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
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era