I've been meaning to write this post ever since I had to leave the Doctor Who forum Gallifrey. But it's not just that, it's how uncomfortable and unwelcomed I feel in almost all areas of geek culture. When I joined the Doctor Who forum, all I did was argue that we shouldn't make jokes that belittle the experiences of oppressed and minority populations. Also, those jokes aren't edgy, they're mainstream, because they invalidate people whose voices are already censored and silenced. And I was quickly labeled too-emotional-crazy-female, and the purpose of that label was to censor and silence me. Not that the forum didn't have women on it, it certainly did. But they were the type of women who, when faced with a post suggesting that women "don't get" science fiction, rather readily agreed, and simply argued that they weren't like those women (silly women who care about fashion and shopping and frivolous lady things), but different, better women. Women who get sci fi. So, sci fi seems to accept women in its culture, as long as those women are perfectly ready to concede to patriarchy and put down fellow ladies (and lady-related things) when required.
And I've learned my lesson: science fiction forums, unless they're particularly feminist-friendly (thank goodness, these spaces do exist), are going to be full of misogyny and homophobia (I find the homophobia on a DW forum puzzling beyond belief. And I'm not the only one.). But sci fi isn't the only piece of geek culture that systematically shuts (non-compliant) women out. One of the reasons I don't read graphic novels is because I can't become a fan girl without a tougher skin than I have. I'm also a gamer, but I refuse to get on forums like Ryan does, and I honestly don't like playing MMOs as a woman, because of the harassment. There are facets of geek culture that are academic/professional and shut out women (math, computer/techy professions) and some geek cultures that are better than others about cutting out the sexism (fantasy, anime), but as a whole, geek culture really only wants one type of woman. And that woman doesn't disturb the sexist status quo.
Why would geeks be misogynistic? The average geek is not just male, but white, heterosexual, abled, and middle- to upper-class. With all that privilege, it's a bit unsurprising that geeks are reluctant to challenge the status quo. As feminism is most broadly understood as attempting to end all domination, not just sexual domination, threatening the patriarchy threatens not just male privilege and power, but class power, race privilege, etc. of your average geek. Obviously, its more complicated than that (for one, power doesn't only exist in hierarchies), especially given the culture of anti-intellectualism in the U.S. Because of anti-intellectualism, geek culture is counter-cultural, which means that geeks like to think that they are progressive as all get-out. I was not the only one on Gallifrey, for instance, who was openly appalled by the homophobic stuff said by other posters. When I suggested that you should curb your jokes about rape or race or disability, the tone of some posters was, "How dare you question my sensitivity! You're just too radical. We're only normal-level progressive here. But we're not sexists! Or racists!" And over half the regular posters clearly thought of themselves as politically progressive, and Doctor Who as a politically progressive show. But my posts about being sensitive when you tell jokes, and taking responsibility for the violence and damage that your words do, labelled me as too liberal, too radical.
Jason over at Geek Culture argues that male geeks may be sexist because they're sexually frustrated and trying to shore up their masculinity:
Basically I think this comes down to feeling rejected and threatened by women—either personally/romantically/sexually or in terms of professional and cultural identity—and trying to cut women down to feel better about themselves. Some geeks have indeed turned to coding or gaming or whatever to prove their worth as men, according greater worth to geeky knowledge than to traditional indexes of masculinity; contemplating women excelling in these fields raises questions about how masculine they really are.There's two problems with this line of reasoning. The first is that it seems to ignore that sexism is a bigger cultural problem than just men despairing of their lack of pussy. Sexual frustration does not account for centuries (centuries!) of the systemic oppression of women. And to act like misogyny in geek culture has nothing to do with misogyny in mainstream culture is stubbornly dense. The second problem is that this starts to sound a whole lot like saying that pick-up-artists turn violent because women don't fufill their proper roles as compliant, sexual objects. Even though Jason is not saying that geek men are justified in being sexist by their inability to have sexual relationships with women, the implication of this claim is that if women were to give up and turn into freely-available sexual objects, misogynistic violence would just go away. And any idiot can see that that is not a likely possibility, because if you give misogynists the world they desire (where women are completely stripped of their basic rights), they're not going to become sweet pussycats. They'll still hate women. So I don't buy that geek men are sexist because of their sense of sexual entitlement or their masculinity anxiety; those are the results of sexist culture, not the cause.
