We (Kurt and Jason…and Dom, I guess) had a really good time doing the last conversational-style blog, and it garnered a lot of attention on the blog itself as well as some on other sites like Equestria Daily. One critique that we found really useful, however, was that we were probably a little flippant in our treatment of questions of gender in the fandom. Of course, that’s the very definition of male privilege–the ability to be flippant about gendered experiences that aren’t your own–so we really wanted to do something about that.
We invited Michelle to write a post a few weeks ago that proved to be a hit, and it raised even more questions about gender in the fandom, so I asked Michelle if she would dialogue (trialogue?) with us about those issues and share with us a different set of experiences about this and other fandoms. Thanks for being a great sport Michelle! -j&k
Check out the entire conversation below the break!
(J = Jason Nguyen ; K = Kurt Baer ; M = Michelle Turner)
Geek/Gamer Girl Stereotypes
J: So, I’m only peripherally familiar with stereotypes about geek/gamer girls in general, but the idea of such a person has come up multiple times in the Research is Magic blog, insofar as we were describing ways in which women are marginalized in what are already niche/marginalized subcommunities. Do you have any thoughts about that? Am I even characterizing it right?
M: Honestly, the only geek girl stereotype I’m aware of that applies specifically to women is this whole “Fake Geek Girl” concept — the idea of a woman who, I guess, has some typical geek interests (gaming, usually, but sometimes things like The Hunger Games movies or Doctor Who — stuff that has made it into mainstream culture enough that everyone’s at least heard of them) but is somehow not geeky ENOUGH to count as a real geek. I’m not sure who asked the nerd police to determine where that line is, but apparently this is a thing. I’ve not encountered many people who actually take it seriously, but there are things like this ad [locally-hosted image below] that have made it into actual published DC comics issues as “humor”. I think a lot of marginalization is like that. It’s subtle. It’s little jokes that creep in here and there. It’s people saying things like “You don’t act/look like a geek.” Geeks stereotyping other geeks has always been a thing, and if you’re a woman you somehow get the worst of both worlds. You’ve got to navigate this traditionally male-dominated space and put up with a lot of frank misogyny, but that’s only if you manage to pass as a “real” geek.
… and now I’ve typed “geek” so many times that it no longer looks like a real word.
J: I Googled “gamer girl” this morning and the majority of the search results are aimed at men looking for a gamer girl; I think it went so far as some kind of campaign by Maxim to find the sexiest gamer girl or some such nonsense. So, I think you make a great point: few people, at least not in public spaces where it’s easy for us to see, actually say things that are denigrating to women directly in these spaces. What they do is to simply affirm a very small subset of things that valorize women from a chauvinistic frame–and THAT makes women in these communities feel a palpable difference and even a diminuation of oneself as someone who has that identity (geek/gamer). It’s the subtle difference between “A girl who has MY interests” and “a girl with interests that are LIKE MINE.” If I were to get all Foucauldian, I might say that in such a discourse, the subject is almost always the male and his gaze rather than the female’s, who is then relegated to being the object of the gaze1 .
M: Yeah, it’s very weird. I never self-identified as a geek (at least, in traditional terms — I was a theatre and band geek, but at my high school those tended to overlap heavily with the popular kids, so…) until my mid-20s, so I kind of entered geek-space as an outsider. For a while I had the weird experience of either being ignored completely or talked down to when I went to a heavily male-dominated event, like my college’s Games Club night. The flip side is going to a con in cosplay and only wishing I could be ignored a little more. At one large con last year I started tallying up the references made to my boobs by gross drunken con-goers. It was something like 5 or 6 in one single evening, and probably wasn’t more than that because I was accompanied most times by my husband or a (female) friend who was good at looking like she’d punch someone if they tried anything. It makes me really reluctant to set physical foot in a new geek-space unless I already know the makeup of the crowd, if my only options are being ignored or being ogled.
