Geek Policing: Fake Geek Girls and Contested Attention

JOSEPH REAGLE1

Northeastern University

Abstract: I frame the 2012-2013 discourse about “fake geek girls” via Bourdieu’s theory of fields and capital, complemented by literature on geeks, authenticity, and boundary policing. This discourse permits me to identify the reciprocal relationship between the policing of identity (e.g., am I a geek?) and the policing of social boundaries (e.g., is liking an X-Men movie sufficiently geeky?). Additionally, geekdom is gendered and the policing of “fake geek girls” can be understood as a conflict over what is attended to (knowledge or attractiveness), by whom (geekdom or mainstream), and the meaning of received attention (as empowering or objectifying). Finally, despite the emergence of a more progressive and welcoming notion of geeks-who-share, the conversation tended to manifest the values of dominant (androcentric) members. That is, in a discourse started by a woman encouraging other women to be geeky, some of the loudest voices were those that judged a women’s bodies and brains according to traditionally androcentric and heteronormative values. Consequently, in this boundary and identity policing, women faced significant double binds and the discourse exemplified a critical-boomerang in which a critique by a woman rebounds into a scrutiny of women by men.

Key words: authenticity, boundaries, capital, geek, gender, policing, subculture.


In March 2012, Tara Tiger Brown (2012), a self-described “tech entrepreneur, educator and opinion writer,” wrote an article entitled “Dear Fake Geek Girls: Please Go Away.” The article prompted much discussion in the 250 comments below the article and in other posts and thousands of comments elsewhere. Although Brown’s article signaled the start of a raucous conversation that would continue into 2013, it was not the first to decry a lessening of geek authenticity. Indeed, she referenced Patton Oswalt’s (2010) earlier Wired article “Wake Up, Geek Culture: Time to Die.” Granted, it is a truism that “old-timers,” as Brown described herself, bemoan the loss of the good old days. But Oswalt published his lament in a geeky venue (Wired focuses on tech-culture); Brown had carried the conversation into the mainstream (writing at Forbes.com). More controversially, she had gendered it.

Pretentious females who have labeled themselves as a “geek girl” figured out that guys will pay a lot of attention to them if they proclaim they are reading comics or playing video games. Celebrities are dressing up as geeks to reach a larger audience. Richard Branson labeled himself a geek for crying out loud. How do we separate the geeks from the muck? (Brown, 2012)

A common reflex among those discussing a subculture is to first declaim their own authenticity (e.g., their history and credentials). Brown did so, noting that among other geeky claims she had once known the names and backstories of all the Transformer characters. Additionally, Brown is tech-savvy, having worked as a high-level technologist in varied capacities. And despite the judgmental tenor of the article’s title, Brown (“Me,” 2014) is an advocate for women’s involvement in geek culture: she began DIY Girls to increase women’s and girls’ interest in technology and engineering (“About,” 2014). Whereas part of her essay scolded those not willing to obsessively master something (e.g., “do everyone a favor and call yourself what you are: a casual hobbyist”), much of her message was to encourage girls “who genuinely like their hobby or interest and document what they are doing to help others, not garner attention” (Brown, 2012).

Although some challenged this policing of geek identity, others extended it with more controversial claims focused on “sexy” cosplay (i.e., fantasy-related costuming and role-play, such as the bikini-clad “Slave Leia” character from Return of the Jedi). As I will discuss more fully, essayist and journalist Joe Peacock (2012a), writing for CNN’s Geek Out blog, complained of “pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention.” Comic book artist Tony Harris wrote on Facebook: “Hey! Quasi-pretty-NOT-hot-girl, you are more pathetic than the REAL nerds” because “you have this really awful need for attention, for people to tell you your pretty…” (Harris quoted in Johnston, 2012).

Each of these posts about “fake geek girls” (hereafter, FGG) shows that questions of attention (i.e., who gets it and why?) is a significant concern within geek culture. To understand this, I frame the 2012-2013 discourse about “fake geek girls” via Bourdieu’s theory of fields and capital, complemented by literature on geeks, authenticity, and boundary policing. This discourse permits me to identify the reciprocal relationship between the policing of identity (e.g., am I a geek?) and the policing of social boundaries (e.g., is liking an X-Men movie sufficiently geeky?). Additionally, geekdom is gendered and the policing of “fake geek girls” can be understood as a conflict over what is attended to (knowledge or attractiveness), by whom (geekdom or mainstream), and the meaning of received attention (as empowering or objectifying). Finally, despite the emergence of a more progressive and welcoming notion of geeks-who-share, the conversation tended to manifest the values of dominant (androcentric) members. That is, in a discourse started by a woman encouraging other women to be geeky, some of the loudest voices were those that judged women’s bodies and brains according according to traditionally androcentric and heteronormative values. Consequently, in this boundary and identity policing, women faced significant double binds and the discourse exemplified a critical-boomerang in which a critique by a woman rebounds into a scrutiny of women by men.

“Idiot Nrrd Girl”: Geeks, gender, and hierarchy

To consider whether someone is a “fake geek,” we ought to first understand what is meant by geek. Scholar J. A. McArthur (2009, p. 62) wrote that “To be geek is to be engaged, to be enthralled in a topic, and then to act on that engagement. Geeks come together based on common expertise on a certain topic. These groups may identify themselves as computer geeks, anime geeks, trivia geeks, gamers, hackers, and a number of other specific identifiers.” (I will speak of fans and nerds as geeks who are enthused with fiction and learning, respectively, though some of my sources may use these terms interchangeably.) The term originally had some negative connotations, as did nerd, but decades ago enthusiasts appropriated these terms for their own identity (Tocci, 2009, Chapter 1). An early articulation of this identity is the “Geek Code,” first posted “as a lark” on the Internet in 1993; it permitted one to concisely express the many facets of one’s geekiness in the signature of one’s online messages. By 1996 the code had categories for type of geek, computer and entertainment affinities, physical characteristics, sexuality and relationship status; each of these had half a dozen or more attributes. For instance, t designated one’s affinity for Star Trek, pluses and minuses showed one’s level of enthusiasm, and the @ qualifier indicated one’s affinity was not rigid. “Geeks who happen to very much enjoy Star Trek: The Next Generation, but dislike the old 60’s series might list themselves as t++@(Hayden, 2001). The term geek is now widely used outside such traditional domains. For instance, a reef geek is someone really into aquariums. Indeed, for some, as seen in the complaint of Richard Branson calling himself a geek, the word has become too popular. Despite the increasing popularity of the geek label, I focus on traditional domains alluded to by McArthur, sometimes referred to as geekdoms, and their response to increasing popularity.

Purportedly, geekdom is diverse and accepting: it is a space that values difference and creativity relative to the bland normality of the mainstream. As in any culture, its social norms and structures are sometimes contrary to this ideal. Although often done in good fun, geeks are not only keen to identify the facets of their identity (e.g., the “Geek Code”) but to test, characterize and even rank themselves and others. For instance, podcaster and cartoonist Scott Johnson’s (2007) illustration of “The 56 Geeks” includes cartoon characters for anime, Trek, Jedi, electronics, and cosplay geeks, among many others. Surprisingly, only three of Johnson’s fifty-six geeks are unambiguously female: scrapbook, cosplay, and ren faire (medieval cosplay and reenactment). The much older (but still available) “Geek Test” ranks those who answer an extensive questionnaire as a “poser,” “geekish,” or “geek,” which is then qualified as “total,” “major,” “super,” “extreme,” “god,” and “dysfunctional” One gets 5 bonus points for being a “female geek” (Beaudoin, 1999). Internet humorist Lore Sjöberg (2010) attempted to capture relative geekiness within a hierarchy. His diagram showed that science fiction authors consider themselves the least geeky, followed by varied types of fans, furries (those who like dressing up as animals), erotic furries, and finally “people who write erotic versions of Star Trek where all the characters are furries.” Whereas this hierarchy is written as a relationship between self-identified claims of geekiness, it can also be understood as levels of relative ignominy. Fandom scholar Kristina Busse (2013, p. 78) wrote that the hierarchy can be read to mean that “wherever one is situated in terms of mockable fannish behavior, there is clearly a fannish subgroup even more extreme than one’s own, … most fans can rest secure in their knowledge that erotic furry fan fiction remains less acceptable than their fannish hobby.”

Additionally, Busse noticed that these hierarchies are gendered with respect to the topic and extent (too little or too much) of one’s enthusiasms. (That is, where and how women place their attention is policed; later, I address the movement and meaning of the attention women receive.) For example, being too enthusiastic about the wrong thing, such as the teen vampire romance Twilight, can prompt derision rather than respect (Busse, 2013). This has even led some male fans of Twilight to hide their interest or defend it as masculine (Click, Miller, Behm-Morawitz, & Aubrey, 2015).

Furthermore, women’s interest in a historically geeky topic can seemingly devalue it. Busse wrote of a character in the comic Foxtrot who lamented that “Orlando Bloom has ruined everything” because of his sister’s new interest in the Lord of the Rings: “Not only does the comic clearly present the varying fan activities that often tend to be gendered, it also indicates how these fan activities fall on an implicitly acknowledged hierarchy” (Busse, 2013, p. 84, 87). This is also seen in the 2010 “Idiot ‘Nerd’ Girl” (ING) image macro and blog (idiotnerdgirl, 2014). A macro is an (often viral) image complemented by large captions, as in a motivational poster (KWM, 2011). (These are called “macros” because of the ease with which an early tool allowed one to add captions to an image.) In this case the image is of a bespectacled young woman with “NERD” written on her palm. The ING blog has about seventy macros using this same image. Typically, the caption above represents a claim on geek identity, such as the question “My favorite superhero?” The caption below undercuts the legitimacy of the claim: “Probably X-Man: Hugh Jackman is soooooo hot.” The young woman’s failure to recall the character’s name (Wolverine), combined with her reason (her desire) for liking the film, is intended to signify her idiocy and fakeness.

Because nerd and geek identity have typically been understood as white and masculine, geeks and scholars wrestle with the question of what does it mean to be a geek and atypical? Scholar Ron Eglash (2002, p. 60) documented how “mutually reinforcing constructions of masculinity, femininity, and technological prowess” of the traditional nerd identity force “Black nerds, Asian hipsters, and geek grrrls” to seek alternative paths around traditional gatekeepers. The 2006 collection of essays She’s Such a Geek! focused on the experiences of women in “science, technology and other nerdy stuff.” The contributors wrote of gendered expectations (i.e., “good for a girl”), the intersections of geek and “girly” things, and the challenges of managing both identities (Goodman, 2006, p. 27; Newitz & Anders, 2006; Seltzer, 2006, p. 53; Wells, 2006, p. 7). Similar discussions can be seen on the Geek Feminism wiki and blog, online spaces for women “in a range of geeky cultures/communities/activities,” including technology and fandom (“Geek Feminism,” 2013). Elsewhere, on this latter point of identity, Rhiannon Bury (2011, p. 48) found women working in information technology (IT) had geek identities that “were equivocal, ambivalent and context dependent”: “They were at risk of being assessed by themselves and others as either too geeky in relation to nontechnical woman or not geeky enough in relation to male IT experts.” This double bind is a recurrent theme in discussions of geek women, as seen in a review to another book, Leslie Simon’s (2011) young-adult title Geek Girls Unite. Simon moved beyond science and technology toward popular culture and the worlds of “fangirls, bookworms, indie chicks, and other misfits.” She advocated that young women be proud of their geekiness. Oddly, some of its Amazon reviews are critical of its focus on actual girls and popular culture. A review by a “martin_r” (2011) complained it was only “Elementary level geekiness at best” and “read like a Seventeen magazine article on how to be a geeky poser.”

From all this we can see that geekdom is often hierarchical and frequently gendered. Geeks can use a surprising degree of specificity in the presentation of their own identity and in the ordering of their worlds. This ordering can be unfavorable toward women, many of whom face a double bind of being too geeky and not geeky enough.

“‘Hot chicks’”: Capital—cultural, symbolic, and erotic

I use geek to speak of those with a passionate enthusiasm, which may eclipse other life activities. This engagement is an expenditure of attention and is typically associated with the accumulation of knowledge, or what Bourdieu (1986) referred to as cultural capital, one of four different types of what I’ll call personal capital. Economic capital is one’s financial assets, perhaps accumulated from the fruits of one’s labor. Cultural capital is one’s holding of cultural values, habits, and tastes; it is acquired both explicitly and tacitly and includes things such as education and style of speech and dress. Sarah Thornton (1996) followed Bourdieu with the notion of subcultural capital, which designates the knowledge necessary for knowing what is “hip” within a subculture. An example of geeky (sub)cultural capital is knowledge of appropriate cultural references and in-jokes. Social capital is the value of one’s social network, a “durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to membership in a group” (Bourdieu, 1986, para. 19). For example, wearing a comic conference t-shirt might indicate one is part of that particular network. Although social capital is dependent on one’s embeddedness in a group, symbolic capital is related to honor and recognition of the individual (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 242). A geek who broke a world record solving a Rubik’s Cube would likely attract symbolic capital.

Just as it takes effort to accumulate capital, it can be used to mobilize effort toward one’s own ends, including transforming it from one type into another (Bourdieu, 1986, para. 29). For instance, YouTube stars ComicBookGirl19 and EmergencyAwesome have been able to transform their cultural capital (geek knowledge) into economic capital (ad revenue from YouTube). Consequently, we can understand geekdom as a Bourdieusian field, which “constitutes a potentially open space of play whose boundaries are dynamic borders which are the stake of struggles within the field itself” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 104).

In the geek subculture, cultural capital is realized through the attention of others. We can see this in fandom debates about which stories are more important or “canonical” within a fictional universe (e.g., comics versus movies) (Brooker, 2001) and which practices are of greater worth (e.g., writing new fiction within a universe versus creating parody); as noted, much of this can be gendered (Brooker, 2014; Jenkins, 2013; Scott, 2013). In this perspective, FGG is a struggle to define the boundaries of the geek field and the valuation of different types of capital. As Noah Berlatsky (2013), editor of the comic website The Hooded Utilitarian, explained: the occasional mean-spiritedness of geek culture arises because “geekdom is built on cultural knowledge; on how much you’ve consumed; on what you’ve consumed; and on how long before everyone else you were able to consume it… There’s not much point in defining yourself as the knower if you cannot define others as those who do not know.”

Central to the FGG debate is the extent to which traditional cultural and symbolic capital is being supplanted by undue attention to women by virtue of their (relatively rare) gender and attractiveness in a traditionally heteronormative and androcentric space. This type of attention is characterized by sociologist Catherine Hakim as erotic capital, which includes things like beauty, sex appeal, and social skills (Green, 2008; Hakim, 2010). (Hakim coincidentally mused that technology workers may be “stereotyped as ‘geeks’” because their occupation does not typically require things like sex appeal and social skills (p. 501).) In this approach, complaints like Peacock’s (2012a) of “hot chicks” wearing “skimpy outfits simply to get a bunch of gawking geeks’ heads to turn” can be understood as an attack on the deployment of erotic capital. In these terms, Peacock and Harris object to the supplanting of subcultural capital by way of women’s erotic capital.

For the moment, I’ll put aside the legitimacy of erotic capital—I return to it in the section on Slave Leia—and stress that the FGG debate can be understand as the defining of a (Bourdieusian) field wherein participants struggle with its boundaries, including the legitimacy and conversion rates associated with different types of capital.

“Posers”: Identity, boundaries, and the Other

In the progression of critiques from Brown to Harris one thing remained constant: a complaint of “posers.” Brown (2012) wrote that “we just need to expose the posers for who they are and shine the light much more brightly on those that are the real deal.” Harris (quoted in Johnston, 2012) asked (and denied) if we was a misogynist just “because I frown upon Posers who are sad, needy fakers who use up all my air at Cons?” This distinction drawn between subcultural members and “posers” exemplifies that one’s identity is often defined relative to others. In their study of two different support groups, scholars Michael Schwalbe and Douglas Mason-Schrock (1996) defined “identity work” as what people do to “give meaning to themselves or others.” It can be understood as a process of defining, coding, enacting, and policing a social category and related identity. Importantly, the coding of an identity also includes rules for who can “adjudicate identity claims and bestow the identity,” that is, “who it is important to impress, whose affirmation matters, and how affirmation should be offered” (p. 123-127). Again, we see that positive attention (affirmation) is a generative force in the creation of personal capital. Within this process we also see that there is a relationship between claims about individual identity and claims about a category’s boundaries. Granted, both are a reflection of the other, but it is worthwhile to make this symmetry explicit.

To police an identity claim is to challenge a person’s association with a category. To police a boundary is to contest the contours of a category. Often, one happens by way of the other, such as in defining the boundaries of geekiness by way of affirming an identity claim. For example, a claim such as “Felicia Day, creator of the series Geek & Sundry, is obviously a geek, so women can be geeks” affirms an identity so as to delineate the boundary of geekdom. Conversely, the claim “Olivia Munn, former correspondent on The Daily Show, is not a geek but a mainstream celebrity” is positing a boundary so as to contest Munn’s identity as a geek. Hence, policing is the establishment of mutually reciprocating definitions of personal identities and social categories. I then understand authenticity as the purported congruence between an individuals’ subjectivity and their enactment of an identity. This process is social and performative; it’s an ongoing negotiation, a step in “identity work” and part of a game in a Bourdieusian field. It is the tension between individual claims of authentic identity (e.g., “I played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid”) and constitutive claims about a group (e.g., “geeks are obsessive”) in which the meaning of both emerges.

Geeks are not alone in their concern about identity and what is worthy of knowing. Punks have long been preoccupied with the distinction between “real punks and pretenders”; other subcultures similarly distance themselves from “phonies” and the “mainstream” (Daschuk, 2010; Fox, 1987; Thornton, 1996). Similarly, the straight-edge scene formed in response to perceived excesses in punk and its adherents advocate abstention from intoxicants and promiscuity; they also continue, and perhaps magnified, punks’ concern with authenticity and boundaries into the Internet age (Peterson, 2005, p. 1083; Williams & Copes, 2005; Wood, 2003)

In any case, subcultures often define themselves by way of stated differences from others. That is, attempts at “‘distinction’ occurs through the construction of a … mainstream ‘Other’ as a symbolic marker against which to define one’s own tastes as ‘authentic’” (Weinzierl & Muggleton, 2003, p. 9). This does not yield a discrete result: “the boundaries between the subculture and the mainstream are not concrete, but are negotiated by individuals and groups through an ongoing process of (re)classifying certain tastes and behaviors as legitimate or illegitimate” (Williams, 2011, p. 9). For example, some fans understand themselves in relation to the mainstream Other (Jancovich, 2002; Whiteman, 2009), and straight-edgers position themselves as distinct from a corrupt and intoxicated society. This is why one can find evidence of geeks who once felt closeted or “bullied for being ‘out’” now fearing being overrun in their own spaces (Letamendi, 2013). Additionally, mainstream attention can sideline or bring unwanted scrutiny to subversive subcultural practices. Hence, subcultures make use of derogatory labels for mainstream transgressions: those that enter a subculture from the mainstream can be labeled as “posers” and those who obtain some mainstream attention at the supposed expense of their authenticity are called “sell outs.”

“6 [out] of 9”: Who merits attention?

There are two concerns underlying Tara Brown’s wish from March 2012 that fake geek girls “go away.” First, she expressed a typical subcultural concern with authenticity and mainstream encroachment. Being a geek was not typically a prized label and “many of us old-timers believe that when it was harder to learn about something and you did it anyway … that’s when your passions really shined through.” This concern is amplified by the use of the geek label by mainstream figures such as Richard Branson. Second, Brown feared that casual hobbyists and “pretentious females” seeking attention were creating conditions in which real geek girls were sidelined or inhibited; hence, she encouraged women to “Dig deep, dig to the roots, dig until you know things that others you admire in the subject matter don’t know or can’t do. Then go ahead and proudly label yourself a geeky girl.”

Brown’s second concern about attention seeking women was taken up by some men and became an impetus to challenge women more broadly, including judgments of their worth and attractiveness. A few months after Brown’s missive, in June of 2012, Ryan Perez, a blogger for the popular gaming site Destructoid, tweeted Felicia Day asking: “could you be considered nothing more than a glorified booth babe? You don’t seem to add anything creative to the medium” (Perez quoted in Hoevel, 2012). Calling Day a “booth babe” questioned her authenticity and devalued her subcultural and symbolic capital. Yet Day is about as geeky as a geek can get. Granted, she is a minor mainstream celebrity, having appeared in the geeky shows Buffy the Vampire and Supernatural. But she also produced, wrote and starred in The Guild, an award-winning Web series about online gaming. Like many, Joe Peacock (2012a), writing on the CNN Geek Out blog, defended Day, claiming she was called out “because she’s a girl, and some men are disgusting.” Perez was subsequently let go from Destructiod. Yet, Peacock’s post and defense of Day was not without its own problems. According to Peacock, although Day was deserving of the geek label, women like Olivia Munn, former tech-show host and Daily Show correspondent, were “models-cum-geeks” paid to put a pretty face on a now lucrative industry. This is how the “booth babe” role is typically understood: attractive women are paid to bring (traditionally hetero-male) geeks’ attention to a sponsor’s booth. (That is, they convert their erotic capital into economic capital for the sponsor.) This practice is increasingly challenged as demeaning to women and insulting to men (Aurora, 2013). But here, the concern about the objectification of women became a critical-boomerang.

Rather than scrutinizing the behavior of men or the existing culture and marketplace, women undergo additional scrutiny and policing. Men are innocents in need of protection from the “attention addict trying to satisfy her ego and feel pretty by infiltrating a community.” Peacock refers to these women by way of—what I presume is—a geeky reference to the Star Trek character “Seven of Nine.”

I call these girls “6 of 9”. They have a superpower: In the real world, they’re beauty-obsessed, frustrated wannabe models who can’t get work. They decide to put on a “hot” costume, parade around a group of boys notorious for being outcasts that don’t get attention from girls, and feel like a celebrity. They’re a “6” in the “real world”, but when they put on a Batman shirt and head to the local fandom convention du jour, they instantly become a “9”. (Peacock, 2012a)

On the surface, this analogy to the character “Seven of Nine” seems apt as the character was introduced as a (successful) ratings gambit in season three of Star Trek: Voyager; she was portrayed by beauty queen Jeri Ryan (who knew nothing of Star Trek) and was outfitted in an widely commented on skintight catsuit (Winslow, 1998).

The greater irony is that the character “Seven of Nine” was in a double bind: she was a human that had been assimilated by the Borg, but who later wrestled with the recovery of her own humanity. She was no longer Borg nor human. Similarly, many women geeks face a double bind with respect to how they are received. “Science geek and costumer” Emily Finke wrote about the “slut shaming and concern trolling” she received while cosplaying a classic Star Trek minidress.

Women who, at one end of the spectrum, put too much effort into their looks, whether in costume or not, are ostracized. Women at the other end of the spectrum, who don’t meet the standards of nerdy attractiveness set by the menfolk, are ignored entirely. If you don’t fit that happy medium of ‘kinda hot, but not hot enough that you know you don’t have to sleep with me’, you’re either a non-entity, or a walking Barbie and treated as such. (Finke, 2013)

Peacock’s “6 of 9” most obviously references the practice of rating women’s attractiveness. In a somewhat bitter-sounding turn, Peacock complained that such a woman seeks “the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street.” Peacock is implicitly positioning himself as the arbiter of women’s geekiness and attractiveness. “Flaunt it if you got it—and if you’re a geek, male or female, and you’re strikingly handsome or stunningly beautiful, and you cosplay as a handsome or beautiful character, more power to us all. Hot geeks are hot.” Yet it seems that women who are reasonably attractive (to his standards) and not geeky enough (to his standards) are “poachers”: “They’re a pox on our culture.” Peacock (2012b, 2012c) did eventually apologize for and moderate some his statements; he also attempted a defense of Tony Harris.

