During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from earlier in the year. This post originally appeared on July 13, 2011.
Cross posted at From Austin to A&M.
I was at ApolloCon in Houston this year, and am really glad I went. I was on a couple of panels, met some really nice people, and got to pontificate about geek culture and science fiction for a few days. A couple of things really got under my skin (I think this may be my fate at every con I go to), but the one that made me the saddest happened at the Geek Girls in Popular Culture panel, which I was a part of. During our closing remarks, I noted that we seem to only be including women in the science/tech/math fields when we talked about “geek girls” and this is, I think, a real problem. As a humanities-based geek myself, it made me feel like I was being left out, but also it seems to include the assumption that the STEM fields are simply better than the humanities, and everyone would be better off if all geeks were in those fields. I worded it carefully, because I didn’t want it to sound like an accusation, and so it came out much more “Dude, I’m a geek too, and it hurts my feelings when everyone acts like I should be a computer nerd to count as one.” The answer I got shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. One of the panelists, and at least two audience members chimed in with, “Well, the only reason you’re in the humanities is because you’ve been discouraged from being in STEM.”
I was kind of stunned by that answer, in part because I had just told this group of people that I am making the humanities my career, and their response was to basically argue that it’s worthless, or at least worth less. So I didn’t say anything for a second, trying to come up with an answer that wasn’t, “Fuck you. The majority of my work lately has been determining the values of this motherfucking subculture right here, and you are the subjects of that work. It doesn’t make any sense for you to tell me that that isn’t worthwhile.” I had told these people that I do fan studies, and as fans, their response is tell me that I only chose my field because I had been discouraged from doing more important work? Seriously.
Someone on the panel did backtrack a little, saying “well, we should be encouraging everyone to be in the fields they enjoy and are good at, whatever that may be,” but there’s still this…niggling. Because this is not the first place in geek culture I have seen a strong preference for STEM over the humanities, and it’s not the first place I’ve seen it outright said that the former is better than the latter, especially for women. And that’s precisely what that argument is; by saying that I’m only in the humanities because everyone knows girls are bad at STEM, they are arguing that all things being equal, every girl (or at least geek girl) would choose STEM. Because, you know, it’s better. Maybe the reason we like to think this is that geeks tend to buy hook, line, and sinker the idea that logic is better than emotion and objectivity is better than subjectivity. And we associate humanities with the latter and the sciences/math with the former. But subjectivity and emotion are not poison and they are not invalid. If you think an argument without emotion is the best kind of argument, go preach eating babies to the poor. If you think that subjective experiences don’t matter, then I guess we can all stop listening to the marginalized people of the world talking about discrimination in their lives. Because “objective” more often than not just means the words of white, hetero, cis men, whose experiences are figured as neutral and who we seem to think are unaffected by their sex, race, class, sexuality, etc.
I’m not claiming that every individual geek is consciously a logic-worshipping dude who hates gross lady feelings. But this logic worship is something that flutters just under the surface of geek culture, and manifests in seemingly harmless statements like those made at this panel. In this culture, masculinity is logic and science and femininity is emotion and feeling, and one is clearly superior to the other. Look at the show Big Bang Theory as an example. while Leonard is our hero, he is not the star of this show; Sheldon is. And Sheldon, let’s be honest, is kind of a dick. He has no regard for other people and doesn’t think anyone is as important as himself. But he’s smart, and super logical, and thus we like him. We’re supposed to like him, even as we roll our eyes at him, because he may be bad at social situations but at least he is objective! It doesn’t even seem to occur to most geek viewers that, by most measures, Sheldon is a terrible person. Because that doesn’t matter as much as his adherence to an objective, logical worldview. The comparison of him to Spock indicates, I think, another geek hero who represents this worship of logical thinking over emotional intelligence; while Spock’s character development mostly consists of him re-valuing emotion, most fans seem to see him as awesome because he appears to escape the emotion-ridden, subjectively experienced life that we must live through.
I think one of the reasons this logic worship is just under the surface of geek communities, rather than explicit, is because fan communities are actually all about personal experiences (with the text, with each other), even when they pretend not to be. This is a culture in which people dress up as characters, role-play as characters, write stories about characters, and thus relate the text to themselves and their lives. We get emotionally invested in our games, in our TV shows, in our movies, and in our books, because that’s what fans do. So perhaps this obsession with science and logic is more an anxiety than anything else; maybe fans overcompensate for what they know is their own deeply personal emotional engagement with a text.
Now, I’m not anti-logic or anti-science; I do think these things are valuable, but they can only be convincing and powerful when they take into account emotion and the humanities (for lack of a better term). None of these things work best on their own. Which brings me to my real argument: the idea that the humanities are less important than STEM is an idea that geeks need to drop, because the humanities are constitutive to geek culture, just as much as science, technology, and math are.
The idea that the humanities is not important to geek cultures is patently ridiculous; most of the time geek fan cultures are based on books or TV shows (you know, things written by writers and performed by actors, who are by definition in “the arts”); and game designers and writers are likely to have studied literature and the arts to prepare for their jobs, not just programming and computer science. The study of the King Arthur myth, Tolkien, fantasy, and history are not part of physics or chemistry; they are part of the humanities. Obviously, science and math and computers are all important parts of geek culture, but so is literature and history and the arts.
In fact, geek culture is one of those places that the STEM fields and the humanities have blended in a significant and sort of beautiful way; this is the culture in which scientists and philosophers can and do have meaningful conversations, in which literature and science come together in a novel, in which the engineer and the literary critic talk for hours on end at a convention, in which art and cyborgs are not at all at odds. This is the place where these two “opposites” meet and mingle and blend, and for our communities to really shine, we need to get rid of this underlying belief that one is better than the other.
So let’s stop ragging on the arts and humanities, and stop dismissing geeks who do them as limited or stifled. Some of us are drawn to the humanities and arts because of what they do in our culture and can do for our culture, because we recognize that they are important in geek culture and in our world. I am not a literary critic because I couldn’t think of anything more worthy to do. And I don’t think being one makes me less of a geek than anyone else.