shift to gatekeeping for a bit, because I think we kinda touched on it lightly. There’s definitely an issue with gatekeeping in nerd culture, because you kinda have to have credentials, right? You’ve got to have your bona fides, right? It’s like, “What episode did Data lose his arm in?” And it’s like, “Well, there’s a list, because he loses his arm a lot.” [laughter]
MICHI: How many times does Data get blown up? I mean, really . . .
JEFF: Right, how many times do we see how the monster works by whipping Worf’s ass? You know? Like, oh, we need to show how strong the monster is. Beat up Worf! But I wanted to hear about your guys’ experience with gatekeeping, and I definitely want to kick the question over to Laura, because Laura, I think the first time we met, and God I hope I’m remembering this correctly, you admitted that you weren’t into a lot of things that were commonly defined as the “geek lexicon.”
LAURA: Mmhmm, yeah. I’m not a gamer, whether that’s tabletop or, you know, gaming gaming. I’m not – and I don’t really read comics. It’s not – neither of those are something I’m necessarily opposed to, they’re just not something that I’m super big on, and that I’ve ever felt a huge affinity for. I’m very much a literary geek. Like what I did when I was ten years old is while everybody else watched a movie, I read a book. I was that insular kid.
So the first time we met, it was at a Chicago Nerd Social gathering, and you asked the question, like, what are nerd sins? And just the idea that we can all talk about our nerd sins, and say that’s okay, that you reject something I love, because I think that it’s something that’s still very prevalent within geek culture, that we don’t ever want to acknowledge, is that whether it has to do with gender or race or any – or just differences of opinion, there’s sort of this antagonism where you don’t want to admit that you don’t like something. You don’t want to admit that you don’t game or that you don’t read comics, because that’s going to exclude you from something.
MICHI: I was really surprised at how many people at that gathering actually admitted that they don’t like Star Wars. Not even the prequels, just Star Wars in general. [laughter]
JEFF: I was totally one of those people Laura was just talking about. “What?!? Get out of my house – right now!” [laughter]
ERIN: I’m sorry, you’re done. Out!
JEN: I mean, I can understand Lord of the Rings, but Star Wars?
DAWN: No, I can’t understand Lord of the Rings. Sorry. You can’t not like Lord of the Rings.
LAURA: See, but that’s the thing, everybody has their thing. That’s their precious baby to them. That if someone doesn’t like it, they’re like, “Oh my God, oh my God, I don’t know if I can handle being in the same room with you, you gotta get out.” But we’ve all got to get over those things, or we’re, you know, because if you’re doing that to someone else, odds are that someone else is doing that to you, or to the person standing next to you.
JEFF: Right. And I think we tend to take these – it’s almost like a religion, right? We’ve got these pillars of faith in nerd culture, right? It’s like Star Trek, Star Wars, these are the things that we have to pray to. And it’s like, just because I don’t like Star Trek doesn’t mean I don’t like sci-fi. And there is a difference. Star Trek is not “science fiction,” it existed long before and after all of the series. And I think we have the tendency to kind of just pray to these idols, and if you’re outside of that, it’s like, well, you’re a heathen. And go to hell.
SO as women, you guys are probably subject a lot more to visual gatekeeping, where you know with me, you have to have a conversation to know that I hadn’t watched Doctor Who prior to the nerd meetup. You guys, they probably just look at you and say, “well you’re not a nerd, because you don’t look like a nerd. You’re pretty. You’re attractive.” How do you deal with that, and how do you put that in a context where luddites can understand what it’s like? Because I feel like there’s a lot of unfairness in terms of how we apply these gatekeeping rules and standards.
MICHI: Well I think Dawn’s actually had, uh, her experience at C2E2 last year was the perfect example of what it’s like.
DAWN: I was walking around the floor at C2E2. This was Friday before our panel, I think it was. Just walking around the floor, and I had a badge that said “Panelist” on it, because that was my admission to get in to C2E2.
MICHI: Your first nerd convention that you ever –
DAWN: I had never actually been to a nerd convention, which is actually quite odd. But for whatever reason, C2E2 was the first one. I’m walking around on the floor, talking to various people, and somebody, I don’t remember who this was, but one of the vendors looked at me and said, “Oh, is that your badge, or are you just borrowing it?” And I was like, really? Are we having this conversation?
LAURA: One of the vendors?
DAWN: One of the vendors! Like, I mean, I wasn’t dressed in cosplay. I was wearing probably a nerd shirt of some form.
ERIN: I think you were wearing the exact same shirt you’re wearing today.
DAWN: I’m wearing a Doctor Who shirt right now. I mean usually in those situations I didn’t have time to do that this particular day. But usually in those situations, if we have a little time, and it’s a bit more of a social context, I try to outnerd them, because usually I can, and that’s actually been – I mean, not everyone needs to take this strategy, but that’s what I’ve done pretty much my entire life, was, okay, the boys think they’re better than you? You beat the boys at your own game.
ERIN: At least they didn’t ask if it was your boyfriend’s badge.
DAWN: Right. [laughs]
MICHI: It’s like, that’s kind of the track that I used to take when I was growing up, because I never hid my nerdness. It was something that I completely embraced, and it was almost kind of like a battering ram that I used in social interactions. I was like, “I’m a complete nerd, I’m not going to apologize for the fact that I’m into the stuff that boys are into. I’m not going to apologize for it if you don’t like it. I’m going to be OK with being lonely and ostracized, because that’s kind of like – that’s just kind of how things just happen for me.” It was – I took a very aggressive stance about it. And that’s just my personality. That’s how I was dealing with a lot of other social upheaval things that were going on.
But the way that I would tackle it is that, I would try to learn everything that I needed to know. Like when I got into X-Men, and I loved reading X-Men for a good decade, I learned everything about the backstory. Once I started reading them, I learned – I think I got into X-Men right around the Phalanx Covenant. All of the massive insane crossovers where you had to – if you were reading Uncanny X-Men and regular X-Men, you were going to end up reading Wolverine, X-Force, X-Factor, everything. Probably a couple of issues of the Avengers, and Spider-Man, just to make sure that you got everything. So I would learn all about the backstory, everything going back to Stryfe, and the X-Cutioner’s Song, all the way back to Days of Future Past, Days of Future Present, because when I would get into conversations in the comic book store, and at this point I’m probably in high school, I’d be picking up an X-Men comic, and you’d get into these conversations, where like, “Oh, shouldn’t you be in the anime section reading shojo comics?” It’s like, “I’m reading X-Men!” “Well, what do you know about X-Men?” I’m like, “We’re gonna go there?”
DAWN: Game on.
MICHI: Game on! We’re going to fucking go there! And you would have to be really aggressive about proving that you belonged there. And that was a mentality that I had for a very long time. But now that I’m older and cranky [laughter] this kind of thing – at this point if someone came at me with that kind of attitude, I would approach it as, “why do I have to prove why I’m into this and why I’m here?”
MICHI: Why is any other proof other than the fact that I’m into this and I enjoy it, why is anything other than that a qualification?
JEFF: Were you shoplifting at this time? [laughter]
MICHI: No, I was not shoplifting at this time.
JEFF: Okay. I’m just asking, that’s a lot of comics, right?
MICHI: It is a lot of comics. I was working my ass off at my part-time job. That was most of my allowance and my part time job stuff was going towards my comic books. And gas.
JEFF: Yeah, because everyone I know at that age was lifting a couple books every once in a while at the local grocery store.
MICHI: You remember how cheap gas was back in the early 90’s? You could get a tank of gas for your car and your comics books for $20.
JEFF: Yes you could. I want to bring Jen into the conversation for a second. So you used to do Magic tournaments and other tabletop gaming, so I’m guessing there might have been a little bit of gatekeeping there?
JEN: There was a whole lot of gatekeeping going on there. These boys are protective of their tabletop gaming. You don’t have the right cards in your deck, if you don’t have the right colors working together, there’s this whole system that they’ve devised –
ERIN: If you don’t have a penis.
JEN: – If you don’t have a penis, you know, they either let you win because they don’t think that you have the skills to beat them, so it doesn’t matter, so they’re just gonna throw the game, or they let you win because they think, oh here’s a nerd girl, so she must be into nerd boys, so you know I can just ask her out and that’s totally appropriate in this competitive scenario. [laughter]
JEN: Or, they just spend the entire time berating you to the point where you don’t even want to play anymore. I just stopped playing in tournaments because I just couldn’t deal with it.
