Emily S. Whitten: Geek Culture – No, Really, We’re Not More Enlightened
The first time I went into an actual comic book store by myself as an adult, I went in more to browse than with a specific purchasing goal in mind. I was walking by stores, and lo, there was a comic book store, and I’d just started reading comics, and wanted to read more, so I went in, ready to find things to read and buy them.
Having read a few paper comics as a young child and watched a lot of comics-related cartoons and movies while growing up, but not having read comics as an adult until a few months prior, naturally I was familiar with very few of the names’ in comics (i.e. writers, artists, or what-have-you); or with every good book or character. I had no clue who was writing or drawing which book, or what I should try first, which comics were classics, or any of that; only that I was interested in picking up some good stories. I was, in other words, a prime target for a canny salesperson who could have helpfully loaded me up with all the great stories I should read right away. I’d probably have bought them all, and the storeowner could have retired on the spot. But it didn’t happen.
When I entered the store, the (male) sales clerk ignored me completely for about the first twenty-plus minutes, as I stood nearby looking rather overwhelmed at the varied selection, instead helping three different men first (one of whom came in after me). I actually tried to get the clerk’s help with a polite “excuse me” a few times, but his response was a brusque, “Just a minute” before turning to ask Guy Number Three if he needed help. (Note: It was not just a minute.) Finally when there were no other customers in the store he turned his attention to me. I asked him if he had any recommendations for a good trade to pick up. A short conversation ensued. I can’t remember the exact words several years later, but if I had to do a play-by-play of the conversation and what I felt like was happening in its subtext (and I wasn’t imagining this based on some idea of how I’d be treated; it was completely not something I expected to encounter) it would go like this:
He acted like recommending a book to a woman who was unfamiliar with comics was some sort of huge chore and he really had better things to be spending his time on; but when pressed, recommended Watchmen. I asked him what it was about, since it was sealed in plastic and he didn’t want it opened by someone who might not buy it, and he said, oh, it was by Alan Moore (but still did not tell me what it was about). I indicated that I’d never heard of Alan Moore. He indicated that clearly I must be some sort of poser imbecile (‘You’ve never heard of Alan Moore?’), not an actual rare Female Comics Geek, because comics geeks know who Alan Moore is.
I indicated that I’d read a few issues of Runaways that I liked, after a suggestion made by my boyfriend. He indicated that now everything made sense. I was a Girlfriend Who’d Read A Comic Once. Not an actual Geek. Just a Girlfriend who’d accidentally wandered into the store without her Geek Man. He half-heartedly recommended I just look around at a few things and maybe I’d find something I liked – this being made a bit difficult by the trades being in plastic you weren’t allowed to open without permission. Then he walked away. Just left me standing there in an otherwise empty store, still clueless, in the midst of the bewildering selection of Stories I Couldn’t Browse Through Without His Permission, feeling very unwelcome and slightly ashamed to not already know everything about every comic, ever.
Needless to say, I didn’t buy anything that day. The guy made me feel so unwelcome and so much like I was bothering him just by being there that I didn’t even want to go to the check-out line to interact with him again, and I’m not a timid person. At all. Now, you could say, “he was just a rude guy.” Well, he was. But he was rude to me specifically because I was a woman and therefore clearly not a serious geek. I know this because I watched him interacting helpfully and not-rudely with the three male customers who he helped before me, one of whom had also asked for recommendations. I know this because I had a whole conversation with him in which he made me feel, both subtly and not-so-subtly, like I was unwelcome in the store and unworthy of his time because I was a woman and therefore not knowledgeable about comics like his male customers. I know this because I still remember how it felt to be unexpectedly treated like a second-class citizen by someone whose job it was supposed to be to help me.
Why am I talking about this now? Because it wasn’t an isolated incident. Ridiculous as it may seem, even now, when I know much, much more about comics and the industry, when I’m actually known by some people for how big a fan I am of comics and a particular character, I still occasionally encounter the attitude that I’m somehow here in the Comics World by accident or as a Secondary Character in the whole show; not because I love it with as much passion as any guy out there.
For example: a year or so ago, I was attending a con and ran into a male acquaintance of mine who is on the creator side of the industry and who I’ve known for awhile. As we stood near his table at the end of a row in Artist’s Alley chatting and catching up, out of nowhere he said to me “So, where’s the guy?” I had no idea what he meant, and replied with a blank “What?” His response: “Well, you’re always here with one of the guys [in the industry]. I was wondering who you’re here with this time.”
Now it’s true that when we met I was introduced to him by another “one of the guys” who is a friend and happened to be walking the con floor with me. It’s also true that often when I’m at a con, I’ll hang out with some of the industry folks, because I naturally gravitate towards creative people who share my interests, and they tend to be on the creator side of things; and it’s true that most of these people are men. But I’ve actually never gone to a con with a man, and was surprised that this was the impression my acquaintance seemed to have; that I always tagged along with some guy, rather than being excited about and planning a trip to the con all by myself because I love comics and comic cons.
And frankly, this made me a little angry. In response, I asked him to look down his row – a long Artist’s Alley row of artists and writers – and tell me how many women he saw. The answer? Not one. In his row of maybe twenty-plus creators, there wasn’t a single woman. Gee; no wonder so many of my creator friends and people I walk around cons with are male.
Now, this man is a nice person; and he wasn’t intending to be offensive. But he expressed an attitude that I’ve not only experienced myself but seen pop up regularly all over the comics and geek fandoms – that somehow, women who are in geek fandom are the secondary characters in the all male show, there in one way or another because of a guy (or, worse, there just for guys to look at). It ties into the attitude of the comics store clerk, and bothers me for several reasons.
The first one is that I like to hang out with other geek women. I have a number of geek friends who are women, and we have great times together. The more geek women out there, the better, in my book. But attitudes like the above – either actively rude dudes who treat you like you’re unwelcome and an idiot because you are a woman and therefore, at best, a n00b, and at worst, a poser; or nice dudes who blithely assume that you’re at a con with a dude instead of because of your own interests – are not the kind of thing that will encourage women to get into or feel comfortable in geek fandoms. These attitudes propitiate a self-fulfilling prophecy: treating women like this may in fact turn women off to comics or getting more involved in the fandom.
The second reason this bothers me is that these attitudes are examples of a larger problem regarding treatment of both the female characters in comics and female fans. That problem is so large and multifaceted that Gail Simone based a whole website around just part of it, and you see it being discussed, consistently, from multiple angles and spurred by multiple separate incidents, all over the internet. (For a fun time, Google “comics misogyny.” Whee.) It involves objectification. It involves violence. It involves dehumanization. It involves belittlement and aggression towards women and dismissal of female opinion. It involves experiences I myself have had that bordered on harassment and that I don’t even feel comfortable discussing in a public forum. It’s a problem so large that I can’t even fathom a way to encompass it in one column, which is why I’m choosing to focus on just part of it here.
The third reason is that while all this is going on (and trust me, it is ongoing) geek culture seems to think it’s actually super-progressive and feminist in comparison to the rest of the world, and is sometimes obnoxiously self-congratulatory about that fact, while misogyny floats around unchecked in our geek content and culture. (Seriously, read that link for some current examples of the awful stuff that’s happening right now, such as the attacks on Anita Sarkeesian, which actually made me shudder in horror.)
When geeks are called on the existing misogyny, they get super defensive. I’ve seen every excuse or justification under the sun used to try to explain the negative behavior in a way that makes it okay and shows geek culture is still more progressive. Or, alternatively, I’ve seen people try to put it all on women. (One of my favorite excuses for geek misogynistic behavior was some guy saying that, see, the reason geek guys have these attitudes towards women is that so many of them were rejected by women when they were younger, and picked on for being geeks, and blah blah blah they had to walk uphill both ways in geek snowshoes while women taunted them and pelted them with Nintendo controllers from the sidelines or something. To which I say, Shit, son – you think being picked on for being different is something that only happens to geek dudes? You think girls never get rejected by boys for being weird or geeky? Are you seriously that dumb? Put on your big boy pants, get over yourself, and stop blaming girrrrrls for your problems.)
The attitude of self-congratulation or denial that there are problems here makes me angry, especially when held up next to the actual, real-life experiences of myself, my female friends, and people like Sarkeesian. Geek culture may be coming at things from a different angle (which sometimes results in its own, unique brand of negative treatment of women, woo), but it’s not really more progressive, and it’s actually worse a lot of the time because the refusal to acknowledge the problem leads to it becoming more firmly entrenched and accepted.
All this self-congratulation equals no confrontation of the issues that exist. I have no immediate solutions to propose, but the sooner we actually meaningfully acknowledge and confront these issues, the sooner we can truly be the more progressive cultural group that we clearly feel we should be. I hope we get there someday.
So let’s all take a moment to ponder how to make the world of comics more awesome and friendly to us geeky women who love it and, until next time, Servo Lectio!
WEDNESDAY: Mike Gold and Marvel… When Again?