"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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.