She Geek: Women and Self-Labeling in Online Geek Communities

Courtney is an MA student studying Victorian science fiction at Texas A&M University. She blogs about feminism, geekery, and academia at From Austin to A&M.

This post originally appeared at From Austin to A&M.

My intent in this project was to examine the labeling of female-oriented geek spaces on the internet. What I found was that self-labeling of geek women often defeats the potentially subversive act of creating a female-oriented geek community.

I would argue that the mere creation or and participation in geek communities labeled “for women” are aggressive acts towards male-dominated geek culture. One of the reasons we can see these communities as a challenge to mainstream geek culture is the still-prevailing myth of internet neutrality.

This myth argues that since we are “disembodied” on the internet, everyone begins on equal ground.

Bodies don’t matter in cyberspace. This is not how it works in real life, however, particularly in geek spaces. It is true that until you mark yourself as Other than the privileged class—male, heterosexual, cisgendered, abled, middle-class, and white—you will be assumed to be those things. However, this will not protect you from hate speech or sexist, racist, and homophobic “jokes,” since geek communities often engage in these forms of discourse. Even objecting to these discursive acts, without revealing the state of one’s own body, will immediately mark you as Other, and leave you vulnerable to harassment and denigration. By labeling their spaces as for women, female geeks challenge the neutrality myth, by making their female bodies conspicuous and by demonstrating a need for safe cyberspaces for women.

In a study of the language of male gamers playing within a Quake server, Natasha Christensen claims that

Even though the world of cyberspace allows for the possibility that gender can be transformed, men in Jeff’s Quake Server continue to relate to each other in ways which support male dominance and heterosexual male superiority. [...] In the bodiless realm of cyberspace, it is fascinating to note that men who are able to create an alternate world where masculinity is defined differently do not take this opportunity. Instead, real life is mimicked not only by taking on the physical attributes of strength, but also by using ways of talk that emphasize aggression and sexual dominance.

[…]

Therefore, in the same way that sports and war help to perpetuate the concept of male dominance through physical strength, the Quake server also promotes the idea of success through aggression and violence. [...] Sports and war games became a way for white middle class men to fight their fears of social feminization. At the turn of this century, online computer games are being used in the same manner. Computer geeks who are especially vulnerable to the accusations of being less than manly are able both through the actions and discourse on Quake to demonstrate the qualities required of hegemonic masculinity. Emphasis is placed on the strength of the masculine body while discourse sets the players apart from anything that is feminine.

The same patriarchal standards that put women at a disadvantage also disadvantage computer and other geeks. Often, geeks cite an experience of growing up with bullying and teasing, precisely because they do not live up to hegemonic masculinity. Instead of using cyberspace to fight against hegemonic masculinity, however, geek men often use it to buttress those standards and fulfill them discursively instead of physically. This is precisely why geek women find online geek spaces—necessarily discursive spaces—to be so unwelcoming and hostile. And it is through alternative discourse, whether blogging or forum writing or fanfiction, that women challenge this culture of hypermasculinity.

By marking their spaces as “for women,” even while inviting men, female geeks mark themselves as physical bodies just as conclusively as the homophobic and misogynistic discourse of Quake players marks their bodies as male. And by doing so, women respond to and challenge both the hypermasculine discourse prevalent in online geek spaces and the myth of the neutral, disembodied cyber subject.

Geek Culture & Its Discontents

Matthew S. S. Johnson writes in “Public Writing in Gaming Spaces” that

Gamers who participate in writing activities, including blogs, strategy guides, walkthroughs, fanfic, and forums, “foster their own sense of agency through active participation in and frequent contribution to gaming communities in the form of written texts. Collectively, they not only gain influence over other gamers participating in games or game-related community projects, but also over the production companies who produce the software that originally inspired them” (271).