J: To what extent is this different from ritualized spaces of male dominance that don’t involve either video games or rainbow-colored ponies? I get the sense that what you describe is not unlike the fraternity parties or dance clubs I’ve attended. And if that’s the case, then–for better or worse–the typical male fan of MLP is probably as complicit in the denial of “true” membership to women as any drunken dude at a football game. Nadia Seremetakis in The Senses Still writes: “What is being said may be relativized, contradicted or confirmed by embodied acts, gestures, and sensory affects. This process of confirmation or negation is a performative moment where gestures and/or a surround of artifacts are mobilized to bear or deny witness to language”2 . Men (everyone really) import these non-linguistic ways of understanding the world into these spaces and reproduce patriarchal structures. Even talking about your boobs constantly–though linguistic–functions more importantly in terms of the things they AREN’T saying.
M: I don’t think it’s different — except that geeks often pride themselves of being accepting of outsiders. MLP fandom in particular prides itself on being “the tolerant fandom.” I will say that I haven’t encountered either snubbing or ogling from any Bronies, yet, but I’ve only been to a few events. I just think it’s funny that geek culture prides itself on being accepting — unless you’re the wrong kind of geek. This tendency hasn’t yet become overt in the MLP fandom that I can see, but I do feel like there’s a certain pride that male Bronies take in defying expectations — they’re guys who like this girly thing for little kids! Isn’t that great and wacky? Being weird is awesome! — so being a bit more in line with the “expected” audience somehow paradoxically throws me into outsider — or at least fandom minority — status.
K: It has always been interesting to me how resonant the “love and tolerate” slogan is with so many people in the fandom. On the whole, I find the desire of people in the fandom to be “tolerant” to be quite great, and a lot of amazing things have come from it. It is very interesting to note, however, the ways some things are tolerated more and better than others and where the general push for respect and acceptance within the fandom at least temporarily breaks up over divisive issues. As you say, on the whole, I (admittedly, as a dude who has only been doing things in the fandom for a few months) haven’t seen much outright intolerance or straight-up misogyny and I feel that many try very hard to be accepting of everyone. The interesting things here typically happen on a much more subtle scale—a lack of a “benefit of the doubt” on some issues, headbutting between two different groups who want “tolerance” in ways that conflict with each other (e.g. the different parties at play surrounding issues about Princess Molestia… although this example is probably the least subtle possible with regard to gender issues, it does show two different people who are looking to be tolerated in conflicting ways), etc. I am not really sure I can think of any fake geek guys, for instance. The issue of me being a gamer or a geek is never something I have had to prove–I am more of a geek than some people, much worse a gamer than other, but there is a benefit of a doubt that I get that allows me to identify myself as a geek without any burden of proof on my part that our bespectacled meme girl doesn’t seem to get3 .
J: While some of these encounters sound really horrible — the discourses of gender and allegations of the perpetuation of rape culture linked to the Princess Molestia tumblr definitely come to mind (I don’t know where I personally stand on Molestia yet, though /mlp/ was kinda a morass of nonsense during the Golden Muffin Awards nominations, since a number of them had nominated the Down With Molestia campaign for one of the “bad” awards) — I think the positive end of all this is that it produces possibilities for certain kinds of encounter that are unlikely to happen otherwise. Sometimes that turns out really badly, but on the whole, I’ve been really impressed with how the various surprising connections within the fandom produce resources and potentialities for teens and young adults (and even some who are older) to form social bonds and affirm themselves. A concept coined by Mary Gray, “boundary publics,” really encapsulates well what I think of when I see this fandom at its best: “I define boundary publics as iterative, ephemeral experiences of belonging that happen both on the outskirts and at the center(s) of the more traditionally recognized and validated Public Sphere of civic deliberation […] I suggest that we imagine boundary publics as strategies for space making and constitutive processes for the queering of identity that increasingly, though not exclusively, incorporate new media use”4 . I think it’s important to realize, as Gray suggests, that we understand “experiences of belonging” as requiring both social encounters and a workable medium for communication. And as I think we are all suggesting, the strategies of belonging that some people use will naturally exclude others. The issue here is that the overwhelmingly male makeup of particular social circuits within the fandom means that people are importing these strategies from their experiences in other spaces, warts and all. Still, because the fandom is at a boundary, people are liable to run up against all kinds of different people using the fandom’s social resources in completely different ways. There’s going to be that guy who really wants you to know that he’s a really manly Christian brony just like there’s going to be the advocates for transgender bronies on Reddit (an AMAZING group, by the way). There are going to be the fans on /mlp/ who are interested in stirring things up just as there will be the ones who really espouse the love and tolerance ideology. The question for me is: in such encounters, to what extent are female fans at a disadvantage because of their gender, and why/how does that mirror geek/gamer behaviors and discourses?
