Gators and Puppies: What Geeks Are Learning About Gender
I didn’t fall in love with Dungeons and Dragons because I have a Y chromosome. It’s not like my testicles started pumping out more testosterone one morning and I suddenly wanted to know everything about the ecology of the Underdark. Most of my male peers were more interested in the story of Joe Montana than the story of Raistlin Majere and, despite the current ascendancy of geek subculture, that remains basically true: a lot of people reading this right now are saying, “Raistlin who?”
No, it isn’t my masculinity that makes me a geek, but boy, is geekdom a gendered phenomenon.
My first inkling about how much gender played into geek subculture came as a teenager when a female friend who had been a member of our D&D group forever suddenly started dating. For years she had been “just one of the guys.” She was witty, fun to be around, and attractive, but our group resisted acknowledging that last part. Instead, she was treated as asexual, a tomboy. When she started dating everything became confused.
When I recently began to reflect on this phase of my life, I noticed the patterns and connections with a broader culture of masculinity that is often quite toxic. It isn’t merely that I was going through the sexual awakening that happens around that age, or that I was repressing my own attraction to my friend (though both of those things are true). I had a hard time seeing her as a woman because I had subconsciously accepted the idea that women can’t be real geeks.
A few years ago memes began popping up on the Internet decrying so-called “fake geek girls.” The idea behind these memes is that geek subculture had achieved enough mainstream popularity that certain women (it’s always only women) started to pretend to be interested in geeky subjects for social cache. These fake geek girls were deemed to have insufficient geek “cred.” They couldn’t really love comic books, or have watched all the original series of Star Trek. Often they were deemed too physically attractive to have suffered as a social pariah during adolescence (a key marker of geekdom).
The “fake geek girl” meme is the overtly sexist face of gatekeeping tendencies within geek subcultures. Men are subjected to gatekeeping too. Do you have the thumb callouses to go with your Battletoads T-shirt? Can you recite every line of Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Which Doctor was your first? But when men are quizzed in this way, it is not out of skepticism that they really could be geeks, but rather to establish their pecking order in the hierarchy. The question for men is, “how deep does your geek go?”—not, “why are you pretending, you phoney impostor from faketown?”The reason behind the different tenor in how male geeks are challenged versus female geeks is that geek subculture is partially founded in masculine power dynamics.
The reason behind the different tenor in how male geeks are challenged versus female geeks is that geek subculture is partially founded in masculine power dynamics. The archetypal geek is Peter Parker, the smart, but non-athletic, slightly socially inept guy with obscure hobbies. The geek’s main counterpart is Flash Thompson, the popular, athletic, handsome, dude-bro. The relationship between these two types is competitive. The basic myth of geekdom is that geeks were losing the game of masculine primacy as teenagers, but they generally get to win as adults when brain matters more than brawn.
Men can’t seem to believe that women are real geeks because they don’t see women as having a stake in masculine power struggles. As feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian puts it, “In the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team, they are the ball.” Or sometimes, the trophy. Part of the way we know that Peter Parker is the winner in the struggle with Flash Thompson is that Peter ends up with Mary Jane Watson.
Wherever hobbies are gender-stereotyped you can be sure power dynamics are at work. When Target removed gender-based labeling of their toys, bedding, and entertainment departments, many parents cheered because telling a child they should only play with a certain range of toys based on their gender is a way of putting limits on their imagination, and thus their identity. When we assume girls are interested in dolls and crafts, while boys are interested in spaceships and guns, we’re defining spheres of influence based on gender; spheres which notably don’t overlap.
It simply isn’t defensible to consider these gendered spheres of influence “separate but equal.” Stereotypically, masculine hobbies are practice for exercising real-world power in science and technology, the military, and politics. Stereotypically, feminine hobbies are practice for domestic life, art, and fashion. The divisions in the toy aisles reinforce the notion that men are supposed to compete with each other, while women are the objects men compete for.
Recognizing that underneath it all lies a power struggle is the only way to make sense of the flare ups which have been occurring in various geek subcultures over the past couple years.
In August of 2014, the hashtag #GamerGate exploded on Twitter becoming the default name for an anonymous amorphous movement which was coordinated on Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan. It began as a response to a blog post by the jilted former boyfriend of game designer Zoe Quinn and involved virulent sustained campaigns of harassment targeting prominent women connected with the video game industry. Though GamerGators have asserted that their core issue is ethics in video game journalism, the main focus of their complaints have consistently been against cultural critics, fans, and game designers who advocate for better and more diverse representation of women in video games.
