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Essay

The Dark Side of Geekification


Geeks are enjoying a massive cultural renaissance right now, something we should all be rejoicing in. It’s not every decade you get to enjoy all your favorite scifi/fantasy novels made into movies, see geeks at the center of popular television shows, find a game/comic book/anime convention near you almost every weekend of the year, or overhear conversations about stuff you love on the subway, in a restaurant, just about everywhere. It’s a freaking smorgasbord!

It’s also a cultural moment that Patton Oswalt infamously declared should die, and quickly. His geek culture death knell sent the internet into paroxysms, as they raised their pitchforks against old man Oswalt, that geek Grinch who hates the kids. Many argued that cultural assimilation is a part of the natural cycle of popular culture — yesterday’s punk rock is today’s mall rock. And just because geek culture is everywhere doesn’t mean it’s any less brilliant, right?

But let’s face it, what Oswalt was asking is not for geek culture to die but to stop changing. Geek culture and popular culture are a bit like the two colliding universes of Fringe — they’re inextricably linked, and trying to disentangle them just leads to heartbreak, and potentially the implosion of the Universe.

It seems we focus so much on how geek culture is becoming mainstream that we forget that mainstream culture is also becoming very geeky. For every NES tattoo and Admiral Ackbar t-shirt spawned into the adoring masses, an equal amount of pop culture ideology gets uploaded into the geek culture database.

The result is a serious crisis of geek identity. Geeks are more visible in popular culture than ever before. What used to be the secret shame of being a geek is now all mixed up with ideals of success, popularity, and even sexual attractiveness.

The world is upside down. MY world is upside down. Everything I learned growing up is that if you’re a girl and you’re smart, you hide it so boys will like you. If you like video games and math, you hide it so that boys will like you. And if you are kind of funny looking with an inexcusable perm and big glasses, you go to sleep every night praying you will wake up looking like Jenni Garth (yeah, 90210 destroyed me) so that boys will like you.

Now we’re being told that being geeky IS sexy. Every time I visit a geek/tech/nerd site, I’m bombarded with headlines about hot gamer chicks and interviews with sexy geek girls about their favorite super heroes. And while I should probably be excited that popular culture has deemed geeky the new sexy, I can’t help but feel that somehow, it’s the other way around.

The image of the sexy librarian or supermodel wearing a lab coat has taken on a life of its own. With the rising status of geek culture, that object of male fantasy — the woman who is both sexy AND smart — also grows in cultural status. She’s the real-life version of Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, or April O’Neil. She’s gorgeous and good at everything, from math and science to video games and computer programming.

And now, she’s not just a supermodel who pretends to be geek on TV. She’s a supermodel who is also a geek in real life. She’s the sexy actress who plays a super hero in the movies because she loves comic books. She’s the scantily-clad cosplayer who goes to cons and parties with the boys. She’s a competitive gamer who kicks ass at HALO while wearing high-heeled shoes. She’s a programmer who loves shopping. She’s a delightful marriage of stereotypes, a transporter malfunction between Carrie Bradshaw and Wonder Woman.

The geekification of culture has elevated the status of the female geek, but it’s also imported new, unrealistic expectations of female geekdom. Now, we not only have to be smart, but also sexy.

Maybe I’m having my own Patton Oswalt moment here. I worked long and hard to come to terms with the fact that I’m not a girly-girl, I don’t have any interest in haute couture and hair, high-heels make my feet hurt, and I’m terrified of shopping. My perfect weekend involves marathon watching reruns of Star Trek and Doctor Who. I like shoes, but only if they make me feel like an interplanetary explorer/Time Lord (it’s a tall order, I know). Those same activities that forever marked me a loser as a teenager are now things I can enjoy with unmitigated exuberance. As an adult, I finally feel comfortable in my skin, feel accepted for being the geek that I am, and thrilled that I can indulge in all my geek tendencies without fear of social repercussions. It’s a fantastic feeling, and I don’t want it to go away.

But suddenly, new anxieties are creeping into my happy world of female geekdom. Am I pretty enough to be a geek girl? Do I know enough about video games to keep up? What if somebody finds out that I’ve only watched three episodes of Star Trek:TOS, and that I fell asleep during at least one of them?

The pressures that plague women in society in general have finally caught up with the world of geek culture. It’s a brave new world that’s ours for the taking, but it’s also a world that’s so historically been dominated by men that we’re still catering to ideals they invented. Geek culture may reign supreme for now, but at what price?

