Glass ceilings, missing stairs, and gatekeepers -- The Video

I'm so pleased to have so many new posts at once. There has been a lot, of course, coming out of C2E2, and though this is the last directly connected post, it's surely not the last related one. So behold, the video from our panel last weekend. Filming by Jesse Lex, hard work by Michi Trota to get it live, and featuring all our lovely faces. If you didn't make it to the panel, or if you just want to rewatch it, please enjoy. It's too long for YouTube, and so it's broke up into five parts, but they're all linked through the playlist. 


And if you're looking for more articles, don't worry, they're coming. Several incidents and comments from the convention have got me thinking about articles that should be written, and issues that need to be addressed. The wheels are turning--and what's more, they've got time to turn, now that I'm done with my degree and summer is coming. So keep checking this space for updates, or subscribe to this blog! More geeky feminism is coming your way. 

Making change and turning heads at C2E2

Two years ago, I went to my first C2E2. It was a turning point for me, for though I’d been obsessed with geeky things for years, I had just begun to call myself a geek, and to discover that there was a much larger community out there than I ever knew about. When I arrived on the show floor, it was like I’d found my family. I attended a brilliant panel called The Geek Girl and the Artist, where I heard the experiences of other intelligent, enthusiastic women who loved the same things I did, talking about how they had faced opposition and sexism from men. I was enthralled, inspired, and felt like I was part of something. And then, dressed in a TARDIS sari, I marched straight up the moderator. She told me how awesome my cosplay was. I told her how inspirational her panel was. I think it’s fair to say that my friendship with Michi Trota took off from there. 

Last weekend, it became quite apparent that our ship has not sailed. On the contrary, our ship has taken off, and is now blasting through the stratosphere out into space. Because this C2E2 was a resounding success in so many ways. Let's take a look at all of them. 

Some Amazing Folks Threw Out the Key to the Clubhouse Door

If you didn’t go to this panel on Friday evening (and there were definitely some seats to fill), you missed out, big time. My friend Michi Trota recruited an all-star cast: Jeff Smith, president of CNSC, moderated, and the lineup featured Michi; Karlyn Meyer, the stellar articulate lawyer; Mary Anne Mohanraj, a terrific writer, editor, and founder of the Speculative Literature Association ; Mary Robinette Kowal, who writes Regency fantasy and is my new best friend; Scott Snyder, known for his excellent comics and his willingness to be an ally; and Gail Simone, who is just made of awesome. 

 L to R: Michi Trota, Gail Simone, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Mary Robinette Kowal, Scott Snyder, Karlyn Meyer, Jeff Smith. 

L to R: Michi Trota, Gail Simone, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Mary Robinette Kowal, Scott Snyder, Karlyn Meyer, Jeff Smith. 

There was lots of talk of being a nonwhite hetero cis male creator, and the battles you have to be prepared to fight. Gail Simone talked about her entrance into the industry many years ago, and the level to which the executives didn't know their female readership, and didn't care. And even as she became successful, some guys still wanted to “deny the reality that's right in front of them--so you have to burn down the gates.”

There was talk of writing diverse characters, and nearly everyone pointed out that writing white men was not the “natural” way to go about things. It was a learned default. As Gail said, it has been years of creators making “conscious decisions. Are we writing another white character? You’ve got to decide to break it.” Of course, you want to write those characters for the correct reasons, not for tokenism. But Mary Anne cautioned against stopping writing those characters whose lived experience a writer is not intimately familiar with, and urged us to go beyond our comfort zone. We should do our 101 research, and then go for it. Show it to someone whose experience is similar to the character and see what we are missing. And to know that we all screw up, and “when your friend screws up--just think of this analogy--would you tell them if they had a booger in their nose?” quipped Mary Anne. 

A good portion of the panel was spent on harassment and rape threats, both online and off, of female fans and creators. Anti-harassment policies were applauded, the power of allies was to do good touted, and the need for us to publicize the things we’re going through was shown. And then the floor was opened for questions, and an interesting phenomenon occurred: two men stood up to ask questions give long rambling comments. Apart from it being bad form to monopolize others time at a public panel, these statements were so incredibly centered around them and their male privilege that it made me want to hit something. One guy asked for a cookie for being attracted to trans* individuals. The other guy was angry we didn’t talk about how men get raped as well. 

I won’t rehash the whole thing, because Caitlin Roguesberg has written a great article on Jezebel’s Powder Room about it. Suffice it to say that these comments were both versions of “But what about teh menz!” The conversation was about rape threats and harassment towards women, and having two men beg for themselves to be included in the conversation was a) unacceptable and b) complete derailment and silencing. First of all, allies do not get cookies just for being allies. Second of all, though men do get raped and there are problems with our society’s lack of recognition of that fact, we were talking about rape threats as a form of silencing women--and this guy’s attempt to bring it back to men proves the necessity of the conversation in itself--because rape threats are a very particular form of gendered violence that men do not get. Only those with feminine-sounding names or usernames do, whether that is in gaming chatrooms or comments on articles or even hate mail towards comics writers. Put simply--we’re not talking about you. Sit down and shut up.

