Exclusion As Default: Female Geeks

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Title: Exclusion As Default: Female Geeks
Date(s): April 12, 2014
External Links: https://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2014/04/12/exclusion-as-default-female-geeks/}
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Exclusion As Default: Female Geeks is a 2014 essay by Foz Meadows.

Topics Discussed

  • fandom as embraced by old white guys/cis white guys
  • the April 19, 2014 Buzzfeed article What’s Your Geek Number? which included 300 questions
  • examples of female pioneers in fandom
  • geek credentials

From the Essay

A couple of years ago, while attending an SFF convention, I made the mistake of participating in a geek trivia contest. Normally, I love this sort of thing, even when I lose badly: I spent a not inconsiderable portion of my tweens and teens playing the original edition of Trivial Pursuit for fun, despite the fact that even the most “recent” events on the cards were all older than me by more than a decade. My parents used to beat me hollow, but I loved it, because I always felt like I learned something. So, understandably, I embarked on this particular quiz with a feeling of optimism. I didn’t care that it was billed as “ridiculously hard” – I just wanted to have a good time, and maybe learn some cool, obscure facts about the history of SFF. Instead, the whole thing quickly became the single worst experience I’ve ever had at a convention.

The film round was more of the same: the most recent movie referenced was a work of B-grade 90s SF. Everything else was from the 50s, 60s, or – more commonly – the 70s. No answers involved women, let alone POC. At this point, the MC decided to hand out the sheet for the picture round. When he reached our table, he pointedly said to me, “You can’t call me sexist now, because an equal number of questions on here are about women. I made sure of it.” Which is to say: on the bonus round that was about identifying SFF characters and celebrities by their predominantly naked or scantily-clad arses, three of the pictures were of women: Ellen Ripley, Catwoman, and Seven of Nine. Three others were of robots, and the remaining four were men. Surprisingly, this didn’t cheer me up.

Next was a Star Wars/Star Trek round, which distinguished itself by featuring a single answer that involved a woman. (The question: what was Seven of Nine’s real name?) By this point, four of the five tables were visibly losing the will to live: the remaining team, which boasted two straight white men in their forties or above – one of whom was close friends with the MC – was something like 30 points ahead of their nearest competitors, and it was becoming increasingly apparent, from comments made by the MC, that the entire quiz had basically been designed as a series of in-jokes between him and his mate; this did not, however, stop him from calling the losing teams “pathetic”. To make things worse, once he’d handed out the arses sheet, the MC started deliberately mispronouncing and mocking our team name when he read out the scores, something which he continued to do for the rest of the evening. As we were the only ones to received this treatment, it was quite obviously meant as retaliation.

Which is what came to mind this evening, when a not-so-snappily-titled Buzzfeed quiz – What’s Your Geek Number? – cropped up in my Facebook feed. The whole thing is 300 questions long, and in that entire, lengthy list, which mentions a hefty number of specific titles and works by name, only two are created by women: Harry Potter, and My Little Pony. Everything else listed has either been written or created by men, and it’s notable that while there are multiple questions about the purchase and possession of merchandise in the male-oriented franchises, particularly relating to comics and Magic: The Gathering, neither of these female-dominated fandoms is explored in similar detail.

While fandoms, behaviours and pastimes that are commonly held to be male-dominated are discussed in detail – programming, mainstream comics, Star Trek, Star Wars, Magic: The Gathering – there’s a conspicuous absence of female-dominated media. Right at the end, for instance, there are three questions about fanfiction, and a couple of passing references to artwork based on favourite series (though the term ‘fanart’ is never used), but there’s no mention of cosplay, costuming, knitting, filking, fanzines, slash, book blogging, meta-writing, YA novels, webcomics, or any other subcultures known for having a high percentage of female geeks. Which isn’t to say that women don’t program, or read mainstream comics, or like any of the other things the quiz puts a premium on; nor am I suggesting that, at 300 questions, the whole thing was really too short. I know this is just a random Buzzfeed quiz – which is to say, a literal timewaster – and that my analyzing it like this is going to have lots of people rolling their eyes, because why the fuck would anyone take it seriously?

But here’s the thing: at a time when various geeky cultures and subcultures are still gripped by lurking paranoia about the existence of Fake Geek Girls, and where women are so often asked to prove their geek credentials in ways that men just aren’t, creating a quiz whose content perfectly mirrors the extant debates about what “real” geeks are, in a way that makes it clear that “real geek” is code for “guy”, kind of helps to demonstrate the problem. Whenever mainstream culture stereotypes geekdom as a bunch of greasy, cheeto-stained white guys in sweat pants mouthbreathing in the basement of their parents’ house, we bristle collectively, because we know it’s unfair and inaccurate – a caricature some forty years out of date. But when we ourselves make assumptions about what the “average geek” looks like, we still tend to picture some variant of this same guy, with his Boba Fett statues and Kirk v Picard t-shirt, and treat him, if not as a yardstick, then as genesis: the archetypal Patient Zero who first spread the disease of dorkness to his likeminded fellows. We think of women and POC as interlopers, latecomers, erasing the history of their participation in fandom in a bid to reassure a particular resentful, insecure cluster of white men that, even if they’re not the only fans around, they’re still the most important, because they were here first: that men like them were solely responsible, not just for fandom as a concept, but for all those geeky fields – like computing, video games, movies, science fiction and fantasy – with which it’s now associated.

Only, no: they weren’t. Not exclusively. Not by a long shot.

Which brings me back to that stupid Buzzfeed quiz, and why, when it evoked the memory of that awful convention trivia night, I found I was physically angry. As innocuous as such small slights are in the abstract, they’re ultimately predicated on something bigger and more insidious: the ubiquity of bias, and the many ways in which ignorance feeds itself. This is why women in fandom are still suspected of being Fake Geek Girls: because the history that supports our claim to geekdom is a history too many of our peers have never learned, and have in fact been actively encouraged not to seek. Until sufficient male support legitimises female-dominated fandoms, we are forced to accept a lesser, periphery status; but once the men do take an interest, then suddenly, the women were never there to begin with.

I don’t care that some mook at Buzzfeed thinks that playingMagic: The Gathering is a more natural and obvious geeky pastime than cosplaying characters or writing fanfiction: I care that he no more seemed to realise he was making that distinction than the MC at the convention trivia night realised his quiz wasn’t just generally difficult, but specialised to the point of exclusion. Liking different fandoms is one thing, but assuming your fandoms are the only, the realest, the most legitimate fandoms, whether consciously or unconsciously, Because Dudes, is a quite another. And I, for one, am sick of it.

Fan Comments

[Olivia White]: The Buzzfeed quiz did have two brief questions about LARPing; to compensate for presenting this quibbling mini-fact in the comments for a post of such necessary and righteous truth, I’ll also add that the first draft of the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back was written by famed female sci-fi author Leigh Brackett. (She also worked on Rio Bravo and The Big Sleep, so, you know, buckets of awesome right there.)


Thank you for sharing this. It really has gotten ridiculous in so many ways…as a geeky girl I sometimes do feel like a rare specimen to be put in a tube and forgotten in a far away laboratory.

On the one hand it’s kind of fun to surprise people that you’re a geek…until you think too hard about why it’s surprising.

One of my newest fandoms is the video game League of Legends. But as much as I enjoy playing it, things about it really bother me. It’s sort of assumed by everyone that everyone else is a boy…and this causes some of the stupidest insults. Rape is tossed around so much, and when I saw one person request that the word be stopped, they were bombarded with people yelling that they’re being oversensitive, or just saying the word rape as much as possible after that. And when players are irritated or angry, a lot of people say ‘ooo, must be on your period.’

[Tina Black]: The Buzzfeed quiz was trash. So sad the author of it was ignorant. 🙂

[Linda Ross-Mansfield]: C.L. Moore was there in the forties and fifties as a writer and editor, as was Judith Merrill . Andre Norton too was a great writer who was a woman. I can remember a casual discussion I had in the late seventies, of strong female characters in SF and why so many male writers seemed to not write them. An ardent young man asked “What about James Tiptree Jr.?” He didn’t know that it had just recently been revealed that this was the pseudonym of a woman, and it broke his heart to lose the shining example he had looked to as a good example of men who -could- write good female characters, and he rather despaired that he had lost a champion for his point.

[Sharla Stremski]: In your talk of women involved with Star Trek, you talked of fanfic and fandom, but you could also mention DC Fontana, who wrote many episodes for the original series and Next Generation, as well as Star Trek novels. There were also a lot of other women writing Star Trek novels (probably just about as many as there were men), as well as episodes in later series.

[Ranuel]: I turn 50 in two months and it’s really bizarre seeing stuff we lived through be forgotten so quickly to the point that there can even BE a debate about women in fandom. Women have always been active in fandom and frankly most conventions would be SOL without the women who volunteer their time on the concom.

[Wayne Borean]: I took my wife to a gaming convention. When she signed up to play Star Fleet Battles, the other players laughed. When she shot the hell out of one of them on the second turn, they all freaked. Everyone of them took shots at her for the next two turns, making her the first player out.

I told her it was a complement. She scared the wits out of them.

But twenty-five years later, she still shudders when she remembers that.

[crankyfacedknitter]: I don’t think having an entire group of strangers temporarily band together specifically to prevent you from playing a game is as complimentary as you think. She proved her competence, and they punished her for it. They put all other competition and strategies on hold until she was destroyed. If that’s what happens in a friendly competition, can you blame her for shuddering 25 years later?

[Sara Robinson]: Of the 13 early organizers who launched the Game Developers Conference, five were women: Brenda Laurel, the aforementioned Anne Westfall, Nicky Robinson, Susan Lee-Merrow, and, um, me. Those early years in the business were tough ones for women (this being the 80s, and before Anita Hill), but we’ve been there since the beginning, doing everything the boys did — backwards and in Doc Martens. I think all of us had hoped that by this point, 25 years on, geekdom would be a far more hospitable place for creative women. Instead, the misogyny has been codified into genuinely hostile memes like Fake Geek Girls and Brogrammers. Given how high our hopes were, it’s rather disappointing to realize that ground has actually been lost.

[Jesslin]: I sometimes wonder if the male bias in geek quizzes etc. isn’t simply because there’s a male bias towards ‘proving’ themselves in *anything*. I don’t know many females who get into “more geeky than thou” contests, even though I know a lot of geeky people in general; it’s still usually the men who start the, ‘Oh, but do you know about *this* [insert minutia here]?’ contest. I can’t speak a whit about POC/non-binary gender content, simply because I don’t have a reasonable demographic experience to extrapolate from. I don’t currently know of any geek quizzes written by non white male uber-geeks. I’d love to see one, just to see the difference 🙂


I don’t speak for Foz or anyone else here, but I don’t like anyone being a gatekeeper for geekhood, not even me. If you call yourself a geek, you are one. You can be a geek about one series, or many. If we turn out to share interests, maybe we hang out, compare action figure collections and share fanfic. If a lot of us share interests, maybe we can have a con to celebrate them.

If we don’t have any common ground in what we geek over, I shouldn’t try to create a hierarchy where my interests are more geeky than yours.

[PlumeMecanique]:Great article, thanks for sharing. I recently wrote an essay in French about how geeks had gained a more positive and acceptable image in recent years, what with shows like The Big Bang Theory and the hipster trend of retrogaming, while “tumblr fangirls” and “fake geek girls” were still mocked and ridiculed in their practices of fanart and fanfiction; your experience is a perfect example of this. It’s nothing more than run-of-the-mill misogyny.

Last weekend I was at HobbitCon in Germany, where there attendees were about 90% female. As I admired the amazing cosplay on display and listened to the insightful questions to the actors during the panels, I remembered the FoxTrot comic strip where three LotR nerds are sitting in a movie theater, surrounded by smitten girls; the caption reads, “Orlando Bloom has ruined everything”. Today, you could very well replace Orlando Bloom by Aidan Turner, aka Kili the Hot Dwarf. But what, exactly, has been ruined? All the fans present were clearly very passionate about the Tolkienverse and Peter Jackson’s movies. You can’t tell a young woman who has spent hours making her own silicon prosthetics for her Thorin Oakenshield cosplay that her geek credentials are somehow invalidated by the fact she thinks Richard Armitage is hot.

No, the only thing that has been “ruined” here is the possibility for white heterosexual boys to play in their very own “No Girls/LGTBQ/PoC Allowed” clubhouse, safe from demands for more diverse representation.