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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Is new Netflix drama To The Bone glorifying eating disorders?

We spoke to people with experience of eating disorders about To The Bone, a film about anorexia coming to Netflix next month.

A gaunt and thin girl sits at a stylish breakfast bar in an all-American, middle-class home. A plate of bland food is placed in front of her: pork, noodles, green beans and a bread roll. In a flash, she identifies the calories in each foodstuff from memory, raising a fist in triumph when her sister confirms she is correct. “It’s like you have calorie Asperger’s,” the sister says with an eye roll.

This is the opening few seconds of the trailer for Netflix’s To The Bone, a film which will be released on the streaming service this July. It premiered at Sundance this January, and has all the indie hallmarks you’d expect – quirky supporting family members, jangly music, dark jokes, an eccentric British love interest, sarcasm, and rousing emotional speeches. It also features lead Lily Collins (who has been open with her struggles with eating disorders in her teenage years) at a starkly low weight counting calories, performing surreptitious exercise regimes, weighing herself, and avoiding food.

The trailer has been watched over a million times since it was published less than two days ago, and has provoked a divided response from viewers who have experienced eating disorders. While some praise the film for its representation of anorexia, others feel that the film’s light-hearted tone and detailed depiction of the extreme food-avoidance behaviours are a dangerous combination that could be both glamourising and triggering.

17-year-old Maya*, a Lily Collins fan from France, told me she was pleased by the trailer. “I love Lily Collins, and I know she knows the subject well because she talks about her own experiences in the book she wrote last year.” She adds, “It seems to be a movie with a ‘happy ending’, and I think it’s important for people with anorexia to be given a little hope, like, ‘Yeah, you can survive this.’”

But even she is reluctant to comment on whether or not a portrayal like this is helpful as a representation of eating disorders more generally. “I’m not a doctor, nor a psychologist,” she says. “I don’t think only one film could represent all the different kinds of eating disorders, but I think we will get to see one example.”

“I actually cried when I first watched the trailer,” says 18-year-old Tony, a fan of Lily Collins and someone who has struggled with eating habits they describe as “similar to the ones that Ellen [Collins] has in the trailer”.

While Tony acknowledges that it might not represent everyone’s experiences, they remain hopeful about the drama. “What matters is that it’s a representation that feels authentic to both Lily Collins and the writer/director Marti Noxon, both of whom have been very open about their struggles with anorexia in the past. It also feels like an authentic representation of my own personal experiences, and that gives me high hopes for it.”

“My first reaction was that it looks like a fairly decent portrayal of a particular type of anorexia and would like to watch it,” Liv, 25, told me – but adds, “It looks like it’ll be representative of a certain type of eating disorder which the media and society thinks is what anorexia is – they’ve chosen an ‘accessible’ eating disorder involving an obsession with calories, being thin, being in control.”

Putting aside the fact that jokes relying on autism stereotypes perhaps don’t signal the best start to a supposedly sensitive exploration of mental health, eating disorder charities like Beat now advise that the media avoid specifics of behaviours around food in the depiction of eating disorders. This is both because they put an emphasis on food, rather than the emotional issues that lie at the root of most eating disorders, and as they can encourage audiences to adopt the same techniques. Numbers – be they related to weight lost or gained, days gone without eating, or calories consumed, are considered particularly triggering – as are images of people at a very low weight. To The Bone heavily features all of the above.

“I am cautious to divide any form of mental health representation into ‘good’ and ‘bad’,” says Bethany Rose Lamont, the editor-in-chief of mental health journal Doll Hospital. “It’s simply too reductive and encourages a sense of moral panic that does not support those struggling, whilst still fanning the flames of fear.”

Nevertheless, she does have deep concerns about To The Bone, which, she argues, is grounded in thinspiration aesthetics. “As someone who has struggled with anorexia for over a decade I’m intimately aware of the interplay of images and illness. Often the consumers of mental health screen culture are struggling with their mental health themselves – there’s a reason why Cassie from Skins is so popular on thinspiration tumblrs!”

“We talk about recovery from deprivation of food, disordered eating and so on, but it’s also important that we talk about recovery from thinspiration images,” she continues. “Thinspiration has a distinct language and aesthetic: youth, whiteness, model looks, great make-up, knock knees, shining hair, oversized shirts to accentuate one’s smallness. It is also highly addictive and was my drug of choice for many years.”

She adds: “Whatever the earnest intention of this film project might be it is important to discuss how the images we have seen runs parallel with the language of thinspiration. Images have power, images of ‘thinness’ particularly, as anorexia itself is such a deeply visual illness. It is very easy for a film highlighting the horror of this devastating illness to unintentionally fall into this visual language or play into the ‘anorexic gaze’.”

Sadhbh O’Sullivan, who struggled with disordered eating throughout her teenage years and was diagnosed with anorexia at 19, had a similar reaction. “This mental health/tragedy porn is so so irresponsible,” she tells me. “Because when you’re anorexic you surround yourself with visuals like this trailer, which is so reminiscent of thinspo. You feel a compulsion to keep looking at it; to surround yourself with jutting bones and gaunt faces.”

In fact, images and quotes from the trailer, which features close-ups of Collins’s underweight body and the repeated mantra “I’m in control”, have already begun to appear in thininspiration communities on social media (which I won’t link to, for obvious reasons). “Honestly, Lily Collins looks so freaking good in it, I’m just using it as thinspo,” one user writes. Others discuss over the widely-reported amount of weight Collins lost for the part. Another writes they are “thinking about Lily Collins doing sit ups, wondering why I am just laying here”.

Liv notes her concerns that Lily Collins has been presented as still beautiful at a dangerously low weight. “She has clearly had her hair and make-up done to make her look prettier. That sort of gothic hollow look is what I would have aspired to look like when I was a teenager, but in reality when I was in hospital with other anorexics no one looked good. Everyone was really hairy with lanugo, had very hollow faces, and couldn’t really talk much as we didn’t have the energy. This side of anorexia isn’t really portrayed in the trailer.”

“The fact is that the reality of an eating disorder is really, really boring,” says Carrie Arnold, author of the book Decoding Anorexia. “Oh look, someone is counting calories again. They’re weighing themselves for the eleventy billionth time. They haven’t left their room in days except to purge.”

“It’s also not representative of the experience of an average person with an eating disorder,” she adds. “Most people with EDs are average or above average weight. They’re not necessarily young, affluent, or white, either.”

This is something that particularly troubles Sadhbh. “My anorexia never looked like Lily Collins’,” she tells me. “Though I desperately wanted it to.”

For many viewers, watching the trailer alone has been a triggering experience. “I’m not surprised,” says Arnold, citing the screen’s “long history of glamourising eating disorders”. From Skins and Gossip Girl to Pretty Little Liars and Black Swan, eating disorders seems to only exist in TV and film when it’s being experienced by a strikingly beautiful, vulnerable young woman.

“When this pops up without warning it can trigger something that sends you spiralling,” Sadhbh adds. “Though I’m technically recovered, anorexia never really leaves you.”

“This trailer has been a horrible, painful reminder of that.”


*Some names have been changed.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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