Johnson argues that these online gaming writing projects are an example of civic participation and public writing. I would like to expand his argument to include similar writing projects in all geek fandoms. One of the most common reasons that fans cite for joining writing projects like blogs and forums is that they wish to join a like-minded community. When women join geek communities and find gendered hostility, joining or forming a female-oriented alternative spaces is not only a reaction to male-dominated communities, but a civic response to them. Forming a Livejournal group for geek women is, I would argue, a move to challenge and change the mainstream geek communities.

We can see this desire to gain civic agency through discursive acts in many minority geek writings. Garland Grey, for example, writes in ‘Cause I’m Nerdcore Like That: Toward a Subversive Geek Identity,

Writing our own comics, and blogs and forming our own communities gives us strength. When confronted with the cultural purity police, the ones who swoop in to Geeksplain to us, we can answer from a position of solidarity. We can create safe spaces of our own. Spaces where we can debate and discuss the ways Science Fiction comments on society’s treatment of The Other, spaces where our voices aren’t drowned out by simplistic fanaticism. A place where, for instance, a group of people can watch one of the X-Men movies and someone can, during one of the many scenes where Cyclops and Wolverine are having tense arguments about who is better for Jean Gray [...] simply scream out GAWWWWD JUST KISS ALREADY! BROKEBACK THAT SHIT! and not have people get all middle school about it.

Garland argues that by creating separate discursive spaces, like queer-oriented or female-oriented forums, subversive geeks can create their own authority, one strong enough to stand up to the mainstream, white, male, cisgendered geek authority. His example, in which fans can “scream out” a reference to queer subtext, indicates that what non-mainstream geeks need is a space to speak without worrying about hegemonic gender and sexuality standards. Unlike the highly-policed Quake server, then, geek women (and geeks of color, disabled geeks, queer geeks, trans geeks) need a space of free discourse, in order to change the larger geek culture.

So, what does the labeling of these communities do for this potentially subversive discursive project? Let’s move on to my data collection and results.

Methodology

My data came from Livejournal, which I chose because it is an online community with a reputation for being more female-friendly than other places online, and thus attracts more women-oriented communities and female geeks to join them.

I used a series of search words intended to bring up mainstream groups that self-identify as geeky or nerdy. This series was as follows: geek, nerd, science fiction/sci fi,Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, comic book/graphic novel, fantasy, Lord of the Rings, gaming/gamer, World of Warcraft. To collect my data, I went systematically through each the search results for each search term and identified the groups meant for women. Each group then needed to fulfill a number of criteria to be included.

Criteria

I only included groups whose titles indicated that they are intended for women. I excluded groups that hinted toward a female focus (like Squee Corner) without explicitly stating that focus. This was mostly to avoid ambiguity. The point of this project is to see how women label themselves when they create geek communities for themselves. Thus I can only count groups that explicitly label themselves “for women.”

To avoid groups that do not attract members or activity, each group must have at least 3 posts. However, the activity does not have to be recent.

If the group is intended to sell something, it will only be counted if the description indicates that the creator/seller herself is a geek.I only included one result that was intended to sell a product, because the creator clearly intended to create a community of geek women, while also selling her geek-inspired jewelry.

Method

Once I collected the groups that fit the criteria, I counted the gendered words (e.g. girl(s), women, female, heroine(s), ladies) in the titles and subtitles of all the communities for women. If the title and subtitle repeat a gendered word (like Geek Girls Anon: Because Geek Girls Need Love Too), the word is only counted once for that title. If the title and subtitle contain multiple gendered words, I counted each word once for that title (for example, Warhammer Online Ladies: Female Gamers counts as 1 example of ladies and 1 example of female).

Results

I found 52 Livejournal communities that fit the criteria, with the following breakdown: 18 general geek and nerd, 4 general science fiction, 5 Star Wars, 2 science fiction/fantasy, 1 fantasy, 2 Lord of the Rings, 16 gaming, 4 World of Warcraft.

