Nerd, “geek” and comic book cultures can become safe havens to bullied children by creating communities where individuals can explore their interests in a safe and supportive environment. According to some, though, members of these communities can create new social hierarchies similar to those they fled from, thus forging new victims.
Graig Weich, a comic book artist at Beyond Comics most recently known for casting supermodel Coco and America’s Next Top Model winner Adrianne Curry in the book Gekido #1, remembers being bullied as a child. He came to comic book culture because of this treatment, and eventually entered the industry to give hope to children victimized in a similar manner.
“When I was a little boy, I remember my friends and I being bullied, and thinking how great it would be to be a hero and save my friends,” said Weich.
Weich found identity in discovering comic book characters like Spiderman, who faced struggles like bullying but found the power to eventually save others in distress. Now, Weich aims to help children with experiences like his own by creating characters who persevere in spite of obstacles.
Arthur Chu, though, points to a less noble story line. Chu, a former Jeopardy! contestant who recently wrote about exclusion in nerd culture, sees a lack of empathy among some members of these communities, which are often built around shared feelings of victimization, toward those suffering under different injustices.
“A lot of nerdy guys see the bullying and alienation they went through because of their interests or because of their personality as the biggest oppression they face in their lives,” said Chu. “It eclipses how people can suffer for bigger social phenomenons (sic) due to race, due to your sex, that kind of thing.”
Many negative messages found in these communities, according to Chu, come from a “persecution complex” fed first by individual bullying and later by a sense of being culturally attacked.
“The toxic stuff, the negative stuff … comes from people who very strongly identify with the idea that there was a subculture that was for them, that they had ownership over, and then becoming very angry and defensive when they sense they’re losing control over that,” said Chu.
Sometimes, angry members of these communities, which are often majority male, target women as sources of alleged attacks. Grace Morris, an aspiring comics artist and student at North Central College in Illinois, has experienced this hostility. Morris was welcomed, she says, into comic book and other niche cultures in her hometown. Like Weich, Morris often saw these cultures as her only “safe spaces.”
Morris has experienced challenges to her interest elsewhere, though, which she traces to the idea of specifically nerd culture as a space for men.
“There is this feeling that nerd culture used to be this safe haven for guys. Guys who didn’t have girlfriends or sports teams could retreat back into nerd culture, and that was … their one safe place,” said Morris. “However, (nerd culture) is not secluded anymore. And for a lot of people, that’s very hard to stomach. It’s hard to see something that used to be yours become everyone’s.”
According to Morris, the entitlement she ascribes to individuals who feel that nerd culture is only for men leads to the exclusion of women. Females are often accused by these individuals, according to Morris, of being interested in nerd culture as a means to receive male attention. This reduction is offensive to the legitimacy of female interest in these subjects and cultures, according to Morris.
Morris felt this attitude expressed while looking for vintage comic books in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, last year. Morris describes having to prove her subject knowledge and being constantly challenged.
“I’d have to prove that I knew who I was talking about,” said Morris. “And then people will throw out comments. It’s a feeling of being questioned, like: ‘If she actually know what she’s talking about, she’ll have the right response.’”
Morris believes that this treatment makes it very difficult to enter nerd, geek and comic book cultures.
Both Morris and Chu see an “entitlement” that they believe leads to physical as well as emotional harm.
“There’s more and more people telling stories about science fiction conventions, about cons, and how where they were a safe space for nerdy guys, they’re a very unsafe space for nerdy girls,” said Chu.
In fact, Chu believes that some individuals who joined nerd communities to find acceptance and support are now mimicking the same culture they originally fled from, thus creating new victims.
“(These girls) have to worry about guys saying, ‘This is our space now. That means we’re entitled to exhibit the same alpha male behavior that we’ve been denied, that women here are our property,’” said Chu.
According to Chu, this behavior leads to widespread gender-based violence.
“Women (get) groped, stalked, harassed, raped and assaulted in what were supposed to be safe spaces because they were nerdy spaces,” said Chu. “The women in my life who identify with this subculture have all had some kind of story about some guy who felt entitled to her space and to her life and to her body because she was there.”
These anecdotes have been corroborated by incidents reported at comic book and science fiction conventions including grope at L.A.con IV and alleged harassment and sexual assault at Comic-Con International in San Diego, as well as death and rape threats toward female technology bloggers.
Chu believes that it is becoming impossible to ignore these voices. According to him, audiences ultimately have only two options: to become defensive or to listen. Despite attitudes and harmful actions against women within nerd culture, Chu believes that male insiders can become positive forces in support of women.
“The strongest male feminist voices I’ve heard have been guys who have identified with nerd culture,” said Chu. “There is the potential for a lot of guys who have suffered bullying and alienation to have that empathy, and to see how it sucks to be treated this way.”
Individuals within geek, nerd and comic book cultures must be aware both of the oppression they may perpetuate toward others, and the empowerment they can provoke in raising their voices. Without these insights, some communities may mirror the discrimination members fled, thus perpetuating a vicious victimization cycle and becoming the very thing many participants sought to escape.