It’s Complicated: Women’s Vexed Relationships with “Nerd,” “Geek” and Comic Book Cultures

Lauren Berkley in her cat suit. Photo by Nate Buchman Photography.

Lauren Berkley in her cat suit. Photo by Nate Buchman Photography.

In “geek,” “nerd” and comic book cultures, the media’s fascination with a female beauty ideal marginalizes and ultimately contributes to a larger dismissal of women as cultural participants and, sometimes, human beings. Women who wish to participate in this culture are sometimes treated as decorations, and often challenged to ‘prove’ themselves as real fans.

Last week, aspiring comic book artist and college student Grace Morris described hostile treatment and challenges to her fan status, which she attributed to males’ reactions to her gender, while shopping for vintage comic books. She and other sources traced this treatment to the ‘male entitlement’ prevalent in some geek, nerd and comic book cultures, an attitude that they say has led to sexual harassment and assault of female fans at comic book conventions.

Some female participants in these cultures, however, experience their sex as an advantage rather than a detriment. Lauren Berkley, a writer at GeeksareSexy.net, sees sexy costuming as a way to receive positive attention. At a convention a few years ago, Berkley amplified her enjoyment of the event by increasing her sex appeal.

“I dressed as Catwoman in a cat suit that I had zipped up to my neck,” said Berkley. “I purposely zipped it down to between my breasts so there was ample cleavage – I wore a push-up bra and everything.”

Says Berkley, “I could have zipped it up higher. I could have zipped it up to my neck. But I wanted to be seen at Dragon Con. I wanted to get my picture taken. I wanted to know what that was like to be a cosplayer (costume player), even for a night.”

At that convention, Berkley used her sex appeal as a tool to become part of a fantasy world.

Lindsay Stevens, an entertainment journalist at Fortitude Magazine, also finds creative outlets by participating in cosplay, a way of costuming in order to appear like a comics or anime character. Similarly to Berkley, Stevens believes that being an attractive female at these events gives her advantages due to stereotypes of male and female nerds as unattractive. Stevens has seen other women use their sex appeal, as well.

“Women play into (this attractiveness currency), because they know that men love it, and they know that (stereotypically,) geek guys who might not see women like that all the time will really love it,” said Stevens.

While Stevens experiences short-term advantages due to her looks, she acknowledges larger drawbacks. Her success at conventions, she says, is predicated on the idea of beauty as a woman’s most important quality, both in comic book culture and in mainstream society.

The idea of beauty as the foremost measure of female worth reduces the value of women’s other qualities, relegating them to mere decorative status. In playing to this idea in these male-dominated spaces, women reinforce a larger norm wherein they are expected to prove themselves as more than objects in order to be accepted.

Marisa Stotter, a producer at Respect Films and creator of the Kickstarter campaign She Makes Comics, experienced this treatment in middle school while playing the card game Magic The Gathering at a comic shop.

“I felt as though I didn’t belong, and I was treated kind of like an alien,” said Stotter. “I felt like I had to be the absolute perfect, greatest Magic player to get any consideration from these guys. The fact that I was not the greatest Magic player in human history gave them extra ammunition against me.”

Again, Stotter traces this behavior to women’s reduction to object status.

“There’s a sense that women shouldn’t necessarily have a voice in comics, that female readership is the exception,” said Stotter. “Having to prove your (fan) ‘cred,’ it’s a way of men policing women in the geek world, and trying to keep them on the outskirts by saying, ‘You’re not true fans, therefore we’re not going to give you any consideration.’”

In this vein of thinking, female cosplayers at conventions have often been accused by males of participating solely for attention, rather than in celebration of the medium.

Erica Friedman, founder of Yuricon publishing company and comics/manga culture commentator at Okazu, says that all cosplayers like some attention. She believes cosplay is mainly self-expression, though, and that to reduce it to attention seeking is to demean it.

“(Participants in fan creations like cosplay) insert themselves into stories, narratives they are creating that moment, so they can live those narratives and engage with them,” said Friedman. “You do it because you love the characters.”

Reducing this act to merely attention seeking, says Friedman, demeans both participants and the value of costuming in general. She mentions the universality not just of cosplay, but also in costuming through examples like Santa suits at Christmas and Krishna dress at Indian ethnic celebrations.

“(Saying) ‘you’re only doing it for attention’ is completely dismissing the value of (costuming),” said Friedman. “Dismissing it as only for attention, it completely misses the point that it’s a human drive to engage.”

In fact, Friedman sees a larger dismissal of women in the treatment of female media bloggers on the Internet. She references both backlash media critic Anita Sarkeezian has faced in exploring sexism in gamer culture and her own experiences in 14 years of Internet blogging.

“If you’re a woman with an opinion on the Internet, you’re going to get backlash,” said Friedman.

This backlash can cause many to break, says Friedman, due to the intimate nature of many attacks.

“When you get rape threats, and I have, or death threats, and I have, it feels very personal,” said Friedman.

To reduce a woman’s drive to participate in fan culture through objectification and dismissal is to diminish her status as a human. Trying to silence her through verbal attacks furthers this reduction while reinforcing the culture of violence women face from males in many cultures. In supporting the exclusion and objectification found within geek, nerd and comic book culture, individuals create unsafe spaces for women both in virtual reality and in real life.

Next Week, It Gets Even More Complicated: Commentators and artists discuss comics depictions of women, and whether male characters face similar treatment

Other articles in this series:

“It’s About Time Wonderwoman Was Given Her Due”: How the mainstream comics industry can attract more women and keep them interested

Realism or Idealism: Sources Find Different Ways to Female Empowerment in Comic Book Culture

Support, Oppression and Potential Salvation: The role of bullying in “Nerd,” “Geek” and Comic Book Cultures

Pin-ups or Powerhouses? Examining Gender Issues in “Nerd,” “Geek” and Comics Cultures

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4 comments

  1. Hi Sophie – I’m sorry this article ended on a negative note, though. It’s true that geek spaces have been seen as unsafe. I hope a future article will follow up on the improvements we’re seeing – “Cosplay is not Consent”, Comic Book Resources revamping their forums, cons creating more comprehensive and actionable policies, all of which are changing things for the better.

    1. Hey, Yuricon — as you point out, there have definitely been improvements. I will mention those in a future post about how mainstream comics companies can attract female audiences. Thank you for your comment!

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