do ALL things! arts, tech, and not having to choose just one as a young girl

This is a guest post by creatrix tiara | edited for geek feminism from original posts on tumblr and medium. Creatrix Tiara works with creative arts & media productions, community cultural development, and education to explore ideas around community, identity, liminality, belonging, and social justice. She has been on a computer before she could talk and is currently trying to find ways to bridge her artsy side and her techy side. Also, she’s currently available for hire.

Last year I listened to “The Way We Teach Computing Hurts Women”, a podcast episode by WYNC’s Manoush Zomorodi, talking about different approaches to get girls interested in tech and computer science from childhood to university. There’s some history about Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer period, as well as discussion of Hello Ruby and Goldiblox, which are aimed at getting very young girls interested in computer science and engineering. (What would have been great would be a mention of Lauren Ipsum, an Alice-in-Wonderland style book about computer science principles and lady pirates.)

This brought up a lot of feelings for me, mostly to do with being involved in tech as a young girl but fading out of it until very recently – and still feeling stuck not so much because of gender but because of another part of my identity: my passions.

So you know how some celebrity artists or athletes talk about “I could sing before I could talk!” or “I was dancing before I could walk!”? That was me, but with two things: before I could talk, I taught myself to read and how to use the computer. There is even a pretty adorable picture of me around age 2–4 mucking around with Harvard Graphics or the tutorials for Microsoft Works. It’s rather clear that I was going to become the GamingBuff that I am, even that early on.

(Yes I had an odd idea of fun.

But you could make databases for skiers and spreadsheets for snail races!!)

When I was about 8 years old, the day my sister left Malaysia for the UK (for good), my parents answered a telemarketer call advertising computer classes. My mum asked me if I was interested — I remember being very sleepy, having been caught in traffic jams to and from the airport, and muttering a Yes without much thought.

The school had divided up their classes by year level — Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, a level or so in between. After my pre-test they said I could skip the Beginner level and go straight to Intermediate. I was the youngest person there by a year.

This was before Windows 3.1 was much of a thing, and when we were still working with 5.25″ floppies. We learnt newspaper layouts, basic animation, and coding in Pascal. Mostly we cheated on the exams and looked forward to playing the various Super Solvers games.

An 8-bit video game still image, showing an adventurer about to enter a clubhouse

those blasted elves

The Internet came to Malaysia circa 1995, and once I got online I never left. About the only time I took a significant break from the Internet was in 1997 when we had our first big national exam, the UPSR (which tells you which secondary school you go to), and my parents suggested that I go offline and quit computer classes for the year. I was allowed online just once – to write in the memorial book for Princess Diana.

Other then that ,  I was actively online all the time. I joined an online kids’ media site and reviewed books mailed to me from the US to Malaysia. I started webzines and wrote fiction & poetry. I hosted picnics on Geocities chat and virtual cities on AOL. When I really got into Aqua and Savage Garden, and then fandoms in general, my use of the Internet really took off. I was an amazingly prolific fanfic writer, made a ton of friends via online fandom, and even changed my life in very significant ways — such as making one of my closest friendships with someone who met me through a fansite I made for her TV channel, or choosing the Australian college I lived in based on having seen some Livejournal comics about exchange student life by one of its residents — where I met my matey: first boyfriend/significant relationship and now one of my closest friends.

In recent years my Internet presence has become more activist: first with Malaysia’s leading blog about alternative education, which could have gotten me elected into Parliament like my contemporary Malaysian edu-blogging peer, and now through talking about arts and intersectionality — gaining notoriety and (in)fame(y) by speaking up about racism in burlesque. (People still aren’t over it.)

The main reason I became so involved with the Internet is because it was safety and sanctuary in a hostile world. I was heavily bullied in school due to racial tension — most of the teachers were hostile instigators or at least uncaring. I didn’t really have a lot of space to express myself, because I was constantly told that my existence was wrong. I didn’t really learn a lot from the Malaysian education system: most of the State-sanctioned curriculum was already decades old. I was a desperately lonely child, seeking connection and community.

My friends were online. My creative expression was online. My education was online. The computer was a source of life for me, in many ways: even now I feel more spiritually connected to bits and bytes rather than trees and sea. While I sometimes had to deal with trolls and online bullies, I also had much stronger positive support online – many more people who had no problem with my existence and actually welcomed it.

However, despite my affinity to computers and the Internet and the fact that I am still online all the time, I didn’t actually follow through with any sort of tech degree or career path. Even now my family wonders why I didn’t pursue computer science; my dad calls me all the time demanding I make the next Facebook, because with my supposed computer smarts and his business acumen we could take on the world! I fit the childhood profile of many professional computer geeks: what was I doing being anything else?

There were a few factors in effect: they weren’t really connected to gender, in that nobody told me I shouldn’t be coding because that’s a boy’s thing, but they still played into societal expectations in some ways.

Some of it was logistical: I was often working on old semi-obsolete gear – I couldn’t even practice CSS or Javascript when they were still new because my browser wouldn’t support it. Asides from the classes I went to as a youngster, there wasn’t really any avenue for computer science education in my area in Malaysia – it wasn’t in the national curriculum, and I was often the de-facto school tech expert even in primary/elementary school. There’s only so much I could teach myself with my limited resources and age.

Mostly, though, nobody told me that I, or any other Malaysian student, could be both artsy and geeky; we were told to choose between Science or Arts. Science, in this case, meant taking Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and maybe Additional Mathematics in Forms 4 and 5 in Malaysian secondary schools. It was what every good student does because the whole point of Malaysian education is to study Medicine and be a doctor and make good money for your family. There wasn’t any “women can’t do Science” sentiment (and I went to all-girls schools that weren’t particularly feminist). The expectation was that everyone does Science, because that’s just what you do. Arts and Humanities, so my teachers and a lot of Malaysian society claimed, were for stupid people: people who failed their exams and so had to take Visual Art or Literature instead because those are for simpletons.

I caused quite a ruckus in Form 4 when I moved myself from being placed in one of the Science class to sitting in the row for the “last” class because I wanted to take Literature.

As you probably noticed, a lot of my online activity from childhood on involved writing. The same people who thought I would be a computer scientist or programmer also thought I would be a world-class writer, and at the time writing was my more pressing interest. I saw the Internet as a medium to post my writing and talk to other creative people, but didn’t really think about being in the bones of hardware or software or web development — it had been so many years since I knew any coding that I thought I’d missed the boat.

I didn’t want to be a doctor, or any kind of scientist, despite loving science museums as much as I loved libraries and bookstores and computers. This was mostly because the school’s take on Science was super boring (had I had a better set of teachers I may have been more inclined) but also because I felt like I had to choose: Science or Arts. The opportunities for Science were everywhere; the Arts, less so. I had my one chance, and I was a bit of a rebel — I had to take it.

Nobody ever said that I could have done all of the above. It never occurred to me to pull a Hermione Granger and take all the subjects — it was two distinct streams and I had to make a decision.

Ever since then, my personal and professional journeys have largely been in the arts and creative industries: media, performance art, writing, community cultural development. I wrote scripts for TV and interviewed Prime Ministers and stripped onstage while reciting adaptations of Suheir Hammad. I sang and danced and chomped the tops off roses and went viral for something I said at Slutwalk.

All of these were made possible via the Internet — whether by finding out about opportunities, getting a shot from the muse, posting my work, being known.

And yet I didn’t really see myself as the programming type.

Digital? Yes. Geeky? Sure.

Computer scientist? ehhh…

Yet there is so much I want to do with technology that goes beyond blog posts and social media and Facebook invites. I’ve started venturing into game design, after harbouring an interest for a long time, as a means of producing creative interactive experiences. I have ideas for performances that require a fair bit of geekery (such as this LED light costume). And there’s all these apps that would make my creative life so much easier but which don’t get made because there aren’t a lot of coders who are interested enough in making them.

I have noticed how deep the chasm is between the arts world and the tech world, even now, and how I’m somehow caught in the middle.

