The Gary Stu, or Why I'm Not Subscribing to The Mary Sue Anymore

On days when I was dreaming of being a full-time writer, I would dream of places I'd love to publish. Top of that list would be the wonderful center for geek girl culture, The Mary Sue. 

Or should I say formerly wonderful site for geek girl culture, The Mary Sue. Because it's no longer a wonderful site, or a place that covers geek girl culture. Instead, it's become a site for general geek culture (because there aren't enough of those) that claims to be inclusive, while really targeting a "neutral" demographic--aka 20-40 year-old privileged white men. 

How did it get this way? Well, let's take a look. This is what the site looked like on June 12. Click through if you'd like to see a live version. 

Looks like the site I know and love--love for providing good coverage, snappy editing, excellent writing, and insightful comments. 

But then, on June 13, relatively out of the blue, they announced that they were merging with Geekosystem, a general site for pop culture/geek things. And as this announcement happened, the site changed dramatically. 

How it looks now (June 30). The layout is definitely not an improvement. It's supposed to be more mobile-friendly, but it's also very white, very boring. Note the utter lack of color, and the way the famous logo is diminished. 

But most importantly, please note that the masthead no longer reads "A Guide to Geek Girl Culture." And here's the thing. The editors may think that it's not a big deal. They have argued that they are trying to be a more "inclusive" site--but haven't defined what inclusion means (and if you feel the need to question if such a definition is important, you've lost the point already).

But having that tagline at the top of the page--front and center--was radical. It was important. It announced the perspective of the site and the space for its readers the moment the page loaded. It declared our allegiances and loyalties, defined our topics and voices. And we were damn proud of it--of the writing, of the coverage, or the voices we heard and got to discuss with. And to drop that tagline at the time when the site merges with another site with several male writers on staff (more on this later) is not just troubling, it is a slap in the face to those readers who came to The Mary Sue for not just pop culture, but geek girl culture. 

At the time of the merger, the new editors and the old had an AMA on Reddit--a fact which, in itself is deeply problematic, because Reddit is NOTHING if not known for being the hivemind of MRA and general ambient misogyny. 

And it lived up to its reputation--or rather, the new editors ensured that it would. There's a bunch of really misogynistic tweets from Glen Tickle (associate editor, formerly of Geekosystem) and Dan Van Winkle. There was the snarky response by Tickle, using a statistic that "55% of TheMarySue readers were male" to justify the changes being made to the site. Of course, such a response is not an actual response to valid concerns posed by readers. It's a classic derailment. It is What About The Men, rephrased. To quote the tumblr user hamstermastersamster

This does nothing but cast doubt on why the female branding needs to be removed from the site. It was obviously attracting the right kind of male readership with its unique lady geek focus.
Both the original TMS crew and the Geekosystem crew have all so far completely failed to address his problematic behaviour. They ignore any attempts by community members to get it addressed.

Since the merger on June 13, the site has gotten worse. While the number of stories covered on a given day has gone up, the quality of the writing and the feminism found in those perspectives has plummeted. Tickle's article on Google's new program to train female coders, rather than pointing out how problematic it is that Google is only now addressing this problem, and in a very limited way considering the resources this conglomerate has, makes a point of giving out friendly ally cookies.  Another article, also by Tickle, on the fact that the percentage of female game developers has doubled in the last 5 years, is also disappointing. While you'd think that this is an incident that they'd desperately want to cover well to prove to their readers that they actually aren't eliminating feminism and women's voices, they fail to do that. Instead, the piece comes off as incredibly condescending and patronizing (the joke about animating women isn't funny if it's you they refuse to animate). What happened? Well, male writers took up the pieces that really should have had women's voices. 

User Hamstermastersamster again: 

The comments on articles since the merger have basically been sexist derailment bingo like you’d get on any other site, including but not limited to “but what about the menssss”, “why is this important when there’s war in the middle east” (sadly deleted, what a gem), “it’s your responsibility to handle online harassment”, and “I’ve never seen any harassment of a female during my 240 hours of playing XYZ”.

If you looked at the above and went "well, that about sums up most of the internet," you'd be right. But here's the thing: to many of us devoted readers of The Mary Sue, the site was better than the rest of the internet. It was of higher quality, better relevance, and of more interest. And perhaps most importantly--it was safe. So much safer than the rest of the internet, where the kinds of comments mentioned above didn't happen on a daily basis. 

The idea of safe spaces has been so ridiculed by the patriarchy and the kyriarchy in an attempt to minimize social justice movements--but they are important. They're crucial. Having a safe space means that you don't have to deal with the constant minimizing and derailing and re-explaining 101 concepts for allies who just want cookies. And when you spend hours doing that in your daily life, those safe spaces online become your home. 

