Word count: 7000 prose, 8400 total; target 7000/8000

Abstract: The 2012-2013 discourse about “fake geek girls” is framed via a review of scholarly and popular literature on geeks, identity policing, subcultural authenticity, and “girl geeks”; this reveals that the policing of identity (e.g., am I a geek?) and of social boundaries (e.g., is Twilight geeky?) is reciprocal. Also, (gendered) notions of knowledge and enthusiasm are central to the notion of geekiness. I then argue that 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). This discourse also exemplifies a type of critical-boomerang in which a critique by a woman rebounds into a scrutiny of women by men.

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


In March 2012, Tara Tiger Brown (2012, 2014), 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, both in the 250 comments below the article, and in subsequent articles and thousands of comments elsewhere. While 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. However, while Oswalt published his lament in a relatively geeky venue (Wired is focused 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 is an advocate for women’s involvement in geek culture: she began DIY Girls so as to increase women’s and girls’ interest in technology and engineering (“About,” 2014). In fact, while part of her essay was aimed at scolding 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).

While some challenged this policing of geek identity, others continued with this concern and made much 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 ranted on Facebook that “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 begin with a review of scholarly (and early popular) literature on geeks, identity policing, subcultural authenticity, and “girl geeks,” finding that (gendered) notions of knowledge and enthusiasm are central to the notion of geekiness. This background permits me to elucidate the 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?). I then explore the policing of “fake geek girls” and argue that it 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).

Background

Before considering the role of attention among geeks, I touch upon four approaches to understanding identity and groups: cultural fields, identity work, authenticity, and hierarchy. Their respective vocabularies enable me to describe the geek domain as follows. In short, geeks are those with an enthusiasm for an (often shared) interest. Policing is the establishment of mutually reciprocating definitions of personal identities and social categories. This is a subculture and as such it is concerned with authenticity and its difference relative to the mainstream. Finally, “geekdom” is hierarchical and gendered, sometimes to the detriment of women geeks. In the following sections I specify these position further by way of secondary literature and primary sources.

Geeks and enthusiasm

A geek can be understood as a person passionately enthused about a topic. 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.” The level of specificity in geek identity is remarkable. The “Geek Code,” first posted “as a lark” on the Internet in 1993, permitted one to concisely express the many facets of one’s geekiness. 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). A complete code consisted of dozens of such declarations condensed into a few lines at the bottom of one’s messages. Yet, the term geek is now widely used outside such traditionally geeky 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.

The definition of geek and its relationship with other “identifiers,” such as nerd, is a topic of frequent discussion among the selfsame. One early attempt at such differentiation claimed “nerd means socially inept, geek means strangely obsessive” (Sugarbaker, 1998, sec. 1). A more recent blog post entitled “Finally, the Difference between Nerd, Dork, and Geek Explained by a Venn Diagram” defined the archetypes via intersections between intelligence, social ineptitude, and obsession. In this scheme, a dork is characterized by obsession and social ineptitude; a geek is at the intersection of intelligence and obsession. A nerd is at the center: a geek (smart and obsessive) that is also socially inept (Snark, 2010). Some geeks can also be considered fans because of their enthusiastic devotion to a subgenre of entertainment, such as certain books, comics, movies, and video-games. A fictional universe and the community of fans around it is referred to as a fandom; similarly, a geeky domain is sometimes referred to as a geekdom.

In the following pages 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. Similarly, we can understand geekdom as a Bourdieuian 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 this perspective, FGG is a struggle to define the boundaries of the geek field. An example of this struggle can be seen in an essay by Noah Berlatsky, editor of the comic website The Hooded Utilitarian. Berlatsky (2013) explained that 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.”

Policing identity and boundaries

In their study of male and “transsexual” 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. The first step in this process is “a matter of defining into existence not only a category but also a concomitant identity that adheres to people who belong to the category.” Such a category (e.g., “geek”) is associated with a code: rules and conventions covering the “practical knowledge about how to show that you belong to a group or category or have particular qualities.” These codes are then enacted: “People who wish to claim identity must have chances to signify, to be seen signifying, to have their acts of signification interpreted as they wish, and have their claims affirmed by an audience that matters.” Policing entails “debate, politicking, and organizing” about the establishment of an identity, its associated norms, its enactment, and about policing itself. 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).

Within this process we 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, the claim “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 Bourdieuian 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.

Subculture, authenticity, and the “Other”

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” (Fox, 1987; Thornton, 1996). Decades later, the straight-edge scene continued, and perhaps magnified, punks’ concern with authenticity and boundaries into the Internet age. This movement was formed in response to perceived excesses in the punk scene and adherents advocate abstention from intoxicants and promiscuity. Consequently, its ideological and life-style commitments rival, or perhaps even transcend, musical tastes. Yet, the rigidity of the subculture’s definitions—one in which people often mark or tattoo themselves with the movement’s emblem (“sXe” or “X”)—prompted much discussion. Is caffeine verboten? Is vegetarianism necessary to the ethical commitments? (Wood, 2003) Are online enthusiasts who are unable to participate in physical spaces able to call themselves straight edge? Are those who are not affiliated with the movement welcome in online straight edge fora? (Williams & Copes, 2005) As Richard Peterson (2005, p. 1083) noted about the scene, “issues of authenticity most often come into play when authenticity has been put in doubt.”

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 instance, straight-edgers position themselves as distinct from a corrupt and intoxicated society. Similarly, geeks who felt they were forced to hide their geekiness or were otherwise “bullied for being ‘out’” now fear 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.”

Geek hierarchy and “geek girls”

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, there are also social norms and structures that are sometimes contrary to this ideal. While often understood to be 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” (Beaudoin, 1999) ranks those who answer the 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.”) Internet humorist Lore Sjöberg 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” (Sjöberg, 2010). While this hierarchy is written as a relationship between self-identified claims of geekiness, it can also be understood as levels of relative ignominy. For instance, fandom scholar Kristina Busse (2013, p. 78) noted 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 noted 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 focus upon 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. 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 can also be 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 (“Advice animals,” 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 approximately seventy macros using this same image. Typically, the caption above represents a claim upon 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 confusion about the naming of the series versus the actor playing 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 historically been understood as being both white and masculine, geeks and scholars wrestle with the question of what does it mean to be a geek and female? 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 (“Communities,” 2011, 2011). 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 non-technical woman or not geeky enough in relation to male IT experts.” Another book, Leslie Simon’s (2011) young-adult title Geek Girls Unite, moved beyond science and technology towards popular culture and the worlds of “fangirls, bookworms, indie chicks, and other misfits.” (Interestingly, 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.”)

It is clear there is an increasing popularization, diversification, and boldness of those making claims upon the geek identity, which is perhaps a antecedent to claims about “fake geek girls.”

Contested attention

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, some geeks appreciate the attention their knowledge and skill brings them. At the heart of the “fake geek girl” discourse is negotiation about the objects and exchange of attention. As shown by Busse, that fact that a woman’s attention might be thought excessive or focused upon the wrong thing (e.g., 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. The extent and ways in which women receive attention is also scrutinized, as seen with the label “attention whore” (Fortim & Grando, 2013). While Know Your Meme’s definition of “attention whore” is gender neutral (“someone who solicits attention from others through unnecessary or overbearing means”), the entry on Uncyclopedia is representative of Internet culture in defining them as predatory women who prey upon “unfortunate” men (“Attention whore,” 2013a, 2013b). (While Uncyclopedia is often satirical, we will see sincere accusations of women preying on male geeks below.)

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 gender in a traditionally masculine (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.” Furthermore, others went much further by focusing on the “sexiness” of some women’s presentation. Essayist and journalist Joe Peacock, writing for CNN’s Geek Out blog, complained of “‘hot chicks’ wearing skimpy outfits simply to get a bunch of gawking geeks’ heads to turn, just to satisfy their hollow egos” (Peacock, 2012a). (For simplicity, I hereafter avoid quoting words like sexy with the understanding that I’m not asserting any aesthetic judgment of my own.)

In the following sections I explore two dynamics of geek attention. The first is with respect to the movement of attention and the second is about the meaning of that attention and to what extent it can be empowering and/or objectifying.

“Attention addicts”: 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 appropriation 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.” Some people considered Brown’s “old-timer” concern to be a type of grumpy gate-keeping. A commenter at Forbes wrote that this hardcore/newcomer dichotomy often divided communities needlessly: “Good for you for sticking to what you like. But being bullied or being committed has nothing to do with being interested in ‘nerd’ pursuits. This is the same shit that gets thrown at newcomers constantly—they’re attention whores if they’re female, they’re not actually interested, whatever the ‘veteran’ wants to say to feel better than other people” (Kahra, 2012).

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). Day is about as geeky as a geek can get; among other things she produced, wrote and starred in The Guild, an award-winning Web series about online gaming. She also has some mainstream celebrity, having appeared in the geeky shows Buffy the Vampire and Supernatural. 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.” However, while Perez was subsequently let go from Destructiod, Peacock’s post was not without its own problems.

According to Peacock, while 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. This practice is increasingly challenged as demeaning to women and insulting to men (Aurora, 2013). However, this concern about the objectification of women mutated into an attack on women. Peacock complained of the “attention addict trying to satisfy her ego and feel pretty by infiltrating a community to seek the attention of guys.” He 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 upon skintight catsuit (Winslow, 1998). The greater irony is that the character was a human that had been assimilated by the Borg, but who later wrestled with the recovery of her own humanity. Like many women geeks, she was in a double bind with respect to her identity and acceptance as “science geek and costumer” Emily Finke (2013) wrote about the “slut shaming and concern trolling” she received while cosplaying a classic Star Trek mini-dress.

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.

However, 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.” However, I infer 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.” (He says nothing about women geeks who are attacked on sites like Cosplay Train Wreck for being “too fat to wear that” (“Fatties,” 2014).) While Peacock (2012c, 2012b) did eventually attempt to apologize for and moderate some his statements, he also attempted a defense of his friend 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. While some cosplaying 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 the conventions. And Harris took the judgmental tone further, complaining that while these women were only “quasi” or “Con hot” (“average on an everyday basis”), they received attention at conventions because they were “almost completely Naked in public, and yer either skinny (Well, some or most of you, THINK you are) or you have Big Boobies. Notice I didnt say GREAT Boobies?” While Harris did not find these women “hot,” he suspected they were thought to be so “according to a LOT of average Comic Book Fans,” most of whom are shy virgins lacking confidence. The one thing these men had in common was that “They are being preyed on by YOU” (Harris quoted in Johnston, 2012). 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 upon”) 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 the press). Additionally, while this began as an encouragement for women’s geeky enthusiasm it quickly boomeranged into a broader scrutiny of women’s bodies and worth: Brown’s original “please go away” devolved into a scrutiny of women by (seemingly embittered) men.

Slave Leia and Uhura’s Skirt: What is the meaning of attention?

A well-known costume within fandom is that of “Slave Leia,” a bikini-style costume worn by Princess Leia while chained to the grotesque creature Jabba the Hut—a chain with which Leia would later choke and kill 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. (The website Leia’s Metal Bikini has not been updated since then.) 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 gather 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. 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. However, much as a concern about “real” women geeks being discouraged by fakes turned 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.” Furthermore, “When geek culture says, Don’t be Slave Leia, what I hear is: Don’t unsettle us. Don’t make us think about the consequences of our misogyny, or our entitlement, or our privilege. Don’t remind us that 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 mini-dress 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.” 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!) And when I do speak about things, I have a tendency to quantify and qualify my knowledge. It’s such an uncomfortable position to be in, when you’re feeling like you’re an intruder somehow” (kwill255 in Finke, 2013).

Others found the objectifying origins of these costumes troubling. 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 regardless of one’s stance, women seem 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 posted an entry entitled “Don’t Dress as Slave Leia” because the costume implied “I’d rather be sexy property than a reasonably dressed human.” Additionally, it did other women a disservice as those wearing it get a lot of attention: “This means girls uncomfortable wearing less than their normal undergarments in public may feel both pressure to do so if they want acceptance, or unable to gain attention and acceptance and therefore leave the community.” However, in February of 2013 he revisited the topic after many conversations in person and online; he concluded “Don’t dress as Slave Leia… Unless you actually want to.…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.” However, Ryan did not give up. In the following week he posted photos of his “gender bent” version of the costume “Slave Leo.”

Yet, while this bit of humor allowed Ryan to extract himself from the quagmire, 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: “Women aren’t the problem, whether they crossplay and eschew femininity altogether or they pull out the sexy Leia costume.” The problem was that geek culture rewarded women who dressed sexy: “The problem, then, 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” [Stoker2011ggp].

Finally, some challenged the “knowledge versus sexy” argument itself as a false dichotomy. Andrea Letamendi (2013), a psychologist writing at The Mary Sue, asked why is seeking attention a bad thing, and why need attractiveness and knowledge be seen as exclusive?

I have no explanation for this imagined fantasy that women who cosplay for attention cannot be actual nerds. But I have to acknowledge that the accusation of being “fake” stings like hydrosulphuric acid because of the underlying message that we’re not knowledgeable enough to read, enjoy and understand comics, especially if we’re wearing a costume that’s seen as provocative or revealing. “You’re too busy looking like a slut you can’t possibly have read all the issues of The Walking Dead.” I don’t get it. I simply can’t form a sensible relationship between skin and stupidity, because these two things operate on completely different, orthogonal planes. But nothing seems more damaging to a woman than the simultaneous attack on both her body and her brain. (Letamendi, 2013)

This discourse about sexy cosplay demonstrates that identity and boundary policing is contingent upon the construction and interpretation of meaning. In this case, meaning is dependent upon what facet of these costumes one chooses to focus upon, and how to interpret their use, even if they initially arose in an objectifying context. However, a recurring theme is that a feminist-type concern about women’s objectification often rebounds upon women.

Conclusion

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 becomes more porous. It is feared that newcomers arrive from the mainstream without having paid the costs incurred by “old timers.” Worse yet, newly arrived women distract geek attention by way of their gender. Worst of all, the (sometimes coveted) attention of the mainstream alighting upon these newcomers as representatives of the field robs the old-timers of “air” and weakens the definition of the field’s boundaries.

However, while the FGG discourse provides a useful case for understanding identity and boundary policing, no simple solution falls out of this for the dilemma faced by women who are ignored 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, who declaimed “I outrank you as Speaker for the Geeks,” 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 upon one’s holding of trivia or a rejection of the mainstream, it can be based upon a love of sharing. Hence, while 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 the issue. Indeed, the FGG discourse was an important type of conversation to have. However, 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 the discourse among some devolved into a bitter scrutiny of women

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