JEFF: And that’s kind of a sad story, and I guess the question is, and it’s a bigger question for society in general, so we’re probably not going to answer it in this segment, but how do we educate and deal with that? Because it’s a shame that you’re forced out of something you enjoy doing that you’re clearly passionate about because some yay-hole can’t behave themselves or doesn’t know how to treat a human being.
JEN: Well, it’s really difficult. I mean, there’s only so much a person can handle verbally or even just on an attitude level. When people are coming at you from all sides and all of them have the same negative horrible opinion of you, that like, “You do not belong. And this is not your place. And what are you doing. And oh you played that card? And oh you made that mistake? Well, I mean, we’re just going to give you tenfold the amount of shit that we would give anybody else because you’re a girl, and we want you out of here, we don’t want you here.”
And that’s really the message they send to most women who play Magic. And I’m not sure how it is for most other types of gaming, but for Magic specifically, it seems to be really, really harsh for women. Even if you watch online in competition play, and you see sort of like side panel conversations that viewers have, it’s just the things that people say are just so awful, and really just –
ERIN: And that really is the fundamental problem in what we’re talking about with the idea of the gatekeeping and the fake geek girl, is the fact that to be a woman in the community, you are hypercriticized and you are under extraordinary scrutiny to prove that you have a right to be there, for no reason other than the fact that you’ve got tits. It has no bearing on your knowledge base, it has no bearing on, did you make your bones, were you beat up as a kid? It has no bearing on anything other than, “Oh you’re a girl, so you clearly don’t have the right to be here. And if you think you do, I’m going to make you prove it at every single turn.
MICHI: Yeah, and I mean, not even to mention that if you are a trans woman, I mean like, it’s not even just about having tits. If you’re – any kind of expression of, if you present as a woman, just period, you are going to run into that wall.
ERIN: Every turn.
MICHI: Every single time. And it’s not – the problem is, is that, it’s not just – if it was just a couple of bad apples, just a couple of guys, it wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is that it’s a systemic, culture-wide problem. And that’s why we have to talk about it.
JEN: It feeds even into the art. You look through comic books, you look through representations of women in geek art, and all of them are depicted in this incredibly un-anatomic, imbalanced way that makes women look like these objects instead of like real people who have thoughts and ideas and skills.
MICHI: You’re a contortionist, you can’t do half the stuff that women are –
JEFF: We’re definitely going to touch on the comic book thing too, because it reminds me of a previous interview that we had that I want to get your guys’ opinion on.
[26:55 – End of Part 1]
[27:00 – Beginning of Part 2]
JEFF: Okay, so, we’re back with the panelists for “Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl.” And we were just talking about gatekeeping, and I kinda want to shift the conversation to gatekeeping when it’s actually done by women. Kind of like the Uncle Tom issue, right? [laughter] So one of the examples I was thinking of, David Zoltan, one of the organizers for the Chicago Board Games [correction: Chicago Game Lovers] meetups group, he launched a campaign for Cantina Forward, which was basically – awesome idea – small plug – to launch a geek bar. So they interviewed people after a meetup, and a couple of the women were a little trendily dressed.
And someone had commented on the post, like, “Wow, I can’t believe that these girls are wearing fashion-forward clothing. Where are the real geek girls?” Basically, this girl looked at someone, assessed their wardrobe, and said, “You can’t be a geek because you’re stylish and your glasses are cool.” Does it pose an issue, does it pose problems, impede progress, when we have women imposing these same types of, you know, bogus gatekeeping standards? And how do we deal with that? And really, what is the motivation behind that?
MICHI: Absolutely this causes problems. And this is kind of like, you know, there’s a saying in a lot of feminist theory that says, “Patriarchy hurts men too.” This is kind of the other side of that, that says, there’s nothing that stops women from being sexist. A lot of that has to do with issues of internalized misogyny. When you come from a culture that elevates issues of – that elevates masculinity and expressions of masculinity and kind of denigrates femininity and expressions of femininity, you internalize a lot of that. I know, growing up, that’s a lot of why I definitely express myself more, preferentially, in masculine terms.
