20 August 2010

She Geek: Women and Self-Labeling in Online Geek Communities

(The following is a project I did for my sociolinguistics course, and I thought you guys might like it. Enjoy!)

My intent in this project was to examine the labeling of female-oriented geek spaces on the internet. What I found was that self-labeling of geek women often defeats the potentially subversive act of creating a female-oriented geek community.

I would argue that the mere creation or and participation in geek communities labeled “for women” are aggressive acts towards male-dominated geek culture. One of the reasons we can see these communities as a challenge to mainstream geek culture is the still-prevailing myth of internet neutrality.

This myth argues that since we are “disembodied” on the internet, everyone begins on equal ground.

Bodies don't matter in cyberspace. This is not how it works in real life, however, particularly in geek spaces. It is true that until you mark yourself as Other than the privileged class—male, heterosexual, cisgendered, abled, middle-class, and white—you will be assumed to be those things. However, this will not protect you from hate speech or sexist, racist, and homophobic “jokes,” since geek communities often engage in these forms of discourse. Even objecting to these discursive acts, without revealing the state of one's own body, will immediately mark you as Other, and leave you vulnerable to harassment and denigration. By labeling their spaces as for women, female geeks challenge the neutrality myth, by making their female bodies conspicuous and by demonstrating a need for safe cyberspaces for women.

In a study of the language of male gamers playing within a Quake server, Natasha Christensen claims that
Even though the world of cyberspace allows for the possibility that gender can be transformed, men in Jeff's Quake Server continue to relate to each other in ways which support male dominance and heterosexual male superiority. [...] In the bodiless realm of cyberspace, it is fascinating to note that men who are able to create an alternate world where masculinity is defined differently do not take this opportunity. Instead, real life is mimicked not only by taking on the physical attributes of strength, but also by using ways of talk that emphasize aggression and sexual dominance.


Therefore, in the same way that sports and war help to perpetuate the concept of male dominance through physical strength, the Quake server also promotes the idea of success through aggression and violence. [...] Sports and war games became a way for white middle class men to fight their fears of social feminization. At the turn of this century, online computer games are being used in the same manner. Computer geeks who are especially vulnerable to the accusations of being less than manly are able both through the actions and discourse on Quake to demonstrate the qualities required of hegemonic masculinity. Emphasis is placed on the strength of the masculine body while discourse sets the players apart from anything that is feminine.
The same patriarchal standards that put women at a disadvantage also disadvantage computer and other geeks. Often, geeks cite an experience of growing up with bullying and teasing, precisely because they do not live up to hegemonic masculinity. Instead of using cyberspace to fight against hegemonic masculinity, however, geek men often use it to buttress those standards and fulfill them discursively instead of physically. This is precisely why geek women find online geek spaces—necessarily discursive spaces—to be so unwelcoming and hostile. And it is through alternative discourse, whether blogging or forum writing or fanfiction, that women challenge this culture of hypermasculinity.

By marking their spaces as “for women,” even while inviting men, female geeks mark themselves as physical bodies just as conclusively as the homophobic and misogynistic discourse of Quake players marks their bodies as male. And by doing so, women respond to and challenge both the hypermasculine discourse prevalent in online geek spaces and the myth of the neutral, disembodied cyber subject.

Geek Culture & Its Discontents

Matthew S. S. Johnson writes in “Public Writing in Gaming Spaces” that
Gamers who participate in writing activities, including blogs, strategy guides, walkthroughs, fanfic, and forums, “foster their own sense of agency through active participation in and frequent contribution to gaming communities in the form of written texts. Collectively, they not only gain influence over other gamers participating in games or game-related community projects, but also over the production companies who produce the software that originally inspired them” (271).
Johnson argues that these online gaming writing projects are an example of civic participation and public writing. I would like to expand his argument to include similar writing projects in all geek fandoms. One of the most common reasons that fans cite for joining writing projects like blogs and forums is that they wish to join a like-minded community. When women join geek communities and find gendered hostility, joining or forming a female-oriented alternative spaces is not only a reaction to male-dominated communities, but a civic response to them. Forming a Livejournal group for geek women is, I would argue, a move to challenge and change the mainstream geek communities.

We can see this desire to gain civic agency through discursive acts in many minority geek writings. Garland Grey, for example, writes in 'Cause I'm Nerdcore Like That: Toward a Subversive Geek Identity,
Writing our own comics, and blogs and forming our own communities gives us strength. When confronted with the cultural purity police, the ones who swoop in to Geeksplain to us, we can answer from a position of solidarity. We can create safe spaces of our own. Spaces where we can debate and discuss the ways Science Fiction comments on society’s treatment of The Other, spaces where our voices aren’t drowned out by simplistic fanaticism. A place where, for instance, a group of people can watch one of the X-Men movies and someone can, during one of the many scenes where Cyclops and Wolverine are having tense arguments about who is better for Jean Gray [...] simply scream out GAWWWWD JUST KISS ALREADY! BROKEBACK THAT SHIT! and not have people get all middle school about it.
 Garland argues that by creating separate discursive spaces, like queer-oriented or female-oriented forums, subversive geeks can create their own authority, one strong enough to stand up to the mainstream, white, male, cisgendered geek authority. His example, in which fans can “scream out” a reference to queer subtext, indicates that what non-mainstream geeks need is a space to speak without worrying about hegemonic gender and sexuality standards. Unlike the highly-policed Quake server, then, geek women (and geeks of color, disabled geeks, queer geeks, trans geeks) need a space of free discourse, in order to change the larger geek culture.

So, what does the labeling of these communities do for this potentially subversive discursive project? Let's move on to my data collection and results.


My data came from Livejournal, which I chose because it is an online community with a reputation for being more female-friendly than other places online, and thus attracts more women-oriented communities and female geeks to join them.

I used a series of search words intended to bring up mainstream groups that self-identify as geeky or nerdy. This series was as follows: geek, nerd, science fiction/sci fi,Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, comic book/graphic novel, fantasy, Lord of the Rings, gaming/gamer, World of Warcraft. To collect my data, I went systematically through each the search results for each search term and identified the groups meant for women. Each group then needed to fulfill a number of criteria to be included.


I only included groups whose titles indicated that they are intended for women. I excluded groups that hinted toward a female focus (like Squee Corner) without explicitly stating that focus. This was mostly to avoid ambiguity. The point of this project is to see how women label themselves when they create geek communities for themselves. Thus I can only count groups that explicitly label themselves “for women.”

To avoid groups that do not attract members or activity, each group must have at least 3 posts. However, the activity does not have to be recent.

If the group is intended to sell something, it will only be counted if the description indicates that the creator/seller herself is a geek.I only included one result that was intended to sell a product, because the creator clearly intended to create a community of geek women, while also selling her geek-inspired jewelry.


Once I collected the groups that fit the criteria, I counted the gendered words (e.g. girl(s), women, female, heroine(s), ladies) in the titles and subtitles of all the communities for women. If the title and subtitle repeat a gendered word (like Geek Girls Anon: Because Geek Girls Need Love Too), the word is only counted once for that title. If the title and subtitle contain multiple gendered words, I counted each word once for that title (for example, Warhammer Online Ladies: Female Gamers counts as 1 example of ladies and 1 example of female).


I found 52 Livejournal communities that fit the criteria, with the following breakdown: 18 general geek and nerd, 4 general science fiction, 5 Star Wars, 2 science fiction/fantasy, 1 fantasy, 2 Lord of the Rings, 16 gaming, 4 World of Warcraft.

The 52 Livejournal groups had 55 labels. Girl makes up almost 40% of these labels, significantly more than any other label. Considering the great variety of gendered terms used by geek women, the popularity of girl is surprising. So why do geek women choose to label themselves girls so often? None of the groups' profiles indicated that these groups were for anything other than adult women, yet they consistently describe themselves as geek girls.

If the creation of separatist spaces is a radical and civic act, why do women choose the label girl so often? I think that the label of girl can be harmful to the project of challenging geek culture, and that it is often chosen specifically for that property.
Feminism & Female Aggression
In an article on the BBC News site covering the worldwide phenomenon of Girl Geek Dinners, a networking organization for women with careers or personal interest in technology, the author reports that Girl Geek Dinners rejects the label of feminism. Said one of the organizers:
In a sense [Geek Girl Dinners] is a feminist movement as it aspires to a lot of the same ideals but I don't want it to be seen as something that is feminist as this can be seen as something marginal or negative.

We're not trying to be radical or disruptive, but to show that women have a place in technology. [emphasis mine]
While Geek Girl Dinners is not active on Livejournal, the attitude shown here seems commonplace in communities intended for geek women. Geek women often don't want to rock the boat, and see the political element of making an all-female geek community to be “radical” and “disruptive.” We can see this pattern in some of the profiles of the Livejournal communities labeled with girl, which we'll look at next. 
I created this community so that girl gamers could find each other and talk about gaming with people who take them seriously- not because of some imaginary hatred for the male gender. Some of my favorite people are boys; but any girl gamer will tell you that it's difficult to talk games (I mean *really* talk games) with a guy. It's just a fact of life. We love you, for honest. Try not to feel so threatened, aye? ;)
This entire paragraph is meant to display non-aggression—the reference to “some imaginary hatred for the male gender,” “some of my favorite people are boys,” “we love you, for honest,” and “try not to feel so threatened, aye?” Even the winking smiley face at the end is intended to communicate that this group is not meant to intimidate geek men.

This is a rating community for Geeks with Chic. It's open to Females and Males alike, despite the name of the community. I thought I better open it up to both sexes, can't have me being sexist now can we?
This one is slightly sarcastic, but since the groups actually allows both men and women to join, it still communicates that the group is not threatening to the male-domination of geek culture. Out of the 52 groups on Livejournal, a full quarter of them explicitly invite men to join, indicating that these groups' desire to appear non-threatening to male geeks. The use of the label girl is, I believe, related to this desire. Girl indicates immaturity, non-threatening femininity, and a lack of aggression. Because of the powerful statement that all-female geek communities make in their mere existence, geek women who don't want to be “radical” or “disruptive” use tactics such as labeling themselves girls or chicks or fangirls, as well as describing themselves in non-threatening ways and inviting men to join their communities.

I don't want to shut out the possibility that geek women can reclaim the label girl and use it in a way that does not connote non-threatening, or challenges and plays with the damaging stereotypes imposed by male geeks, in much the same way that geek women use the terms estrogen brigade and fangirl. However, while it is possible for women to effectively claim the label girl, when this labeling is coupled with other tactics of non-aggression, it counteracts the subversive potential of geek communities oriented toward women.
Refusing Heteronormativity?
There's another, less depressing answer to the question, “Why do geek women call themselves girls?” That answer is that some geek women are refusing to participate in the heterosexual matrix. In a study of nerd girls in a California high school, Mary Bucholtz notes that
Refusal to participate in the heterosexual matrix is also linked to the flouting of conventional displays of femininity and masculinity. […] Nerd girls do not wear revealing clothing, and although sometimes they may wear items decorated with Sesame Street characters or other emblems of childhood, these do not exhibit the combination of infantilization and sexualization evoked by the clothing of the cool white girls. […] (123).
Bucholtz notes that nerd girls in high school reject conventional femininity in their clothing choices, and while they embrace “childish” fashion, their doing so does not correspond with a sexualization. It is possible that some of the Livejournal groups that use girl to describe themselves are doing so in the same vein; by using girl, they are rejecting the conventional femininity connoted with the words ladies or women, but also rejecting the sexualized connotation of girl, one that links girl with submissiveness and non-aggression. Considering the widespread objectification and sexualization of women in male-dominated geek culture, calling oneself a girl can be a radical act in itself, refusing to be considered a female body ready for sexual appropriation by one's subculture.

The ways in which geek women label themselves is complex and multi-layered, and deserves further study. Looking at the ways in which geek women self-label could throw light on how women in more mainstream culture react to the negative connotations of female gender labels, and on the coping mechanisms of women who exist in male-dominated subcultures.

Works Cited

Bucholtz, Mary. “Geek the Girl: Language, Femininity, and Female Nerds.” Gender and Belief Systems: Proceedings of the 4th Berkeley Women and Language Conference. Ed. Natasha Warner, Jocelyn Ahlers, Leela Bilmes, Monica Oliver, Suzanne Wertheim, and Melinda Chen. Berkeley: Berkeley Women and Language Group, 1998. Print. 119-131.

Christensen, Natasha Chen. “Geek at Play: Doing Masculinity in an Online Gaming Site.” Reconstruction 6.1 (2006): n.p. Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture. Reconstruction, 2006. Web. 5 August 2010.