Based on my own experiences, I don’t see “geek culture,” broadly speaking, as misogynistic. Actually, I see it kind of torn between two mindsets: one, a sexist mindset built on isolation from women and the freedom of anonymity, and the other, an open-minded and welcoming mindset built on a rejection of “mainstream” norms and self-conscious (even self-congratulatory) embrace of the intellect and social progress.Again, I think Jason has a problem distinguishing between cause and effect. Isn't it more likely that "isolation from women" is the result of sexism and not the cause? And I think that the counter-cultural tendency of geek culture does not necessarily come from "an open-minded and welcoming mindset" and embracing social progress. As I pointed out earlier, the counter-cultural tendency of science fiction is very often just a rejection of anti-intellectualism. And often intellectualism manifests as socially progressive (more academics are liberal, for example, than not), but not always. And science is not a field unblemished by misogyny (See: Fausto-Sterling and evo psych). So the endorsement of science and intellectualism and the endorsement of patriarchy and sexism are not mutually exclusive. You can be a scientist, an academic, or even a liberal(!) and still be protective of your privilege, to the point of sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, etc. To illustrate, let me tell you in more detail what happened at Gallifrey.*
The subject of the thread was the Family Guy episode about the mentally retarded, the one that was clearly a response to and mocking of Sarah Palin and her (justified) anger with Rahm Emanuel for using the word "retard" in a derogatory sense. (What isn't justified is how she later argued that it's okay when Rush Limbaugh did the same thing, because he was being satirical. Or something. Palin is a moron, but mocking the mentally disabled in casual speech is still not okay.) We bandied back and forth about whether the episode was offensive or not, and I argued eventually that Family Guy is just a show that makes money by thinking that rape is funny and marginalizing the experiences of already marginalized populations. I even used that link. That started a shitstorm; I kept repeating that marginalizing jokes (sexist, racist, etc.) aren't funny, and I was criticized for using a link to Feministing (which is one of the most popular feminist blogs on the internet, but this guy was acting like it was the secret enclave of man-hating crazy feminazis), for trying to "censor" people and make non-PC jokes illegal, and for being too sensitive. All the commenters at this point were men (there may have been one comment by one female poster, but I can't remember), and I would like to posit: not a coincidence. The censoring criticism came from my suggestion that these types of jokes should be considered so far from mainstream that they are censored by individuals, using the example of racism. If a politician says something racist, he has to publicly apologize. If a person wants to tell a racist joke, his options of safe spaces to do so are limited (very limited in certain geographical areas). Even people who are still racist (but don't really know it) don't tend to put up with racist jokes around them. They're inappropriate, and as a result, racism is not really allowed in polite company anymore (at least, overt and verbal racism). I argued that this was obviously not enough, but at least progress, and that homophobia was quickly being driven underground too. The censoring I was suggesting was censoring in the same way that many people boycotted companies that funded Prop 8 in California. What I was saying was that I hoped one day that rape jokes, sexist jokes, ableist jokes, classist jokes, racist jokes (racism that isn't polite company talk in the U.S. is mainly about blacks; you can still joke about Mexicans, Arabs, etc. without too much worry), etc. would all be censored in a similar manner. That individuals would feel uncomfortable telling those jokes to all audiences. I never once said that these jokes should be illegal. Remember, my example was racism in the U.S., and I don't know if you guys know this, but: Racism is totally legal in the U.S. Despite that assurance, I was told multiple times that my position was an infringement on free speech rights. The commenters were willfully misunderstanding me, so I promise, I explained it even more fully than I just did to you. And then I really wanted them to understand that I didn't think they should be censored out of spite or because I'm just woefully devoid of a sense of humor, but because they perpetuate violence.
