The presence of a “Geek Out” section on CNN.com, as established and establishment a media outlet as one could ask for, suggests that, at least when it comes to page views, geek has entered the mainstream. However, a recent opinion piece by the writer and designer Joe Peacock suggests that there is still some growing up to do – and it is going to have to be in public.
Peacock’s piece – titled “Booth Babes need not apply” – trots out the familiar trope of the “ fake geek girl” – the woman who is pretending to be a geek for reasons of her own. We’ve seen this device before, many times – indeed, we saw it here on Forbes.com, with Tara Tiger Brown‘s “Fake Geek Girls – Go Away!”. Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku – a real geek boy, to the best of my knowledge – said in response to that article:
"Imagine: You meet a girl, and you get to talking. You talk about your jobs, your neighborhoods; you talk about your interests. As it turns out, the two of you are into a lot of the same things. This is cool! Wow, she likes the same obscure slasher flicks and retro video games that you do. How lucky for you both!
Wait. Be careful. This could all be a ruse. She could be… a Fake Geek Girl.
Oh no actually, false alarm. Turns out she’s just a person who is into stuff to varying degrees. There’s no such thing as a Fake Geek Girl."
Which is probably true, but conceals another point – the idea of the “fake geek girl”, and the self-appointed geekquisitors rooting them out, are bad for business.
Faking it seriously
Of course, there are people who pretend to like things more than they actually do, for many reasons – popularity, protective camouflage, hoping to impress a member of the same or the opposite sex. Let those who have never feigned interest in a boss’ account of the last nine holes cast the first stone.
A woman may be dressed as Batgirl, and yet not able to tell you if she is Barbara Gordon, Cassandra Cain or Stephanie Brown. That might be because she genuinely doesn’t care, or because she has only just discovered Batgirl, and has nobody to get advice from.
And that might be because whenever she tries to talk about Batgirl, she gets the geekquisition on how deep her knowledge of the Batman mythos is, before being dismissed as insufficiently knowledgeable – a “fake geek girl” just looking for attention. Eventually, they will either learn to dress conservatively and keep quiet, or they will give up – either way, sales and brand equity are lost, for very little gain.
We need to talk about Batman
Which brings us back to Peacock, who reports:
"There is a growing chorus of frustration in the geek community with – and there’s no other way to put this – pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention.
San Diego Comic-Con is the largest vehicle, but it’s hardly the only convention populated with “hot chicks” wearing skimpy outfits simply to get a bunch of gawking geeks’ heads to turn, just to satisfy their hollow egos."
One immediately curious thing here is that, for such a seasoned convention-goer, Peacock appears not to know what “booth babe” means – or possibly what booth babes are.
Of course, many of the the scantily-clad women at SDCC are there because they are “booth babes” in the generally understood, if still disparaging, sense of the term. They are models or event staff, full- or part-time, who have been hired and costumed by promoters in the belief that women in skimpy outfits will sell whatever product they are promoting.
There are ways to address this – the PAX events, for example, have a policy limiting the use and the appearance of these promotional models. Generally, I would like to see sexualized advertising in general more carefully controlled in supposedly family-friendly events, but I can tell the difference between the player and the game.
It is pretty clear that “booth babes” – in the conventionally understood sense – are not doing it to “satisfy their hollow egos”. They are doing it because it is a paying gig, and it is a paying gig because someone not on the convention floor thinks they will encourage people on the convention floor to buy product, take and share photographs and generally further the interests of the brand.
(In a subsequent blog post, Peacock has explained that, for him and apparently his friends, booth babe “is a pejorative used at conventions to describe any guy or girl who doesn’t actually care about the industry, the fiction, the fandom or the culture – they’re just there to get attention or a paycheck.” So, his usage is eccentric, and he is unaware of how eccentric it is, or this is a post hoc justification.
For the purposes of this discussion, this is not particularly relevant, however: he does not mention guys in skimpy outfits, or indeed remuneration in any currency apart from attention.)
The enemy within
So, if not actual, according-to-Hoyle booth babes, who is Peacock talking about? Happily, he explains:
I’m talking about an attention addict trying to satisfy her ego and feel pretty by infiltrating a community to seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street.
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″.
They’re poachers. They’re a pox on our culture. As a guy, I find it repugnant that, due to my interests in comic books, sci-fi, fantasy and role playing games, video games and toys, I am supposed to feel honored that a pretty girl is in my presence. It’s insulting.
I read this, and felt very sad. Sad for Peacock, but also sad for anyone who feels this way. The underlying premise here is that male geeks are so unattractive, indeed so collectively repulsive, that there is a 50% gap between what they will find attractive and the attractiveness standards of any given other human being.
A normal-looking woman will, simply by standing near geeks – people Peacock seems to believe to be only 66% as attractive as regular people – become a supervixen. From “OK, maybe” to “oh, X-baby!” in a single bound.
And, conversely, if a woman in a Batman shirt ever speaks to you at a convention without having first established her credentials, the correct response is immediate suspicion. After all, they couldn’t be attracted to you, or just want a conversation. Chances are, they are after your attention.
If this is making your skin crawl, that’s sort of the point. It’s a pretty awful way to feel about one’s own culture, before we even get into how it is likely to corrode one’s feelings towards women.
The Felicia Day moment
We had another of these “fake geek girl” bunfights recently, when a young contributing editor at Destructoid, Ryan Perez, tweeted the geek celebrity Felicia Day demanding to know what she actually contributed to the culture of gaming.
A series of celebrity retweets later, Perez was no longer writing for Destructoid, and we had another example of the Felicia Day Moment - the point when somebody finds a member of a minority group within games able to push back with considerable force, either directly or indirectly (strictly speaking, the role of Felicia Day in Ryan Perez’ Felicia Day Moment was taken by Veronica Belmont, the technology blogger, who took up the cudgels on Day’s behalf).
Sensibly, Peacock is very careful to make clear that he does not believe that Felicia Day is “a pox on our culture”, like those other girls. In fact, he spends a surprising amount of the article making it clear that he absolutely doesn’t mean Felicia Day, which given the precedent is probably a wise move. Instead, he went for the softer targets of Olivia Munn and the Frag Dolls, the Ubisoft-sponsored collection of female gamers.
Olivia Munn cosplays as Princess Leia Organa. This should apparently make you feel very angry.
Peacock has subsequently recanted his judgement on the Frag Dolls, but this rather proves the point that these arbitrary exclusions are made based on little but personal conviction, and often without very much actual information or knowledge.
For a woman, not knowing your subject makes you a “fake”, whereas for a man it seems it is entirely forgiveable.
Aisha (Archer) Tyler was, not uncoincidentally, much-derided for being a “fake geek girl” when compering Ubisoft’s E3 presentation this year – and responded in a forceful fashion, listing her life in video games. If Aisha Tyler is an insecure 6 where Peacock comes from, I want to live there.
As it is, one might conclude that the process actually works in reverse – that women are marked out as “fake” by default, and have to prove themselves innocent, ducking-stool style.
Felicia Day herself, incidentally, was not angry, merely disappointed:
"Dear reporters, getting a bit tired of being held up as an “authentic” geek as you write posts against women who “exploit” geek culture."
Day is an intelligent woman. She is aware that attempts to keep women as far off the geek reservation as possible, by creating a set of conditions which justify insulting and harassing the “fakes” (according to one’s own definition, and possibly one’s own telepathic powers) are not good for gaming as a whole, or for geek culture – or indeed for her, as somebody seeking to market product.
Monocultures are risky business, diversification a useful hedge in times of change, and women’s dollars are as good as men’s. In particular, the traditional commodities of geekery – comic books, cult TV series and video games – are going through a complete and painful transition in business model under the pressure of digital distribution, the normalization of copyright infringement and the increasing ill-health of their direct retail channels. Meanwhile, the successes claimed by geeks over the dominant culture – such as the billion-dollar successes of this year’s Avengers and (soon) Batman films – have come by expanding audiences out of the core demographic. Geeks inherit the Earth when they learn to talk to other people on it – whether they are selling movie IP or operating systems.
In the face of this insecurity, “fake geek girls” are the equivalent of Communist sleeper agents in the uncertain 50s – the number of women who have no interest in geek culture but want geek attention at a personal level is vanishingly small, but their phantom is used to justify prejudice more generally, with the aim of keeping an unknown quantity out of the clubhouse.
I have no idea how you should feel about this. Sorry.
Or, to go for a classically geeky reference, manifesting a monster from the id might be a great way to keep men away from your virginal daughter, but it isn’t exactly healthy in the long run for you or for her.
Of course, there is a set of people who are seeking geek attention without necessarily having much interest in geekdom itself – the marketing and promotion teams who hire the booth babes, and who use San Diego Comic-Con as a way to generate heat on the Internet for entertainment products seeking to consolidate and cross over beyond their core geek market. Again, it’s useful to understand the difference between the player and the game. However, these are much harder targets than women on the convention floor.
It’s not OK to harass women – but it’s also OK not to harass women
And speaking of monsters from the id… Peacock makes it clear that he is disgusted by the stories of harassment experienced by women on Xbox Live reported by the campaigning website “Fat, Ugly or Slutty” (not safe for work, or really for anyone wanting to feel good about humanity).
But he then tells his “ 6 of 9″ tormentors not to be “shocked” when they receive uninvited, adolescently sexual communications … on Xbox Live. That kind of girl, apparently, should not complain about a little harassment. Dressed like that, it seems, she actually is asking for it.
To be clear: there should be no place in gamer or wider geek culture for harassment, or for those who excuse or justify it – even when it comes to attractive women you are somehow convinced do not respect you. To do so only amplifies the drumbeat of the vocal minority which seeks to censor geek media, and censure those who make or play it.
Calls to mark women with a scarlet “F” in the name of keeping the congregation pure may have a ready audience. It heartens not just those fighting a doomed battle to keep geek and gamer culture in a comfortable oubliette, but also the Jack Thompsons of this world. But it is not an audience one should cultivate, and it is probably not an audience, in the long term, one wants to have – as a media company or a producer of geek media.
It’s not a growth market.
And it is certainly not an audience with the best interests of gaming or geekery at heart, as the industry approaches a series of watersheds.
I wanted to post this here because I know a lot of us are in the geek culture and there have been Felicia Day/Olivia Munn discussions in the past. Especially about Day being a "fake" geek just because she was late to the party. Her parents didn't let her play video games as a child! She was sheltered!
Have you had any experiences of being called a "fake" geek/gamer, ONTD?