Perception is everything. When I was the kid balancing my plastic Bill & Ted bank on the glass counter of my local comic book shop and fumbling with crumpled bills to pay for the latest copy of Amazing Spider-Man, I sure felt like the only geek in the world. Years later, when a few classmates would call me names for reading Anne Rice books in study hall, I came to a similar conclusion. Not to mention the time I told a date about my love for Transmetropolitan, only to have her laugh at the concept of a comic book about a journalist. Despite those unpleasant memories, I managed to find something powerful enough to help me gain confidence and strength from self-identifying as a geek. I found all of you.
People, female or male, should be free to identify themselves however they like without being persecuted or looked down upon. Someone being proud of who they are or what they enjoy should be applauded.
- Jill Pantozzi, I’m a Geek, Girl (& You Can Too!)
Acceptance isn’t a passive action. It can take years for geeks and nerds to cast off the stigma that society often thrusts onto our community, which, in turn, can lead to a reluctance to interact with other geeks. That lack of exposure to our culture only feeds the cycle further, as isolation breeds doubt. Without adequate experience to disprove our own misconceptions, some of us defer to the portrayal of geeks in mainstream media or stereotypes to form opinions about what it means to be ourselves. Although our community is evolving, the remnants of that old but popular perception can influence future geek interaction, reinforcing the belief that things will never change. Therefore, it’s up to us to do something about that.
A basic profile of geeks shows that they are predominantly white male, who do well in school especially in mathematics and sciences, have high IQs, collect technical products, and are science fiction fans, but are socially inept. Geeks possess traditional masculine characteristics such as fascination with technology, but lack traditional feminine characteristics such as social skills.
- Roli Varma, Women in Computing: The Role of Geek Culture [PDF]
For starters, we can take it upon ourselves to dispel a fair amount of prejudice in the community by chucking out some apocryphal conventions. Two particular stereotypes have been derived from a popular misconception of the past — that geeks are socially inadequate boys, incapable of broadening their focus beyond a modest set of limited interests. An obvious error that arises from such an outdated observation is that all geeks are male, an omission that lead to the creation of the “unicorn”. The other implied fallacy is that all male geeks are mouth-breathing, basement-dwelling trolls, a sort of “creeper” that weirds everyone out wherever he goes. Neither represents our culture truthfully, yet we still allow such stereotypes to mar our interactions and expectations.
To a casual observer, a label like unicorn must seem laughable. The idea of an elusive but vibrant lady geek bouncing about town like a social butterfly on speed, clad in her superheroine costume and designer glasses, sounds like something closer to an adolescent fantasy than reality. However, it’s a stereotype that stuck somehow, after it was foisted onto our community by pop culture and our own misconceptions. Although female geeks are as prominent as ever, some of us still cling to the notion that women don’t play video games, read comic books, or enjoy the media men love. Worse still, there’s this pervasive fear that many prominent ladies are simply pandering to male geeks for attention. All told, it seems like a bad joke we’ll grow out of over time.
However, there remains the everlasting problem that male geeks are all too often perceived as the polar opposite of the unicorn — an unkempt schmuck so introverted that he fails at every chance of social interaction. While every unicorn must be an Olivia Munn clone, the creeper comes off like the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. The two stereotypes even have a sort of symbiotic relationship, as the unicorn craves attention while the creeper provides it, often to an embarrassing degree. Although the creeper and unicorn have a lot in common, such as their love for Joss Whedon, there will never be any chance that they’ll be able to have a real human relationship, what with the creeper being forever alone and the unicorn being a mass hallucination. Needless to say, the whole thing is pretty offensive. Luckily, we don’t all buy into this stuff, right?
I was on the subway this morning and there was this huge geek explaining to a friend what the “Han shot first” debate is and how it’s actually a bit of a misnomer.
Can you picture the scene? What does it look like? Is the geek a guy or a girl? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most likely, you’re picturing a guy. Heck, I’m even picturing a guy, and I’ve had this conversation myself in a public place. My point is that males are widely perceived as the “default” for geeks.
- Eleni, Default Geek
In order to test Eleni’s theory, I constructed an informal survey consisting of ten questions related to geek culture. After asking for a few bits of innocuous data, I polled respondents on their perception of the gender of two hypothetical geeks. Using gender-ambiguous language, I described a creeper, Geek A, and a unicorn, Geek B. Although almost all of the respondents agreed with the idea that geek is a gender-neutral label, the majority, male and female, described both of the hypothetical geeks as male. Geek A, the pale and unkempt creeper, was chosen to be male 89% of the time. Geek B, the slender unicorn with nice hair, was also a man, according to half of the respondents. As it turns out, Eleni is unfortunately right; male still seems to be the default setting for geek.
Even though we’re aware of the insidious nature of these stereotypes and misconceptions, we geeks can have trouble differentiating fallacy and reality. Despite our best intentions, our preconceived notions about the geek community may end up getting us into a lot of trouble. We may say things that draw the ire of opposite gender geeks. We may choose to define ourselves in a way other geeks find offensive. We could even end up writing articles that unintentionally upset geeks of both genders due to the sensitive nature of this topic and the fact that we could all do to treat each other a bit better, but I digress.
The truth here is that we’re a community made up of all types, brought together because of our love for the same fantastic stuff. We’re not a bunch of socially-inept introverts. In fact, it’s never been easier to connect with other geeks via forums, social media, and sites like the one you’re reading right now. The experience gained from that exposure to the geek community will, in time, dispel any doubt that lady geeks exist, even if we do have a bit of trouble understanding geek to be a gender neutral label. Our active participation in the community will bring us all, men and women, out into the light of day, up out of our parents’ basements and away from ugly stereotypes. It’s time we cast off the preconceived notions of the past and redefine what it means to be a geek, not only in the public eye, but to ourselves.
Being a ‘geek’ in high school – a label that in the past would position girls on the fringes of peer culture – was an identity that some girls embraced and actively cultivated. As 18-year-old Stephanie exclaimed: ‘We called ourselves ‘‘geeks.’’ We thought it was good.’ Nineteen-year-old Myra added: ‘Like we called each other geeks. And I don’t mind being called a ‘‘geek.’’ We even got our physics teacher to make buttons that said ‘‘The geeks shall inherit the earth!’’’
- Dawn H. Currie, Deirdre M. Kelly and Shauna Pomerantz, ‘The geeks shall inherit the earth’: Girls’ Agency, Subjectivity and Empowerment