“Geek Girl Chic.” Community profile for geekgirlchic. Livejournal. geekgirlchic, 10 September 2006. Web. 8 August 2010. http://community.livejournal.com/geekgirlchic/profile

“Girlgamer’s Journal.” Community profile for girlgamers. Livejournal. girlgamers, 1 August 2010. Web. 8 August 2010. http://community.livejournal.com/girlgamers/profile

Grey, Garland. “‘Cause I’m Nerdcore Like That: Toward a Subversive Geek Identity.” Tiger Beatdown. Tiger Beatdown, 28 July 2010. Web. 3 August 2010.

Johnson, Matthew S. S. “Public Writing in Gaming Spaces.” Computers and Composition 25 (2008): 270-283. ScienceDirect. Web. 6 August 2010.

Knowles, Jamillah. “Girl Geek Appeal: Women’s Movement Online.” BBC News. BBC, 7 May 2010. Web. 8 August 2010.


Barry Deutsch said...

Out of the 52 groups on Livejournal, a full quarter of them explicitly invite men to join, indicating that these groups' desire to appear non-threatening to male geeks.

More charitably, maybe they genuinely want a both-sexes space, but also want to get away from the sexist norms of male-dominated geek communities. Marking a space as being for female geeks, but allowing men, might be a way of doing that, since the more sexist and male-normed male geeks might avoid those spaces.

Or maybe not. But it's a possibility, anyway. :-)

Pewter said...

I don't know if this is even relevant, but how about the power of alliteration? It sounds cool, and branding often feels like a big part of geek culture to me. 'Geek Girl' is partly a brand, not just an identification.

Clix said...

Haven't finished, but ditto on the alliteration - it also works with 'Girl Gamers' (or vice versa - girl geeks and girl gamers). I'd be interested to see how often 'girl' is used alliteratively - I noticed that all of your works cited that use 'girl' in their title use it that way.

Courtney said...

While I agree that alliteration is important in these titles, that doesn't mean that it has no meaning. You have to be comfortable with calling yourself a girl to be drawn to that alliteration, full stop.

Clix said...

Well, I definitely agree that there's more to it than just alliteration. But I think that's a part of it - and one worth looking into.

Mostly, (a) I can be long-winded, and (b) I knew I wanted to give a full response more thought. After reading the post you linked to and pondering a bit, I came up with this.

Short form: I thoroughly disagree with your statement that "when this labeling is coupled with other tactics of non-aggression, it counteracts the subversive potential of geek communities oriented toward women."

But I also thoroughly enjoyed your essay!

konkonsn said...

I feel like the whole geek culture gets infantilized. Larger communities see things like playing video games as a waste of time, something kids do when they want to avoid real life. Collecting figurines is like collecting dolls. Dressing up in cosplay is like fantasizing about being in a fairy tale, which is childish. Nevermind that you can find parallels in socially acceptable fan-circles (sports includes all the above).

It's harder to compare with geek men since they don't generally have labels (since everyone is male until they're not), but the first thing I think of is fanboys. Not men, but boys.

Conrad Braam said...

@konkonsn "Geek community infantilized."
Yeah - I have to agree it has felt that way up until recently.

For a few months I was without work for the first time, and so I spent hours on facebook - and discovered that not only do women rule on the non-technical chatty side of the net, where-as men make "statements" showing their technical ability on a host of other technical sites. Most importantly I discovered that Geeks are probably less marginalized today, because more of us are spending time in geek-land. Partly because it's where the world is going, but partly because the web is a great entertainment platform. Women will probably allways appear to be following the male adoption of internet fads, and thus the pressure to label will always be there. Men set up labels too, they just do it subconciously.

But mostly I find cookery forums and recipe blogs scarry.

Anonymous said...

This post covers a lot of topics.
On labelling and the word "girl" I think there may be geographical differences in the level of reclamation done on the word "girl". Geek Girl dinners was set up in the UK in the wake of the Spice Girls, and could be considered an example of a spin off from the girl-power feminist movement.
On the lack of exclusion of men from these groups, if the objective of the group is to change the overall culture then pushing away the blokes who do "get it" and want to change the culture would be a bit of a strategic error. If you look at groups who don't have any objective of changing attitudes (the mums groups for example) they may be less interested in men joining. Most parenting groups seem to have a "dads corner" where blokes can be directed to so as not to disrupt the regular conversation!