How Geek Culture Taught Me About My Privilege: Why Was I so Readily Accepted When Women Aren’t?

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I have a confession to make: I used to be a “jock.” I’m not saying that I played a few sports as a little kid; I played every single sport I could, as often as possible. Eventually, I didn’t have an off-season anymore. I typically just had a week or two off after one sport ended before another started. Playing sports became my entire life, basically. This happened because I really enjoyed them, and happened to be pretty good at them too, so I don’t feel any regret over participating so heavily.

What I do regret about this, however, is that by so fully embracing this lifestyle, I repressed other parts of my personality in order to “fit in.” I have always been a huge fan of pretty much all things geek, and grew up on a diet consisting of every Star franchise (Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, The Last Starfighter, etc.), and pretending my older brother was a dragon to be slain by hitting him with a stick in the backyard. As I grew older, and sports took over my life, however, these impulses were heavily curtailed by social pressure.

Some of this was still safe since nobody really questions you for liking Star Wars or playing The Elder Scrolls games these days, but I definitely avoided pursuing further geek activities, because I thought they would be perceived as uncool. I felt like I was being kept from fully being myself.

As an adult, I am now constantly faced by things I wish I had allowed myself to try and enjoy when I was younger. I had every opportunity to enjoy these things, in reality. Nothing was keeping me from participating except my own preconceived notions that I somehow wasn’t allowed to. My brother started playing weekly D&D at our house with some of his friends when I was sixteen, and I remember making jokes about it while actually wishing I could play.

I really wish I could go back and tell myself how much time I would devote in the future to organizing and sorting through the schedules of the other players in my campaign just to make sure we can get together and play. I would also tell him why he will someday love D&D so much and why he needs to stop worrying about being “too nerdy,” or not quite fitting in perfectly amongst his teammates. I would tell him that nobody is actually forcing him to repress this aspect of himself.

Personally, I found very little hostility when finding my way into geek culture, which made this transition actually quite easy. All the obstacles I had previously perceived simply weren’t there. However, it’s not this way for everyone.

It’s a pretty great time to be a geek, honestly. With the Internet greatly expanding access to information, we can now instantly find the answers to the nerdiest questions. Never again will someone wonder how much Jabba the Hutt’s palace would cost. In the past, it would be incredibly overwhelming to understand the ins and outs of a “nerdy” franchise, but now you can find answers instantly without finding someone to guide you through it.

There is greater mainstream acceptance of many things that were once relegated to basements and after school clubs. Comic book movies are incredibly popular right now, with four of the ten highest grossing films in history being adaptations of comic book franchises. Actually, the majority of films in the top fifty on this list are superhero films, sci-fi, or fantasy, but this goes beyond movies and media consumption, as well. Video games have long been criticized as a things that detract from education and creativity, but they’re now being developed for and utilized in education settings.

Yes, it can be really fun to be part of an exclusive group, and when people are first introduced to a new world, they might be frustratingly unknowledgeable, but these people need to be welcomed and guided, not tested or driven away. According to Washington State University, 46% of new hires leave companies within 18 months, frequently because they either did not fit in or feel welcome in that workplace’s culture. If people feel similarly uncomfortable within geek culture when they first become interested, then they may leave in favor of more friendly subcultures.

For some people, though, it’s not that simple. Being a member of a culture isn’t the same as a job, and you can’t just change what you enjoy. Geek women face constant hostility, and at a certain point, this hostility crosses a line from annoying to unacceptable and harmful. Women have faced especially ridiculous scrutiny from geek culture. This can take many forms, from frequent belittlement and constant questioning of their validity as a “real” member of the community, to death threats, having their personal information stolen and spread around the internet, or actual physical harm being done to them.

Why is this though? Why was I able to integrate myself into this culture at a later than typical point in my life without really a second thought, when lifelong female members of the community are still doubted and questioned? The answers to these questions go beyond this subculture and are a product of much larger societal issues that are deeply rooted in gender norms.

This absurd continuation of harmful gender role assumptions is just one more product of a world that is constantly telling women what their place is and how they should fill it. A huge part of this comes from shockingly horrible representation of women across media. USC’s Annenberg School of Communication recently conducted a study examining portrayals of gender, race, and LGBT characters in the 700 highest grossing films from 2007-2014, and its findings paint a fairly abysmal picture. In these 700 films, only 30.2% of speaking characters were female, and only 11% of these films had a gender-balanced cast.

When there is such a heavy imbalance in representation, it greatly narrows the female roles we see in film. Worse than this, though, female characters are actively placed into specific roles, especially those that sexualize them. The same USC study found that 27.9% of female characters were shown in sexy clothing, 26.4% with partial nudity, and 12.6% were referred to as physically attractive, while these numbers were 8%, 9.1%, and 3.1% for male characters. This skewed representation of female characters reinforces these tired stereotypes, which allows them to remain so prevalent and harmful within geek culture.

While, yes, I am absolutely thankful that I ended up finding my place and identity within geek culture, my ability to do this was a stark and ugly reminder of the immense privilege I hold as a man. There are countless women who have substantially more “geek cred” than me but are constantly questioned, while I never am. For this community to continue progressing and growing, this needs to change, but that change can only happen if the male members of geekdom open their eyes and help to facilitate it, and I hope my experience can help shed some light on the gendered gatekeeping.

(featured image via Marvel Entertainment)

Zachary Evans is a freelance web writer from Boise, Idaho. He graduated from Boise State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing. He spends his time writing, reading, playing music, and thinking about outer space. You can follow him on twitter: @ZacharyMEvans

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