2 Aug

This post was inspired by several different things, including a couple of recent articles sent to me by a colleague and a post made on Google+ by a friend. The question at hand is one of authenticity – specifically, geek authenticity and what it means to be a female in a community (whether online or off) that is predominantly male-centered. I think a lot of the issues that come up in this context are relevant to any community that is one focused on male privilege, including business, academia, the sciences, athletics, and certainly gaming (digital or analog).

Much of this specific recent furor is a consequence of CNN’s coverage of Joe Peacock’s blog post, “Booth Babes Need Not Apply,” which argues against “pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention.” Peacock doesn’t make the claim that all girls are just pretending, and he says so, but the way he says it almost makes it worse: “Now, before every single woman reading this explodes, let me disambiguate a bit. I absolutely do not believe that every girl who attends conventions and likes ‘Doctor Who’ is pretending to be a geek.” First, he knows that what he’s saying is sexist and potentially offensive, but he feels that he gets to say it anyway because of his position of privilege – whether as a male or as a “real” geek (I don’t know which, although either or both is possible). Second, the syntax makes it unclear whether he’s saying that some women are geeks or whether he’s saying that some women aren’t pretending to be geeks… although he does later say that there are female geeks, and some of them are even attractive.

His complaint is against

the girls who have no interest or history in gaming taking nearly naked photos of themselves with game controllers draped all over their body just to play at being a ‘model.’ I get sick of wannabes who couldn’t make it as car show eye candy slapping on a Batman shirt and strutting around comic book conventions instead….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.

My question is “why do you care?” Why does it matter to you whether they’re “infiltrating your culture” or not? Clearly, they have enough interest to be there, to put on the outfit, and so forth. They’re interested in some element of the culture, even if only on a surface level. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t bother going to the con, and they really wouldn’t bother to put on the outfit. If they aren’t being offensive or harassing, live and let live.

But Mr. Peacock seems to think that these women – whether they are “pretending” or just new to the culture or maybe just like dressing up like Catwoman – are tantamount to the men who engage in online harassment and misogyny: “Are guys acting this way toward women just as disgusting and base as women poaching attention from our culture, satisfying their egos by strutting around a group of guys dressed in clothing and costumes from a culture filled with men they see as beneath them? Absolutely.” And that’s where I have a really big problem.

There’s a universe of difference between cruelty and sexist harassment on the one side and putting on a costume you don’t know much about on the other. One is harmful. The other is not. There is no degradation of “geek culture” being made by women who aren’t obsessed with the minutiae of trivia behind the costume they put on because they liked the Batman movie or want to look cute for the sake of it. Would I do it? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean I’m offended by someone who does any more than I’m offended by someone wearing an Elizabethan outfit at a Renaissance Faire who doesn’t know as much about early modern England as I do (which is probably most of the attendees).

In response, John Scalzi’s post on Whatever argues that anyone who wants to be considered a geek should be considered so. He picks apart Peacock’s assertions of “true Geekdom” as entirely manufactured and personal – not as representative of the community at large. In short, Sclazi argues that a community, especially one like the geek or gaming community whose members are often marginalized in many ways, should be welcoming of all types, not just those who conform to a particular status quo of “hardcore geekdom,” in the same way that not all members of any community need to be supreme experts; for instance, a football fan is still a football fan even if he or she doesn’t know all the players and their stats – they can just like watching the game.

Most importantly, though, Sclazi says, “here’s a funny fact: Her geekdom is not about you. At all. It’s about her.” Which is what this all boils down to, whether we’re talking about geekdom or gaming or anything. The woman’s choice to be involved in the community or event or business is not about the men already in it. It’s about her. About what she wants to do or be or be involved in. And since it’s about her, no one else should have a say in her attempts to participate.

But Mr. Scalzi isn’t without his own issues, as mediatedlife suggests in another post. In short, while Sclazi is right that what women choose to do is their own business, mediatedlife argues that the gaming industry and geek community are in part to blame for “inauthentic” geek women “parading” about in costumes… because they have encouraged that sort of thing from the start (a point which Peacock also makes and suggests is problematic, in his defense). mediatedlife objects not to Scalzi’s point that women should be allowed to do/wear what they want, but that he is – in essence – defending the “Booth Babe” phenomenon: “We have to stop, for instance, arguing that asking women to stop reinforcing sexist standards of attractiveness and behavior is slut shaming.”

So where do we draw the line? I like mediatedlife’s point that asking women to stop promoting objectification shouldn’t be condemned. I think Scalzi is right in saying that women should be allowed to do and wear whatever they wish, to identify with or simply hang around with the geek community if they wish. I also take Peacock’s point that women who use the “Booth Babe” look for attention are probably not doing so in a healthy, empowering way, and that they can be annoying.

But I’m conflicted. I don’t like the idea that women are being excluded from the geek community for any reason, and especially because someone else has identified them as “inauthentic,” no matter the justification. I don’t like the idea that women should be told not to be sexy or wear revealing clothing if they want to (or men, for that matter). I also don’t like the kind of objectification that often happens to women at cons, especially when they’re wearing costumes. I often don’t like the costumes to begin with, given their tendency toward objectification.

I think ultimately it all comes down to respect. If you want to wear a skimpy outfit, fine. Understand that you will be stared at, possibly asked out. But even if you do wear a skimpy outfit, you have the right to be treated respectfully and not be harassed or demeaned or accused not having enough “geek cred.” In short, you have the same rights as any other man or woman in the room.