In the opinion of Gators, when publishers provide countless titles featuring a white male heterosexual protagonist, with gameplay focused almost entirely on violence, and female characters are being routinely sexualized and reduced to props or background decoration, the game designers are merely delivering what the audience wants. The audience in this case being defined almost exclusively as heterosexual men. Meanwhile, if a publisher intentionally diversifies the character types represented or refuses to sexualize women in their games, then according to Gators, they’re caving to the forces of political correctness.
It’s inconceivable to Gators that women would be considered part of the audience of video game publishers despite the fact that recent polls indicate nearly half of all gamers are women. There are far more women playing video games than teenage boys, but the attitude persists that games are supposed to cater to adolescent heterosexual male fantasies. If you point this fact out Gators will reply that women prefer so-called “casual” games like Candy Crush over “serious” or “hardcore” games like the Grand Theft Auto series. In other words, they circle back around to the “fake geek girl” meme and attempt to define women out of the subculture by questioning their credibility.
The ferocity and endurance of #GamerGate surprised many people last year, but it makes sense when you realize that the conflict isn’t about digital space marines and parkour assassins, but rather the power struggle these characters represent. The meta-narrative of gamers is the same as for other geeks: bullied outsiders who found solace and solidarity in their hobby. When essays started being published declaring the gamer identity to have outlived its usefulness in response to the harassment women in the tech industry were receiving, Gators immediately interpreted it as persecution. Women were actually having to flee their homes due to death threats, but according to the Gators, a think-piece declaring the gamer identity is dead because everyone is a gamer nowadays is what real bullying looks like.
This peculiar sort of blindness is widespread among my geeky peers. We don’t recognize the ways we wield power to exclude and harm others because we are so convinced that we ourselves are victims of exclusion. We’re so caught up in our own story of having been picked on that we fail to recognize that video games are a $100 billion market, Marvel Comics and Star Wars movies have completely sewn up the box office, and tabletop games are experiencing a truly astounding renaissance. Geek is chic. We won.
But even when you win the patriarchal power games you lose. It’s true that my hobbies are now more mainstream than ever, but I’m also in debt. My living expenses keep going up while my real wages keep declining. When society is structured as a zero sum game, only a few people get to be at the top while everyone else languishes at the bottom. Only one guy gets to be the quarterback of the varsity football team. Only one guy is Tom Brady. Most geeks are not winning the masculinity competition on a personal level, and exerting power as gatekeepers in their hobby may be their only outlet for feeling in control.
This is what is called the politics of ressentiment. It is the clinging of those who have very little power to the shreds that remain, while stomping on those who have no power beneath them.
Ressentiment is what animates another group of geeks upset about the trend of including women and people of color in their hobby: the Rabid Puppies. They are a group that has coalesced in the past couple years to protest and disrupt the Hugo Awards, which are the most prestigious fan-based science-fiction awards. Past winners have included Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and many others among the best writers of the past six decades—but what drives the Rabid Puppies is the conviction that recent winners of the award have been selected on the basis of gender politics.
If you ask the Puppies how the awards should be decided, they will tell you they should be based on storytelling, but when you dig a little further and ask them for specific examples of the kinds of stories they mean, it becomes apparent they’re saying something similar to gamers who claim only certain kinds of violent action games are serious. Puppies are nostalgic for space marines and clear gender-roles. In the lead-up to the most recent Hugo Awards, one spokesperson for the Puppies, author Brad Torgersen, lamented on his blog how you just can’t judge a novel by its cover anymore:
A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.
These days, you can’t be sure. The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings? There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land? A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.How poorly I am exercising that imagination if I can use it to envision space exploration and magic, but not to envision ways of relating outside the gender norms we were taught in the toy aisles at Target.
For Puppies as for Gators, the discussion of gender politics is experienced as an intrusion, a violation of a space that belonged to geeks, where geeks were understood to be male victims of exclusion by more stereotypically masculine men who bonded through a shared obscure hobby. Thus the Puppies see themselves as under siege, guarding what little piece of masculine privilege remains to them even if that is just to fantasize about “broad-chested heroes who slay monsters and run off with beautiful women.”