Then I linked to this amazing post** by Kate Harding, quoting the relevant parts, which I'll do for you here:
But here’s where all this victimy girl shit concerns you:Here's the thing: jokes (and not just sexist ones, but all the other kinds I've been talking about) help perpetuate violence and oppression. And I asked: Is it worth it to do that, for a laugh? Is it worth triggering a female acquaintance (1 in 6 American women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime) for the laugh you and your buddies get out of telling a rape joke? No one really answered this question, they just got angry with the premise. Two of them told me that a)they did not know any real misogynists, and that "mature people" can tell the difference between a joke and a real hatred for women and b)I shouldn't blame them and other men who make sexist jokes for the violence of other, misogynistic men, who are clearly just crazy assholes. There was some deep denial going on there, and I doubt even one of the commenters on that thread would have agreed that yes, there is a rape culture, and yes, it exists in both the U.S. and the U.K. I didn't even bring up the victim-blaming study that came out of Britain recently, but I would have if I thought it would help and I had stayed longer. But at this point, it was already ugly. I was trying very hard to be calm and reasonable about the whole thing (I was emotional in the same way that Kate is in that post, not angry emotional but this-touches-my-life-every-day-stop-invalidating-my-experiences emotional), but I was getting back quite a bit of mocking anger and dismissive assholery from multiple posters. There was one anti-feminist commenter who told me that I really just wanted to dominate men and make them socially inferior to women, that I hated men, etc. Standard "you're a feminazi!" fare, and something I did not expect to encounter on Gallifrey. So, in a last-ditch effort to squeeze any amount of sympathy from these men, I told a story from my own life that illustrates how sexist rhetoric (jokes, etc.) creates a safe space for misogynists and allows them to justify their own fucked up hatred of women. My own dad was a misogynist, and he was verbally abusive to my whole family, but his abuse of my mother was ridiculously sexist. And he had friends (they weren't lovely people, but I don't think most of them actually knew how violent and hateful he was about and to women) who made sexist jokes and comments (like those outlined by Kate) all the time. And he absolutely thought he was justified, that they agreed with him. I also mentioned that horrifying Superbowl Dodge commercial, and told them that it was slightly triggering for me, because it reminds me of all the times he used to blame her for ruining his life with her lady-vagina ways, by being such a fun-killing shrew (because she, you know, wanted him to stop cheating and keep a job every once in a while). And my point was that he didn't know that hating women was not normal. And why should he? Our culture tells men constantly that women emasculate you, that they're gross and icky, that they ruin everything, that they deserve violence and punishment, that they ruin your life once you're married, that they deserve to be hated. And you and your buddies joking about how women are only good for sex and cooking are not fucking helping.
every time you don’t tell your buddies it’s not okay to talk shit about women, even if it’s kinda funny;You are missing an opportunity to help stop the bad guys.
every time you roll your eyes and think “PMS!” instead of listening to why a woman’s upset;
every time you call Ann Coulter a tranny cunt instead of a halfwit demagogue;
every time you say any woman–Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Phyllis Schlafly, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, any of us–”deserves whatever she gets” for being so detestable, instead of acknowledging there are things that no human being deserves and only women get;
every time you joke about how you’ll never let your daughter out of the house or anywhere near a man, ’cause ha ha, that’ll solve everything;
every time you say, “I don’t understand why thousands of women are insisting this is some kind of woman thing”;
every time you tell a woman you love she’s being crazy/hysterical/irrational, when you know deep down you haven’t heard a word she’s said in the past 15 minutes, and all you’re really thinking about is how seeing her yell and/or cry is incredibly unsettling to you, and you just want that shit to stop;
every time you dismiss a woman as “playing the victim,” even if you’re right about that particular woman…
You’re missing an opportunity to stop the real misogynists, the fucking sickos, the ones who really, truly hate women just for being women. The ones whose ranks you do not belong to and never would. The ones who might hurt women you love in the future, or might have already.
‘Cause the thing is, you and the guys you hang out with may not really mean anything by it when you talk about crazy bitches and dumb sluts and heh-heh-I’d-hit-that and you just can’t reason with them and you can’t live with ‘em can’t shoot ‘em and she’s obviously only dressed like that because she wants to get laid and if they can’t stand the heat they should get out of the kitchen and if they can’t play by the rules they don’t belong here and if they can’t take a little teasing they should quit and heh heh they’re only good for fucking and cleaning and they’re not fit to be leaders and they’re too emotional to run a business and they just want to get their hands on our money and if they’d just stop overreacting and telling themselves they’re victims they’d realize they actually have all the power in this society and white men aren’t even allowed to do anything anymore and and and…
I get that you don’t really mean that shit. I get that you’re just talking out your ass.
But please listen, and please trust me on this one: you have probably, at some point in your life, engaged in that kind of talk with a man who really, truly hates women–to the extent of having beaten and/or raped at least one. And you probably didn’t know which one he was.
And that guy? Thought you were on his side.
As long as we live in a culture where the good guys sometimes sound just like the misogynists, the misogynists are never going to get the message that they are not normal and that most people–strong, successful men included–do not hate women.