We Pointed Out the Missing Stair, and People Loved Us For It

We branched out this year, and I think our title does a good job of showcasing that. The Fake Geek Girl crisis is (mostly) winding down for those people immersed in fandom, and more discussions of gatekeeping as a general phenomenon are taking place. But glass ceilings are still present. Creepers are still treated as the missing stair for people “in the know.” Rape threats still occur at an alarming rate. Harassment happens daily. It’s time we fixed this shit.  

 Isabel Schechter, Caryle Frank, Sooshe Bot, Kate Lansky, myself, Tippy Tipton, Michi Trota, Dawn Xiana Moon. 

Isabel Schechter, Caryle Frank, Sooshe Bot, Kate Lansky, myself, Tippy Tipton, Michi Trota, Dawn Xiana Moon. 

And people agree with us. Thankfully, C2E2 granted us a much bigger panel room this year--and we still filled it, and turned away some people who wanted to get in! That alone makes me immensely pleased. As much as we are still held by the impostor syndrome, the attendees of C2E2 think we have something to say--and that is so incredibly validating, to us as people, and to these arguments for inclusion and justice as a whole. 

This issue has gotten more attention and more space every year, and it’s so thrilling to us to see that. It’s now getting noticed by mainstream media--NPR recently wrote an article on gaming while female, and The Guardian has pointed out that if you say “But Teh Menz” well then, you’re not actually a feminist. So move on. So if you came to the panel, thank you so much. We are only here, and continuing to do this, because of our audiences. We got some great press this year, from the blogs Nerditis, Next Dark Age by Anne K Bradley, and Playing, With Research  by CarrieLynn D Reinhard. And the biggest surprise was that the Chicago Tribune’s Cheryl Jackson covered us for BlueSky business section!

 I believe here we were laughing at the Sexy Lamp Test. L to R: Sooshe Bot, Tippy Tipton, Michi Trota, Dawn Xiana Moon, myself, Caryle Frank, Kate Lansky. Photo by Paul Callan. 

I believe here we were laughing at the Sexy Lamp Test. L to R: Sooshe Bot, Tippy Tipton, Michi Trota, Dawn Xiana Moon, myself, Caryle Frank, Kate Lansky. Photo by Paul Callan. 

We had a grand old time, talking about experiences of sexism and gatekeeping, problems of authenticity and gender representation, and of solutions and things allies could do. Tippy got off some wonderful quotes, we got introduced by an audience member to the Sexy Lamp Test, and talked about how awesome anti-harassment policies are. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and we hope you did too. Expect to see us back again soon, most likely (though unofficially) at Wizard World in August.

Artists Are Beautiful People

I made a conscious decision to buy almost all original designs this year, and it was a terriffic choice. I bought another beautiful, one-of-a-kind necklace from Sparkle! Designs, a Georgia-based geeky jewelry store that’s been doing the convention rounds. I got a “We Are All Wonder Woman” necklace, courtesy of the Satrun Twins. And I spent quite a bit of time lingering near Karen Hallion’s booth, the artist responsible for all the beautiful Disney/TARDIS mashups, before I finally bought a print and some buttons. The best thing about buying from creators? You get to ogle their works and then tell them how much you love them.

I Will Never Be Too Old To Cosplay

It is not my first time in costume. But it was the first time I started to feel something pretty powerful: on Friday and Saturday, it felt like those in cosplay outnumbered those who weren’t. Now, I say this with no authority or official numbers. But more and more of us are rejecting the idea that dressing up is just for kids, and we’re jumping into it with all the fun and time and money we can. And there’s nothing like walking around the floor and getting compliments and pictures taken of you. 

On Saturday, I premiered my genderbent Bilbo Baggins. I was particularly proud of it because I’d gotten no outside sewing help. Every stitch, drop of dye, and dab of paint was my own. I needed no wig, no shoes, and my height was an advantage. And to make the ensemble even more perfect, my friend Renee was a particularly fierce Thorin Oakenshield. Photo by Andreas Schneider. 

Sunday I was Merida, and Kids’ Day is always a great day to be a Disney princess--there's a neverending stream of young children who want to pose with you. Photo by Andreas Schneider 

These Are My People, and They're Multiplying

Some people dislike big cons like C2E2 for being too crowded, too big, or too dominated by first time convention goers. But that's exactly why I love it. We need entry points into the fandom, places where pop culture and comics and sci-fi blur together, places where newcomers can feel at ease and not judged for their lack of knowledge and experience. Because that's how I got into it. And every year, more people keep coming. 

At my first con, I felt like I had discovered a whole new world. Well, now it's not a new world. I'm slowly making it my world. I know people, from friends to panelists to authors to random attendees. I feel at home on the floor, in panels, and everywhere else. Fandom has a lot of problems of exclusion, and those have hindered my enjoyment of it sometimes. But that is changing, and we are making that change happen.

Of course, there is still work to be done. There are still things that make me mad--the horrible essentialist experience that--from what I heard secondhand--was the Genre Feminism or Fierce Females in Comics panels, for example. Or the fact that Jen Cross' panel proposal on being a black nerd woman was ignored and then rejected by ReedPOP with the transparent lie that it just wasn't quality enough. It's infuriating. But we're getting there. And we won't settle. We'll make it there. 

Many thanks to all the audience members who came to our panels, to the panelists who gave their voices to these events, and to Isabel Schechter who live-tweeted the Friday panel and saved the most delicious gems. But most of all, a thousand thanks to Michi Trota. She made this all happen. 

There is a graphic novel called Whore.

It was Sunday afternoon at C2E2. I was riding high on feminist success, post-panel elation, and cosplay gorgeousness. I was wandering the show floor with friends, peacefully residing in an empowering world of nerd heaven. 

As a result, when I saw this booth, I couldn't believe my eyes. I wasn't really seeing this, right?  

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But it was. In the middle of Chicago's best convention, the same convention that had just given us the space to speak out against sexism, was the world's most blatant example of that very same misogyny. 

Believe it, readers. There is a graphic novel called Whore. And the organizers granted the author/publisher a large, prime-location booth to promote it. I was speechless. 

As if the banner weren't enough, to the left side of the booth there was a cage. Yes, you read that right. A cage. And on the cage was the following: 

Cage Rules 
1. Whore yourself out to us for 20 minutes, and get a free WHORE shirt.  
2. You can't buy one. This is the only way. 
3. We know you want to. 

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Later at home, I did some research. This graphic novel really exists. Written by Jeffrey Kaufman, published by Zenoscope Entertainment. The story centers around Jacob Mars, an utterly immoral assassin and general hit man downsized by the CIA, who will take every and any job he gets, no matter what it requires him to do. One of these jobs involves a Saudi prince, who pays him to get his daughter pregnant so the prince can raise the resulting child to kill Mars. Reviews say that most of the comic involves him having sex, or else killing people so that he can keep earning money to have more extravagant, exploitative sex. The first line of dialogue in the book is as follows: “Listen you soul-sucking bitch… ”

Typing those last words made me unspeakably angry. I guess that it shouldn't have surprised me that a book with such a title had a first sentence like that. But it did. 

I don't have the time or energy or anger to try and deal with all of the issues Whore brings up. So here are some of the more obvious ones:

1. The title. Kaufman claims      that Jacob Mars is the whore of this book, because he's someone who sells      himself and his services for money, to utterly immoral causes. Let's      examine this. This assumes that (a) someone's value is tied to how much      sex they have, (b) women who engage in sex with a number of partners must      be of dubious morality, (c) every woman who provides sexually-related      services for money is immoral, and (d) sex, for women, is equivalent to      murder, or worse.

The argument that it was meant to serve as a nickname for an utterly immoral assassin is baseless and bullshit. Kaufman knew full well what he was titling his novel. And he knew full well it was a problem. 

2. The cover.  Just like the title, it is not about      Jacob Mars. At all. It is about the three naked women who are featured.      Jacob Mars sits on one of them, and the other two are draped sexily over      his shoulders. In other words, the women in this cover are furniture. They      are decoration. They do not matter, and they never will. The book is about      Mars, so there is no good reason to have three naked women on the cover,      other than "sex sells"--which is the worst excuse I've heard for      anything this century. The man with the gun is incidental on this page--if      he was photoshopped off, it wouldn’t change a whole lot--and yet he's      still clearly in a position of power. 

How's that for utter submission to patriarchy. 

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And here's the clincher: there have been a few online debates about this before. And the author, Kaufman, doesn't even seem to notice that he's done anything at all sexist. He cites the pretty traditional debates we've all come to expect: he has female readers, the cover drawing was done from an actual photo so "at least we didn't over emphasize certain female parts." Oh, and he killed more characters in his previous graphic novel . So apparently that makes it okay that there are less deaths, and more sex scenes, and three naked women being used as furniture on his cover.

This isn't just about the title, or about the cover. It's not even just about the novel in general. It's about a society and culture that lets Kaufman (a) think this idea was not only a good one, but a permissive one, and (b) get away with it. How many times have you heard the word "whore" flung around to describe someone who was not a sex worker? Pretty frequently, unfortunately, and it's usually used to describe any woman who has sex with more than one partner, who is open about her sexuality, or who enjoys and takes pride in her sexual activity. And that's just wrong.

This doesn't just affect sex workers. Not that it should affect them, at all. To be clear, I don't approve of the term whore in any context. If you're referring to someone who works in a trade where sex is exchanged for money, the correct term would be prostitute. To examine why Kaufman hasn't titled his graphic novel "Prostitute" would be another article in itself. The short answer comes down to the word "whore" being more catchy, and more disparaging, so we'll just stick with that, for I have digressed long enough.

Covers and titles and graphic novels like this affect each and every woman who lives under the patriarchy--ie, all of us. When one person--man or woman--gets away with calling a woman a whore, that sends the message that he can do it again. When a writer like Kaufman gets away with calling a mainstream graphic novel Whore, he's likely to do something like it again. He's said that he wanted to up the ante from his last work. Apparently that means being more misogynist. He's also said that he loved writing Mars as a character, and he empathized with him. And then he said this:

More women go Michael [Weston, from Burn Notice] is cute but this Mars guy…he’s terrible. We like him. People are going to say that he’s misogynistic, but I do let the women kick the crap out of him at the end. And that’s what I think the important thing is.
— Jeffrey Kaufman

Oh, I get it. So as long as some women injure a man, once, then every woman who was ever impacted by his misogyny has suddenly been brought to justice. Wrong. So many times wrong. Having that character meet a bad end does never, EVER justify the utterly sexist beliefs that that character brought to bear on the fictional world. And that character's end fate does not, in any way, excuse Kaufman from every horribly sexist assumption that he made, and therefore possible acts that he licensed, by writing and publishing this graphic novel.

When I walked up to that booth at C2E2 to take the second picture, featuring the cage, I was noticed by the man standing there, presumably Kaufman. I took the picture, and moved back to my group of friends, so I was luckily out of earshot by the time he started talking to me/about me, his finger pointing straight at me standing in the middle of aisle, his face hateful. I didn't need to hear what he was saying to get the gist of what he thought of me.

It would be easy to dismiss Kaufman as a crazy misogynist. But I can't. Because he's not the only one. His friends, his artist, his publisher, even the staff at C2E2--all approved of his cover and his title. Granted, his publisher has taken their name off the cover and stopped promoting it, and a few stores are refusing to stock it. But it's still here. And still at my con. I've seen enormous amounts of sexualization of women at cons. But never something quite as horrible as this. The patriarchy--in the guise of Kaufman--is invading my space--my safe, wonderful, supported space. And I will not let that happen. 

"There is good in this world, Mr. Frodo."

"...and it's worth fighting for."

C2E2 was a blast, the panel a success, and a wrap-up will be coming soon. But in the meantime, I feel compelled to post these two things.

So much of what I write about as a geeky feminist seems to be in defense--of myself, of my identity, and of the way my feminism and my nerdiness is seen by the dominant culture--that it sometimes feels like I'm shouting into the abyss. Is anyone hearing me? Do these conversations mean anything? Will they change anyone's mind? These two items make me say yes. Why? Well, because both of them made me cry.

The first is a video from Calgary Comic Expo this past weekend. A recent mother asks Wil Wheaton to tell her infant daughter, years in the future, why it's awesome to be a nerd. And though many people can talk on this topic, I've never heard someone do it with the sincerity that Wil Wheaton does. Have a look. 

And then, a friend pointed me towards a beautiful comic, done by an artist named Paige Hall. If it doesn't touch you, your heart is made of stone. But I'll let the comic speak for itself. 

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I'm lucky. Responses to my cosplay have been really favorable. But they didn't have to be. My experience could have been like Paige's. But it shouldn't be. No one should ever experience that. And despite my luck, the message hit home, deep and hard. This comic has made the rounds via a post on Epbot, and the community there is showing the artist a lot of love. Go join the party, if you like, and support those who've had the gates to nerddom slammed in their face. 

As for me, I'll still be here, contemplating that last, oh-so-powerful line:

Is this what respect feels like?  

A demand for agency on Doctor Who

Doctor Who, the show that I consider the best of sci-fi, is back on our screens this weekend. In the tradition of holding the things that I love to a high standard, I’d like to take a look at the women in the show, and how they are treated and written. When I set out to examine the women of the show in depth, a song by British musician and comedian Mitch Benn, called “Doctor Who Girl,” immediately sprang to mind. Here’s a selection of the lyrics: 

Be my Doctor Who girl,
We’ll make a real good team,
I’ll do all the thinking,
You’ll look good in shorts and scream.
Give me someone to rescue,
Get changed and give us all a twirl,
Keep quiet and never argue,
Be my Doctor Who girl.

Be my Doctor Who girl,
Follow me a lot,
Ask me heaps of questions,
So I can explain the plot.
Say you’ll stand beside me,
Say you’ll help me save the world,
Fall and twist your ankle,
Be my Doctor Who girl.
 

Even as misogynist as this song is, I can’t help but like it. It is, after all, a parody written by a comic. It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, and hopelessly nostalgic. Oh, and it’s catchy. But it also reveals some of the larger problems of gender in Doctor Who. Written during the “wilderness years” when the show was off the air, it’s a homage to the old series, which started in 1963 and ran until 1989. The new series is different, right?

Well, I’d certainly like to think so. I want to believe that the best show I’ve ever seen on television is progressive, that it treats women with the respect they deserve. Unfortunately, it’s pretty apparent upon closer inspection that those are all wishes are just that, wishes. Doctor Who--even New Who--has a long way to go before it treats women according to my feminist standards.  

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For starters, there’s the fact that in the new series, all the primary companions are women. Sure, there are men aboard the TARDIS--Jack, Mickey, and Rory--but they’re always secondary. Jack is mostly used as a foil against the Doctor’s morals, and it isn’t until Torchwood that he gets the screen time he deserves. Mickey is the dumb boyfriend, the incompetent idiot, the comic relief--throughout his tenure, despite the fact that he leaves Rose, does some brilliant fighting and work, and marries Martha. And though Rory is a companion in his own right, it couldn’t be clearer that the Doctor’s primary relationship is to Amy. It wasn’t always so in Old Who. But for the purposes of 2005 onward, the companion is a woman.

They are wonderful, brilliant, and sassy women. Yet no matter how talented, clever, or strong they are, they inevitably become damsels in distress more than once, fulfilling a plot point so that the Doctor can rescue them and therefore confront the villain or monster. And they are in good part eye candy. As much as I like Karen Gillan, there’s been very strong evidence (ie, words from Moffat himself) suggesting that the reason she got the part has a lot to do with the fact that she’s gorgeous, thin, and tall. Billie Piper started off her career as a teenage pop star. Case in point.

Oh, and the Doctor is always a man. In spite of the establishment in canon that Time Lords can change sex at regeneration (thank you Neil Gaiman), the suggestion that the next Doctor be female has generally been met in the mass media with horror (though with delight and total seriousness from a good section of fans).  

Last year, a contributor to Doctor Her ran the Bechdel Test on every single New Who episode 2005-2012. The results were scary. Season 4 gets the only result that could be called acceptable (a 2.8 out of 3, with only one episode not passing the test). The Davies era averages out to a 2.7/3. Moffat’s tenure gets a 2.1/3. Ouch. Not doing too well there.

This may all seem unimportant. Why does it matter what characters are included, and how those characters are treated, as long as Doctor Who is a good show? The primary companion of late, and thus the point of identification for the audience, is a woman. And if the character that the audience is supposed to identify with is in the end shafted, marginalized, and made to be unimportant or powerless, that is a serious problem for every member of the audience, male and female. It is a serious problem for the show.

To assess the extent of this problem, I’d like to take a look at the major female characters we’ve met since 2005 and see how each weighs up.  

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Rose Tyler

I have a soft spot in my heart for Rose. Maybe because she was my first companion. Maybe because she was nineteen, roughly the age I started watching the show. Or maybe because she ran away from her unsatisfactory life and dead-end job without looking back. She is fierce, she is stubborn, and refuses to give in. She is always talking to the people around her, especially the average people, the working-class women that the Doctor sometimes overlooks.

The problem is, she seems to lose it all when she loses the Doctor. Or, I should say, when two men (the Doctor and Pete) force her into a universe without him. She rebels, blowing holes in more than a few universes to warn him that reality is collapsing, and to be with her Doctor again. Her reward? To be forced back to that universe, with an almost-but-not-quite Doctor copy, and told to be happy with it. And here’s the biggest problem. Because it’s the Doctor, again, making the decision he thinks is best for her, in a very patriarchal way. And the funny thing is, Russell T Davies had a problem with this too. He couldn’t justify it. It was what he needed for the plot, in order to get Billie Piper off the show again, and dispose of the CloneDoctor he’d created, but it didn’t work for the characters. For Rose. Because she traversed realities to get back to her Doctor. How could she give him up? Because the real Doctor manipulates her into doing so, and by the time she can protest, the TARDIS has faded away.

So much for agency.

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Martha Jones

I think it’s fair to say that Martha is the most brilliant of the New Who companions. She’s well on her way to becoming a doctor when we first meet her. Not only is she smart, though, she’s excellent at keeping her cool. She’s the only one in the hospital who doesn’t just gawp or scream when they’re transported to the moon--she reasons that if they got here, they can get back. She accepts the Doctor’s help with a certain amount of dubiousness (“You have to earn that title, as far as I’m concerned”) and is utterly unfazed when he tells her he’s an alien.

Unlike Rose, she’s not running away from her life, she’s merely taking a temporary holiday from responsibility--particularly the responsibility of having to settle a family feud. Which makes her time with the Doctor an utter shame, because she ends up having to take care of him instead. From dealing with the rudeness of a guy on the rebound in The Shakespeare Code, to helping him sort out his repressed feelings about the Time War in Gridlock, to providing financial support in Blink, to taking care of a thankless John Smith who treats her as a servant in a racist era in Human Nature, Martha runs the gamut of responsibility for the Doctor. And that doesn’t even include the entire year she spends walking the ruined and devastated Earth, telling people that there’s this one man who can save them. In the end, it isn’t the Doctor that saves them. It’s Martha Jones. And she barely gets acknowledgement for it.

Most people see Martha’s departure as her “getting out” of a friend-crush that would never be reciprocated. I see that as a secondary matter. I think that first and foremost, she was choosing her own welfare, and her family’s welfare, over the wonders of traveling with the Doctor. It’s a banal choice, and it’s one that he doesn’t really understand. In the philosophy of RTD, where the most wonderful thing in the world is to travel with the Doctor, the person who voluntarily walks away from the Doctor is crazy. How could she choose to leave the TARDIS? But here’s the thing: that philosophy doesn’t work for everyone. Traveling is great, but home is amazing too. Martha’s home, with a family and a career, is one she values, and rightly so. Because within the next few years, she works for UNIT, Torchwood, and goes freelance.

Martha is by no means a weak character. In fact, her choice to leave the Doctor makes her incredibly strong. But the writer’s emphasis on her crush on the Doctor makes her seem one. It takes away her power, her agency--something of which she has plenty--so that in the eyes of many fans, she is reduced to a lovesick girl. And that frustrates me, because she is so much more than that.  

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Donna Noble

Though the Doctor really can’t have an equal, Donna comes closest to it out of all the companions of the Davies era. He refers to her multiple times as his best friend. She is unafraid to give him back exactly what she gets, and more. She questions his knowledge, his omniscience, and the ramifications of his actions as a Time Lord. In turn, her travels with him give her incredible spirit, purpose, and growth as a person. She becomes more sensitive, and shows the Doctor that it’s okay to hurt, and to feel. Their companionship is so beautiful because they need each other. Without the other one, disasters happen, as Midnight and Turn Left show.

And then it is Donna who gets shafted most of all. She gets catapulted to the highest realms of knowledge, power, and cleverness with the DoctorDonna metacrisis. She saves the universe, while the Doctor stands helplessly by. But then she “can’t handle” the power. Because there “should never have been” a human (female) metacrisis. So the Doctor not only strips her of all her power, he strips her of all her knowledge and memories of him and her travels and adventures, despite her forcibly protesting and shouting “No! No! No!” Smells a bit like consciousness-rape, doesn’t it? When we next see her, she’s defaulted to the same about-to-be married that she was when we first met her. She’s just “making do,” dreaming of a better life, a more adventurous life, that she’s not even consciously aware of.

So there we have it. Donna Noble, whose departure also features no agency. She is robbed of her memories and her personality. Those two very things that make us so human, and the Doctor who professes to love humans, takes them away against her will, because he decides that a life without them is better for her than a death where she goes down fighting. More to the point, it’s better for him. If he can tell himself that Donna is living a happy life, or that Rose has a Doctor of his own, he can feel better about the decisions that he made for his friends.  

The RTD Era

So, we have relationship manipulation, complete dependency, and mind-rape. That’s the Russell T Davies era, folks. We’re off to a bad start.

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Amy Pond

I’ll be upfront here. I’m not an Amy Pond fan. I love her, but I don’t feel the same connection to her that I do to the other ladies who have spent time with the Doctor.

That said, there’s a lot to like about Amy Pond. One thing to love is her feistyness. When the Doctor presents her with two choices in The Eleventh Hour (run home or stay and help me), she refuses to take either of them, and demands to know more about him and who he really is. I love this part of her, I really do. But this trait is often cited as the main thing that makes Amy awesome. And here’s the thing. A kick-ass, sassy female character is not necessarily a strong feminist female character. And I believe that Amy’s sassiness is sometimes used against her.

The other thing to love is her sexuality. She takes charge of it. She works as a kiss-o-gram. She makes out with the Doctor the night before her wedding. She has clearly decided to hell with the patriarchal rules. But again, the rub: the patriarchal rules still apply to her. Everyone vocally disapproves of her turn as a kiss-o-gram. “You were a little girl five minutes ago!” the Doctor scolds. If that’s not a cue that the audience is supposed to disapprove of Amy’s deviant sexuality, I don’t know what is.

And then there’s Amy’s relationship with Rory. It’s clearly not perfect, but the fact that the Doctor feels that he is entitled to “fix” that, first by taking them on a honeymoon to Venice, and then by constructing a horrific dream world to force Amy to choose her fiance over traveling, is horribly controlling and paternalistic.

When you begin to put together parts of Amy’s life, it gets scary real fast. However much she presents herself as a modern woman, very little of her life is actually under her control. Little Amelia grows up without any parents, or much of a family, thanks to the crack in her wall sucking them away. She “forgets” Rory, then “remembers” him, then magically has her parents and her fiance restored to her in one glorious restoration of the universe that she had no say in. Shortly afterwards, she and Rory conceive a child, but she doesn’t even know she’s pregnant, because her body is stolen from her and her consciousness is placed in a Flesh body. Let me repeat that. She spends nine months being pregnant, and about eight of those months, her pregnancy is co-opted by a religious order who wants to use her body as a farm to harvest a child with quasi-Time Lord DNA. She is then imprisoned just as she goes into labor, and gives birth to a baby girl, Melody. Her daughter is stolen from her, without her knowledge. She is then dropped off at home by the Doctor, who doesn’t search for her child like he promised, because he doesn’t need to, it’s okay, because she’s River Song! And then she discovers that she’s actually been best friends with her daughter growing up, and so “raised” her daughter. And then, while her body was held prisoner, the Silence made it impossible for her to have more children, which is at least part of the reason she and Rory got divorced.

