The mystique of the girl geek

As I’ve said before, I’ve always called myself a “girl geek” or a “nerd girl.” In the strange mix of sci-fi,  grammar obsession, zombie movies, computer parts, and feminism that is my brain, it’s recently floated to the surface that maybe I should take a look at those labels. So I’ve been wondering lately, why the qualifier? Why do women who enjoy traditionally “geeky” pursuits need a special label? Why can’t we just be geeks? I’ve come up with a couple of theories:

-Geekery (geekism? geekishness?) is still widely perceived as a male characteristic. Which is really strange, because there are so many women who would identify, or be identified, as geeks. There are a huge number of women who enjoy video games, sci-fi, computer programming, comic books, and other traditionally “geeky” interests, yet we’re still looked upon as some kind of elusive beings, the stuff of legends, rarely seen in person. That’s a load of bullshit. Women have interests just as varied and intellectual as men, but it’s still seen as unusual or remarkable in some way.

-Unfortunately, even in this day and age, men are people and women are women. “Male” is the default. So if a woman wants to identify or categorize herself, she’d better make sure to be clear: she’s not a “geek.” She’s a “geek girl.” Like a different species.

-We still have something to prove. How many female gamers have gender-neutral gamertags or male avatars? And how many did that because by identifying yourself as a woman, you open yourself up to not only the ridiculous and often horrifying treatment you get from other (male) gamers, but because when you play as a woman, you have to be better, faster, more aggressive, and more skilled than the guys who are playing? You’re a girl, so you’d better be exceptional if you want to get into the clubhouse. Guys are allowed to be mediocre. If not, it’s because they’re still getting used to the game, or they’re having an off day. If a girl is mediocre, it’s because she’s a girl.

-We want to set ourselves apart. We’re not “those girls.” We’re not vapid and stupid and concerned with superficial pursuits. That’s all well and good, except it’s self-defeating. By painting the female default that way, we’re making it harder on ourselves to show that being intellectual or nerdy or fun is normal. It’s not unusual or weird. Not to mention, I find very few guys who feel it necessary to justify that they like video games and Star Wars as well as being sports fanatics and gearheads. People are complex. I can lose an entire day watching a Firefly marathon and still spend an hour at Sephora looking for the perfect neutral eye shadow. I can build a computer or a network from the ground up and still get pissed if I break a nail in the process. I’m allowed to be multi-dimensional.

-We think it gets us respect. And, to an extent, it does. A little bit of nerd cred never hurts, and can be a huge asset in certain situations. Sometimes it catches people off guard, and that can be an asset too. It’s a little insulting to be judged on looks or gender first, and then intelligence as an afterthought, but it happens all the time.

-Guys like it. Yes, I’m rolling my eyes. No, I don’t personally care if guys like it, as I’m married and my husband is perfectly happy with my current level of nerdiness. However, the “hot girl gamer” archetype is so pervasive that it’s almost a joke. Since I mentioned Firefly already (and will do so whenever I have a chance), I’ll use this example. I follow Nathan Fillion on Twitter. I love Nathan Fillion. If Nathan Fillion ever retweeted or followed me, I’d devote a week of blog posts to subjects of his choosing. Recently, he tweeted: “Help me settle a bet! Hot girls play Halo! I know at least 5! Back me up, @Rileah!” (Rileah being Rileah Vanderbilt, a member of “Team Unicorn,” a group of very good-looking women who recently made a video parody to prove that geek girls do exist.) He got tons of replies; I’d guess hundreds, if not more than a thousand, many with pictures to prove it. Here’s my question, though: why does it matter if the girls are hot? Is it because a good-looking girl is made even more attractive by being interested in “male” pursuits? Does it not “count” when girls who aren’t traditionally beautiful-looking play FPSs because they’re doing it for their own enjoyment, not to impress dudes? I’m not trying to single out Nathan Fillion, but he brought up an interesting point, one that comes up all the time: do hot girls have more credibility if they’re geeks? Or do geeks have more credibility if they’re hot girls? Why can’t women just like to shoot things without trying to get attention for being a girl who shoots things?

    One of these days, I hope we can progress far enough that geeks are geeks, regardless of gender, and that people will stop being surprised when girls are smart and interesting and multi-faceted. In the meantime, I’ll be in good company with some really awesome girl geeks.

    Some great girl geek sites and blogs:

    Geek Girl Diva
    Frag Dolls
    Geek Girls Network
    Nerds in Babeland
    Geek with Curves


    10 responses to “The mystique of the girl geek

    1. “I’m allowed to be multi-dimensional.”
      I think that’s a message that folks should really take away. Just because I happen to love Gilmore Girls doesn’t make me any less of a geek.

      And you know, I think when I read that tweet from Nathan Fillion I totally managed to not read the “hot” part. Interesting for me.

      Great post, I have things to think about!

    2. I’m confused – you start out by saying that is awful that girls get stereotyped and that if you identify as a girl you get abuse and this is terrible. This is all very true, and if you look at things, most guys don’t identify as being a “guy geek”, and people leave us alone if we want to have a lazy game and have a low score or whatever.

      However, you then ruin it all with the last part – the “using” the girl geek thing to to get credibility, the fact that you love it that people admire you for being the “hot geek” stereotype. Which way do you want it? Do you truly believe that it would be better if all sexes were treated equal? Or are you so happy with the status/fawning you get from certain, immature parts of the community that you will continue to identify as a “girl geek”?

      You claim that male is the “default” for geek, but when female geeks club together as “girl geeks”, you not only alienate the male population who want to just get on with being fellow brains, but you enhance the idea that it is a default male stereotype, even if it is just a defence mechanism. Geek is a neutral word, and you should be happy to identify with it, and very little is stopping you.

      • I’m a little confused by your second paragraph. I don’t think I said anywhere that I “love that people admire [me] for being the ‘hot geek’ sterotype.” In fact, I said the exact opposite. I said it’s frustrating that there’s this notion that only “hot” girls can have geek cred, and it leaves the vast majority of women, who don’t look like booth babes, behind. I don’t have any status and certainly don’t get any fawning, and I doubt very much that any credibility I’ve earned has anything to do with my looks. I linked to the pages that I did because I find them to be women who aren’t necessarily buying into the “hotter is better” standard of geekery. Instead, they foster an environment in which girls can feel comfortable and not have to deal with so much of the BS that female geeks and gamers have to endure on a daily basis.

    3. Being a geek is sort of in my DNA, and I’ve never not been the outsider. I think that self-identifying as geek girls, does serve a purpose. Being a, “Geek Girl,” not only establishes that we identify as geeks, but that we do so without giving up our identities as girls. To be taken seriously as a geek should not require that I be a sexless automaton. In fact, to be taken seriously as a WOMAN shouldn’t require that, either. It’s embracing the plurality of being ourselves, vs. being what we’re expected to be.
      Many of us also find solidarity in the community of geek girls.
      Re: Nathan Fillion’s tweet, I feel it can be parsed two ways. Girls who game hardcore, are either assumed to be unattractive, or somehow, only hot girls can game. Both are absurd. I don’t think he meant anything by it, so I let it go.
      All the hubbub over Team Unicorn has mostly left me frustrated that we are still incapable of accepting that there’s no one way of being human, let alone a geek girl.

      • Excellent points regarding the plurality of ourselves and embracing it, and also about the solidarity that a “geek girl” community provides. And I definitely don’t think NF meant anything remotely negative with his tweet; it just jump-started my mind into wondering why the word “hot” needed to be there, and why everyone accepts it so easily.

    4. Really well thought out. Thanks.

      I’ve heard and joined a lot of discussions this year over why geek girls need to self-identify. It’s an odd double-whammy: On the one hand, some are rudely skeptical about any woman who is “allegedly” a geek. On the other hand, some who know we exist will be rude skeptical about the idea that we even need to make that point. Yeesh!

      • Exactly. It would be great if there weren’t such a need to self-identify; if geek girls were accepted as widely as geek guys, but we aren’t there yet. And then if you do self-identify (which, in spite of the problems I touched on in the post, I do), you still have to “prove” yourself. I think this comes out more in the gaming community, but I’ve definitely been quizzed on my geekiness before.

    5. I read Nathan’s tweet as implying that “hot chicks” are stereotypically considered too shallow or stupid to be a geek, but he doesn’t think that’s true. Or that nerds and geeks are stereotypically thought of as dorky men with glasses and short sleeved button downs and he was trying to counter that idea. I didn’t think it was implying that you must be hot to have street cred as a (girl) geek.

      • I ride motorcyckles,drink whiskey,look like a sex kitten (well…lioness rather;) and I am an absoulte Nerd !!! Graudated art school,working on my psychology diploma,book addict,music lover (classical as well),painter,health care worker and mother of a Girl-Nerd,feminist … And it just keep on giving…
        I do warn people,especially men, up front-I am a feminist and the Nerd.
        I like smart people,respect honest and kind and hate asholess. Take that!;)

    6. I find your opinions endlessly fascinating.

      I’m 44; I suspect you’re probably about ten years younger than I am (or, I could be WAAAYYY off base, who knows).

      At any rate, I’m of the generation BEFORE the generation that was raised by mothers who mostly had jobs, so for me a lot of this stuff does not even hit my radar. I quite honestly was perfectly fine with the term “geek girls” (and yes, I am one; I’m also still a total tomboy, which is probably another one of those terms that should just go away) and I have to say that until you pointed it out, I had no idea of all the connotations of the term. I’m still fine with it for me, but I totally see your point.

      I guess I’m just kind of happy girls can be something other than wives and mothers, which was all MY mother had available to her. I’m really happy you’re pointing out the flaws in the logic, though. Gives me things to think about.

      Keep up the good work!

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