In Which Geek Culture Is Not, In Fact, Perfect: Female Role Models

So there’s this image going around:

What’s going on here? Female Role Models are selected from “popular culture” and “geek culture,” the viewer is supposed to instantly understand how vastly superior the latter are. Why?

Well, since much of geek culture is constructed and circumscribed by the all-important trait of knowing and caring nothing of “celebrities” and “popular culture”, it’s probably not because everyone recognizes all of the women on top, realizes that by their actions or opinions they are poor role models for young girls and thus agrees with the image. More likely the women being cast into the “NO” pile for what one might want one’s daughters to be fall into two categories: Try As They Might To Deny It, Geeks Know Some Celebrities And These Are Some Of Them That They Know And Hate and Scantily Dressed. Note: These categories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they pretty much overlap entirely.

Snooki (top left) and Kim Kardashian (middle top), as near as I can tell, are famous because they are famous. I’ve never seen Keeping up with the Kardashians or Jersey Shore, so maybe I’m not qualified to discuss, but they have personalities and lives which people like to observe. It may not be everyone’s dream for their child, but I’m having trouble understanding why they’re really all that bad. Kristen Stewart makes the line-up more complicated, since I’m almost certain that she’s meant to be representing not herself, but Bella Swan. If anyone knows of any particular reason Kristen Stewart is a bad person/role model, they should let me know in comments. I’m not going to discuss the matter of whether or not Bella Swan is a good role model. She’s certainly boy-obsessed, largely passive and strangely non-troubled by some very problematic behavior on the part of her suitors, but she’s als0 intelligent and has sexual agency. So…it’s complicated?

I’m really baffled as to why Lady Gaga is on the list. She’s an LGBT activist, a philanthropist, a kink-aware artist and she likes to play with social norms through fashion and other behavior. The problem is what? That she’s a conventionally attractive woman who is dressed sexily in the photo shown? Wouldn’t want my daughter ever wearing less clothing than I deem appropriate. Gross. Nothing at all like any of the women in the bottom column (*cough* all the way on the left *cough*). In fact, it seems like that might be the problem with all of the women on the top row. They’re conventionally sexy/are in pictures that are geared to illustrate that fact, and we’re supposed to hate them for it.

It’s that, or it’s that they represent pop culture, which we’re supposed to hate all the time anyway. (This notion deserves its own post).

On the other hand, the characters in the bottom row are sexy, but not over sexualized. They’re talented, intelligent, respected, in positions of leadership and can wield a weapon with flair and skill. Great! Go Geek Culture! No problems here.

You, convenient foil in the back, you want to say something?

“Yes, I think it might be worthwhile to recognize that the women on the top (aside from Bella Swan) are real people whereas those on the bottom are fictional, meaning that the potential perfection and badassery is much higher for the Geek Culture set.”

An excellent point. On the right, obligatory Devil’s Advocate, you have a response?

“Ok, but it’s still important to point out that popular culture glorifies women who aren’t famous for any particularly admirable characteristics like those mentioned above but rather for more superficial traits whereas geek culture does a much better job elevating useful and important aspects of womanhood in their portrayals thereof.”

*snort* Sorry, that was unladylike. While I finish laughing, I’ll let Ellen Lundgren (who also blogged about this very issue here) explain why that’s ridiculous.

Well said (though she did not create the image).

It’s still complicated. For example, Leia is indeed dressed gratuitously sexily and the outfit she is wearing is intended to make her a sex object. But that’s the only time in the movie where that occurs, it’s a punishment by the villain, and she’s a generally badass character. Also, Carrie Fisher requested more interesting outfits to wear.

But it’s by far the most common portrayal of her at Comic/Nerd/Geek Conventions, and dressing that way is highly rewarded by the Geek Community. (Please go read that link, it’s wonderful, and the video linked directly prior is very telling). Sexism is a problem in Geek Culture, and that means it cannot go around claiming that it is a producer of solely Good Role Models for Girls. Ellen is totally right to point that out.

If you’re still skeptical, go check out Geek Feminism. And these analyses of the Starfire reboot. And how female superhero’s bodies are contorted in sci-fi and comic books. And the way Anita Sarkeesian of the amazing Feminist Frequency has been treated for attempting to explore the way women are portrayed in popular videogames. Then come back and tell me you want your daughters (or sons, for that matter) growing up in unexamined geek culture.