When you trivialize what even the women you love are saying to you, when you let sexist remarks slide, when you insist that women view things from your perspective (rational! calm! reasonable!) because you don’t feel like trying to see theirs (emotional! hysterical! nuts!), when you sit around laughing with other men about how crazy chicks are before you go home to the wife and daughters you love more than life and always treat with respect, when you say the fact that online harassment disproportionately affects women somehow doesn‘t mean we should be considering it through the lens of women’s experiences in particular, you’re not fucking helping. You’re being willfully obtuse. You’re enjoying the luxury of not having to take what we’re telling you seriously–and that’s why we get so goddamned frustrated and angry and hysterical. Because we don’t have the option of not caring about this shit, and you just keep telling us not to.
And because the really bad guys don’t pop out of thin air as fully formed misogynists. They need encouragement and reinforcement in order to completely miss the fact that there’s something deeply fucking wrong with them. Subtle sexism gives them that. Keeping your mouth shut about overt sexism gives them that. Not really listening to the women you love, let alone women you don’t even know–thereby being one more guy sending a message to women that we’re only worth listening to on men’s terms–gives them that. Telling yourself and anyone who will listen that that’s just the way it is, and people need to quit whining gives them that. How can they clue into the fact that there’s something deeply fucking wrong with them when so many guys are acting just like they do in public, or at least never calling them out?
You can probably guess the reaction: You obviously need therapy, and Gallifrey isn't the place. Seriously. They pathologized my experience so that they could dismiss it. It was so classically sexist I almost laughed. But I didn't, because being silenced like that is so...horrible. I felt powerless. I surround myself by supportive and non-asshole people, so I'd almost forgotten what being silenced because I'm a woman felt like. I'd almost forgotten what it's like to talk to people who will, as soon as it's convenient, completely invalidate my speech and my experiences. And my attempts to elicit sympathy were read as crazy-talk, hysteria, not-important. So I left. I wrote a response telling them they were pathologizing me to censor me, and that that was a sexist reaction to my story. They didn't even have to think about whether rape culture helped foster my father's misogyny, and that was why they were pathologizing me. And I was angry and upset not because of what happened to me as a kid, but because they were being rude and dismissive. I was angry because they were denying what women experience on a day-to-day basis, ignoring how their own behaviors and words help perpetuate violence against women. Of course that makes me emotional. And I didn't go back to see their responses, because, well, I'm only so much a masochist.
Okay, the point of that whole long story is that, except for the one clearly anti-feminist asshole, I'm sure most of these people are lovely in person. Many of them were clearly liberal and fairly progressive. But when I threatened their privilege (to make jokes, of all things, without having to think about how those jokes perpetuate violence and relate to real people's lives), they instantly got defensive and douchey. I've experienced a similar thing in another (atheist) forum before; when I was talking about how awesome Anne Fausto-Sterling is (she argues that gender precedes sex, and that we write sex on the body, as opposed to reading what's already there), I was pushed into a corner. Not one man was even willing to consider the argument, and very few women were, and they were significantly more progressive than Gallifrey members. So, you really don't have to be conservative to perpetuate a sexist culture. Jason's argument, that geek culture suffers from a clash between progressive, open-minded people and asshole, sexist people is an oversimplication. There are strands of progressive beliefs and attitudes in geek culture, but those aren't necessarily at odds or in different people than the sexism that pervades that culture.
That's all for now. I'll be posting a second part to this post, looking at and analyzing examples of sexism in geek culture.
*I'm not going to quote anyone, including myself, because I can't go back over there without getting really upset again. Also, I have zero desire to see how those assholes responded to my farewell post. I have no doubt it got ugly. Which means I'm interpreting this entire exchange, and I do realize that. I will do my best not to hyperbolize and to be honest about what happened. I have no desire to paint these guys in dishonestly bad light.
**I often worry that I'll one day get the same sort of abuse that Kate Harding did. The traffic at my blog increases every month, which is great(!), but it scares me a little. I've yet to get any horrifying comments or emails, although a few comments on old posts are clearly written by one or two assholes, and I've yet to actually moderate. But my identity is not a secret, even though I haven't posted my last name here (mostly because I don't want people Googling my name to find my blog, because I have people in my life who would be horrified by it, including family members). I've put my first name, though, what school I attend and even what department. It's not exactly rocket science. But this blog is about me and my life, not an adopted persona or something, and that's why I've done that. And I should be able to have an identity on the internet without the threat of violence. It's a tricky line to walk, as Kate's post makes clear.
UPDATE: I wish I had found this guy's blog before I got into that DW forum argument! Althought it probably wouldn't have helped.