Harris is a comic book artist who took to Facebook to (crudely) express his concern about a loss of attention, especially on behalf of the artists and writers who built the comic scene. Although some women “love and read Comics,” they were exceptions to the rule. Consequently, creators, like Harris, were losing the attention of the comic and mainstream press to the “COSPLAY-Chiks,” the “posers who are sad, needy fakers who use up all my air at Cons.” Like Peacock, he doubted these women would give male geeks “the fucking time of day” outside of conventions. And Harris took the judgmental tone further, complaining that although these women were “quasi” or “Con hot” (“average on an everyday basis”), they only received attention at conventions because many of the men were shy virgins lacking confidence and the women were “almost completely Naked in public.” In Bourdieusian terms, their erotic capital is more valuable in geekdom than in the mainstream. And so he concluded that these men “are being preyed on by YOU” (Harris quoted in Johnston, 2012).

Others took issue with this position. As relationship blogger Dr. Nerdlove (2012) wrote about Peacock, these judgments are part of “the long-running attitude still prevalent in geek culture that women are allowed to partake in fandom and geek culture if and only if they fulfill specific criteria and even then, only if they participate in the pre-approved manners.” Additionally, the concern about model “wannabes” and “attention addicts” illegitimately seeking (or “preying on”) the attention of male geeks (who they’d otherwise reject) led Noah Berlatsky (2013) to conclude “‘Fake Geek Girls’ paranoia is about male insecurity, not female duplicity.”

In any case, this discourse reveals that the policing of some women as “fake” can be understood as a conflict over what is attended to (knowledge and attractiveness) and by whom (other geeks and even mainstream attention). Additionally, although this began as Tara Brown’s encouragement for women’s geeky enthusiasm, it quickly boomeranged into a broader scrutiny of women’s bodies and worth. The concerns of a minority were co-opted by the majority: in an androcentric culture Brown’s original “please go away” devolved into a scrutiny of women by (seemingly embittered) men.

“Slave Leia’s Metal Bikini”: The meaning of attention

A well-known costume within fandom is that of “Slave Leia”: a bikini-style outfit worn by Princess Leia while chained to the grotesque creature Jabba the Hut—a chain with which Leia would strangle Jabba. It’s been a popular cosplay and the subject of its own fan site and online store, Leia’s Metal Bikini. (They provided Olivia Munn, characterized as a model-turned-geek by Peacock, for her own cosplay in 2007.) It was even referenced as the nerdy fantasy of the character Ross on the mainstream show Friends. However, by 2010 the costume was considered lewdly passé. In the following year it become a joke: Kaley Cuoco (2011), an actress from the The Big Bang Theory, appeared in a satirical “Nerd Public Service Announcement” warning that “every thirty seconds in this country a woman shows up to a sci-fi gathering as Slave Leia only to discover thousands of women dressed the same way”; these women should know that there were many other “sexy options” to choose from—ridiculing the presumption that women must be sexy so as to participate. Amusingly, in 2012, Felicia Day wore a Slave Leia apron in a 2012 cooking episode of her show Geek & Sundry.

Hence, Slave Leia was not only overplayed, it was suspect: the costume was from a popular (mainstream) fandom and prioritized sexiness over skill in costume design and construction—since it could easily be purchased. Additionally, much as a concern about “real” women geeks being discouraged by fakes boomeranged into scrutiny of women’s attractiveness and bodies, the concern about Slave Leia became an exercise in judging women. Discussion focused on the intended and interpreted meaning of sexy costumes: were they empowering or objectifying?

In the empowering camp, Olivia Waite (2011), “romance author, practicing feminist, [and] general-purpose nerd,” wrote “In Defense of Slave Leia.” She shared that “for me, Slave Leia and the gold bikini were life-changing” because “wearing that gold bikini does not mean: Here I am, a sexy toy for your amusement and gratification. To me, that gold bikini says: If you fuck with me, I will end you.” For Waite, “female sexuality can be a power as well as a commodity.” Similarly, Emily Finke (2013) decided that she would not let her nerdy excitement about her Star Trek minidress and “screen-accurate seams” be depressed by “women who want to make sure I know I look a little slutty” and men who quiz her via “every hot button of geek gatekeeping they can.” In these cases, women argue for a right to dress as they choose and to claim geek identity without policing by others (Dempre, 2012). Not only is the dress argued to be empowering, but wearing the costume in the face of such pressure is as well. Similarly, they argue one need not have an encyclopedic knowledge in order to play a character. One commenter thanked Finke for her essay, writing “The fear of being grilled on my knowledge has kept me from dressing up at Cons. (Like, I’m sorry I don’t have EVERY DOCTOR WHO EPISODE EVER MEMORIZED! JEEZ!)” (kwill255 in Finke, 2013).

Even so, others found the objectifying origins of these costumes troubling and inescapable. In response to Finke’s defense of her Star Trek costume, commenter Eridani wrote that “Most of the geek costumes for women originated directly from the male gaze.”

When you are wearing it, you are a walking billboard stating “this is how the mens want a geek girl to look” flashing over your head. And here you are, ardently defending your right to comply. That’s the real rub here. You want to be free to wear things that were designed by men specifically to showcase women as sex objects, yet not be treated like a sex object. (Eridani in Finke, 2013)

Similarly, blogger Whiskeypants (2012) responded to Waite’s defense of Slave Leia by noting that “Along with the ‘Grrr, don’t mess with me or I’ll choke your blubbery ass’ is ‘I am a lap dog.’ Along with ‘I am a sexy object, covet me’ is ‘the smaller my outfit, the better I look, the more I am worth’.” Some then likened this criticism of women as victim-blaming (Yog-Sothoth in Finke, 2013).

This sequence of arguments—from empowering, to objectifying, to victim-blaming—is complicated and shows that breaking Slave Leia free from her bounds is not easy because she, and the women who play her, are trapped in a double bind. This was the conclusion arrived at by Ryan (2011), a male cosplayer and blogger for the Mad Art Lab site. In 2011 he argued that women shouldn’t dress as Slave Leia because it was objectifying and pressured women wanting “attention and acceptance” to do the same or leave the community. In February of 2013 he revisited the topic after many conversations in person and online: “Who am I to say that they shouldn’t be allowed to do that?” The crux of the issue was that “on one hand we want a welcoming, healthy and supportive environment for everyone and at the same time we want people to be free to express themselves. Tied up in that is a massive popular media, body-image, slut-shaming, prude-shaming quagmire. Fuck it, I give up. Next topic.” Ryan, however, did not give up. In the following week he posted photos of his “gender bent” (or crossplay) version of the costume, “Slave Leo.”

This bit of humor allowed Ryan to extricate himself from the quagmire, but women remained in a bind. Finke (2013) noted that the options available to women were to be “ignored or objectified.” As explained by “cosplay feminist” Courtney Stoker (2011): “Women aren’t the problem, whether they crossplay [performing as a different gender] and eschew femininity altogether or they pull out the sexy Leia costume.” The problem “isn’t what women do, but a culture in which the only way that women can be recognized as a desirable part of the culture is when they participate by making themselves consumable sexy objects for geek men.”

Finally, some challenged the knowledge versus sexy argument itself as a false dichotomy. Andrea Letamendi (2013), a “nerdy psychologist” writing at The Mary Sue, asked why need attractiveness and knowledge be seen as exclusive? (And why is seeking attention such a bad thing in the first place?) The unfortunate result was that both women’s attractiveness and knowledge end up being judged and characterized as “fake”: “nothing seems more damaging to a women that the simultaneous attack on both her body and her brain” (Letamendi, 2013).

This discourse about cosplay demonstrates that identity and boundary policing is contingent on the construction and interpretation of meaning. In this case, meaning is dependent on the intentions and interpretation of costumes, especially those that initially arose in an objectifying context. It also shows that the legitimacy of women’s erotic capital (i.e., dressing “sexy”) continues to be much debated. This is not a debate I can resolve here, but it is important to note that when this debate takes place in a traditionally androcentric culture, that which began as a concern about women’s objectification often rebounds on women.

Redefining geekdom

Although the FGG discourse provides a useful case for understanding identity and boundary policing, no simple solution appears for those women being ignored and/or objectified. Yet the community did offer some responses as hinted at by Tara Brown (2012) when she wrote of women “who genuinely like their hobby or interest and document what they are doing to help others, not garner attention.” Here we see a notion of geekiness that is predicated on documenting and helping others rather than “defining yourself as the knower … [by defining] others as those who do not know” (Berlatsky, 2013). Indeed, one of the heartening responses to the FGG discourse was people’s recognition that vital subcultures benefit from new members, who, by definition, are not yet super-geeks. Geeks (regardless of their gender or purported attractiveness) have to start somewhere. Writing in response to Brown, social media journalist Leigh Alexander (2012) wrote that “Curiosity about other societies and people, and a desire to be included, is a perfectly valid reason to adopt or espouse a new hobby.” When people do so, they naturally want to be liked and fit in: “This does not make them ‘fake.’ It makes them human. It’s normal. Everyone, whether they will admit it or not, secretly wants to be liked.”

In response to Joe Peacock, science fiction author John Scalzi decalred “I outrank you as Speaker for the Geeks” and wrote that it’s not the hoarding and lording of knowledge that defines geekdom, but sharing.

Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think—and my experience of geekdom bears on this thinking—that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. It’s the major difference between a geek and a hipster, you know: When a hipster sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “Oh, crap, now the wrong people like the thing I love.” When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.” Any jerk can love a thing. It’s the sharing that makes geekdom awesome. (Scalzi, 2012)

This part of the FGG discourse revealed an attempt to contest the traditional coding of what it means to be geek. Rather than a category based on one’s holding of trivia or a rejection of the mainstream, it can be based on a love of sharing. That is, this is a manifestation of a long standing difference in geeks who who hoard their knowledge—and lord it over others—and those who openly share it (2015).

Although I conclude my recounting of this discourse on a progressive turn, this is not to say that the notion of sharing is now the dominant understanding of geekiness. Nonetheless, this understanding can now be referenced in future “struggles” within the geek field (to use Bourdieu’s terminology) and it shows how subcultural boundaries can be shifted as part of the policing dynamic.

Conclusion

A critical dynamic within the geek field is attention. Geeks enthusiastically pay attention to certain things, deeming them worthy of their interest (e.g., Star Trek), learning (e.g., knowing Klingon) and money (e.g., to spend on collectibles). Similarly, being paid attention to for one’s knowledge and skills (i.e., one’s cultural capital) can be coveted as inherently valuable and translated into other forms of capital, such as social status and economic gain. At the heart of the “fake geek girl” discourse is a negotiation about the objects and exchange of attention. As shown by Busse, the fact that a woman’s attention might be thought excessive or focused on the wrong thing (e.g., attention on a handsome young man in a film rather than a female character in an anime) is a gendered type of scrutiny: where women place their attention is challenged. Conversely, the placement of men’s attention is often taken for granted: the gratuitous titillation (e.g., bouncing boobs and panty shots) of fanservice in anime and comics are so common as to be considered a staple of the genre (“Fan service,” 2015).

Even the depth and breadth of women’s knowledge of traditional geek topics can be challenged and declared unworthy. Above and beyond this, the FGG discourse reveals a fear that the attention traditionally accorded to knowledge is being supplanted by undue attention to women by virtue of their (relatively rare) gender and attractiveness in a traditionally androcentric (heteronormative) space. As Tara Brown (2012) wrote, these women have “figured out that guys will pay a lot of attention to them if they proclaim they are reading comics or playing video games.” For Brown, this discouraged and overshadowed genuine women geeks. In the hands of others, this critique became an “simultaneous attack” on both the brains and bodies of women (Letamendi, 2013).

It’s not surprising that a subculture polices claims about its membership (i.e., the affirmation of identity claims) and its boundaries (i.e., the positing of categorical contours). In this case, what are the contours of this thing called geekdom and who is accepted within its bounds? Indeed, geekdom is actually constituted by these ongoing struggles. Some of those wrestling with geek identity are those who have found a home away from the alienation they experienced in the mainstream. It’s a subculture where enthusiasm, knowledge, and skill are appreciated and praised over things like good looks and attendant popularity.

Hence, the popularization of geekdom itself causes a crisis because the geekdom/mainstream boundary became more porous. It is feared that newcomers arrive from the mainstream without having paid the costs incurred by “old timers.” Worse yet, some worry that newly arrived women attract attention by virtue of their (relatively rare) gender or attractiveness rather than the accumulation of knowledge and skill. Worst of all, the (sometimes coveted) attention of the mainstream alighting on these newcomers as representatives of the field robs the old-timers of “air” and weakens the definition of the field’s boundaries.

Although policing is often seen in the context of controversy, as a social process it is not necessarily detrimental. First, it’s inherent and unavoidable in social groups. Second, useful insights and redefinitions can emerge from the discourse, as happened here. Finally, if a subculture is losing its vitality to appropriation or commercialization, it should struggle with this issue. Similarly, the pigeonholing and objectification of women is problematic. The FGG discourse was an important conversation to have.

What was confusing was the varied interpretations different people brought to the discussion (e.g., a “slut-shaming, prude-shaming quagmire”). And what was troubling, but unsurprising, was how quickly a concern by a woman about women boomeranged into a bitter scrutiny of women by men. Although a discourse of policing can yield progressive redefinitions or boundary movement, minorities are likely to suffer disadvantage relative to the dominant cultural context. The existing culture dominates the terms of discourse and policing. In this traditionally androcentric context, the valuation of personal capital is likely to be gendered: where and how women give and receive attention is scrutinized. Also, women encounter varied double binds. They might be considered too geeky relative to the mainstream, but not geeky enough within geekdom. And within geekdom, women that wish to be accepted have to calibrate their “sexiness” between being received as “a non-entity or a walking Barbie” (Finke, 2013).

The “Fake Geek Girl” case demonstrates how a subculture can be gendered, the process of identity and boundary policing (especially with respect to attention), and how the renegotiation of subcultural identity and boundaries are dominated by the existing culture. It also shows that it is possible for a more progressive understanding to arise out of such a process (as confusing as it may be), though this is not without some costs on minority members of the community. These insights may be of use in the (many) other discourses about women entering historically male-dominated subcultures.

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  1. I thank Valerie Aurora, Kristina Busse, ginger coons, Anna Glina, Noopur Raval, Jesica Speed, and the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions.