Does misogyny lie at the heart of "fake geek girl" accusations – or is it self-loathing?

The men who police geek spaces are fighting a losing battle, writes Kaite Welsh.

Science fiction is no longer a boy’s game, if it ever was, as the thousands of women who attended this year's San Diego geekfest Comic-Con can attest. Women are watching, writing, acting in and making sci fi and fantasy – and, if you believe the men behind the "Fake Geek Girls" movement, they’re just doing it for male attention. 

When graphic novelist Tony Harris posted an angry screed on Facebook, decrying the conventionally pretty women who attend conventions in the hopes of snaring an unsuspecting young nerd to toy with, the fake geek girl meme went viral. Harris was simply repeating an argument that has been doing the rounds for years – the "booth babes" and scantily-clad fangirls are there not because they genuinely like science fiction, but to attract men they’d normally never look twice at. One of the biggest targets has been cosplay – what the non-nerdy might term "dressing up". Whilst male fans are free to show up dressed as the Dark Knight himself, attend a con in Catwoman’s leathers and you must be doing it for male attention. A man can wear a bow tie and a fez and he’s in costume. A woman can spend hundreds of pounds or weeks of her time on an exact replica of an outfit a minor character wore onscreen for five minutes, whilst reciting the Prime Directive in Klingon, and she’s an attention-seeking slut. For a subculture that prides itself on individuality, that sounds an awful lot like mainstream misogyny. 

Geekdom is a competitive sphere, whatever your gender. Obscure facts become currency, traded for acceptance or a place in the hierarchy. Fans who come on board at the height of a show’s popularity are looked down upon, because they don’t know the pain of living through those arid, TARDIS-less years between McCoy and Eccleston with only Paul McGann to alleviate the tedium. Women in particular are seen as jumping on a bandwagon, appropriating geek chic – just like female football fans, they’re only interested in the hero’s physique. 

Women’s engagement with media has always been trivialised, from the eighteenth century scorn heaped upon novels to the dismissal of teenage boyband fans, whose attention, it is assumed, must be on the floppy-haired singers, not the music itself. When feminist Doctor Who anthology Chicks Unravel Time was published last year, one of the essays that raised most eyebrows was Laura Mead’s meditation on the Doctor and the female gaze, cheekily titled "David Tennant’s Bum". An academic who shall remain nameless used it in a conference as an example of "squee", that hyperactive brand of fangirling that cannot possibly be taken seriously, ever, because women can’t enjoy media on a serious level. But I defy you to find a study of Wonder Woman or Buffy Summers or Ripley in the Alien franchise that doesn’t dedicate paragraphs to their appearance. 

The shortlist for this year’s Hugo Awards, one of the sci fi world’s most prestigious accolades, is overwhelmingly female, in what was reported as a watershed moment for women’s equality in genre fiction. But since then, the sci fi scene has featured everything from heckling actresses who complain about sexism to sexual harassment at a feminist science fiction convention from a well-known editor in the industry. Stickers reading "Advisory: Fake Geek Girl" were slapped onto women at a video game convention last month, combining the harasser’s two favourite things - non-consensual physical contact and public humiliation. 

It’s not just the convention-goers that are the problem – the event programming is partially to blame. Although 40 per cent of Comic-Con attendees this year were women, panel discussions were rarely more than 20 per cent female. In an environment where women are denied a voice, is it any wonder that outdated attitudes persist? Sci fi author Paul Cornell has taken a stand, stating that if he is invited to speak on a panel that doesn’t offer equal representation, he’ll step down and find a woman to take his place, and this weekend’s proudly feminist and LGBTQ-friendly Nine Worlds convention in London promises to “dump the sexism that infests many geek spaces and sci-fi cons”. Make no mistake, this isn’t "just" the problem of online trolls emerging blinking into the artificial lighting, only to find that the girls have invaded their treehouse. It starts from the top, with male producers, directors, editors, authors and publishers alike assuming that women are there for their entertainment, regardless of whether or not those women are fans or authors themselves, and the culture colludes in this harassment by painting the perpetrators as awkward victims of female sexuality. 

These men, Harris suggests, are “virgins… unconfident when it comes to women” who wouldn’t stand a chance with a geek girl outside a convention, fake or otherwise. It’s an ugly, self-perpetuating cycle that tells men they’re unworthy and inadequate in the same breath that it condemns women as whores. Social inadequacy is offered up as carte blanche for inappropriate behaviour because these pathetic, deluded men don’t know how to relate to women, and it’s our job as women in their environment to make allowances, to make out and make up for the countless women that we’re told rejected them. The fake geek girl trope doesn’t flatter anyone, and it’s not supposed to. The only thing worse than being a geek is pretending to be one for attention. You’re such a loser, the name whispers, that you can’t even get being a loser right. Meanwhile, the objects of their derision play and design video games and appear on panels and argue over who the best Star Trek captain was (Janeway, obviously), carving out a community and a culture where no man has gone before, reclaiming a word that the traditional sci fi scene has always been conflicted about. 

Buried beneath the layers of misogyny and genre snobbery is self-loathing, because the real insult here isn’t "fake", or "girl". It’s "geek". You keep on using that word, sexist fanboys of the internet. I do not think it means what you think it means. 

A Princess Leia checks her phone at San Diego Comic-Con. Photograph: Getty Images
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear