Anyone who’s been around geekery for any length of time is familiar – unfortunately – with the Fake Geek Girl phenomenon, in which female fans, often in comics or video game fandoms, are forced to prove themselves (like being subjected to a harsh trivia quiz) before being accepted. Marie-Pierre Renaud, who runs a blog called The Geek Anthropologist, decided to go one step beyond observing this unpleasant occurrence – she decided to study it, analyze it and share her findings. In this interview, she talks about how she got started on this project, the insights she’s gained and why the issue may be more complex than you think.
Q. How did you get started in doing the Fake Geek Girl project?
Shortly after I started blogging in September 2012, the [Starman creator] Tony Harris rant caused a scandal and brought a new intensity to the fake geek girl debate, which had also been fueled by other rants in previous months. I was fascinated by the conversations I would read in the comment section of various blog articles and I was surprised by many of them. Before I knew it, I had consulted over 30 articles, videos, memes, and other material and I had started writing a paper on the debate.
Q. What has your research consisted of?
I proceeded to analyse the main interventions which spurred debate, and several responses to these. I had to set comments aside because there were simply too many to tackle in a short-term research project. I hope to revisit them eventually.
Q. Have you had any insights into the phenomenon that you haven’t before?
As my analysis progressed, I wanted to determine why this debate had gained such intensity in 2012, and I did find interesting elements to answer this question. However, I ended up wondering about an idea that was expressed by several participants in the debate and which was rarely contested: that female participation in geek culture was recent, or that it had recently drastically increased. To my knowledge, there was no tangible data to either support or contest either claims.
Q. In your opinion, why do men have such a hard time accepting women as part of fandom when women have always been a vital part of it (i.e., the role of women in establishing the Star Trek fandom)?
It’s not only the men, first of all. Some women, according to the interventions I analysed at least, can also participate in gatekeeping. I came to the conclusion that one reason why they discriminate among one another is that it is already difficult for them to establish their geek credibility and obtain the respect of men. In other words, they don’t want other women coming into geekdom and discrediting geek women at large because of their interests, the way they dress or look, etc. This is of course not a great attitude to adopt, but it is understandable to some extent: for many geeks, geek culture is one of the rare spaces in which they feel safe, accepted and at home. And when one feels their home is being invaded, one reacts accordingly.
This defensive attitude seems to be shared by the men in geek culture as well, and there can be many reasons for this, such as having had negative experiences with women in the past or wanting to ‘’protect’’ geek culture from any type of ‘’fake’’ geek which are often described as fake geek girls, hipsters or jocks. But of course in the case of the fake geek girl debate there is much more at play in the sense that it echoes the situation of gender roles and gender relations in western societies, of which geek culture is a product or a subculture. In other words, geek men have trouble accepting geek women as their equals for the same reasons women still have to fight sexual harassment in several male-driven industries: misogyny, sexism, and the like.
Q. Do you think that social media has made the “fake geek girl” phenomenon better (i.e., defused it through understanding) or worse (i.e., given “dudebros” a very public platform)?
While some people may think the media blew the debate out of proportion, I actually think that the magnitude of the debate represents only a portion of the problems regarding sexism, harassment and gatekeeping which are present in general in geek culture. I would say geeks need to keep the conversation going and make geek culture into a safer, more accepting place.
And again, one doesn’t need to be a “dudebro” to give into gatekeeping. I think as geeks we can all be defensive of geekdom and occasionnaly judge other people as “poser” or “noobs.” Not all of us scream our feelings out loud of course, but if anything I think it’s actually a great thing that the debate about the fake geek girl exists. It acted as a wakeup call for many geeks who mobilized against sexism and other forms of discrimination in our culture. Looking at our culture now, I think it gained a lot from the debate.
Q. What has been the reaction to the project so far?
All the comments I received so far were very positive and encouraging. In many cases the people who comment share their own experiences about being a girl in geek culture, or knowing women in the culture. This helps further my understanding of the gender dynamics at play in geekdom, but most importantly, it confirms that things are very different from one fandom to another, and also from one place to another. Looking at geek culture in France, Canada and the United States, I see some similar situations arise, but I would say that the general picture is nontheless very different.
Q. What “geek anthropology” projects would you like to tackle in the future?
I would love to further research the topics of discrimination, harassment and sexism in geek culture in regards to different spaces and fandoms. I could take examples from the USA, Canada, the U.K. and France, in particular, and compare what is going on. The same could be done with the various fandoms within geek culture.
Another project I have started already is the Geek Girl Survey. I used a survey to test a few hypothesis I reached after analysing the Fake Geek Girl Debate, but also to obtain more data about female participation in geek culture. There is, after all, no census of geekdom and I stated in the last installment of the (Fake) Geek Girl Project series why that is particularly important to consider in regards to the debate. The information I gathered was useful, but I am considering bring the project to a larger scale and using statistics from conventions to see if and how female participation in these events has changed over time. I would also like to interview geek women about their own participation in geek culture to see which geek spaces they take part in, which they avoid and why.
There are of course several more projects I would love to tackle, such as writing about the representations of indigenous peoples in sci-fi, or about post-colonial studies of Star Trek, and The Geek Anthropologist is a place where I have already started working on these projects little by little. With my colleagues who write on the blog, we are trying to create a network of anthropologists who study geek culture, fandoms and geek interests (sci-fi, fantasy, gaming, etc.).