I’m keeping an eye on the geekification of culture, hopeful that it will give way to something truly amazing. But I can’t help but wonder what new pressures the next generation of female geeks will grow up with.

Cindy Au runs things and writes things, and you can see more of her at her Tumblr.

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  • Aponia

    I feel the exact same way. I want to be proud that women geeks and gamers are finally getting some popularity, but if the world at large only focuses on the best looking of us, where do the rest of us fit in?

  • http://amidstdancers.blogspot.com/ Shard Aerliss

    I don’t want to sound like some corny motivational poster here but; you really shouldn’t care so much about what society and the boys think of you.

    I know, easier said than done for some, but geeks have always been good at ignoring what society wants of us. Girl geeks in particular have been very good at saying “no, society, I won’t do what you tell me.” Women just need to hold on to that and remember where they came from.

    ‘Sides, why would you want to be accepted by a group that you can fool into thinking you are something you are not (except in cases of espionage)?

    People that accept geeks for what they are > people that want others to change for them

    Also; 90210? Really? We all have our guilty pleasures I guess *cough*The O.C.*cough* XD

  • http://twitter.com/DocOrlando70 Russ Carr

    Just FYI, “that object of male fantasy” and “Carrie Bradshaw” are permanently incongruent terms. One would hope that anything resulting of a transporter malfunction between Ms. Bradshaw and *anything/one* else wouldn’t live long. (Fortunately.)

  • http://amidstdancers.blogspot.com/ Shard Aerliss

    I ignored the fact I didn’t know who Carrie Bradshaw was until you commented, then I had to go google her.

    I was happier not knowing :P

  • Icarus

    Think, think, think.

    I think part of the problem is that pop culture focuses not on the self confidence of the openly geeky, but their looks. Person X is hot, so they want to know more about them. X is a geek? That can be forgiven, because they’re so good looking. It’s almost as bad on the geek side: Person X is hot? Awesome! Person X is also a geek? Bonus, I don’t have to hide my Star Wars collection.

    So while society is moving in the right direction, it’s not there yet. There, of course being Uryuom/Grace. Relevant comic: http://egscomics.com/?date=2006-08-04 Grace is the “guy.”

  • http://twitter.com/lolatron Lola

    I understand what you’re saying, but in a way, I don’t think this is a new problem for geek girls. We’ve always been expected to be sexy women by the mainstream. But geek culture has always had that aspect of having to PROVE how geeky you are, and being ashamed if you don’t know the title of every episode or whatever. This kind of thing is a challenge for both sexes, I’d expect. There have always been geeks competitive about proving they are a TRUE fan, i.e. geekier than you, therefore higher in the geek hierarchy. The problem for geek girls is we have both these sets of expectations. The only modern thing about this problem is now the mainstream is expecting both of us too!

  • http://twitter.com/yaboiksar Nicole Hazen

    IAWTC

  • http://amidstdancers.blogspot.com/ Shard Aerliss

    Now you’re just stalking me XD

  • Anonymous

    I don’t understand why the second one is bad, shouldn’t you want to be able to be who you are around someone else who is who they are?

  • Anonymous

    What kind of shoes make someone feel like a timelord?

  • Ger

    Do you have tits?

    Congratulations: you’re a got gamer girl.

  • Ruby

    Converse sneakers, of course! :-D

  • Anonymous

    “The pressures that plague women in society in general have finally caught up with the world of geek culture”

    OMG… you’re right. I find this a little scary all of a sudden! It reminds me of an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch

    Although, have you noticed how certain geek traits are more A-list than others? Playing video games and reading comics is one thing, but it doesn’t how sexy you are, if you run around LARPing at the weekends or writing hypertext fiction, you’ll still get odd sideway glances from ‘regular’ people!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=615281575 Bill Hedrick

    Unfortunately, having tits doesn’t make you a geek girl, it just makes you a geek. Way to many geek guys out there with moobs

  • http://amidstdancers.blogspot.com/ Shard Aerliss

    Perhaps it’s more the fact that we shouldn’t be hiding our Star Wars collections in the place, as opposed to the final situation being a bad one?

  • http://amidstdancers.blogspot.com/ Shard Aerliss

    Preferably combined with a long billowy coat.

  • http://amidstdancers.blogspot.com/ Shard Aerliss

    Having boobs makes you a geek? Erm…

    *hides*

    I know what you meant, and it made me chuckle… so don’t hit me!

  • http://www.thegrouchygamer.com Genda

    Patton Oswalt? You mean Mickey Rooney’s teched little brother? lul

  • Senor Chang

    Simply put, Geek = fashion now.

    that’s all it is. Its not that ‘geeks’ are taking over, or becoming popular. all those ‘jocks’ you know and love so much are STILL the same jocks… they just happen to get on Xbox Live and play Madden and have suddenly ‘discovered’ Conan O’Brien.

    Here’s my story: I know this girl who is an insane Japanese RPG fan. she had a part time job at GameStop. She played WoW religiously. However… she is (and this is not very nice) kinda gimpy. She walks with a limp. She looks like she’s 90 lbs when wet, has no chin and is the most ungirliest of girls, limping around in huge over-sized sweaters. In a Napolean Dynamite fashion, she will talk to ANYONE about Japanese RPGs (even adults twice her age) as if they understand exactly what she’s talking about. She tried to explain the web series ‘The Guild’ to me way before you ever heard of Felicia Day. Suffice to say, she doesn’t have a boyfriend and she still lives at home. However, I have had chats with this girl and she is extremely nice and a genuinely good natured person.

    But she will never, ever, be accepted by the current pop-’Geek’ culture because ‘Geek’ has become just another fashion, like punk and metal and hip-hop. Here is a TRUE geek, but one that wouldn’t be celebrated.

    Everyone light a candle for the ‘geek culture’, because ‘geek’ IS DEAD.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lorenasbarros Lorys

    Here’s something that has come to my mind: being geek is the only identity you must have so you can be considered geek? If so, your whole life is defined by the fact that you like games, mangas, technology, etc… I can accept that may occur when geeks were teenagers, but as you grow up you learn (or you’re expected to) that you don’t have to stick with only one identity (maybe you’re mainly geek, but not only that).

    I see that those gamer supermodels are something other then geeks, but they do share some values and practices with geeks. They are more like posers, they have to follow fashion – and being geek is fashion now.
    And who exactly is expecting geek girls to be supermodels? Because I think geek boys completely understand that the idea of finding a geek supermodel in the everyday life is just a myth (maybe they do wish for it lol).

    I believe that the pressure is more self-imposed than something exogenous.

  • http://www.jejunecomic.com/ JT

    Yup, totally agree. I’ve been called fat and ugly** on the internet, even by guys I thought were fellow geeks. It’s as if, for a woman, being pretty is #1, THEN being geeky is distant #2.
    The problem with that is, that is how “normal” society treats women by default. Looks are always first. We geeky women, most of us grew up knowing we’d never be the Pretty Ones, sought refuge in places where our minds or talents could matter even if we were wonky looking. We sought the Nerd Boys, who, being wonky-looking themselves and the targets of bullies, would SURELY understand us?!
    So it feels like a slap in the face when some Nerd Boys, who should understand, still treat our appearances as Important Thing #1. Just like everyone else does. >_<

    **My response to these insults is, "OF COURSE I AM. I am a comic artist, and we are not known for being beautiful Olympic atheletes with asses like nectarines."

  • RandomSage

    Isn’t part of being a geek not caring what others may think? Individual uniqueness and self-confidence is what makes a geek girl beautiful. It can’t hurt to look like Lara Croft, but it’s not necessary.

  • http://www.jejunecomic.com/ JT

    It’s not that we “care” what others think. It’s that we just get tired of being reduced to our appearances. If you don’t do that, that’s great, but plenty of geek guys do. The “yeah, she games, BUT IS SHE HOT??” mentality* is alive and well. And it’s not being helped by geek popculture which depicts every female geek as being a model in geek drag.**
    It’s a pet peeve of mine that whenever I voice an opinion about this phenomenon, I get reassured I shouldn’t care what others think or accused of having low self-esteem or fishing for compliments. That’s not it at all. I don’t even consider my appearance relevant to my talents (or lack thereof). People rush to reassure women because in our society, a woman’s appearance is her currency. BTW this isn’t a rant at YOU, Randomsage, but this just got me thinking of this pet peeve.

    *either way, female geeks can’t win with the jerks. If she is hot, she might get harrassed and accused of only wanting male attention. Her skills will be called into question, because hot girls aren’t actually GOOD at stuff! If she is ugly, she will still get harrassed and her skills will be belittled. After all, she is ugly, so any of her other talents can’t make up for that failure.

    **Off the top of my head, the most honest not-a-model girl geek I can think of is Deb from Napoleon Dynamite.

  • Gracious

    I like you. You have good words.

  • http://www.jejunecomic.com/ JT

    d’awww thanks! :D
    This site is pretty awesome.

  • Ejambe

    It goes the other way as well. You are complaining about how geeks treat an fantasy they’ve never met in real life – let me inform you how they actually treat those people. I won’t go so far as to say “I’m hot”, but I’m a professional programmer who also loves fashion. To me, it’s an art form – I enjoy it as much as I enjoy my more stereotypically geeky interests. In theory, I should be the “best of both worlds” type – but in reality, my interests isolate me even more. Far from being worshipped, I am ignored, looked down upon, and considered not part of the club, because of how I dress. No one will take me seriously unless I prove myself ten times over, because I don’t display those traditional geek markers. The people I work with only believe female programmers are capable if they dress plainly (not to say that those girls get it by default – guys still won’t accept you straight out, no matter how stereotypically nerdy you may be!).

    The reason for this contradiction is that they don’t actually want a supermodel who is a nerd. In real life, they want a supermodel who will listen to them talk about their interests and find those interests attractive, but not one who is actually good at those things. That would be threatening their geekdom!

  • Ejambe

    *a fantasy. Damn typos. I wouldn’t bother to reply except that criticizing grammar is the refuge of those who like to disagree without evidence.

  • GoingQuietlyMad

    “Hipsters are the people who are helping to rape the geek culture”

    Srsly you’re utilizing the term “rape” on a feminist website to describe what’s being done to theoretical culture?

    And I really don’t think there’s any one group killing the “geek culture”. If all you are is geek, then yes, you might assume it’s being taken over by outsiders, but as adults I’d hope that “geek” isn’t the only thing that defines you–I’m a woman, a geek, a biblophile, a foodie, a music junkie, a blogger, an event planner, a daughter, a sister, a friend, an aunt. Sometimes I’m even a hipster, just without the skinny jeans.

    Geek isn’t dead, geek is evolving…many people, in the mid 90s, swore that hip-hop culture was dying because white people were taking an interest in it in a mainstream fashion. But hip-hop never died, it evolved into something bigger. Hip-hop stars make more money now than they ever did in the 90s and not just because of economy, but because the fan-base has grown.

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree. At the core of each scenario, the same problem persists. The fact remains that in each case, there’s a hierarchy of judgment at work, one that’s based on our culture’s unforgiving expectations of women. It may not affect every woman in the same way, but it’s always there. With our current pop cultural climate, it’s the overly-sexed geek girl that’s really being pushed to the front for audiences to consume. Who does this geek girl archetype represent? Who identifies with her? To me, this particular archetype is making life hard for ALL geek girls out there.

  • Elle

    I think your commentary highlights the problem that this article begins to hint at: that women have to face this hurtle of acceptance whether as geeks or in “geeky” professions – be either attractive or competent, but not both. Few men (and even some women), are comfortable with a women being both outside of their fantasies; and, when that competency is in a sub-culture in which others previously found solidarity, it becomes a threat more than an attraction.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NUS52CXIFVGGMCWMT53QNRODLY Maria

    gguuubzzz are you saying what happened to hip hop is gonna happen to us?

    nnnnnoooooo pppprrrrrrzzzzz

    but yeah, I mean, okay, as adults, sure, probably most of us have other things going on in our lives. but I definitely was pretty much just a geek when I was a kid, and I think that’s a pretty sweet time to be a geek. and if we’re gonna talk about the fate of geek culture we gotta THINK ABOUT THE KIDS. I mean, I don’t think it can’t change and still be good. But at the same time–yes, punk and metal and hip-hop, as the person up there who seems alright but yeah should probably reconsider where the line between edgy and offensive/painful might be in different social (uh, this is social, right?) contexts said, have been… well, it’s not like there aren’t still people out there doing awesome shit, but most of them aren’t the ones who are making more money now than ever. Those ones are the ‘fashion’ people. But there’s all kinds of subsections in geek culture too of like… people who want all the super shiny official perfect stuff and people who’d die before they got the ‘corporate’ stuff. and all that. Like, all kinds of different reasons and specific preferences and degrees of importance. I would ask though, like would you say that punk ‘evolved’ from, let’s just say the ramones to… uh… just think of the most grossest pop punk band you know so nobody has to get specifically offended? I mean… oh, I don’t know, I’m just starting to really overthink the metaphor.

    okay wow, this is super not the essay I’m actually supposed to be writing right now. but I was super excited I just discovered this site! ITSFORMEE

  • http://twitter.com/Rhael Rhahael

    O think it’s just the way things are. Most men like sexy atractive girls. So even if they like smart girls they will have fantasies with smart sexy atractive girls.

