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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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