M: I don’t think this fandom is remarkable among geekdom as a whole when it comes to interacting as a woman in a male-dominated space. I think any strangeness is a result of this undercurrent of — I don’t want to say resentment, because it’s not that hostile — but this sense among women that MLP fandom was “ours” until the Bronies came in with the new generation and made it a guy thing. How would a majority of fans of a traditionally male-dominated fandom feel if that fandom suddenly became associated with teenage girls? I don’t know if there are many female MLP fans who feel that way, but I can see it being there subconsciously, at least. I felt a tiny bit indignant when my husband started watching, to be sure — I was like the hipster MLP fan going “I liked ponies BEFORE it was cool!!!” So I think that’s why I feel it a little more acutely in this fandom than in any of the other male dominated spaces I’ve entered as a geek girl. It’s unexpected to me that I would feel like the outsider in something that was originally “mine.” So I guess I don’t think there’s any real disadvantage that’s unique to this fandom, but it’s more of a shock when an unpleasant interaction does happen.
Fandom(s) and Gender
J: To speak about the fandom around My Little Pony as a singular thing is probably a synecdoche5 without a real reference–there’s no singular MLP fandom. There ARE a large number of people with resonating interests that somehow produce an affinity for the current MLP incarnation. That “somehow” is complicated, because those affinities, for some people (and especially for the originators of the “brony” moniker and the somewhat ironic/playful fandom of 4chan), include being part of a group that is clearly over-represented by males with interests in games and geek stuff. So even if the fandoms that gravitate to Friendship is Magic are not explicitly a group of geeky men (though anyone calling themselves a brony is coming pretty close to making that statement), what they generally all do is reinscribe certain behaviors that index being a dude–even when they’re being done by non-dudes. Which is fucking weird, because presumably women should have equal (some might say greater) claim to this fandom. [Aside: to someone who has not been following MLPFiM fandom(s), there’s no knowledge of this shift and so non-fans generally treat MLP as “girl stuff” and thus marginalize the MALE fans…that’s a later post.]
K: One thing I would add to this is that there is an MLP fandom—insofar as people are very invested in the creation and maintenance of an MLP fandom. I know you are implying this, but it is something worth mentioning explicitly. There is no monolithic thing that you could point to and say “that’s the MLP fandom” without running into some problems. There is an idea of a community that many people are very invested in maintaining and it is as much of a thing as anything else is. The same issues arise with the idea of a “brony,” or any other thing that happens to be a word: everybody understands these terms in different (and not necessarily even remotely internally consistent) ways and, while there is a general sense of what “the fandom is,” there are really no clear cut boundaries that can be pointed to. But I digress—
M: There’s an older generation of MLP toy collectors that I know have some overlap with current MLP fandom, but it’s hard to say how much because there’s not really any crossover conversation happening. At the last in-person MLP fandom event I attended, I won this Collector’s Guide that covers the past few years of MLP merchandise, including the generation of toys that existed before the cartoon became a thing. I know for a while there was also this trend of custom repaints of MLP toys, and some of those were amazing. This still goes on, and I’d love to see that side of fandom interact a bit more with the “brony” half — especially those of us who fall somewhere in the middle. I was never a collector, but I loved the old toys as a child and admired the things people did to customize them. I’ve thought of doing some custom repaints myself, but so far the furthest I’ve gotten on that end is painting one of those Princess Luna Design-a-Ponies.