I used to consider calling myself a tomboy. There are reasons why I don’t use that term anymore, but I prefer to identify myself in ways that were tough and strong and forward and brash. And those were things that were associated more with being masculine and not with being a girl. I would consider myself doing those things despite being a girl, and that’s not right. I’m all those things, AND a woman. You can be a girl and you can be tough. You are not tough despite being a girl. I think it’s a very fine shift, but a very important shift in language, and I think that has a lot to do with why some women in geek culture will look at other women who don’t fit what the ideal, or what the stereotype in geek culture has been, which typically has been very male-oriented.
I went to a – one of the very first meetups I went to, to a geek thing in Chicago, years ago, was something I went to with my husband. And I had just, for whatever reason, instead of wearing a geeky t-shirt and a pair of jeans, I decided that I’m going to wear something nice, like a nice kind of trendy flowy shirt, wear a nice pair of pants, did my hair, wore a little makeup. I went with my husband, and the reaction I got from the other women there was really interesting. I had never gotten that kind of reaction before, which was, “Oh, you’re – oh, you’re here with your husband? Yeah, oh, that’s why you’re here, you’re not really here because you’re actually a geek girl. Because of the way that you look.” I had to be like, no! What, no! I read Lord of the Rings, I do Star Trek, I got kicked out of playing Star Wars Trivial Pursuit with my friends because they kept – you know they kept getting bored waiting for me to lose my turn. What the hell! And I never experienced that with women before, and it had to do with the way that I look. So, and I’m like, why? Because I actually look feminine.
JEFF: Is, is, I’m sorry, did you have something –
JEN: It’s almost like a fraternity mentality. Like, we had to go through so many obstacles in order to be considered having credentials in geek communities. So we feel almost like, maybe, there’s this sort of like reciprocity that needs to happen with the women who are now coming in to geek culture and sort of discovering for the first time, whether they’re young or whether they’re older, this fascinating little subculture. So I’m wondering – so I think a lot of that has to do with it too. We need to break it down and realize that continuing this struggle is not helping anybody, and we need to break down that confrontational attitude and start working with each other and teach these people who are coming in all about the stuff that we love, so that they can love it just as much as we do.
MICHI: It’s like the Scalzi aspect. Just because it was hard for some of us –
JEFF: Wait, wait, time out – explain that.
MICHI: So, actually, I’m going to kick this one over to Laura because she loves this piece as much as I do.
LAURA: In short, in response to a very sexist post on CNN’s Geek Out blog that’s sort of one of the starting events last summer of this whole fake geek girl phenomenon, John Scalzi wrote a piece that was titled, “Who Gets to Be a Geek? Anyone Who Wants to Be.” Which, that title sort of speaks for the entire piece. Whoever wants to be a geek in whatever way they want to be a geek with whatever fandoms, whatever, you know, things that they want to be geekish about, they can do that and they can call themselves a geek and they are totally entitled to it, and no one gave you or anyone else the right to determine their geekness or their nerdiness. [Editor’s Note: In November 2012, Joe Peacock wrote a follow-up piece stating he was “rethinking” his original piece about “fake geek girls.” He hasn’t spoken a word on the subject since.]
ERIN: I was very – I’m going to say very lucky growing up, because I’ve always been a girly girl. I’ve always loved being a girl. But I’ve always loved being a nerd. Loved reading my sci-fi and crawling into those stories in my head and just totally embracing all those fantastical outlets that don’t exist in reality. But I also grew up in a community, in a very artistic community, where that was not only supported but encouraged. I went to a performing arts high school where everyone had to audition to get in with an art of their choice. I want to a small southern Indiana college, but that was predominantly run by the theater department. So everyone was artistic and expressed how they felt, and whatever your passion was, was just as awesome as anyone else’s passion.
So all of that being said, the things that I loved doing, the nerdy things that I loved doing, were never considered contrary to being a girly girl. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago and I started going to things as a nerd that I started getting people looking at me like I wasn’t justified to be there, because I wasn’t dressed awkwardly. Because I never got beat up as a kid because I liked sci-fi. Because nobody ever shoved me in a locker because my friends all thought my sci-fi interests were kinda cool. And it wasn’t until I started going to cons and having people say thing like, “Oh you don’t get to be a real nerd because you never suffered for it.” Well, why should me having to suffer mean that I can’t be interested in nerdy things?