If you made it through that last paragraph without screaming in frustration, you’re a better person than I am. Ever since Amy’s pregnancy was revealed, I have been fuming, and few people have understood why. Yes, River/Melody was Amy and Rory’s biological child, conceived by them of their own will (with some extra time vortex genes that they were not aware of). But apart from that, it looks a whole lot like the Mystical Pregnancy Trope, which Anita Sarkeesian has done an excellent video on. Though she has been pregnant since before the beginning of season 6, she doesn’t know it, we barely see it, and she is not physically affected by it until the final days. Pregnancy is not an occurrence, it is a process. Yet for Amy, it is a here-today-gone-tomorrow thing. Thanks to intervention by the Silence, Amy essentially serves as the incubator for a weapon that can be used to destroy her best friend. She has no control over the situation. Her pregnancy is a plot point, and Amy, as a character and as a woman, is reduced to no more than her biological function. Yes, women can have babies. Amy can have babies. That does not mean that Steven Moffat should take advantage of this for the purposes of his story. He is enacting reproductive terrorism on her, as Laura Shapiro calls it. And it makes me sick.

If that’s not sexist, I don’t know what is.  

Transient

River Song

From her first appearance in Silence in the Library, River presents the Doctor, and thus the audience, with a conundrum: she knows just as much as he does. More, when we first see her. This is a challenge to the Doctor’s ego and to the show’s format, because both the Doctor and the audience are used to the Doctor knowing the most, and always being in charge and saving the day. The Doctor reacted pretty negatively to her at their first meeting, and so did much of the audience. She’s sexy and brilliant. She knows the intricacies of space and time, and travels the universe with the same ease that he does. She can fly the TARDIS. She knows his future. She’s his equal. And it’s been years since the Doctor had one of those. He felt a little threatened by her.

So, there has to be some way to neutralize that threat. Initially, it’s negated because she’s a killer sociopath. He has the moral high ground, and in another act of paternal goodness, shows her the good and “right” way to live her life. He has domesticated her, “tamed” her.

And if we’re talking about unhealthy relationships, River tops the list. Her life revolves around the Doctor--literally. Before she is even born, she is groomed to be a weapon to kill him. He is present shortly after her birth, at her kidnapping. He flits in and out of the life of her friends growing up. She finally meets him, and tries to kill him. She’s then converted by him, and spends years of her life researching him as part of her dissertation. She is forced to kill him, in what is called a “fixed point in time,” and is put into prison for it. She escapes to go on adventures and he spirits her away occasionally for dates, but she still is in prison, doing time for a crime that she was forced to commit. She admits that the days she doesn’t see him are a waste.

And of course, River’s love for the Doctor results in all her abilities being turned to his purposes. From giving up her regenerations, to shooting down the Silence, to pretending her wrist isn’t broken merely to soothe his pride, she devotes enormous amounts of energy to sheltering the Doctor and keeping him on a pedestal. “Never let him see the damage. And never ever let him see you age. He doesn't like endings.” In the end, she gives up her life so that he can have a future in which she serves him. Her life is the Doctor, and as much as I love romance, that is just wrong.

River is a strong female character. But she is a strong female character with one purpose: to serve the Doctor. And that hurts, because under another writer, she could have been so much more.  

The Moffat Era

So, Steven Moffat: writes companions who are either reduced to their biological function, or exist only for the Doctor. Even worse.

The Verdict

I love Doctor Who to pieces. But it can’t be denied that the writers treat their female characters with undisguised misogynism. The show could be so much better, so much more, if the writers started writing women who are not only feisty, but women who have agency over their own lives.

It’s too early to tell where Moffat will take the character of Clara Oswald. I’m trying hard to be optimistic, to believe that he can deviate from past experience, to hope that he can for once make a companion who can make her own choices, rather than the Doctor or the villains making those choices for her. But based on the dying-over-and-over trope we’ve seen so far, it’s not likely.

I’ll still be eagerly watching on Saturday when the show returns to TV. But I think that we have earned the right to better female characters. And rather than just hoping that the male showrunners will give us better, I demand better female characters. I hope you’ll join me.  

Fake Geek Girls: An Introduction to the Nonexistent Phenomenon

The second in a series of posts leading up to C2E2, where the author will be on a panel called Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl: Discussing geek culture, gate-keeping, and sexism.

Transient

I was in the wilderness, far from civilization, electricity, and wireless when the world of geek feminism exploded over the summer. When I got back, and caught myself up on the enormity of the issue, I was shocked--although in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been. Essentially, some male nerd had been incredibly misogynistic in a very public forum. It’s happened before (though not so vividly), and it will probably happen again.

It did. I mean, it has. Many times since then. Google “fake geek girl” and the search returns over 5.5 million hits.

So it’s popular, for sure. And it’s sexist--anyone can spot that. But why is it a problem? What does it say about geek culture? About sexism? Who does it implicate? How can we fight it? Below is the tip of the iceberg of the Fake Geek Girl.

Transient

The summer started out on an individual bashing note. Aisha Tyler received insane backlash after she hosted the E3 press conference. She defended herself and her lifelong love of gaming, but it was only one instance of the increasingly visible misogyny in gaming culture. Anita Sarkesian received an incredible amount of horrible hate--or, as she calls them, image-based harassment and visual misogyny (serious serious trigger warning--the images are very hateful and disgusting). And then Felicia Day was denigrated as a “booth babe” on Twitter, because she didn’t make any serious contribution to nerd culture.

