Math Leggings and Mentalities

One of the more purely fun aspects of Twitter is using it to share things you want and get validation that, yes, no matter how silly or expensive or whatever adjective might keep you from buying something, it is, indeed, worth having. The people I follow tend to find some really cool things and, even if they are things I could never justify for myself, I love a bit of virtual window shopping, so I was excited to check out the link in this tweet:

And then I saw this response:

The thing is, Rebecca Watson is right. There are, obviously, all sorts of geeky/nerdy guys, and all sorts of reactions to geeky/nerdy women, but there is this strain of belief amongst some that women can’t be “real geeks” unless they can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, they there are some kind of super-deluxe-geeks who can not only explain the math on these leggings, but answer esoteric questions about every comic book ever written and every video game ever made, give a detailed history of science fiction, and explain exactly why you need to be moving at 7 miles per second to get off this planet.

Granted, I know quite a few people all along the gender spectrum who can do all of the above, but even within geekdom, that’s pretty rare. People, even geek people, are not made with any sort of cookie-cutter, we all have certain things that interest us more than other things, and some things that just leave us relatively cold. That’s exactly what makes people interesting and worth getting to know, that you can have differences and common ground with the very same person. That’s how we discover new interests and learn what we don’t like as much. Even people with broad interests usually have a specialty or a few areas of greater knowledge.

For example, I’m much more naturally attracted to scientific discovery than science fiction, video games than comic books, books than movies, and so on. Does this mean I’m not a geek? Well, maybe, but since the people I relate to most are geeks, that’s the sort of social circle I’ve cultivated and been accepted into. Along the way, I’ve found myself developing and managing an online graphic novel for a brilliant team of friends, and it’s made me explore a new (to me) area of geekdom that I’m really enjoying. Am I a fake because I’m using my skills to help people who have a different set of skills get their work, which I genuinely believe in, out to the world – just because I was pulled in from outside the comic scene? If I was male, would the question even come up? Is my growing interest any less real because it is new? Does that one interest being new negate all my years of gaming and watching rockets launch and other geeky interests?

I was born in 1976. I grew up in a place and time where geeks were incredibly un-cool. Much like the first question that springs to mind when people try to say being attracted to your own gender is a choice – “Why would anyone choose to be something that opens her/him up to bigotry and discrimination?!” – for someone of my generation, it should be perplexing that someone, ANYONE, would fake being a geek. As I mentioned in my last post here, I was repeatedly told to hide that part of me by people who really believed that was my only hope for a successful life on any level.

Looking back, I always had at least one geeky boy as a friend who would say, “If only there were more nerdy girls. I just want to meet a girl who shares my interests. Why is that so hard? Why aren’t there more like you?”

How did we get from that to constant accusations that women just can’t possibly be geeks and/or nerds? Or that we can exist, but we must answer endless questions perfectly as some form of proof? Do we need some sort of actual certification or something to find some peace, a card we can flash to prove we are what we are?

The shift to geeks being “cool” has been a strange one. A lot of geek culture has gone mainstream, Silicon Valley is raking in money and influencing broader cultures, and The Big Bang Theory is trouncing its sitcom competition (whether or not it is a positive depiction of geeks is another matter for another day and blog). This should be a good thing. Frankly, geeks make cool stuff and have developed the tools to bring their visions to life in fabulous ways, and the fact that mainstream people are buying what geeks make is vindication for exploring interests in things like technology, comic books, movies, sci-fi, scientific inquiry, and so on.

I can understand the impulse to dismiss someone completely new to geek culture, especially if that person didn’t experience the bullying and dismissal that many had to survive along the way.

However, the impulse to make it a gender issue is more confusing. Girls often experience different forms of bullying (after all, especially in childhood, hurting a girl physically is frowned-upon), but geek girls get bullied in all sorts of ways and from all directions. Why are there so many geek guys who just want to pile on, especially of the adult variety?

Seems like these shared experiences should be bonding, regardless of gender.

Seems like people should be excited to find someone who shares any of their interests. This is particularly true for anyone who grew up without knowing other geeks, as is often the case. My experience with the Space Tweep community, for example, has been almost entirely based on, “You love space, too? Hooray!!! We should be friends!” We all have plenty of differences, but sharing a niche interest is a great foundation for all sorts of relationships. Some work out, some don’t, but we grow a little each time we try to make a new human connection.

A corollary to all of this is that accusations of being a “fake geek girl” are sometimes the response to a woman turning down a date with a man. Again, I get the impulse – rejection sucks, always, and it’s easy to turn to surface excuses – but the thing to keep in mind is that just because a woman is a geek doesn’t mean she is attracted to every geek of her preferred gender and orientation. The same is true for men, so why wouldn’t it be for women?

Then I stumbled onto “What (Else) Can Men Do?” by Matt LeMay. I highly recommend reading the entire piece, but the main point seems to be that nerdy boys who love tech have been promised all through childhood that one day things will change and all the ladies will flock to them. He contends that experiences like being bullied weren’t what shaped the minds of boys like he was as much as well-intentioned advice from adults who cared. I completely understand why adults would say things like this while a kid is struggling with finding a date, because most adults want to give comfort and hope, but when you think about that message, it’s really messed up.

“If you were a computer-loving male child who took a lot of shit from your peers, I suspect you heard something similar from the adults in your life. Maybe it was “Sure, things are bad now, but when you’re a little bit older, women will LOVE guys like you!” Or maybe it was “That kid who makes fun of you now will be working at a gas station when you run a big fancy computer company and marry a supermodel!” If you were once young, nerdy and male, it is not unlikely that your future sense of self-worth was funded with a non-consensual IOU from the world’s women.”

20140610_160907This attitude makes all female humans something “other” from these young nerdy guys. Throw in years of reading stories and playing games about rescuing helpless women who just can’t help but fall for their “knights in shining armor”, being pandered to by hired “booth babes” at cons, and basically being fed lines about how women care only about superficial things like how much a man makes, and it becomes more and more clear why some incredibly horrible behavior can be the result.

In “Your Princess Is in Another Castle”, Arthur Chu goes a step further into the messages from pop culture, detailing examples of more than just, “Geeks shall inherit the earth (and all the women on it).” Some of the most popular characters of all time are the nerdy guys who essentially stalk and harass their love interests until the objects of their affections break down and decide that this obsession is actually True Love. Some of them use trickery or even rape to “prove” to a woman that geeks/nerds are superior lovers – because, of course, that’s all us “superficial women” really care about, not things like bodily autonomy and honesty.

That’s just not how love or sex or anything real works in meatspace.

At its most benign, the behavior exemplified by a large chunk of media is annoying and unattractive. At its worst, it can result in physical harm or even death, such as the shootings in Isla Vista.

I haven’t been single in a very long time, but I just can’t imagine being attracted to anyone who calls me a “fake” or tries to wear me down as proof of affection, even if that person was exactly what I was looking for in other ways. I didn’t like this behavior in high school and I’d hate it even more now.

The only solution to these problems is both simple and very difficult: Know that women are people, too. We come in all kinds of bodies and we have all sorts of brains. We can’t actually control who we are or are not attracted to any more than you can. We have emotions and thoughts and worry about attracting people, too.

One of the main reasons I’m in a very happy relationship is that my passions are not questioned, rather, they are supported whether we share them or not. I hope I do the same for him. We’ve both discovered interests from each other and together, which is a large part of why we haven’t grown apart despite our differences. We make a good team.

Keyword: Team.

Not one person “owning” or dominating the other, not manipulating each other to gain some sort of personal advantage, not showing each other off like some sort of prize, not mutating  into some sort of two-headed relationship monster. Just two people helping each other survive and improve.

I’d like to think that’s what most of us ultimately want, deep down. It certainly is the most common wish I’ve heard expressed by people I have met throughout life. But you just can’t have that with an object, no matter how shiny she might be, and you can never get there by being suspicious of any woman who might actually share interests and ways of thinking with you.

In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “I Was Made to Love You” we can see how the ideal of the “perfect woman” doesn’t actually add up to happiness. Stereotypically geeky Warren had built a robot girlfriend who is everything he thought he wanted (beautiful and obsessed with him, always ready to do his bidding), but he found himself bored with her quickly. Meanwhile, he had met an actual human, Katrina, who was strong and called him on his garbage and challenged him to be a better person. Naturally, he fell in love with Katrina and tried to ditch the robot, and everyone wound up alone and miserable.

I’ve listened to many a geek, male and female alike, lament the difficulty of finding someone with shared interests who is also interested in them. It doesn’t matter how they look or how much money they make or whatever superficial detail could be applied – human beings struggle with mating because we have social needs as well as sexual, even our most casual flings usually have a social component of some kind, even if it’s just sharing some laughter. This othering and objectification doesn’t seem to be helping anyone.

I’m not saying that there aren’t people who are fake, in any subculture. However, the perks of faking being a geek are pretty low, particularly for women. Instead of operating on the assumption that anyone is faking anything, try getting to know the person inside first. That will reveal a lot more than a barrage of questions about someone’s math leggings ever could.

As fun as it can be to “prove” to someone that you have serious geek knowledge and cred (who doesn’t like showing off what they know?), it’s exhausting when you have to do it all the time. It’s even more tiring to be simultaneously put on a pedestal and torn down, simply due to a chromosome.

I’m glad I’ve found so many perspectives on gender and geekdom, from those that are similar to mine to the wildly different. As we talk about these things, the more obvious it is that no one is winning while these attitudes remain. Changing things will take time and effort and even more sharing, but just airing our thoughts and experiences and really taking in those of others is the only way to find both the root problems and the solutions. Each anecdote might mean little on its own, but when put together, patterns are becoming clearer.

C’mon geeks – we’re supposed to be good at troubleshooting and fixing things! Let’s do this, together.

No brain explosions necessary.

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