JEN: It should be the opposite. We suffered so that other people don’t have to. [laughter]
MICHI: Right? Right. I mean, why is it such a bad thing that, like, a woman – let’s say, our friend Kriss Abigail who was on our panel last year, who actually was not a nerd when she was growing up. She discovered being interested in gaming and nerdy stuff and doctor who as an adult. Why should it be a bad thing that it’s theoretically easier for her to call herself a nerd and a geek because she doesn’t have to go through some sort of social ostracism for those interests. Just because some of us went through that kind of hard stuff when we were growing up.
ERIN: But I think that –
JEFF: I think part of it, though, is the fact that, you know, these terms were kind of used to describe a shared experience. And the – I think it’s probably, as a result of the culture going mainstream, we’re getting this influx of new fandom that didn’t experience it the same way we did and we’re going through a transitional period, but going back to the idea and the concept of gatekeeping, I want to kind of play the devil’s advocate and, does gatekeeping provide any value at all?
And what I mean by that is, when we use terms like “nerd,” “geek,” what’s the huge debate on the web, right? People are always, you know, “What is a nerd versus a geek versus a dweeb, what’s the difference?” When we talk about Chicago Nerd Social Club, people are like, “Oh you guys are into math and stuff?” And it’s like, well, some of us? Yeah. Some of us are into comic books. “Oh, but that’s a geek. You guys should be the Chicago Geek Social Club.”
DAWN: I mean, I do think there’s a little bit of value in keeping “nerd” or “geek” however you want to exactly define those things to a relatively – I mean, it needs to be somewhat defined, right? Because we can’t say, if we say that you’re a nerd about everything, then the word starts to lose its value. But I think that’s a little bit of a separate issue than gatekeeping, per se, because gatekeeping seeks to exclude people, and what I’m talking about is trying to have a definition that we can all understand. If we can all agree that being nerdy or being geeky has something to do, probably, with science fiction or science or gaming or sometimes literature, you know there’s sort of a defined thing we can look at. But I mean, I feel like it’s a little bit different when it’s – well this is sort of my territory, I want to push everybody else out, even though they want to be in. They’re into the same things I’m into, but I’m not going to allow them to be.
LAURA: But I feel like when you take, when you – because gatekeeping and the act of exclusion operates on a definition, and an idea of what something is, and thus what something is not, because you can exclude all those who are not what you want them to be. And you know, I hear where you’re coming from, and it’s like, the urge to have an identity, and in order to have an identity, there is some definition that has to be going on. But there’s some line there, that if we cross it, we’re going from defining ourselves to defining everyone around us. And to say that being a nerd means that you’re into sci-fi, in gaming and comics and fantasy, well what about the people who are history nerds? Or music nerds? Or food nerds, like Michi? I mean, where, if you start labeling categories . . .
JEFF: Where does it end?
ERIN: I think Simon Pegg had this beautiful, brilliant quote about the definition of being a nerd is being so passionate about the thing that you love that you want to run out, grab everyone around you, and share it with them because it’s so awesome, and it’s so great, and you just can’t even stand it, so you have to share it! And I think that’s the beauty of the idea of the nerd is – even if you go back to textbook stereotypes of nerd, it’s somebody that’s so passionate about the things they’re interested in, to the exclusion of, well screw you guys, I don’t care about your football, I’m going to go read sci-fi. Or I’m going to do physics. Or I’m going to play checkers – whatever your thing was, and that’s kind of what built that definition of nerd, is somebody who didn’t follow a social norm because they were so passionate about the thing they loved.
JEFF: That’s kind of our, you know, the Chicago Nerd Social Club, that’s kind of our definition of it, something that you’re passionate about. And similar to what Simon Pegg said, Merlin Mann had a quote, it’s like, basically, a nerd is anyone that’s passionate enough about a subject that’s willing to talk to you longer than your interest will actually –
DAWN: My question sometimes with these definitions, as much as I do actually really like them, is, I mean, most people who would consider themselves nerds are not hugely into sports, right? And a lot of people who are really big sports fans, they are exactly that. They’re super excited –
ERIN: Yeah, but none of them would ever identify –
DAWN: But they won’t identify as nerds.
ERIN: And so if you’re not willing to self-identify as nerding out over something, I think you’ve imposed your own distinction.
DAWN: Which I think is fine
JEN: Which is ironic, because they’ll watch Batman movies day-in and day-out no problem.