Absolutely buy your daughter a ray gun instead of a Barbie*. But don’t consider yourself the enlightened elite unless you’re fighting the battle on other fronts, too. No free passes.

*For the purposes of this post, we’re ignoring the problems with glorifying violence for children, the disconnect between the admirable traits of intelligence, leadership and self-respect demonstrated by the characters in the bottom row of the first picture and what a ray-gun signifies, the gender essentializing and socializing and the possible femme-phobia associated with the denigration of a doll.

SSA Conference 2011 Point of Interest 1: Male Feminists

Three weekends ago, (I’ve been in the midst of writing this for a while) I went to the National Secular Student Alliance for the first time, and boy was it a blast. Doing recaps of multi-day events tends to either be tedious or incoherent, and while that was enjoyable (for me, and I hope for you) the first time, I won’t be doing it again. There are a million other recaps out there if you just want to know what happened and how great it was, but I’d actually like to discuss some things that surprised me and made me think.
First thing: Male feminists. Everywhere. I’m sure I’m getting insanely obnoxious gushing about how awesome this was, because I’ve literally never experienced anything like it. There’s the feeling of finally being around people like yourself, which is comforting and exhilarating all at once, and that comes from going to the University of Chicago, or Comic-con or atheist/secular conferences, and that’s wonderful, especially for people who have always felt left out, different or misunderstood. But there’s an entirely different level of satisfaction that comes from watching certain battles go on without the need for your input. These battles which are important to you, which you’ve thought a lot about, studied in depth and know like the back of your hand, which you think are worth engaging in even for the millionth time, but then not having to engage in them because other people have your back. These other people who traditionally oppose and dismiss you (that is, men) are standing in support of you and your deeply held principles, fighting the good fight on your behalf and also because they believe it’s right. It’s awesome. And oh so gratifying, because you have all of the confidence that the arguments are being made, that the positions are being defended, without the emotional investment or arguing yourself, or the energy investment that it takes to debate and discuss, especially when it’s something you’ve done a million times before.
Not the guy at the conference
And I was totally not expecting it. By now, everyone knows that atheism has a gender problem, though it’s disagreed in what ways and to what extent. I knew that everyone was still reacting to elevatorgate, generally with disdain and humor, and I knew that conferences are often places where women are bombarded with sexual interest and men are sometimes too socially awkward to know when and how to stop. I also know that rationalist communities (though very much not the same as atheist and secular communities) are often very skeptical of feminism. All of this adds up to not a great deal of hope for positive affirmation of a political stance for women and gender equality. But that’s exactly what I found, with several men identifying themselves as feminists without prompting, in the middle of relevant conversations about politics or gender in atheism, with one guy wearing a This Is What a Feminist Looks Like T-shirt, totally respectful and boundary-respecting flirting, and me having a grin plastered on my face at all of it. They spoke up in conversations, argued vigorously but reasonably in favor of feminist ideas and principles and had a clear commitment to defending feminism, talking about it, convincing others, clearing up misconceptions, and listening, acknowledging when they were wrong. Male atheist feminists might just be the best people, according to my limited experience.
Also not the guy at the conference
Even better was the response of men who were not feminists to the discussions. I’ve seen a variety of attitudes to feminists from non-feminists, in particular male feminists, ranging from approving to outright hostile, but at the SSA conference, I mostly just saw interested, and a good bit of nodding. I hope very much that that’s not a result of the fact that a man was speaking, defending feminism, but it was exciting to see nonetheless. In fact, it wouldn’t be so bad if men responded better to men defending feminism, because it’s not always clear who the models for how to be a male feminist are, and men might very much benefit from having them. Especially if their initial impression of feminism involved any hint of man-hating, it might be helpful to see first-hand how untrue that is. And from the brief experience I had at the conference, it seems to work fairly well.
So maybe atheism has a gender problem, maybe it has a misogyny problem, maybe the top is overwhelmingly male. But if the students I saw at the 2011 SSA Conference are the future of atheism, I think we’re on a great track to fix those problems, and I’m so glad to be able to say that after all of the feminist disappointments regarding atheism and atheist conferences of late.
Finally, this is hilarious.