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
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.