JEFF: Right, and part of that is the whole negative connotation of nerd, as alluded to by our illustrious pickup artist. [laughter]
JEFF: If you guys haven’t seen that, we should probably post that on the website so it’s easily accessible.
DAWN: The best of.
KARLYN: Yeah, yeah, the best of.
MICHI: Oh boy. If that wasn’t a calling card for why, actually – I was actually going to say, that was one of the things that really impressed me about the Chicago Nerd Social Club, was, how many people roundly condemned the fact that a pickup artist tried to get into, tried to get the Chicago Nerd Social Club to give him a forum to give his spiel, and everybody said, “No, we’re not buying, it’s not what we want.” It’s not what the kind of – it’s not the kind of nerds that we are, and we actually respect women, so no, we don’t want it. I think that was actually the moment, the defining moment for me, when I looked at the club and said, “These are the kind of nerds that I want to be around.”
KARLYN: I kind of want to tie a lot of things that have been said together, when you talk about what is the problem with gatekeeping, and I think something we kinda came to, was that, however we choose to define “nerd” or “geek,” there’s a bit of self-definition. It has to be something you claim. It’s not necessarily – it can be something that’s appended to you –
JEFF: We can’t fit you into a category, you know –
KARLYN: Exactly. But it has to be something that you bring in and on yourself. And so that’s really the problem with gatekeeping, is that you turn it from a, “This person is so passionate and they will tell you the source of their passion and only they really know it,” to, “Well let me see if this person knows enough trivia. Let me see if this person has enough –“
KARLYN: You know, and so you’re looking at all these external things where it’s like, you can’t actually gauge the depth of this person’s interest, and so you don’t get to gatekeep, because you just don’t know. You don’t know them, and that’s really coming from them.
MICHI: Unless you’re Professor X. [laughter]
JEFF: And kind of going with that, you know, self-defining, self-definition thing, I think a lot of gatekeeping, a t least from the male perspective, and it sounds like possibly in the female perspective too, a lot of it is self-definition and self-esteem, in that these people around me are like me, and now this person who is not like me who hasn’t had my same struggles is entering my domain. This is my world, and I don’t want that encroachment.
And I’m absolutely positive that’s where the female gatekeeping comes from, because, let me tell you something, if you’re dating a guy, it doesn’t matter what you know, you can be a geek, a nerd, you can wear a Green Lantern shirt, if you’re going to date this guy, it’s like, “Oh yeah, she’s a nerd, she’s a geek.” But if you come in with that same set of interests and you’re not interested in anyone in the group, suddenly it’s like, “Well, you don’t belong here. You’re not nerdy enough.” And I’ve seen that in breakups happen. Suddenly this person, these couples split up, and now suddenly it’s like, “Oh, you know, why doesn’t Brandy play in our D&D game?” “Aw she was never really into it, she was just doing it for him.”
MICHI: It should not, like – I was having this discussion actually with Carlye the other day and we were kind of talking about how what it kind of boils down to, one of the things about women in geek culture and the fake geek girl thing, is that 1) Women in geek culture, whether or not how attractive you are, our level of attractiveness should have nothing to do with determining how welcome we are, whether or not straight men in geek culture think a woman is attractive has nothing to do with how welcome they’re going to make us, because our level of attractiveness has no bearing at all on what value we bring to the culture. And 2) Because it’s not about – geek culture is not just about straight male. There are gay men, there are asexual men, there are queer, it’s a culture that encompasses all sorts of identities. And too, just because, no matter what your gender is, your gender should not be, should not mean, that you have a special level of qualifications that you have to pass in order to be a part of geek culture.
JEFF: We are so going to go over, because every time we start talking about something like this –
JEFF: I wanted to kind of dig in to something you said about geek culture not being male only. And I think that’s interesting. Is there, is there sort of – because I’ve been consulted by, you know, asked by a few people, approached by a few people, about starting different focused nerd groups. You know, someone wants a gay nerd group. Someone wants a black nerds group. Do we do the community as a whole a disservice once we start splintering the groups to serve these types of niches, for lack of a better word?
KARLYN: I think that sometimes that kinda comes from a desire to have a safe space. When you have somebody that’s –
JEN: Most definitely.
KARLYN: They’re trying to integrate this geek culture, you know, with all of this gatekeeping as we’re discussing, and they find that some of the reasons they’re being kept out is, “Oh, you don’t look like me. You don’t look like this stereotypical . . .” – we always hear about nerds being pasty and pale. I am not pasty or pale because I’m African American. But yeah, all these things that you hear about, that this is what a nerd is, and so sometimes just that desire to say, “I want people that just – they recognize this thing about me, this way that I’m a minority in addition to being maybe feeling like a socially ostracized, because of my interest,” and so I think that there’s a desire for that, and I understand it, I don’t necessarily think it’s the answer, but I definitely see where it’s coming from.
LAURA: And I will not deny that if I’m in a group of geeks or nerds who I never met, I feel definitely a little more uncomfortable if I am the only female in the group. I am on high alert, like what’s going to be said to me? What assumptions are already being made? If I walk into a group of geeks who I’ve never met before and there are five other women in the group, I’m like, okay.
ERIN: It’s good to know you’re not alone in a group. And especially in a group, like we’re discussing, that has such issues with exclusion and gatekeeping and trying to keep whatever – that they – that other people determine isn’t worthy – out, it’s good to know that you’re not the only one trying to break into this group. I think it becomes detrimental when it’s to the exclusion of everyone else. So okay, I’m a gay nerd. That means that you’re a bi nerd and you’re a trans nerd, so you guys can get the hell out of my group. Well now you’re excluding, and so you’re doing the exact same thing that you were trying to find other people to fit in with because of.
JEFF: And I think it’s difficult, I have this conversation a lot, and amazingly it’s always civil, but I think it’s a difficulty for people of privilege to understand the difference between a particular subgroup meeting together, the classic example is like, you guys have a black nerds meetup. That’s racist! [laughter] It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s difficult to get someone to understand that when every meetup group looks and acts like them, you know? And I think that’s always a difficult thing to get over and deal with, and I don’t know how to solve that problem other than try to explain it. And it never really works, it doesn’t get into ugly conversations, but we always walk away saying agree to disagree.
KARLYN: Privilege is hard to recognize in yourself.
MICHI: Yeah, it’s very hard.
DAWN: Well I think it was Scalzi who actually put a really great analogy on it, as, if you are a straight white male, imagine you are playing a video game.
MICHI: Yeah, that was a really good piece.
DAWN: You might not make it to the end of the game. You might die really, really early on. You might make it to the end of the game, and, hooray! You’ve done a great job. But you started out on the easy mode. Somebody else, maybe they’re black. Maybe they started out on the difficult mode. They still have to get to the end point.
JEFF: Right, right.
ERIN: Maybe they’re on suicide mode, and they can’t get past stage one! There’s-
DAWN: You know, not everybody’s going to make it to the end, and you might encounter a lot of hard things even in the easy mode, but it’s still the easiest mode there is.
JEFF: Right. I actually want to segue into video games, I know we’re overtime, but the conversation’s been too good to cut short. So. Video games is a rampant cesspool [laughter] of any kind of bigotry you can possibly imagine.
JEN: Any and all.
JEFF: Right. We’re going to focus on sexism at this point, and I want to kick it over to Karlyn. Karlyn, you’re an avid gamer.
KARLYN: Yes, yes.
JEFF: I’m guessing you may have encountered what – not just as a female gamer but as a black female gamer. I’m sure you’ve encountered some . . .
KARLYN: Yeah, oh man, there are so many things I’d like to say. So first of all, I kind of want to, I guess, out myself, that in terms of gatekeeping, I was a gatekeeper for a while in that really women-hurting-women kind of way.
MICHI: It’s okay, so was I.
KARLYN: Yeah, it happens, you know? And it’s like, once I finally got to that point where guys recognize, “Oh she does know how to play, oh she does like first person shooters, oh she is, whatever,” I felt like I had earned my stripes, and that I was really proud to have integrated into that. And so it was really difficult for me, sometimes, when you know my pretty girlfriends would come in and they would also like video games, and it was just something that I had to recognize in myself.