At a meeting hosted by a major Bay Area arts organization, one of the organizers proclaimed that we were “analogue mediums in a digital world!”. A few days later, while volunteering at a games conference, a lot of attendees were puzzled at the presence of a performance artist in their midst. I’ve had people respond to my presentation of a social media campaign project at an international hackathon specifically designed to bring media-makers, journalists, and developers together with sarcastic tweets about how “if you’re going to be at a hackathon you should be creating something” (because a stack of blog posts, and animated video, and a hashtag doesn’t count as “creating”, clearly). I’ve also had to stop myself from getting riled up at writers’ events when people respond to my novel-in-progress, about a girl who gets superpowers from a Google-Glass-like device, with a long rant about how Google Glass is always evil and the downfall of society.

Around the time I wrote the first version of this article, I was being interviewed for a possible space at a tech bootcamp known for its supportive community and diversity work: when the interviewer asked why I wanted to learn coding, I told her about wanting to be entrepreneurial by producing creative work and artist tools, and I could hear her interest switch off, simply because I didn’t say “I want to be hired as a software engineer”. (I was rejected twice.)

The combination of arts and tech does exist, though in smaller scale: this Ask Metafilter question brings up a lot of options, and for a little while I was going to an Arts+Tech Meetup in San Francisco, which is leading me to a lot of other opportunities. I also was nearly involved with Gray Area’s Creative Code bootcamp, which would have been perfect, but the timing didn’t work out.

The more I find, the more I wish this existed for me as a young girl — and the more I want to help young girls currently in this situation.

There are a lot of efforts towards encouraging young girls to get involved with tech, as demonstrated in the podcast. Girls Make Games did a presentation at Casual Connect and a big horde of us women immediately volunteered to help out! Search “tech for girls” and you find heaps of classes, workshops, camps — for Australian school girls or budding makers or young girls of color.

And yet so much of it is about getting girls involved in science or engineering. STEM. Even the first project talked about in the podcast had renamed their subject “Creative Problem-solving in Science and Engineering” — artsy little me would not have thought coding was ever an option for me.

There seems to be a little nudge in that direction: Google’s Made with Code has resources for code in the arts, and there is an Arty archetype in the Tech Girls Movement. But I would like to see more. I would like to encourage more. I want to bring more to the girls who may be where I was 15 years ago and thought that being a geek and being an artist or writer or musician was somehow a contradiction.

Now that I’ve graduated with an MFA and I’m looking for jobs on my OPT visa, I’m started to revisit the tech industry as the next stage in my career. It’s been tricky; some of the places I’ve interviewed at have asked me why someone with an arts and non-profit background like myself would want to be involved in tech. Sone get it though, when I tell them that putting a show together is much like working in a scrappy startup, trying to herd cats and do everything at once.

Maybe there is a space for an artsy creative person like me — especially a queer migrant minority gender-weird woman. (It’s been really bizarre to have my South Asian race not make me a minority, though I am not sure how many Bangladeshi-Malaysians are out there.)

Maybe there are ways to reach out to young girls, young boys, intimidated artists, baffled techies, about how these worlds do not need to be separate, how left brain/right brain is a myth, how you don’t have to sacrifice one interest for another.

Maybe I can look to my sister, who has always been inspiration for me even from a thousand miles away, who went from a lifetime of science to a rebirth as an illustrator, and yet so much of her work is already very scientific anyway. She has a kid, Zen, who – before her second birthday – declared to her mother that she wants to “do ALL things!”, and is already proving so: her Instagram photos always have her trying out something new, from cooking to beekeeping to painting to building.

I want to help her do all things too.

So now, after not having coded anything since I mucked around with QBASIC as a 13-year-old, I’m learning how to code. I took the Web Developer blueprint with Skillcrush, which is geared towards women — I mostly joined because one of the staff members totally understood what it’s like to be the Resident Geek amongst her artist friends. Asides from the classes, there’s also a pretty vibrant community — including other artsy types. I’m also catching up on Codecademy; Javascript is a lot easier than I thought it would be! (Sort of: for loops confuse me a little.) I have also been looking at tech bootcamps, since I find that I learn better in person, though cost has been a major limiting factor.

When I listened to this podcast, I became so inspired: I was reminded of my dream to support young artsy & geeky girls, and this was more motivation to do so. I am almost tempted to get a computer science degree, but formal education and I barely get along. And I do want more options for exploring tech than having to do yet another degree.

But I have a vision, a vision for the creative Renaissance girls amongst us — if nothing else, then for my niece, and 4 year old me.

A little girl with shoulder-length dark hair, wearing a drum on a strap around her neck as she plays the drum and smiles

marching to the beat of her own drum

8 thoughts on “do ALL things! arts, tech, and not having to choose just one as a young girl

  1. Mary Alexandra Agner

    nobody told me that I, or any other Malaysian student, could be both artsy and geeky; we were told to choose between Science or Arts
    Story of my life, too; thank you so much for sharing your successes.

  2. metaphlame

    This:

    “I’ve had people respond to my presentation of a social media campaign project at an international hackathon specifically designed to bring media-makers, journalists, and developers together with sarcastic tweets about how “if you’re going to be at a hackathon you should be creating something” (because a stack of blog posts, and animated video, and a hashtag doesn’t count as “creating”, clearly). I’ve also had to stop myself from getting riled up at writers’ events when people respond to my novel-in-progress, about a girl who gets superpowers from a Google-Glass-like device, with a long rant about how Google Glass is always evil and the downfall of society.”

    This is an amazing article. All the education systems I’ve seen enforce that same divide. Even the people supposedly there to support you are in fact engaged in ensuring that you pick “their” side: think of the creative writing professors who scoff at those business types or programmers who snort and remind you that you, at least, will be able to make a living after schooling, whereas many of your more artsy peers will not. It is an unnecessary and damaging cultural divide that we (at least here in the US, and in Malaysia too I gather from your article, though I’m sure the list of places that do this is long) drill into children from incredibly early ages. How many simpering mothers coo over their children, “and she’s my little artist, and this one’s my little rocket scientist!” As though such pursuits must always be mutually exclusive.

    Most of the first two decades of my life were spent on one side of that divide, turning my nose up science as though allowing my geekery to leak over into actually producing some of the tech experiences I consumed so ravenously would somehow rob me of artistic cred. I recently spent some hours stuck in a blizzard with someone in the same boat, only now we were both sharing our unease over being in an environment that seemed to pit itself not just against artistic pursuit as a valid conduit for passion, but against passion on the whole as something one ought to be experiencing. People blow this improbable impasse from a manufactured culture war into some sort of statement on the right and wrong ways to exist in the world, with each side claiming its way is the correct one–the “rational” way or the “passionate” way (as utterly trite and misleading as such connotations are, they do keep getting regurgitated, culturally, across the generations). And it’s frustrating. Because if you’re straddling those worlds you can see how going all one way or all the other can damage you. Close off opportunities to you. And we shouldn’t be encouraged to embrace such a narrow mindset. Or set of skills. Yet we do so all. The. Time. And we encourage kids to do the same. And we’re setting them up to be screwed, to have to categorize themselves like vegetables in a supermarket, when they don’t have to. It’s not all apples and oranges!

    1. Tiara

      OH MAN I can totally relate to the not-wanting-to-lose-your-artist-cred thing. I think a similar impetus was driving me to drop Science in favour of Literature/Humanities – I had wrapped up my entire being into being a writer, and there didn’t seem to be a way to make everyone happy, so I just went with what made me as close to happy as possible. (Taking up Science at school wouldn’t have helped me with computers, though, since I was practically the one-woman Computer Science department.)

      And YES YES YES YES YES to everything you said in your comment. It is brilliant. Can I quote you?

        1. metaphlame

          (Er, well, from a camaraderie perspective, anyway. Clearly the predicament isn’t great but still–good to know one isn’t alone.)

  3. Riv

    Oh man. I’m a coder who’s always played the geek around the artists and the artist around the geeks. Some of it is a defensive maneuver, I think–if my interests are always slightly to the side of what everyone else is doing, I don’t have to compete as hard on what everyone else is doing. But some of it is a genuine do-all-the-things! drive to make cool things that are also beautiful, to be intelligent and geeky about beauty. I’ve thought of this multidisciplinary leaning as a hindrance to my career, but I’m starting to see the ways that it’s an asset now.

  4. Neil in Chicago

    I don’t remember who I got it from, but there’s a total rebuttal of the whole C.P. Snow “two cultures” thing”: “There aren’t two cultures, just half-cultured people.”

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