"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.

Photo: Getty
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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue