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.