KARLYN: That, you know –
JEFF: You want the pink controller? [laughter]
KARLYN: Right, exactly. Yeah. And there was a lot of – in addition to all the stuff we have with trying to keep our geek spaces sacred, even though as you said they are kind of rampant cesspools sometimes, there’s also just, from the feminist perspective, there’s a lot of jealousy and competitiveness that we’re perpetuating, and we just kind of see it as, “Oh well, you know, it’s this girl thing,” but it’s like, no, we’re tearing each other down and we don’t need to do that. So yeah that’s one thing that I definitely . . .
JEFF: There was a vlogger, and she’s out of Chicago –
MICHI: MmmHMM! [laughter]
JEFF: And she – okay, alright, pardon me, but she had kinda made the comment that basically, I believe, correct me if I’m wrong because it’s been a while, but basically women were bringing it on themselves in gaming.
JEFF: Basically, it was a kinda like a “nut up” approach, right? Like you’ve got to nut up and deal with this. Am I remembering it right, correctly?
LAURA: You’re remembering it right.
DAWN: I think all of us saw it and weren’t quite sure how to respond.
MICHI: You’re remembering it correctly, I believe the – I believe the comment was how, because women talk about being harassed in gaming, and because they talk about their negative experiences in gaming, that’s what’s scaring women away from gaming. It’s not that there’s harassment and sexual harassment in gaming, and that women get subjected to an enormous amount of crap more than men do, and a different kind of crap than men do in gaming, that’s the problem. It’s that women talk about how they’re subjected to that kind of thing in gaming, and that’s why other women are scared away from gaming, and they’re giving gaming a bad name by talking about it, the implication being, they shouldn’t talk about it and stop giving gaming a bad name. And so –
DAWN: I think we wondered if she was a troll.
JEFF: She was just, and I want to be clear, like –
MICHI: No, no, no! She’s serious, she really believes this kind of thing, and so do a lot of women. I used to believe that kind of thing. I used to think that the problem was, that women were not tough enough –
JEFF: And hang on, before you get too deep into it, I just want to be clear though, I think that people are entitled to their viewpoints and opinions, and I think that we’re doing a good job of kind of refuting that with our own opinions, but I just want to make it clear that, it’s like, you can have your own viewpoints.
LAURA: And I just want to say that Karlyn, you admitted that you’ve done some gatekeeping. So has Michi. I probably have at some time.
MICHI: We all have, probably.
JEFF: People are at different phases.
LAURA: And I understand that people are in different phases. And while, you know, deep down I’m like, “You need to be out of that phase right now!” Realistically I know that that’s not going to happen, and that all we can do is civilly talk to each other and try to work this out. And just because I tell someone that you’re saying something that’s sexist or you’re being misogynist or you’re kind of displaying gatekeeping behaviors, does not mean that you ARE sexist, ARE misogynist, or ARE a gatekeeper. What I’m saying is, this is what you’re doing, it’s not defining who you are. You can overcome that.
JEFF: And that’s part of the progressive movement of any type of situation like this. It’s like, you’re not going to flip the switch overnight. And if you did, it would probably be problematic, right? If they freed the slaves and just put them in the post office right after that, shit would be bad, right? [laughter]
DAWN: That’s the example you’re going to go with?
LAURA: You just did not say that.
KARLYN: That was not your best example, Jeff.
ERIN: So that happened.
ERIN: Word of the day.
MICHI: The problem is, with a lot of this women-versus-women, with the fake geek girl thing, what it comes down to is that it’s pitting women against women when the problem really is sexism and misogyny in geek culture. It’s not other women being fake geeks that’s the problem. The real problem is sexism and misogyny of which the fake geek girl phenomenon is a manifestation, and that’s why we really want to talk about it.
JEFF: And we could talk about this forever and ever and ever, but unfortunately we’ve got to wrap it up. I want to thank you guys for joining us. It was a really, really, really good conversation. Looking forward to the panel, “Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl.” That is on . . .
MICHI: Sunday, April 28th, at 12:15 – 1:15 in room W473 at McCormick Place.
JEFF: And if you haven’t bought your tickets to C2E2, you can buy them on chicagonerds.com, just click the little banner so we get a little swag points for that. Michi, Laura, Dawn, Erin, Karlyn, Jen, thanks for joining us. We will put links to where you can find them all in the show notes.
MICHI: Thanks so much for having us.
LAURA, ERIN, DAWN, KARLYN, JEN: Thank you.
[54:49 – End of Part 2]