"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 struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad