I feel odd blogging about a movie I haven’t seen, I want to get that out of the way. But a lot of women I trust are telling me that the movie The Social Network (a dramatisation of the founding of Facebook, script by Aaron Sorkin and direction by David Fincher) is infuriatingly sexist. Men made Facebook entirely, apparently, and women granted them sexual favours for it. As is the natural order! (See the Melissa Silverstein and Laurie Penny links in our last spam for this.)
(If you want to discuss The Social Network in particular, rather than the rest of this post, which is about geek women’s invisibility in general, I’ve set up a discussion thread for the movie.)
The erasure of women geeks from geek history is going to continue and snowball, most likely, because here are some of the factors that play into it:
- what geeks do is hard! you can tell, because women don’t do it!
- you might have heard geeks are not that high up the masculine status chart! you are wrong! because there’s no women doing it and that makes it Man Stuff! which is hard, see 1! (also wot Restructure! said)
- s things become important in retrospect, they become men’s work.
On that last point, there was a related discussion in Australia last year about the recent history of rock music. Triple J, a youth music radio station which is part of the government funded ABC network, ran a “Hottest 100 of All Time” poll for songs its listeners like best. Triple J’s airplay is generally “alternative” and in the late 1990s (when I listened most) featured women artists such as PJ Harvey, Courtney Love of Hole, Shirley Manson of Garbage, Liz Phair and Veruca Salt.
There was some leadup criticism about the voting website:
Divided into decades, starting with the 1960s, each page shows between 9 and 15 album covers, with an accompanying note about musicians or bands that influenced the direction of rock and pop. The section on the 60s mentions the Supremes as one of the groups on the Stax/Motown label, and Janis Joplin as appearing at the Monterey Pop Festival. Then the 2000s section mentions the White Stripes. NO other female artists or groups that include women are mentioned.
And although the website was merely a memory jogger and did not restrict listener voting, it turned out it was a harbringer of what the listeners voted for. The top 100 songs contained two female vocalists, both appearing in one-offs as vocalists with Massive Attack (with songwriting credits). There were also five bands with female members. This became a big deal: Triple J was quick to defend itself by noting that it was a listener poll. One of the most interesting pieces of commentary went to air on Triple J’s own coverage, from Catherine Strong, whose PhD research was into changing memories of music (thanks to Lauredhel for this transcript):
Catherine Strong: â€œWhat happened with grunge â€“ itâ€™s very interesting, that in the early 1990s, grunge was seen as being a very female-friendly type of music. There were lots of women involved in the grunge. So you had bands like Hole, and L7, and Babes in Toyland. There was also the associated riot grrl movement that was happening at the same time, so bands like Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy. At the time, these bands were quite successful: commercially successful, and they were critically acclaimed, they were talked about as being fantastic. There was a lot of celebration in the press of â€œWomen in Rockâ€, â€œIsnâ€™t it fantastic to see women in rock?â€ But then if you look at the media coverage over time, when people talk about grunge over time, the women donâ€™t get talked about anymore. So on the tenth anniversary of Kurt Cobainâ€™s death for instance, there were lots of magazines that came out talking about â€œLetâ€™s look back at grungeâ€, â€œwhat was important about grungeâ€, â€œwhy was grunge such a great thing?â€, and the women are hardly mentioned at all. So again you can see the public record leaves the women out â€“ they just disappear, they fall out over time, as people write about it, and think about it looking back.
And the thing in rock that I think is particularly interesting, is that periodically, women are rediscovered. So every five years or so youâ€™ll find that thereâ€™s something that will turn up in the media saying â€œHey, itâ€™s great! Women are making inroads into rock for the first time!â€, when itâ€™s not the first time. So every time those stories come up, I think we as a society, or people who like rock, feel as though progress is being made; but whatâ€™s actually happened is weâ€™re just going round and round in circles. Women are being discovered, then theyâ€™re being forgotten, then theyâ€™re being discovered again, and theyâ€™re being forgotten again, and itâ€™s just going round and round like that.â€
And here it is, happening with geek history. To avoid one obvious strawman: no, I am not claiming that there was a woman who was more important to the story of Facebook than Mark Zuckerberg! I’m claiming that the movie is part of this pattern in geek history:
- when we look back on geek history, things women worked on, and women who were involved in men’s projects will slowly vanish from the story as part of a pattern of making what geeks do important and hard and real
- there will continue to be active resistance to women being visible as geeks because the presence of women takes away status points in the masculinity hierarchy and/or that geekdom is a men’s space for men who don’t want to be around women (I keep meaning to find the explicit comments I’ve seen on LWN to this effect, if the lazyweb helps I won’t object)
- perhaps most worryingly of all, every few years there will be a brief spotlight on women geeks, everyone will conclude “hooray they’re/we’re here, we’ve been seen, this is the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning of the battle, thank goodness for that” and then a few years later we’ll do it all again (see an example of “but women geeks are new” here).
What do you think? How many rounds of the geek women visibility battle have you been present for? (I’ve been around for at least two major ones, I think.)