Even as I’ve done my best to understand where all this is coming from, I think it’s urgent that we not underestimate how toxic masculine ressentiment truly is. The most influential agitator behind the Puppies is Vox Day, a man who will tell anyone who listens that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote or to have education beyond high school because their purpose is breeding. He considers himself a member of the Neoreactionary Movement, which is a loosely defined cluster of Internet thinkers who advocate for a return to forms of government older than liberal democracy. It is a curious fringe political philosophy that marries technophilic transhumanism with a brand of social darwinism that considers despotism the most natural, and therefore best social order. Dig beneath the surface of apparently benign sexism longing for the simpler days when knights in shining armor rescued princesses from towers and you’ll find straight-up misogyny lurking not far below.
In the same Internet circles where Gators and Puppies flourish, you’ll find Men’s Rights Activists teaching that women are by nature “hypergamous” meaning they continually seek sexual relations with men solely based on status and security. Since women are only using us for personal gain, pick-up artists will say, it’s only fair for men to play whatever games are necessary to extract sex from women when we want it. Other men who identify as MGTOW (men going their own way) will argue that it’s better for men to abstain from all relationships with women whatsoever since all women are succubi.
Essentially, as women have increasingly refused to be excluded from these communities, some men have interpreted that to mean that the logic of masculine competition, of alpha males and beta males, has to be read onto every aspect of human relationship. Love, sex, and friendship across genders: it’s all just a zero-sum game that a handful are winning, but the vast majority are losing. If women seem to be gaining better representation in our movies and video games it must be at the expense of men, especially the geeky men who are accustomed in these social exchanges to coming out with the short end of the stick.
But this does not have to be how we interpret these changes in our culture. We could instead recognize that it is patriarchy that has so constrained our perspectives that we base our identities on models of competition and exclusion. There is nothing inherently masculine about rolling dice or inventing stories about adventures in fictional worlds. I didn’t fall in love with Dungeons and Dragons because I have a Y chromosome. I fell in love with Dungeons and Dragons because it ignited my imagination. How poorly I am exercising that imagination if I can use it to envision space exploration and magic, but not to envision ways of relating outside the gender norms we were taught in the toy aisles at Target.
Fortunately, like all of the great geeky fandoms, this is a collective enterprise. It does not depend on my imagination or yours alone. We are joined by millions of geeks, male and female—regardless of gender—who are all telling stories, playing games, making movies, and drawing comic books that portray a better world. A world where power is shared. A world where gates are wide open and gatekeepers have gone into retirement. A world where those who have been hurt and excluded find healing instead of perpetuating their pain on the people coming behind them. A world where stereotypes get laughed right out of town and no one is deemed a “fake” anything. A world where everyone is glad that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Does it sound like a world out of fantasy or science fiction? It does to me too, and I want to go to there.
Illustration courtesy of Cameron Morgan. Check out his portfolio at Krop Portfolio.
CORRECTION: This piece incorrectly identified Brad Torgersen as a spokesman for the Rabid Puppies. In fact, Torgersen was acting as a spokesman for the Sad Puppies, a group that has publicly disavowed Rabid Puppies and their extreme rhetoric.
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I think labeling the Sad Puppies as “the guys who want to judge a book by its cover” is a crass misrepresentation.
Their point was so much more than that.
They were trying to emphasize that recent awards tended to go to stories that had a strong liberal agenda, and unless a novel had that, it did not have a chance to win. And they were mostly right.
In an article which was already a pretty deep dive into subcultures unfamiliar to most I didn’t feel I had time to adequately explain the distinctions between the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies. I disagree that the Sad Puppies analysis of the Hugo Awards had any merit.
Thank you for this! Very important read — I remember having a lot of anxiety about being labeled a fake, or being actively challenged to “prove” myself. So happy I’ve been able to find a network of supportive people who would never do those things to me!
I think you’re leaning too heavily on the idea that male geeks were ostracized in high school and that’s why they’re being sexist as adults. While some men may have experienced this stereotype, it’s not the main driving factor in the way sexism works. It’s like saying white people are racist because they had a bad experience with a person of color – when a lot of them haven’t even had a meaningful interaction or ANY interaction with a person of color that was positive or negative. It’s like saying that the high school quarterback wouldn’t have to be sexist because he’s successful – if he’s sexist it’s because of how we view masculinity/men in our culture vs how we view femininity/women.
