Saturday, March 10, 2012

"Misogyny Just Part of the Culture?!" A.K.A. "Sci-fi For Girls"

If there is one thing I hate, it's misogyny. Some might argue women-hating is dead. If someone honestly thinks that, it is our duty to take them aside and dispel their delusions. Misogyny is alive and well in one of the most popular American subcultures - nerd culture.

First let's figure out what "nerd culture" means. For the purposes of our discussion, let's assume nerd culture includes hard-core gamers, LARPers, table-top gamers, anime lovers, comic-book fanatics, as well as sci-fi, paranormal, and fantasy lovers. We could include some "geek culture" in this, and add engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists - there certainly is overlap. However, I think nerd culture, as opposed to geek culture, is the real culprit when it comes to misogyny. Nerd culture does not require any degree of sophisticated higher-learning, whereas education is required in geek culture. Let's face it, the academy is a bit more accepting of gender equality (though women have certainly had a tough slog in the hard sciences). Besides, we're emphasizing a culture spurred by entertainment, not occupation.

Now that we're clear on who is included in our beloved nerd culture, let's tackle the giant flailing elephant in the room.

Why is it that women are second-class citizens in nerd culture?

I think there are several contributing factors. One is the perception of women as evil, manipulative creatures. In the past, nerds were less desirable mates. Thought of as unattractive, and socially incompetent, who would want a nerdy husband when the perfectly-formed athletic ubermensch was available? Nerdy boys have traditionally been friend-zoned, and as we all know, once being declared a friend, it is difficult to be anything else. The collective hurt of being relegated to friend, tormented, and misused by immature teen girls has become internalized by nerd culture. This hurt was transformed into a seething hatred, which was fueled by other aspects of nerd-dom.

This leads us to a second contributing factor to the misogynist nerd. This is the prominent adolescent idea that women are objects, as opposed to subjects, with the sole purpose of providing pleasure. Even if a female character is supposed to be self-possessed, she always appears in spandex, fitted vinyl, or rubber. If she's fully covered, her outfit is skin-tight, but she is just as often half-naked. Usually she has long, tousled hair. She is always beautiful. There is always the undercurrent that her real purpose is to please the men around her, as opposed to any agenda of her own. This depiction of women is an expression of a previously held conception, while serving to reinforce the ideas associated with such images.

While this depiction of women may be one of the more overt contributing factors, there are others that are more insidious. For example, the type of thinking involved in nerd culture is primarily analytical, as opposed to relational. This is perpetuated by the types of games and stories popular in nerd culture.

Honestly, women think differently. Our brains function differently. We react to information in different ways from men. Because nerd culture has been predominated by men, the type of entertainment present is clearly tailored for them. It makes it difficult to break into such a culture, because clearly, women are not welcome. I've heard from many of my nerdy friends that relational stories are stupid, unrealistic, or just plain bad. Of course, these are the same stories that would appeal to many female audiences. I say this because biologically, women are predisposed to concern ourselves with family and community relationships in an effort to raise children. This is not to say that all women are empathetic or relationship oriented (many are not). However there is no reason why hard sci-fi can't have some depth of interaction between characters.

The final contributing factor to nerd misogyny is it's traditionalism. The majority of nerd culture is incredibly closed-minded, though it generally considers itself to be progressive in nature. There are two ways society labels a person progressive - if they have strong leftist opinions (to the exclusion of any other possibility), or in the willingness to entertain opposing or differing perspectives.

The problem is, many nerds think of themselves as progressive in one or both of these ways. Often, however, they are the exact opposite. Let's consider, many nerds consider themselves to be intelligent. However just because a person is intelligent does not mean they are capable of entertaining different perspectives. Intelligence does not require a person be willing to change. And if a person is stupid, good luck trying to figure out the trigger that inspires change.

So yes, nerds may be comfortable entertaining quantum physics theories, and exploring the development from a given comic of 1953 to one of the present, but this does not mean nerds are progressive. In fact, the development of many of the stories so popular in nerd culture is steeped in ancient myths as well as superheros created when Donna Reed was still a "good" idea. Traditional, for the nerd, is in.

There is always a hero - the hero always saves the day. Ideas of chivalry and dominance hierarchies are alive and well. Of course those two heavy weights bring associated gender identities. As we might suspect, women are to be saved, sexed, and set aside (either left in the tavern down the road, or protected by being sequestered in a fortress). It's enough to make this woman want a claymore.

There are many reasons why nerd culture is misogynist, and therefore, we need to attack this belief from a variety of angles. This is one of the reasons why I am so committed to writing the types of stories that I do. I wanted to create things that were "female friendly" - stories that encourage a different perception of women. But a few writers creating stories with different depictions of women is not enough - first and foremost, we need a broader recognition of the incredible misogynist tendencies of nerd culture. Once this is recognized, we can address it on a broad scale in such a way that it can be changed.

After all, the first step is recognizing we even have a problem. How else can we get to step two?

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