But those personal attacks were just the beginning. It got broader, much broader, with “Booth Babes Need Not Apply” by Joe Peacock, in which he misused the hugely visible platform of CNN’s Geek Out! blog to denigrate women who have “no interest or history in gaming taking nearly naked photos of themselves with game controllers draped all over their body just to play at being a ‘model.’” In one breath, he heaps admiration on those women he deems “real geeks” (ironically defending Felicia Day) while slamming those who he considers “booth babes” saying that “they're poachers. They're a pox on our culture.” He accuses these “fake geek girls” of being the reason that “real geek girls” like Felicia Day get attacked.

There are, of course, a hundred horrible assumptions made right there. The first of which is that there are such things as “fake geek girls,” ie women who are not at all interested in geek fandoms who spend hundreds of dollars on costumes, hotels, and con tickets just to get a thrill from being seen as attractive for a few days by a bunch of men who inside are “13 year old boys who like to objectify women and see them as nothing more than butts and a pair of boobs to be leered at.” (His words, not mine.) Last I checked, most of the women who cosplay do it because... well, they like to cosplay.

Let’s be clear. There are no fake geek girls.

Why is that? Well, because there’s no such thing as a fake geek. John Scalzi’s excellent rebuttal “Who Gets to Be a Geek? Anyone Who Wants To Be” really tackles this issue. Plus, it’s snarky, well-argued and eloquently phrased. He sweeps away everything negative that Peacock argued and starts from the ground up in a refreshingly positive way. My favorite bit will forever be this gem about nerd culture: “Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think — and my experience of geekdom bears on this thinking — that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing.” Everyone’s geek interests, and the extent of their interests, are entirely their own.

The problem of gatekeeping is an issue I’ve had personal experience with, both positive and negative, and Scalzi’s commentary was a big part of the inspiration for a previous article of mine on the subject.  

Because the internet delivers, there are many more wonderful reactions to Peacock’s post. Daniel Nye Griffiths tells us how How Geek Gate-Keeping is Bad for Business. Amanda Marcotte points out how Peacock conflated cosplayers with women who are paid to dress skimpily at cons to sell products (and there’s nothing wrong with those women, either). Genevieve Dempre argues that this whole conversation pretty much assumes that women are at cons solely for the enjoyment of men. Dr. Nerdlove busts the idea of nerd cred and phonies.

All the passionate defenses of women, female nerds, and the openness of geekdom make me feel quite proud. But the internet delivers the negative goods too. And one of those things has taken the form of the Fake Geek Girl meme. Take a quick Google search to see what I mean. It takes all the denigration of Peacock’s piece and puts it into casual, funny, complacently misogynistic terms of a typical meme.

And then in November, comics artist Tony Harris was somehow possessed to post a truly immature, obnoxious, sexist, and horribly ungrammatically correct rant on Facebook about how much he hates fake geek girls. Guess what? It’s worse than Peacock’s post. He defines the trope as the majority of women who cosplay, who know nothing about their character, who are merely “con hot,” and who do it merely to prey on poor nerd boys. After a huge outcry, he refused to apologize, denied that he was sexist, and said he loved his wife and daughters (which is somewhat like saying “I have friends who are black” when you’re accused of being racist).

Foz Meadows brings up a number of points: one, that women in comics, which Mr. Harris draws, are usually drawn in heavily sexualized and objectified positions, not to mention highly revealing outfits designed for the male gaze. Two, that when women dress as those characters (regardless of whether Tony Harris has personally drawn/created them), they are slut-shamed. Three, that they are being slut-shamed for wearing the very outfits that were created by men for their pleasure. And fourth, that those outfits can be used by women, too, for their own purposes. Women do not exist merely as the objects for men.

With all this hate and misogyny floating around, it’s easy to say that it doesn’t matter. That we geek girls should just ignore it, that the men writing these articles shouldn’t influence our community, that we shouldn’t let them bother us. But guess what? They do. They bother me immensely. Jon Peacock and Tony Harris are popular, as a commentator and creator, respectively. Double the danger.

Geekdom is my home, and the home of many other women, and men, and trans* identified individuals. It should be--and it needs to be--an inclusive place, with no boundaries, no fences, no gates. And anyone--no matter how famous, no matter how obscure--who tries to police that culture, on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, or knowledge, is a threat. It doesn’t matter that its a falsified trope, as The Mary Sue points out. Remember, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” And for whatever reason, this is a powerful lie.  

So let’s fight back. When someone brings up the issue of fake geek girls, or less real nerds, or half-assed fans, let them know they’re getting it wrong. Geeks are meant to share their interests with anyone else who shares them. If you don’t like the way someone is expressing their interests, kindly take your opinion elsewhere. There is no standard to live up to, and in spite of TBS, there is no such thing as King of the Nerds. When we find out about someone else’s interests, our reaction should be less like the Green Lantern comic above, and more like xkcd’s approach.  

 By Randall Thompson of  XKCD .

By Randall Thompson of XKCD.

Keep fighting, keep geeking, and keep cosplaying. I know I will.