The battle for geek culture

Why is this flourishing sub-culture tearing itself apart?

October 19, 2015
Comic book creators are introducing more female-led title ©AP Photo/Steve Luciano)
Comic book creators are introducing more female-led title ©AP Photo/Steve Luciano)
What is geek culture and why is it increasingly the subject of cultural scrutiny and fierce hashtag wars? This weekend I took part in a debate around these issues at the Battle of Ideas festival at London's Barbican Centre, where I strove to stand up for female geeks everywhere. And yes, we did talk about Gamergate.

I was fortunate, or unfortunate depending on your view, to share a platform with the scene's provocateur-in-chief, Milo Yiannopoulos the technology editor of the right-wing politics and culture website Breitbart, who proved a good sparring partner despite the odd queeny remark. Joining us were Milo's somewhat geekier sidekick—Allum Bokhari a columnist at Breitbart, Dr Maren Thom—a researcher in film who likes to spend her evenings "shooting people's heads off" (virtually, that is), and Jason Walsh—a nattily attired foreign correspondent with interesting ideas on cultural identity. You can read my opening remarks below.

When I was growing up, being a geek or a nerd was the opposite of cool. Geeks were bespectacled people with pimples who hung out in science labs and wore bad glasses held together with plasters. They were everything you aspired not to be. You might have respect, or even affection, for the likes of Albert Einstein and Adrian Mole but you didn't want to grow up to be them.

But these days, I’ve had to readjust my cultural settings and realise that the geeks have indeed inherited the earth. Which is fine—I can cope with the idea of the uncool kids getting their Heathers style moment of glory. I can even handle the images of them spending their billions of tech dollars buying street cred at festivals like Cocahella and Burning Man. But there’s one thing amiss with this picture—the geeks are now the kings of the world, but they are exactly that, the kings. Where are the queens? Why is geek culture still a fortress of sexism?

Are girls really genetically bad at gaming? Is the Candy Crush Hall of Fame the only dizzy heights we can ever hope to ascend to? Is comic book humour distinctly male? Or is there something more sinister lurking beneath the surface of this world full of awkward men, many of whom lack basic social skills, enjoying their moment in the cultural spotlight? Is it that these boys never got the girls and now they want to keep them out of their kingdom for as long as possible? Gamergate is obviously the most extreme example of this worrying sexism, and I’m not saying the rest of society is perfect either, but it does seem more rife within geek culture than others.

For example while superheroes are all mega buff, a fetishised image of masculinity which appeals mainly to men and leaves most women erotically cold (big biceps are certainly not my thing), their female counterparts usually conform to the big boobs, pert bottom, collagen lips stereotype. Have you seen Super Woman's ass? It seems that most male comic book artists still dream of doing it with Jessica Rabbit.

So, what can we do about it? I’m not going to sit here and conform to the stereotype of the moaning feminist. It’s important we understand that sudden explosions of sexism like Gamergate are as much a symptom of the internet and social media as they are reflective of a bigger problem within gaming culture. We can reach people in a way we never could before and we don’t always use that power wisely. We have a situation where we have accessibility without empathy.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are some positive signs—female audiences are growing fast. Marvel for example launched a slew of female-led titles such as Thor—where the male hero was suddenly replaced with an armour-clad female. Whether this is fuelled more by a desire for money making than a bid for true gender equality is irrelevant. Numerous blogs and groups have also sprung up to defend the presence of women and girls in geek culture. It’s all good progress, but there’s still much work to be done—acknowledging the scale and scope of the problem is important. We all need to work together to ensure there is never another Gamergate, and that female geeks feel secure and welcome in the spaces devoted to their passions both online and off.