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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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