Geek culture is becoming a part of the mainstream. With the rapid adoption of video gaming and the commercial success of movie adaptations of popular comic books, among other growing niches, it is clear that the cultural market is shifting to serve my preferences and the preferences of men just like me.
Recently, nerd-centric series “Fangasm,” which aired on the Syfy (a primarily science-fiction and fantasy TV channel), came to a close. The show was tepid at best and left me—a chronic insomniac who watches bad reality shows in the small hours of the night—feeling vaguely uncomfortable. At first, I thought my discomfort came from the thoroughgoing sexism paraded throughout the show. I quickly realized that this was hardly abnormal. What was abnormal, and I think is endemic to nerd culture, is a sense of exceptionalism when it comes to sexist portrayals of women. The products of nerd culture seem to think themselves immune to critiques on gender-critical grounds.
Video games are perhaps the most obvious and graphic examples of unrestrained indulgence of puerile male violence/power fantasy, thinly veiled by claims of irony and parody. Rockstar Games, the makers of the Grand Theft Auto video game series, regularly defends its work under the pretense of parody. One is hard pressed to identify the irony in beating a woman to death and driving over her corpse—for some, a selling feature of the series.
Even more gender-inclusive games, which still nearly all hyper-sexualize female characters, are awash in verbal abuse from users. Vicious and hate-filled language abides across virtually every gaming platform. Corporations such as Electronic Arts or Activision-Blizzard wield unparalleled influence over the minds of impressionably young men and retain total control over their wholly owned gaming environments. Yet, minimizing harassment and dismantling a culture of violence is reduced to a post-facto, customer-support, policing action. Gamers at large do next to nothing even when cases hit the media, such as when professional gamer Aris Bakhtanians sexually harassed his female teammate on a video stream watched by millions. His behaviour is typical of many gamer men, and the remainder, for the most part, look on in silence.
No part of geek culture seems exempt. From science fiction, comics, information technology, horror, video games, tabletop RPGs and—to a lesser extent—board games, anime and manga, women are featured merely as product and packaging, not as participants or audience. “Geek girls” are expected to consume geek cultural products wholesale and uncritically, or risk being shunned as frauds. Those women that distinguish themselves are fawned over and harassed in equal measure, such as Elise Andrew, admin of the popular “I Fucking Love Science” Facebook page experienced when her gender became widely known.
Even “strong” female characters, while apparently serving their own wishes, are deliberately constructed and portrayed to fulfill the desires of a male audience—Catwoman wears a skin-tight outfit, all the humanoid female Cylons are conventionally attractive, and even Princess Zelda has to be a man (Sheik) to be taken seriously as a warrior.
It’s important for self-identified geeks to appreciate the artificiality of our culture; it is borne of profit-seeking corporate enterprises, from Sony to Disney, and embellished by fans within the parameters established by its owners. These companies have little incentive to be socially progressive until their consumers demand it. We must be conscious of how we are manipulated into endorsing and, more importantly, purchasing a culture where women are objectified and bought and sold as emblems of sexuality. As geek culture is increasingly commoditized, it’s imperative that we make ethical choices about the sort of culture we purchase and create.