    Not that the world will crumble or you have to crumble to become atractively sexy, but society tend to sexualize (does this world exist?) women in everything they do. Not because of women, but because of their own sex needs. So no need to worry since there are nothing that you could do about but to stand your ground when surrounded by shallow sexy atractive expectations.

    I hope people will change sometime. But don’t hjope much. Unless someone find a way to increase biological evolution speed, because sexual impulses are what move the world right now and while they keep being, it will have fantasies about sexy atractives whatever.

  • http://twitter.com/TheWhaler Meg

    I really get where you are coming from (Also doctor who marathons and sensible shoes are my favorite things too). I understand the pressures you feel, but what exactly is the “prize” you get from attaining sexy geek girl status? Unless you want to start a career as a booth babe or get a job on G4 there is no reason you need to be worrying about the “sexy” thing. I mean it sounds like you’ve got your own fun sense of style wanting time lord boots (I own a pair of boots that I bought based on them looking like something out of ST:TOS myself…) so that is awesome. Like other’s said don’t let this worry you so much.

    Nerdy men are actually kind of horrible about women’s rights and the feminist movement. A lot of nerdy men (who are mostly white and well educated btw) consider themselves to be some kind of underpriveleged/minority group because they got beat up in high school or girls didn’t like them or something. You see a lot of them take it out on girls (the nice guy syndrome) or just on internet message boards they have a hard time seeing how women or racial minorities have it worse off them them.

    Anyway I am rambling, you sound awesome be yourself and fuck the nerdy guys who are expecting you to be carrie bradshaw/wonderwoman. Unless they are superman/mr big…then well..we can talk

  • Amelie May

    I suppose the following is not directly related, but I feel it’s definitely linked, how it appears that ‘different’ women of all kinds are becoming considered attractive in the mainstream far more than they were before. Growing up, I remember there being a definite ‘beautiful’ stereotype; thin, white, blonde, thick as two short planks and endowed with huge boobs. It seems like that is starting to change, but that comes complete with all the pressure from the mainstream media to live up to an impossible standard.

    In a way, this kind of annoys me just *for* the fact that I’m what people consider conventionally pretty– or would be, perhaps, if I didn’t have neon pink hair, slather on white foundation and wear a great deal of questionable clothing choices just because I don’t want to look pretty. I prefer to look bizarre!
    I’m a perfectly happy maths student, but I also like to extend the other things I like into my appearance: art and weird fashion and extreme aesthetics. I like to look that way because it’s what I consider pretty when other people don’t or consider it shocking, but as the idea of the attractive, ‘different’ girl grows in popularity it seems like it’s becoming more and more “Oh! So you love Portal and you’re cute with dyed hair? Awesome! Hot alt girl!” and we end up right where it started, back at “You’re a girl, I can forgive you for your love of computer programming if you have nice tits, I am going to make inappropriate remarks about you, kindly deal with it.”

    In one way it’s a great start that the idea of the attractive woman is becoming less “a blonde, tanned girl with a size 0 waist and DD cup breasts” and seems like it’s beginning to branch out to at least a different, very slightly less exclusive standard. On the other hand, it ends up with the media jumping on the idea and making sure that no matter what your skin colour, hair colour, size or height is, you feel well and truly objectified by the mainstream media.

  • Orri

    I’m a male geek and even I feel the same way. It’s not enough for us geeks to be geeks. Now we have to be the geek that society has created.

  • http://loading-info.blogspot.com Gian Faye

    I like this article. But I believe that being a geek is more of a personality than a culture.

  • http://penguinonthetelly.com AlannaBennett

     I think I agree. I definitely think a culture has sprung up around it, but for me nerdiness has always been something defined mainly by one’s unabashed enthusiasm for something. I think almost everyone, no matter how “mainstream” has something they’re truly geeky about. Just take sports fans, they run fantasy leagues, cosplay, and talk about it ad naseum. If that’s not nerdy I don’t know what is.

  • http://loading-info.blogspot.com Gian Faye

    Yeah. :D I get what you mean. One time, one of my favorite bands gone mainstream. (How I hate mainstream music.) But I still love them no matter what.