A Sad Garden: Sexism in Nerd Culture

Manager: Nerds start when they’re kids, and they end when they die.

BMW: Okay. Um—

Manager: Or when they get married.

Customer A: Yeah.

Customer B: And have to sell their collections because their wife doesn’t like looking at the miniatures.

Customer A: No, that’s true.

Customer B: ((shrill voice)) “You spent how much money on these!?”

Manager: So, like, the marriage age is the time that you start having … Like, you have a little garden of nerds. They start [as] little children, and then women come in and they kill lots of them. And some of them keep growing into big nerds, but many of them are taken away and re-planted in the married-with-kids garden.

Customer B: It’s a sad garden.

Manager: It’s a ((laughs)) fucking sad garden.

Customer B: Full of wilted flowers.

Manager: Full of wilted flowers that are stomped on by little children who don’t care.

Them's Fightin' Games

I'm not a video gamer,<1> but I read this editorial by Ben Kuchera in the Penny Arcade Report with the peculiar mix of interest and shame that the internet so reliably provides. It's on the Cross Assault controversy--that's a reality webseries about competitive players of fighting games that has run into a little problem: Not everyone shares these players' sense of appropriate decorum. The series opened a window onto the sexist language and harassing behaviour that, according to its self-appointed spokesperson, Aris Bakhtanians, is integral to the fighting game community.

Isaiah Taylor has been critical of the way that media outlets--including games journalists--have covered the story:

Don’t think you can come down to our little circus show and point in disgust and think some bones won’t be thrown back at you[. ...] I’m taking issue with why you’re visiting our “back alley.” I love the fact that you got a hot tip on this juicy story. I like that you felt just as uncomfortable as I did and are working hard to rid all communities of this kind of behavior. My question is, when will I see you again? EVO? Are you even interested in our culture besides one or two in-depth articles a year?

As a social scientist, I'm pretty sympathetic to this argument. But, while Taylor says he opposes the kind of behaviour being touted as representative of fighting game players, it's not really clear to me how he thinks the fighting game community, gamers in general, nerds, or just plain decent folks ought to respond when something like this happens--other than personal confrontations.<2>

We can only get beyond the freak-show treatment if we try to understand where this behaviour comes from. Not excuse it--there's no excuse--but to figure out why more or less reasonable people can perceive this as an okay way to conduct themselves.<3>

There are lots of good reasons for the outside observer to write nerd and geek cultures off as irredeemably sexist. You put a bunch of omega males in a social context where they have the ability to assert dominance over others, you're going to get some ugly behaviour. Since anyone reading this has an internet connection, I feel safe assuming we've all seen examples of that ugly behaviour online.

Men Who Hate Women?

My own experience in nerd culture has been pretty good. I know lots of good, thoughtful, compassionate, nice people. Almost everyone I've talked to during my research--when reflecting deliberately and carefully on the issue--has recognized that the culture has been dominated by men, that there are problems with that, and that we should all pull together to try to make it better. Most of the store managers and group organizers I interviewed believed that the proportion of women shopping in their stores and participating at their events had increased, so--to coin a phrase--it gets better.

But why does it suck in the first place?

I don't think the answer can be reduced to simple demographic preponderance. Those numbers do mean, however, that it's really easy to slip into thinking of the default nerd as a man. As I said, my interviewees were pretty much universally in favour of seeing more women participating in nerd culture. But when talking about nerds and geeks in the abstract, many of them--even female interviewees--switched to "he" or "guys." That's sexist, but it's the jaywalking of sexism: technically wrong but we do it anyways, more for convenience than any malicious intent. When we're thinking clearly and carefully, we'd be happy to rephrase and use language that reflects the diversity of our communities.

So, where do things go so horrifically off the rails? How do we get from casually referring to a generic gamer as "he" to constantly yelling "rape that bitch"? I don't think I can connect all those dots--there's undoubtedly a lot of stuff that leads any particular individual to that end point--but I want to address what I think is the most elemental form of sexism in nerd culture: the belief that women spoil the fun. It can easily seem benign, but I think it's at the root of a lot of our problems, or at least the trouble we have talking reasonably about our problems.

The quote from my fieldnotes that I included at the beginning of this post reflects that belief particularly clearly, but I also heard similar statements from all sorts of geeks. Again and again, you hear stories of "guys" who have to sell their prized comic collections or their action figures or whatever because they're getting married and their fiancees won't let them in the house. Since we've already defined nerds as presumptively male--and because this is one thing they share with other undomesticated masculine pursuits--it's pretty easy to endorse the cultural script of women as the old ball 'n' chain sapping everything enjoyable from life. Nerdy leisure activies are experienced as a realm of freedom, and women are a constraint.

Remember, too, that these are the same guys who are constrantly portrayed as pathetic and unloveable in the media and popular culture. They're contantly told that they have to change themselves in order to please women. If they don't, not only will they die alone but they will come in for all kinds of harassment themselves for failing to obey the norms of hegemonic masculinity.

Thus, not only women but any criticism of sexist behaviour or content can be perceived as an attack. Complaining about the way women are drawn in comic books or about people using the bad f-word on voice chat is seen as yet another case of people--women!--trying to stop us from doing the thing we love, maybe the one thing we're good at, and to take away one of the few spaces we feel we own.<4>

Because of the language and behaviour that we let slide in geek communities, women can't experience them as a realm of freedom; the nerds they have to deal with are a constraint. I find that really sad. But here's the thing--and this is going to seem so obvious once I say it--women aren't trying to keep us from having fun. They're not trying to "kill" us. They--and everyone else who is critical of nerd sexism--are not agents of the Thought Police. They're not trying to change us. They're asking us to take some responsibility for our choices.


1. But much the same could be said about pervasive sexism, racism and homophobia in comics and the comment-thread culture of denialism on any website that deigns to call a spade a spade. \r

2. "I will not support any form of what Aris did. If I see you pop-off on a stream, I will confront you and make you uncomfortable. If you come to Season’s Beatings [in my city] and take issue with my words, I will have no problem discussing this with you in person. Period." (Taylor, para. 12) \r

3. Of course, some people are just jerks. \r

4. "The beauty of the fighting game community, and you should know this--it’s based around not being welcome. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the key essence of it. When you walk into an arcade for the first time, nobody likes you." (Bakhtanians quoted in Kuchera, under "The Show") Cf. my recent paper on comic-bookstores, "The Android's Dungeon." \r

A Great Responsibility?: The Curator's Code

Quis custodiet ipsos Prius Custodes?