UPDATE: I have written a better and more developed version of this article as a presentation for the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in 2012. You can read the updated version of this article here. (Also, hello WisCon 36 attendees! I wish I was there!)
Cross-posted at From Austin to A&M.
There is a difficult conversation to be had about self-objectifying geeks. (I’m looking at you, slave Leias.) And while feminist geeks have been addressing this issue for a while now, it seems that more mainstream geek culture has caught up with us. Comic-Con actually had a panel this year called “Oh, You Sexy Geek!,” in which they were to discuss the implications of sexy women in geek culture. From the online program:
Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? When geek girls show off, are they liberating themselves or pandering to men? Do some “fake fangirls” blend sex appeal with nerdiness just to appeal to the growing geek/nerd market, or is that question itself unfair? And what’s up with all the Slave Leias?
I’ve been researching and thinking about cosplay for a while now, and one of the most distressing trends I’ve been grappling with is how women will choose characters, costumes, or costume constructions based on how “sexy” the costume will appear on them. This is not just a cosplay problem, but a geek problem. And until we start having an intelligent conversation about it (preferably a conversation that starts with the assumption that it is a problem), it’s not one that geek communities will ever be rid of. (A little unsurprisingly, the Comic-Con panel was apparently sort of terrible. We’ll get to that in a minute.)
As I’ve argued before, the sexisms that persist in geek communities are not special. They are not separable and inherently different from sexist thoughts and behaviors in the”real world.” They are part and parcel of regular ole sexism, not a special geek dude brand invented outside of patriarchy. So with that in mind, it’s important to remember that the sexualization of women is something that women and men consume and internalize all over the place. Though it does seem to be particularly bad in geek media. Video games, comics, science fiction, fantasy: these media forms are often at fault for promoting unrealistic (and, pretty regularly, physically impossible) standards of beauty. They fashion their female heroines and villains as sexy objects to be consumed, unlike their male counterparts.
As I said to Amanda Hess last year, being the sexy object is one of the places where geek women can find acceptance in their communities. From the interview:
Too often, women in geek cultures are only welcomed if they are decoration, sexy versions of the things geek men love, not equal participants or fellow fans. Forever Geek […], for example, has, in just the past two months, posted with glee about female models naked except for high heels and stormtrooper helmets gracing skateboards, a car wash in which women dressed in sexy Princess Leia costumes washed cars, and Star Wars corsets. Geek communities love women, as long as their members don’t have to think of those women as people.
When I was on the “Geek Girls in Popular Culture” panel at ApolloCon, we talked about this nonsense for quite a while, because, as a couple of the panelists pointed out, it seems like a geek woman can only get attention if she’s conventionally beautiful and willing to objectify herself. When geek women choose to self-objectify at geek events, they are not doing so in a vacuum. So while I think it’s possible that some of them are trying to feel empowered in their sexuality, and reclaim their femininity, they cannot escape the fact that this is a culture that embraces female fans almost exclusively as sexy objects. In other words, a feminist can wear high heels, but she shouldn’t lie to herself about what that means.
The problem then, isn’t that women are objectifying themselves. That’s like holding a panel asking if women are liberating themselves or pandering to men for wearing mascara/high heels/Spanx/bras, curling or straightening their hair, or shaving their legs and underarms. Because it’s easy to blame women, right? It’s easy to say that if women don’t want to be objectified, they shouldn’t dress sexy or do the beauty work asked of them.
And it’s easy to get angry at Team Unicorn for so obviously pandering to the male gaze and framing themselves as sex objects for male geeks. It’s easy to hate Olivia Munn and point to her as everything that is wrong with geek women or geek culture. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the ubiquitous sexy cosplayers, and blame them for the objectification of women in geek cultures.
But the actions of women are not the cause of their objectification. Women have a lot of good reasons to perform beauty work and to dress sexy, especially in the sexist cultures represented at your average con. Women aren’t the problem, whether they crossplay and eschew femininity altogether or they pull out the sexy Leia costume. The problem is that women who dress sexy, who frame themselves as sex objects, are rewarded by geek culture for doing so. They get attention, approval, and recognition from the culture when they dress as sexy Leia (or any sexy geek thing). They have pictures taken of them at cons, and they get posted and reposted on the internet. They are recognized as geeks (and generally as somewhat authentic geeks, even if they aren’t talked about that way) and welcomed into the community (maybe not as full members, but at least as desirable). There’s nothing wrong with wanting attention and approval in one’s community. What cosplayer and geek wouldn’t want those things? What female geek doesn’t want to be welcomed into the community with enthusiasm and excitement (instead of derided as a harpy feminist or annoying squeeing fangirl)? The problem, then, isn’t what women do, but a culture in which the only way that women can be recognized as a desirable part of the culture is when they participate by making themselves consumable sexy objects for geek men.
The panel at Comic-Con was framed poorly, and perhaps that’s why it turned into a goddamn mess, with panelists suggesting the women criticizing sexy cosplayers were “just jealous,” one panelist arguing the women are all a bunch of bitches, another claiming”I can’t help it that some of the characters I like to cosplay are scantily clad,” and the only male panelist showing up 5 minutes before the panel ended and making an inappropriate sexual joke (synopsis from Feminist Fatale). Well, one of the reasons. Another reason is probably that geek cultures tend to think we’re beyond feminism, and Suzanne Scott claims that the panel
devolved into a postfeminist panel, in which feminism was invoked and then discarded as no longer necessary (or too “old fashioned,” or some form of buzzkillery we need to”get over”).
This is unsurprising, if disappointing. Because geek cultures often think of themselves as countercultural, they dont usually believe they are tainted by the sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, ad naseum that infect popular culture. And there are entire blogs that prove that nonsense untrue.
This whole conversation needs to change focus. Individual geeks and cosplayers have their own reasons for dressing as they do or presenting themselves as they do. Those reasons can indeed involve their thinking that dressing as sexy Leia is empowering, for whatever reason. And we shouldnt be dismissing those reasons. But the trend of sexy geek cosplaying, the trend of geek women objectifying and sexualizing themselves, that a whole ‘nother ballgame. We need to be talking about this as a problem of our culture, not a problem that women bring upon themselves.
RELATED UPDATE: I just discovered the Fashionably Geek blog, and what. the. fuck:
ANOTHER UPDATE: I’m not too comfortable with how much my post (and now the comments) are hyper-focusing on slave Leia cosplayers. This is about sexy cosplayers of all stripes, including ones like the above, which alter a costume to make it sexy. Please keep in mind that we are talking about a large group of cosplayers, not just the slave Leias.