When I was a little girl, I lived in the shadow of my older brother. He was four years my elder, and I basically worshipped him because of it. Everything he loved, I loved. My brother had a collection of anything Star Wars and Batman, and my favorite toys were his Batmobiles and the Millennium Falcon.
We played pretend games, and most of the time we were in a galaxy far, far away. He was Han Solo, his elementary school girlfriend was usually Leia or Luke, and I was C-3PO. I always resented not being able to be anyone more important, but mostly I wanted to be Han. If I mentioned it to him, he got frustrated. He was the one in charge, and it was his decision to share Star Wars with me.
One night my mother spotted me watching Batman cartoons alone, without my brother, and I couldn’t help feeling as if she had caught me watching a Showtime "after hours" movie. I started crying out of shame, and she was more confused than she’d ever been about me. But I couldn’t explain the feeling that if he wasn’t there, I wasn’t supposed to enjoy it. I was a little girl.
At a young age I felt I was infringing on territory that wasn’t mine, but only when I was older did I start to understand why.
As a teenager at the end of her high school years, I started an annual tradition of attending New York Comic Con that continues to this day. It was my epicenter of geek culture, and I wanted to experience it in costumes of my favorite characters. But it was in embracing my hobby of cosplay that I started feeling more isolated from the community I was trying to reach towards.
My first cosplay was of a character from a somewhat "girly" anime, and I was mostly ignored. But when I began wearing costumes of super heroes and video game characters, I received a lot of attention—mostly photographers and attendees taking pictures of me (or my boobs, or my legs, but I was happy to get pictures at all).
But then I was approached by a series of people I sarcastically called the "Nerd Police." These were usually young men that started off by taking a picture of me, but then proceeded to point out flaws of my costume. “Black Cat’s hair is supposed to be longer. Where’s the bell on your necklace? Is that mask painted on?”
Each question made me feel more and more isolated, as if they were trying to pick apart my dedication as a real geek. To them I was only pretending, and it was their job to rip away that façade and expose me as a fraud. Some of them asked how many comic books I’ve even read, or when I started reading. It was as if I saw a picture of this character on Tumblr and thought it would accent my breasts well enough to suck in all the attention I craved. I got very defensive at conventions since then, and always anticipate at least one cop from the Nerd Police to come up and critique me and my lady friends.
I started to get involved in the “geek” clubs on campus, mostly the comics, anime, and gaming clubs. I didn’t meet too much resistance even when I became president of the comics club, but every now and then something would crop up that would remind me that I was an interloper.
There was one particular night at the gaming club where I was playing three other boys in a round of Super Smash Brothers, and I found myself winning (I’m pretty good at that game). There were two indifferent boys who willingly gave up their seat to satisfy the “winner stays” rule, but then there was one who started screaming at me. I cheated, he claimed, and I had no place even being there at that club.
The room went silent as he berated me for not belonging, and for only being there because I was dating the gaming club's president (I was guilty of that, but it was unrelated to my kicking ass in Smash Brothers). He refused to give up his seat, and so I left instead. There couldn’t have been a better exhibit of the fact that the Nerd Police were still on to me.
Geek fandom is a culture, make no mistake. And like most cultures it can be appropriated by interlopers. But it isn’t a culture born of regionalism or ethnicity, it’s a culture founded on a particular interest. Geek culture presents itself as open at a first glance, but unfortunately it’s kind of an exclusive deal.
From an early age, geek culture is marketed to males. Toys of super heroes, action stars, cars, and dragons—it’s all painted blue and red instead of pink, coding it for the boys. There is violence and explosions, which is seen as a "masculine" fantasy. Male protagonists give boys an idol to aspire to, while female characters are only present as infrequent sidekicks or princesses to rescue. And it’s because of this early conditioning that men feel entitled to keep geek culture as their own.
Girls are allowed access to specific parts of the geek community, like certain anime and some rare works of science fiction that feature a female protagonist. But even then it always feels like something borrowed, an impostor pretending to be something greater. Women and girls are conditioned to avoid geek culture just as boys are conditioned to embrace it.
So what do we do to make this culture more open to all genders? Content creators need to show more representation of women so that girls can also have something to aspire to in the geek world. And once there are female characters, they need to be positioned as just as important as the men. There are plenty of lady superheroes in the Marvel universe, but none of them have their own title film yet, and that itself is a problem.
It’s the responsibility of geeks everywhere to be accepting, not derogatory, to people who share their interests regardless of gender. It’s not just in the hands of the creators to be open and accepting, but in the fans everywhere to make an open community.
There have already been strides to make this a reality, but we need more. We need to re-write the idea that girls are only ever borrowing nerd culture and can aspire to be some guy’s Ramona Flowers at best. It’s something for everybody, in all aspects.
So this is my plea to the male-dominated geek culture: be responsible, be kind, and don’t be the Nerd Police.