Nerds: Stop hating women, please

One comic creator's rant is just the latest example of misogyny in geek culture.

Tony Harris is in no way a household name. But as the artist behind some of the most critically acclaimed comics in the last 20 years, noteably Starman with James Robinson for DC and Ex Machina with Brian K. Vaughan for Wildstorm, he was a hugely respected figure in the industry.


Today, Harris posted a rant on his Facebook wall, which was re-posted to Tumblr by Jill Pantozzi, the associate editor of The Mary Sue, a site dedicated to "girl geek culture". Harris writes (and I've not edited this in any way):

I cant remember if Ive said this before, but Im gonna say it anyway. I dont give a crap.I appreciate a pretty Gal as much as the next Hetero Male. Sometimes I even go in for some racy type stuff ( keeping the comments PG for my Ladies sake) but dammit, dammit, dammit I am so sick and tired of the whole COSPLAY-Chiks. I know a few who are actually pretty cool-and BIG Shocker, love and read Comics.So as in all things, they are the exception to the rule. Heres the statement I wanna make, based on THE RULE: "Hey! Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl, you are more pathetic than the REAL Nerds, who YOU secretly think are REALLY PATHETIC. But we are onto you. Some of us are aware that you are ever so average on an everyday basis. But you have a couple of things going your way. You are willing to become almost completely Naked in public, and yer either skinny( Well, some or most of you, THINK you are ) or you have Big Boobies. Notice I didnt say GREAT Boobies? You are what I refer to as "CON-HOT". Well not by my estimation, but according to a LOT of average Comic Book Fans who either RARELY speak to, or NEVER speak to girls. Some Virgins, ALL unconfident when it comes to girls, and the ONE thing they all have in common? The are being preyed on by YOU. You have this really awful need for attention, for people to tell you your pretty, or Hot, and the thought of guys pleasuring themselves to the memory of you hanging on them with your glossy open lips, promising them the Moon and the Stars of pleasure, just makes your head vibrate. After many years of watching this shit go down every 3 seconds around or in front of my booth or table at ANY given Con in the country, I put this together. Well not just me. We are LEGION. And here it is, THE REASON WHY ALL THAT, sickens us: BECAUSE YOU DONT KNOW SHIT ABOUT COMICS, BEYOND WHATEVER GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH YOU DID TO GET REF ON THE MOST MAINSTREAM CHARACTER WITH THE MOST REVEALING COSTUME EVER. And also, if ANY of these guys that you hang on tried to talk to you out of that Con? You wouldnt give them the fucking time of day. Shut up you damned liar, no you would not. Lying, Liar Face. Yer not Comics. Your just the thing that all the Comic Book, AND mainstream press flock to at Cons. And the real reason for the Con, and the damned costumes yer parading around in? That would be Comic Book Artists, and Comic Book Writers who make all that shit up.

The simple misogyny on display would be enough to ruin most people's view of Harris, to be honest, and to them I apologise for going further into the issue. Clearly, even writing about how great cosplay (dressing up as characters from… well, anything, really. Some great examples here) was, and how welcome female cosplayers were at comic conventions, wouldn't render the tone of this rant any more acceptable.

But the views Harris expresses aren't just held by virulent misogynists – instead, they are depressingly common in "geek culture". Too many nerds have basically internalised the stereotype of themselves as ugly, friendless losers and decided that anyone who doesn't fit that stereotype – particularly women – is a "fake geek", taking advantage of the fact that being a geek is now "cool".

The stereotype has been bubbling around various geek cultures – gamers, comics and sci-fi fans, and even niche ones like board- and tabletop-gaming enthusiasts – for some time, and a number of pieces have been written about the damage it does to women in the community. The Mary Sue's Susana Polo, for instance, says it better than I could:

I understand the desire to weed the “posers” out of your personal life and interactions. But I have never, actually, in the flesh, met a “fake” geek girl. Or guy. I don’t think those people actually exist outside of painful daytime news segments, the occasional job interview (where, in this economy, I’ll excuse anybody for trying to be a little bit of something they’re not), and internet memes. But I understand.

But who are you to say that a stranger, someone you’re never likely to meet, is not genuinely interested in the thing they appear to be interested in? Who are you? I just… what? I’m rendered incoherent. Here at the Mary Sue, when an actress goes on a talk show and describes her personal affection and involvement and enjoyment and FANDOM for geek properties, we take it at face value. Why? Because we don’t actually have a reason not to. Because the alternative breeds a closed community of paranoid, elitist jerks who lash out at anyone new.

The proper response to someone who says they like comics and has only read Scott Pilgrim is to recommend some more comics for them. The proper response to someone who appears to be faking enthusiasm is to ignore them and not project their actions on an entire gender or community. The proper response to someone who appears to want to be a part of your community is to welcome them in. End of story.

And the same applies to this specific example. Jamie McKelvie, designer of the much-cosplayed Captain Marvel, reiterates:

I've never met a cosplayer who isn't a massive fan of the thing they are cosplaying. Also: some of the sweetest people you could meet.

But here's the thing: even if the cosplayer has never read any comics other than the one they're dressed up as – even if they've never read any comics at all, and just enjoy the dressing up – it doesn't matter. Nobody is going to take your hobby away. At worst, at absolute worst, it is someone finding enjoyment in a different aspect of something you like. At best, as Polo says, it is a future friend, someone who could be a part of your community, and someone to spread your love to.

Or maybe some nerds just don't want women in the clubhouse.

Tracy Ho and Demir Oral cosplay at Comic-Con 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Enescu’s Oedipe at the Royal Opera House: a neglected work worth revisiting

A new production of this little-heard Romanian piece shows that neglected doesn’t necessarily mean second-rate when it comes to opera. 

In the opening visual sequence of Oedipe, the Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus has pulled off a startling coup de theatre. What first appears to be a projected image – an intricate terracotta frieze, busy with human life in all its forms, filling the full height and breadth of the Royal Opera House stage – is suddenly revealed as a tableau of living human figures. It’s a gorgeous piece of visual trickery, heightened by the audacity of its scale, but also something more. In this retelling of the Oedipus myth, the divide between history, sealed beneath layers of mud, and the lives lived above it, between Classical statues and their contemporary human counterparts, is porous. Tragedy bleeds down through the ages, staining each era red in its turn with death and dissent.

Oedipe is the only opera by Romania’s national composer George Enescu (1881-1956). The product of over 20 years’ labour, it distils Sophocles’ three Oedipus plays into a swift, four-act drama that’s part opera, part meditative oratorio. But unlike Stravinsky’s “opera-oratorio” Oedipus Rex, Enescu’s characters are fully-formed humans – more sympathetic but also less biddable than their tragic archetypes.

But it’s the music that makes the case for this little-heard work – ironic really, as the opera’s vast orchestral forces (including piano, harmonium, celesta, saxophone and musical saw) are largely responsible for its neglect. A rhapsodic score, rich in motivic interest, swirls in phrases that confound as often as they delight. Melodic dead-ends tease the ear, but so beguilingly under Leo Hussain’s precise baton that it doesn’t matter that musical journeys are often abortive or digressive. There are echoes of Wagner and Debussy here, but also Romanian folk-music and even Renaissance chant – all adding up to writing of filmic lushness.

Chafing against this musical excess and outpouring are visuals devised by designer Alfons Flores. Dimly but evocatively lit by Peter Van Praet, stratified architectural structures come into view, imposing order on spaces otherwise dominated by dust and a rich red-brown mud that gradually coats all the cast. Times shift fluidly between scenes, now set in Classical Greece, now under Axis occupation during World War II, now in the present-day. In the vision of directors Alex Olle and Valentina Carrasco of La Fura dels Baus, Oedipe becomes a luckless everyman, blundering wildly through history yet always trapped in his own tragic narrative cycle.

Some episodes emerge more clearly than others. Transforming the oppressive Sphinx (a  cameo at once gorgeous and grotesque from Marie-Nicole Lemieux) into a  Second World War fighter pilot, whose “wings” are those of her crashed bomber, works brilliantly, as does reimagining the Theban plague as a nuclear disaster, bright with hazard tape and smoky with burning bodies, but other scenes are less successful. The climactic parricide at the crossroads – a brutal, road-rage killing partially hidden in mist and backlighting – has curiously little of self-defence about it, undermining our hero’s subsequent claims of innocence, and the final scenes of Oedipe’s return to Thebes and his blinded vision of pastoral redemption lacks sufficient visual difference from the opening.

Musically, Oedipe is proof of the fire-power the Royal Opera has at its disposal, with serious names taking all but the very tiniest of parts. Enescu’s score is rich in basses and baritones, and here each one brings a distinct vocal colour to the mix, starting with the indefatigable Johan Reuter – massive through the opera’s almost continuous vocal demands, and marshalling enough voice through the taxing first three acts to deliver the exquisite final aria with its new, lyrical quality. His heroic intensity is balanced by Samuel Dale Johnson’s smoothly patrician Thesee (richly even and untroubled) and an exciting, youthful Phorbas from In Sung Sim. John Tomlinson brings craggy, grizzled intensity to the role of Tiresias, while Stefan Kocan makes tremendous impact in his cameo as a Watchman.

Sarah Connolly makes a fragrant, untouchable Jocasta, whose vocal lines unfold in unbroken arcs of melody, all legato seduction. We understand very well what drawn Oedipe to this glossy creature. Sophie Bevan’s Antigone, tonally richer than ever, is another highlight, a rare figure of light and hope among so many moral shades of grey. The Royal Opera House Chorus glue everything together as the cursed people of Thebes, their bolstered forces matching Hussain’s brass for power, and negotiating unison ensembles well from within  the tricky spaces and sightlines of Flores’s set.

Like last year’s Krol Roger, Oedipe is proof that neglected doesn’t necessarily mean second-rate when it comes to opera. An unknown piece by a little-known composer is a big risk, especially when it comes with such massive musical demands, but the Royal Opera have shown themselves willing to take it, to lead and educate their audiences rather than just satisfy commercial demand for endless Traviatas and Bohemes. Let’s hope it’s bravery that survives the imminent departure of the company’s artistic director Kasper Holten.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.