When people are sexist, they’re participating in their privilege. Men get paid more, have more opportunities, are taken more seriously, etc. That’s privilege. It is a feature of our society that we teach each other about who is privileged and who isn’t. It doesn’t have anything to do with a negative experience with whatever Other group you’re comparing to. It has to do with how privileged people are used to things going their way and being about them. The minute things get more inclusive, they start to feel persecuted.
Thanks for engaging. I’m certainly not saying that male geeks are sexist because they were ostracized in high school. We’re all immersed in patriarchy from childhood, it just manifests in different ways in different subcultures. I think it’s important to tease out these different manifestations of the common problem – to recognize that patriarchy hurts everyone, men included. Most men aren’t winners in the hierarchical power struggles of patriarchy, even if they retain many privileges denied women, trans, genderqueer persons and others. Looking at the ways in which patriarchy hurts particular groups of men isn’t me attempting to make an excuse for their/our sexist behavior, but attempting to undermine its power. I completely agree that the root issue is the fear of losing privilege, which gets wrongly interpreted as persecution.
Hello. I’m female, and I would say I’ve been part of the geek community since high school. At no time have I felt excluded or unwanted. In fact, my experience was just the opposite: male geeks tried to get girls to join in their activities, and the girls just weren’t interested. The geeks seemed happy that I was an exception. I remember a college friend saying, “I got two, count ’em, two girls to play D&D,” as if this were a difficult and praiseworthy accomplishment. Obviously my personal experiences can’t speak for every girl/woman in geekdom, but they do make me think that the narrative of “geek men want to keep women out” is incomplete at best.
After ignoring the geek sub-culture for so long, now a large number of women supposedly want in. Right alongside my male counterparts, I can’t help being a little suspicious and asking, “Where were all of you ten or fifteen years ago?” One could hope that a general loosening of gender stereotypes is merely making women who were always interested in geeky things feel more free to express that, but the cynical mind (which I admit that I have) sees other possible explanations. It *looks* as though women are only becoming interested in geekdom due to its gains in mainstream acceptance. At best, this would be shallow “follow the crowd” behavior, which geeks (the original outsiders) disdain; at worst, it could be a power grab. I’m concerned that some feminist activists may have lighted on geekdom not because they appreciate it for its own sake, but because it has become an objective worth capturing for female power. And that’s not what I want. MY subculture is more than a pawn in someone’s game of gender politics, even if the intent of the game is noble. MY friends are more than drooling misogynist stereotypes that can be called upon to elicit sympathy for oppressed women.
I assume that the gaming think piece you obliquely mention in the middle of your essay is Leigh Alexander’s “Gamers are over.” That article offended and angered me. Alexander may think she’s helping people like me, but I actually see her article as an inaccurate and uncharitable indictment of my identity group. I don’t want to be told that “Gamers are over,” because *I’m* a gamer, and I’m proud of it. I don’t expect articles in the vein of “Gamers are over” to foster an increase in male gamers’ acceptance of me and the types of games I like. Instead, I expect them to smear gaming culture in the public eye in a way that drags us all down. Due to media coverage that focused on the threats allegedly made by a subset of Gators (never mind that some anti-Gators allegedly made threats too, and never mind that a variety of contentious issues generate threats), the general public is now primed to view gamers as a maladjusted bunch who hate women and have been corrupted by our violent games. Thanks loads.
I enjoy seeing women represented well in games and other speculative fiction. However, I don’t hold with the appropriation and re-molding of existing characters to achieve this. (Example: Lady Thor, whose picture headlines your article. I like female superheroes just fine, but Thor’s a man — and since he was known and loved by his fans long before I cared about him, I’ve got no right to make him into something different.) I enjoy science fiction that considers a wide range of scenarios and ideas — but I don’t want content getting selected for positive reviews and awards just because it gets the diversity thing right. So when controversies like GamerGate and the Hugo Puppies come up, I can kind of see both sides. I’m definitely sick of the geek community ripping itself apart over these things, and I’m sick of people who pretend to speak for me slamming fellow geeks on my behalf. If someone is concerned that book awards aren’t meritocratic enough, that’s not a slippery slope to ultimate evil, no matter what Vox Day happens to think. (No guilt-by-association tactics, please.)
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