J: Friendship is Magic has done an interesting thing where it produced a kind of punctuated growth of the fandom in an unintended and unimagined way, arising from a very different set of experiences than the fans of MLP before that. I can’t think of any other fandom, off the top of my head, that has done that. I’m pretty involved in the Transformers fandom and through those various iterations–Transformers, Generation 2, Beast Wars, Beast Machines, the Michael Bay movies, etc.–there have been gigantic leaps forward in terms of the number of fans, but the demographic makeup of the group has never shifted so dramatically. Maybe with the Michael Bay movies, fans might argue that the new mainstream following dramatically changed the makeup of the fandom, but it was still something more like that hipster mentality of something special becoming less so because of the dirty hands of the public at large, not a different subset altogether. Or to put it otherwise, the fandom is more like if a bunch of people from New York City moved to Atlanta all at once, as opposed to Atlanta opening itself up to people from all over the country. Each would produce some local tensions and anxieties, but the former would be a specific difference while the latter would be a general one.
K: I definitely can’t think of any other fandom that has done this either. Also, with the Bay movies, I think there is a certain general appeal that Faust was going for (moving from a niche audience to a much more general audience by virtue of creating solid and characters) that Bay didn’t necessarily have to, or even care to, try for. I mean, it’s a movie starring Shia The Beef and Megan Fox/whoever the model/”actress” that replaced her was.
M: Star Trek, maybe? I know there’s a hint of derision directed at people who like the new JJ Abrams Star Trek movies without having been a Trekkie previously, but I think that happens with any remake. Fans who get brought in via the new movie/show/iteration are automatically looked down upon for a while unless they get into the “classic” version. Same with Doctor Who, though not as much now as when the series first restarted.
K: I guess, with issues such as this, there might be a bit more of a possibility for anyone to be considered a “fake” fan of something—the Whoovian who hasn’t seen any Doctor before Tennant, the Tolkien fan who hasn’t actually read all of the books, etc. I am interested in how this works on the micro- level though. I feel like there is a lot of negative, hipteresque sentiment that comes out of these situations— all sorts of late adopters coming in who are seen as not really being part of the fandom. However, how much of that is just felt as a general feeling about “the fandom” and how much really gets directed toward specific people? I don’t personally identify as a “gamer” or anything like that, but I find that a lot of people are, on the whole, just more than happy to talk about games, or Dr. Who, or WWE (the real WWF), or what have you with me even though I am only mildly competent in being able to act a fan. This could be a general thing, it could be gendered, or people could be circulating memes of my horrible attempts to converse about GTA with them.
J: There’s a certain level at which latent affinity or competence is attributed along an axis like gender, age, race, etc. Based on repeated experience, the men you interact with in daily life are probably going to be more likely to be interested in games than the women. To the extent that socializing requires that we make boxes to put people in, the girl-gamer or geek-girl doesn’t have a pre-existing box in most people’s experience. Realizing that she does not fit into that box, she may use a strategy of identity politics to make that box–she may need to consciously and deliberately affirm that she’s a girl AND she games/has extensive knowledge of particular niche hobbies. But since she’s a minority, everything about her ends up overdetermining the features of this new box. She will probably need to assert herself and be better than others (men) to gain the social capital necessary to make that box, but that also produces a box that holds only better girl-gamers and geeks6 . I’m going to stop before it sounds like I’m suggesting that we put women in boxes.
K: We all know we put them in binders. (Are we still allowed to make old election jokes?).
And THAT’S HOW EQUESTRIA WAS MADE…
The “male gaze” comes out of gender/feminist theory, but depending on your academic pedigree, the idea of the gaze as some sort of social condition can be attributed to a few people ranging from Lacan to Foucault. In referring to Foucault, Jason is also pulling in panopticism and the notion that in believing that you are being watched, you self-regulate your behavior ↩
Seremetakis, Nadi. 1984. The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity. p.6 ↩
Kurt’s using the concept of “male privilege” here. Peggy McIntosh’s work is probably the most cited. ↩
Gray, Mary L. 2010. From Websites to Wal-Mart: Small Town, USA. In LGBT Identity and Online Media (edited by Christopher Pullen and Margaret Cooper). p.292 ↩
Jason’s being a pretentious asshole here: “synecdoche” is a form of metaphor in which a part of something metaphorically stands in for the whole, i.e.
“all hands on deck” ↩
Jason is alluding here to the concepts of “strategic essentialism,” coined by Gayatri Spivak and “identity politics,” which has a less specific origin ↩