Girl(s), 20; Female, 2; Cheerleaders, 1; Diva, 1; Sister/hood, 2; Women, 9; Fangirls, 3; Pink, 1; Girly, 1; Ladies, 3; Lesbian, 1; Mom(s)/Mothers, 4; Heroines, 1; Chick(s), 5; with boobs, 5.

The 52 Livejournal groups had 55 labels. Girl makes up almost 40% of these labels, significantly more than any other label. Considering the great variety of gendered terms used by geek women, the popularity of girl is surprising. So why do geek women choose to label themselves girls so often? None of the groups’ profiles indicated that these groups were for anything other than adult women, yet they consistently describe themselves as geek girls.

If the creation of separatist spaces is a radical and civic act, why do women choose the label girl so often? I think that the label of girl can be harmful to the project of challenging geek culture, and that it is often chosen specifically for that property.

Feminism & Female Aggression

In an article on the BBC News site covering the worldwide phenomenon of Girl Geek Dinners, a networking organization for women with careers or personal interest in technology, the author reports that Girl Geek Dinners rejects the label of feminism. Said one of the organizers:
In a sense [Geek Girl Dinners] is a feminist movement as it aspires to a lot of the same ideals but I don’t want it to be seen as something that is feminist as this can be seen as something marginal or negative.

We’re not trying to be radical or disruptive, but to show that women have a place in technology. [emphasis mine]

While Geek Girl Dinners is not active on Livejournal, the attitude shown here seems commonplace in communities intended for geek women. Geek women often don’t want to rock the boat, and see the political element of making an all-female geek community to be “radical” and “disruptive.” We can see this pattern in some of the profiles of the Livejournal communities labeled with girl, which we’ll look at next.

From Girl Gamers:

I created this community so that girl gamers could find each other and talk about gaming with people who take them seriously- not because of some imaginary hatred for the male gender. Some of my favorite people are boys; but any girl gamer will tell you that it’s difficult to talk games (I mean *really* talk games) with a guy. It’s just a fact of life. We love you, for honest. Try not to feel so threatened, aye? ;)

This entire paragraph is meant to display non-aggression—the reference to “some imaginary hatred for the male gender,” “some of my favorite people are boys,” “we love you, for honest,” and “try not to feel so threatened, aye?” Even the winking smiley face at the end is intended to communicate that this group is not meant to intimidate geek men.

From Geek Girl Chic:

This is a rating community for Geeks with Chic. It’s open to Females and Males alike, despite the name of the community. I thought I better open it up to both sexes, can’t have me being sexist now can we?

This one is slightly sarcastic, but since the groups actually allows both men and women to join, it still communicates that the group is not threatening to the male-domination of geek culture. Out of the 52 groups on Livejournal, a full quarter of them explicitly invite men to join, indicating that these groups’ desire to appear non-threatening to male geeks. The use of the label girl is, I believe, related to this desire. Girl indicates immaturity, non-threatening femininity, and a lack of aggression. Because of the powerful statement that all-female geek communities make in their mere existence, geek women who don’t want to be “radical” or “disruptive” use tactics such as labeling themselves girls or chicks or fangirls, as well as describing themselves in non-threatening ways and inviting men to join their communities.

I don’t want to shut out the possibility that geek women can reclaim the label girl and use it in a way that does not connote non-threatening, or challenges and plays with the damaging stereotypes imposed by male geeks, in much the same way that geek women use the terms estrogen brigade and fangirl. However, while it is possible for women to effectively claim the label girl, when this labeling is coupled with other tactics of non-aggression, it counteracts the subversive potential of geek communities oriented toward women.

Refusing Heteronormativity?

There’s another, less depressing answer to the question, “Why do geek women call themselves girls?” That answer is that some geek women are refusing to participate in the heterosexual matrix. In a study of nerd girls in a California high school, Mary Bucholtz notes that

Refusal to participate in the heterosexual matrix is also linked to the flouting of conventional displays of femininity and masculinity. […] Nerd girls do not wear revealing clothing, and although sometimes they may wear items decorated with Sesame Street characters or other emblems of childhood, these do not exhibit the combination of infantilization and sexualization evoked by the clothing of the cool white girls. […] (123).

