"Fake" Nerd Girls, "Whores", and Sexism

Dirk Manning is wrong: there is no doubt that the fake geek girl meme exists to specifically criticise women.

There's been a lot of response to my post on Tuesday, "Nerds: stop hating women, please". Some of it is fair – the headline is a generalisation, but hey, that's what headlines are – but one common criticism was that Tony Harris was "just one guy". If only that were true. Harris' rant isn't even the only example of the misogynistic "fake geek" slur this week. Mariah Huehner, a bestselling comic author and editor, wrote a response to the other one, and with her permission, I've reposted it here.  Alex

Dear Dirk Manning,  

I'm a fellow comic book writer and editor, for about 10 years now. I’ve read your posts at Newsarama and while I don’t know you personally, I generally found them helpful for those looking to write and create work in comics.

Which is I why I have to say, I'm disappointed to see you perpetuating the “Fake Geek/Nerd Girl” meme. Sure, it’s a repost, but what we choose to share on our social platforms matters. You’ve endorsed the underlying sentiment of the meme, to the degree that you feel that women who aren’t “real” nerds by your definition are "objectifying themselves", pandering to a lowest common denominator, and "whores". You reposted this particular take on it because you felt it was relevant, I’m assuming. All I have to go by is the fact that you reposted it and then defended it. What you're like in your personal life is beside the point, as you chose this particular meme to express your views on a particular subject, and further explanation was dedicated to justifying it.

I’m sure it seems harmless and “fun” on the surface, but memes like this are indicative of a much larger and much more problematic attitude within geek culture. Namely: if we don't like how (specifically) a woman/girl identifies as a nerd, or displays their nerdery, based on rather arbitrary & subjective definitions of what being a “real nerd” is, we can label them a whore/slut/fake. Which, by proxy, indicates that they are not only not a nerd, but are also something of a social/cultural pariah. The word “whore” is pretty specific and, especially in this context, is clearly not meant to be anything other than demeaning and dehumanizing. That you don’t think “all” women are whores is really not the issue. The underlying sexism of the "fake" nerd/geek girl rhetoric is.

This meme unfortunately perpetuates an attitude that is exclusionary and unnecessary. For those of us who have to deal with that attitude frequently, just for being in nerd culture and being female, it’s not really so funny or minor. Reposting those sentiments condones them, if that reposting is not followed by either a criticism of the meme or a real call for discussion on it. Anything else is, at best, passively granting it legitimacy.

The thing about sexism, even when it seems “minor” or playful, is that it has real world consequences. The idea that women in particular must adhere to a set of arbitrary standards in order to be treated with respect and not called “whores”, makes it difficult for all women in a given space. Because although I’m sure you think your idea of what is and is not acceptable is fair, it changes from person to person. What, exactly, is dressing “slutty”? Who defines that, you? Me? How does being a fashion model exclude someone from also being nerdy? Why is it different when a girl poses in a costume then when a guy does? How much cleavage is "too much"? Is being conventionally attractive enough to justify people being suspicious? How are these things mutually exclusive to being a nerd? What criteria must we meet to be a considered a “real” nerd? What are the parameters? Do I go by your definition of "slutty" and "pandering" or some other random internet poster? What about my own definition, does that not count? How long do I have to be a nerd in order to be a "real" one? What nerd activities must I participate in? Can I like Lord of the Rings and not Superman? And so on.

It’s too subjective. We aren’t all nerdy about the same things and we don’t all participate in nerd culture the same way. By attempting to make ourselves the arbiters of nerdom, we create a space that’s hostile and more like a high school clique than an inclusive culture. Which, frankly, hurts industries like comics a lot. Mainly because we alienate huge audiences with this attitude.

In terms of how something so "harmless" can be applied to the real world: there have been two recent, high profile instances of this meme's attitude in action.

First: Anita Sarkeesian and the reaction to her Kickstarter about sexism in gaming. She was (and continues to be) subjected to a level of misogynistic outrage and harassment that is frankly unconscionable. The idea that women are not "real" nerds, or have no right to discuss nerd topics, was quick and vicious. She was called a "whore" a lot. It did, however, bring this issue front and center. This resulted in a lot of other women in games, comics, and other nerd spheres coming out and discussing the backlash they get, constantly, for being women in these spaces. Aisha Tyler was one of the most vocal.

Second: Felicia Day. A writer on a gaming site who clearly did not know her resume made comments that reflect almost exactly this meme’s rhetoric. It showed not only a stunning lack of any knowledge of how influential she is in nerd culture, but showed exactly how problematic those assumptions are. They are based exclusively in personal definitions and criteria, and are applied to any woman who happens to exist in nerd spaces, no matter what. 

The reality is: this kind of meme exists to criticize women, specifically, and does not bring anything constructive or useful to nerd culture. All it does is perpetuate a tired and frankly absurd generalization that’s highly gendered and erroneous. It doesn’t call out men who are apparently “using” nerd culture unscrupulously, and it is not a catch all for "anyone" displaying this behavior. Men simply don’t have to deal with the assumption that they don’t belong, automatically, because of their gender. They aren’t required to “prove” their dedication to nerdom based on their gender. They aren’t asked to dress differently. They aren’t called specifically gendered insults if they don’t meet a given person’s standard.

Further, the comments aimed at Jennifer De Guzman, a highly respected, intelligent, and dedicated former Editor-in-chief and now PR and Marketing Director at Image, are pretty condescending. Just because she disagrees with you does not mean she is “overly sensitive”, that she has no right to be angry, or no right to voice her objections. Being angry does not mean she cannot also be rational and articulate in her criticism. Suggesting otherwise, or allowing others to make that claim, is highly irresponsible. If you have the right to post this and have it as a pet peeve (which you do) then someone else addressing a concern about why it’s problematic is equally valid. We have the right to say what we want. Other people have the right to comment on it. Being able to post whatever we want to doesn’t absolve us from criticism about it.

For instance: there are people who will disagree with this letter. That’s their right. They may even get angry about it. That's also their right. 

At the end of the day, we define our nerdom for ourselves, it is not dictated to us by the whims or definitions of others. No matter how other people may arbitrarily disapprove of us or how we display our nerdery individually, women are nerds. No meme will change that.

- Mariah Huehner

Editor, writer, nerd

Mariah is a New York Times bestselling writer of comics like True Blood: All Together Now, Angel, Illyria: Haunted, editor of the New York Times bestselling The Last Unicorn graphic novel adaptation and Womanthology: Heroic and Womanthology: Space!. She blogs semi-regularly at SquidyGirl.blogspot.com and tweets as @TiredFairy.

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.