Bucholtz notes that nerd girls in high school reject conventional femininity in their clothing choices, and while they embrace “childish” fashion, their doing so does not correspond with a sexualization. It is possible that some of the Livejournal groups that use girl to describe themselves are doing so in the same vein; by using girl, they are rejecting the conventional femininity connoted with the words ladies or women, but also rejecting the sexualized connotation of girl, one that links girl with submissiveness and non-aggression. Considering the widespread objectification and sexualization of women in male-dominated geek culture, calling oneself a girl can be a radical act in itself, refusing to be considered a female body ready for sexual appropriation by one’s subculture.

The ways in which geek women label themselves is complex and multi-layered, and deserves further study. Looking at the ways in which geek women self-label could throw light on how women in more mainstream culture react to the negative connotations of female gender labels, and on the coping mechanisms of women who exist in male-dominated subcultures.

See also: Angie’s Girl vs. Woman: The Great Debate

Works Cited

Bucholtz, Mary. “Geek the Girl: Language, Femininity, and Female Nerds.” Gender and Belief Systems: Proceedings of the 4th Berkeley Women and Language Conference. Ed. Natasha Warner, Jocelyn Ahlers, Leela Bilmes, Monica Oliver, Suzanne Wertheim, and Melinda Chen. Berkeley: Berkeley Women and Language Group, 1998. Print. 119-131.

Christensen, Natasha Chen. “Geek at Play: Doing Masculinity in an Online Gaming Site.” Reconstruction 6.1 (2006): n.p. Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture. Reconstruction, 2006. Web. 5 August 2010.

“Geek Girl Chic.” Community profile for geekgirlchic. Livejournal. geekgirlchic, 10 September 2006. Web. 8 August 2010. http://community.livejournal.com/geekgirlchic/profile

“Girlgamer’s Journal.” Community profile for girlgamers. Livejournal. girlgamers, 1 August 2010. Web. 8 August 2010. http://community.livejournal.com/girlgamers/profile

Grey, Garland. “”Cause I’m Nerdcore Like That: Toward a Subversive Geek Identity.” Tiger Beatdown. Tiger Beatdown, 28 July 2010. Web. 3 August 2010.

Johnson, Matthew S. S. “Public Writing in Gaming Spaces.” Computers and Composition 25 (2008): 270-283. ScienceDirect. Web. 6 August 2010.

Knowles, Jamillah. “Girl Geek Appeal: Women’s Movement Online.” BBC News. BBC, 7 May 2010. Web. 8 August 2010.

16 thoughts on “She Geek: Women and Self-Labeling in Online Geek Communities

  1. Rob

    Therefore, in the same way that sports and war help to perpetuate the concept of male dominance through physical strength, the Quake server also promotes the idea of success through aggression and violence.

    I’m not sure if I have missed the point, and I’m not trying to be awkward, but… I am surprised that anyone thought it worthwhile to point out that Quake promotes the idea of success through aggression and violence, given that Quake is basically a game that involves running around and shooting stuff until it dies (or hacking at things with an axe, if you happen to run out of bullets). I mean, the very form of Quake is about “violence”, and there is no need for any further social explanation. It cannot easily be said that male gamers have formed some kind of violent narrative around Quake beyond that which is inherent in the medium of Quake itself. (Also, Quake? I know some people must still play it, but Quake is over a decade old, and a decade is a very long time. Not sure it changes any of the implications, and I imagine that Call of Duty servers are, if anything, “worse” than Quake servers were, but it might be worth someone doing some more current research). I’m also not sure that the fact that playing Quake involves using a computer is enough to qualify it as part of “geek culture” per se. To move to a more modern context, I don’t think that, say, Call of Duty is part of geek culture. This is important, because whilst we might say that Quake is an example of violence, and we might (questionably) say that Quake is part of geek culture, it doesn’t follow that geeks are violent (or harbor fantasies of hypermasculinity which finds expression in Quake).

    That aside, I think this post makes some very important points about online spaces. The great thing that cyberspace gives us is abundance; we’re not forced to share space with people that we can’t abide. It becomes easier to abandon the obnoxious, spiteful and anti-social to their own spaces. I tend to believe that most male geeks don’t much enjoy the presence of obnoxious men any more than women do – they were the kind of people we hated when we were young, and we’ve tried to avoid them ever since. This is sometimes why geek men don’t really understand the issues that [some] women have with [some] men; they’re the kind of men we haven’t spoken to since we left school.

    1. Restructure!

      I’m also not sure that the fact that playing Quake involves using a computer is enough to qualify it as part of “geek culture” per se.

      There are at least two “mainstream” definitions of “geek” now. One type of geek is related to working (creatively) with computers and valuing hacker values, while the other is geeking over sci fi/fantasy media, etc. Both these kinds of geek cultures overlap with gaming culture, so geeks are overrepresented among gamers.

    2. gobo

      It’s true that Quake’s game mechanics are about aggression, but as far as I understood the text, “success” doesn’t necessarily mean “winning the game”, but also your social success among the other gamers. From my experiences the easiest way to acceptance and a “high social standing” on many game servers would be through ingame-success and a “manly” behaviour in the game chat.

      In e.g. “non-geek offline gaming groups” I found it more common for people to be respected because they try to create a nice gaming experience for everyone. And no one would seriously use terms like “you got [insert sexually aggressive behaviour]“, throw out homophobic remarks etc.

    3. Restructure!

      I am surprised that anyone thought it worthwhile to point out that Quake promotes the idea of success through aggression and violence, given that Quake is basically a game that involves running around and shooting stuff until it dies (or hacking at things with an axe, if you happen to run out of bullets). I mean, the very form of Quake is about “violence”, and there is no need for any further social explanation. It cannot easily be said that male gamers have formed some kind of violent narrative around Quake beyond that which is inherent in the medium of Quake itself.

      But why are violent and aggressive genres valued over other genres, and conflated with “hardcore” gaming? Can a game where you play as a feminine man ever be considered hardcore?

    4. Courtney S.

      The research on language and geek culture is ridiculously scarce, and this source was one of very few I get my hands on in the time period I had to complete this project. I’m continually surprised by how few scholars systematically study the language use of online spaces, although it’s understandable, since 10 years after your article is written, it seems hopelessly dated.

      That said, I think the author’s points about the fulfillment of hypermasculine expectations by “beta” geek men are absolutely relevant to current gaming servers.

  2. pickwick

    I don’t usually like “girl”, but in this case, the fact that it alliterates with both “geek” and “gamer” probably plays a large part!

    1. odditycollector

      IAWTC in full. Like how you usually see “Warrior Women” rather than “Warrior Ladies.”

  3. Jayn

    It is true that until you mark yourself as Other than the privileged class—male, heterosexual, cisgendered, abled, middle-class, and white—you will be assumed to be those things.

    This is one of the things that bothers me to no end. I hate people thinking that I’m something I’m not. While some places I’ve found don’t seem to give a rats ass about my gender (my WoW guildmates were good about it), the responses I’ve had when disclosing my gender have sometimes been…less than polite. Physical identity still matters in cyberspace–it’s just easier to fake being someone you’re not.

  4. lala

    Very interesting point about how males who have been marginalized for not conforming to society’s idea of masculinity use the internet to pretend they conform to it, instead of using the internet to outright reject it. I realized that I did something similar as a female and I think others do, too. Female geeks have also been marginalized a lot for not conforming to society’s idea of femininity. When I made characters in MMOs, I would frequently make a beautiful woman with large boobs and a tiny waist, who was wearing very little. I stopped doing that a couple years back, but only because I actively reflected on it.

    Some people say that you can tell when a female character is played by a male because males make hypersexualized female characters, but I have noticed that many geeky women make very sexy characters, too. I also noticed that a lot of geeky female artists draw women this way, and a lot of female tabletop roleplayers create beautiful, ultra feminine characters. I’m sure someone will reply by pointing out an exception, but I don’t think that disproves what I believe to be a pattern.

    Wow, this is such a shame. So many of us feel crappy because we don’t meet society’s ideal for our gender, and so we respond by using the internet to fantasize that we do. Christensen makes an enlightening point that we could instead use the internet to create a place where we don’t need to meet those ideals.

  5. Kaonashi

    I play some of those male, violent games and it seems about right that they are a standin for a masculinity we’ve grown up to identify with but never been able to live up to. I’ve met my fair share of young men in those games who I’m sure are attracted mainly by this image of masculinity and all that comes with it. But I’ve also met a lot of very sensible men who obviously enjoy the masculinity in the games in various ways, but not exclusively to other, different ideas of masculinity or enjoy them without reflection.

    That’s why I think that these games are more than just macho placebo for non-macho male geeks. Games are a good way of playing around with gender roles, but in the same way that they can be used to explore more progressive ideas of masculinity, I think they can be used to explore old ideas of masculinity too. Maybe not by repeatedly shooting terrorists in the face, but it wouldn’t require a lot of self reflection or intelligence to use that as a starting point for critical thought. Some games make it easier than others, with exaggerated, stylized male archetypes. The pseudo-realistic military fps games that are so popular now are probably a bit different. For me personally I think I use them to experience a masculinity that’s alien because I’m not like that irl, and yet it has a meaning that I can’t just ignore or completely handle just by being thinking critically about gender roles and reading feminist blogs.

    This is how it’s worked for me, at least once I was old enough and I had other influences and ideas to work from. I’m not saying it’s the best way of handling things, at least not when there are so few alternatives. But it can be one way. These games’ relationship with masculinity are a bit more complex than just providing fantasy masculinity for the masculinity-deprived.

  6. clairedeloony

    Huh! I never really thought about the use of “girl” as a way to opt out of heteronormative sexy expectations before… but that’s actually how I use it, specifically in the “geek girl” sense, complete with Hello Kitty T-shirts. It’s a look that says “if you guys are going to act like you’re perpetually twelve years old, then so can I.” And youth is currency in media-geek-land. In tech-geek-land too, so I hear secondhand.

    As I am getting farther from girlhood every day, though, it’s a relief when I find a majority-women media-geek space that doesn’t overdo the word “girl” – because it really is being used a lot to make spaces (and people) look less threatening to dudes, and the older I get the more threatening I feel like being.

  7. Liz Henry

    This is really interesting! I think both the reasons you suggest to explain why women might self identify in groups as “girls” are plausible. Your point about the group descriptions including a lot of placating language is great. I hope it makes more women consider *not* placating and identifying as adults if that’s what they are. That placating isn’t actually going to help them, as they will still attract hostile time-sucking people who are threatened despite the belly-up posture — since what they are doing (talking with other women and attempting to center them in importance in their attention) IS subversive — even if they say it with a smile .

    I have more to say about men who only feel comfortable dealing with girls – either actual girls or “girls” in quotes – but will do that in a post!

  8. Keith Twombley

    Kids these days (How I love that phrase) seem to be using the term “boy” to refer to any male. Even in one of the excerpts above pulled out because it used the word girl the reference to men used the word boy. Perhaps it’s not an unconscious effort to infantalize themselves, but rather just the use of a colloquialism?

  9. Franco

    I think it’s a big mistake to use online gaming as a basis for highlighting masculine attitudes in male geeks. Boys of high school age or younger are overrepresented in those populations and an aggressively hyper-masculine attitude is the norm for them.

    As a matter of fact, I don’t see any indication that consideration of age for (males or females) played any major part in this article and I can’t help but feel that a major component is missing from the author’s thought process.

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