Because the Mary Sue was my home. It was the first feed I checked, without fail. It was the place I where read, commented on, updated for news, and searched for inspiration. At the top of every single page, it declared that it was a site for me. 

And now? Well, I have no home. Instead, I've got a cheap impromptu version of a home that claims to be faster, cooler, and more inclusive. Somehow, rather than being included, I'm feeling distinctly shut out. In fact, I rather feel like Arthur Dent when he realizes that both his house and the Earth have been demolished to make way for a bypass. Bypasses are fast, and cool, and everyone can use them. And how can we protest? "You've got to build bypasses." 

The full footage

It's been a busy few weeks in my life. I've been in DC, paying my dues to the more traditional side of the academy (just think about what that means. There's an even more  traditional side than you probably know). Been so busy with travel, readings, lectures, indoctrination sessions and the like that I didn't even realize that finally, our brilliant wonderful full footage video of the panel had gone up! 

So here it is. It's long, yes, but I really hope that if you were one of the ones who wasn't able to make it, for whatever reason, that you set aside an hour and take a watch. It's a great conversation that needs to be had, and we were all on point, and on fire, that day. It's amazing to watch. 

And by all means, tell me what you think. Kick back the feedback in the comments! 

A thousand thanks to Michael Silberman for filming.  

"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. 

Transient
Transient
Transient

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?  

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.  

On nerd sins and gate-keeping

The first in a series of posts leading up to Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (henceforth 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.

A few weeks ago, I went to a gathering hosted by the Chicago Nerd Social Club. It was my first time sitting down and properly getting to know some local nerds, and it was a great time. About halfway through the evening, we assembled for an overdue round of introductions. Jeff threw out the question: What are your nerd sins?  

The question could have been answered in any number of ways, and the discussion could have turned so negative so quickly. Instead what happened was one of the most positive conversations I've ever seen. It was wonderful. But very unexpected. And it didn't occur to me until later that that was a problem. Nerds and geeks should be able to discuss their passions, but they should also be able to admit what they're not passionate about--without fear of any judgment, especially from other nerds. Most of us have spent our high school lives being castigated for our different interests--we don't need to continue doing that to each other as adults, particularly in a sub-community that's supposed to be a place where we all can be welcomed.

If you're thinking this sounds a lot like the Fake Geek Girl controversy, you're right. But although the burden for exclusion from the nerd community tends to fall harder on women, I'd like to take the gender out of it, for the purposes of this post. Because gatekeeping is an important issue on its own. It's hard to change a whole culture. But the only way to start is by talking, and in this case, confessing. So without further ado…

Here Are My Nerd Sins

I am not a Trekkie. Not that I couldn't ever be one. I enjoyed the JJ Abrams movie, and I'm looking forward to the next one, but I know that doesn't make me a fan. But my parents are not geeks, and so it was not something that came up on my horizon.

I think the undead are stupid. I don't understand this recent wave of fascination and obsession with vampires and zombies.

So-called "hard" sci-fi drives me insane. I haven't been exposed to much of it, but the classics that people say are so brilliant? Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land--they were just plain boring to me. There was so much science, technology, and distopianism--but so little reason to care about the characters or what happened to them.

I don't like video games. At all. Various people have tried to show me these other games, and convince me otherwise, that their game is the best, and I'll love it. But I'm horrible at every system and game that I've tried, and sitting in front of a screen for hours waving my hands around isn't my idea of fun.

And tabletop games aren't the best thing on the planet, either. That's not to say I don't like them. But there are certain ones that are fun, and others that are just too complicated. I don't have a strategy-based brain, and I also don't have any sense of competition. So I prefer the games with less parts, with boards (as opposed to deck-building), and with people who take a casual, fun, and mostly non-competitive approach to it. And I have never played D & D.

Alien and Predator will never catch my interest. End of story.

Anime is not something I'm into. I was probably the only person who didn't like it in my Japanese history class. But then again, I was the most historically-inclined person in that class, so I think I reserve the right.

I can't get into Wheel of Time. And I've tried twice.

And probably most heinous of all, I don't read comics. I've read some graphic novels--Persepolis, Maus--that I enjoyed, and really loved Gaiman's The Sandman (I'm in the process of finishing the series). But I've never read anything else, and the hostility I feel when I walk into comic book stores probably isn't helping.

I realize that by declaring all of these, I might have rained on someone's parade or trashed someone's favorite fandom. But that's not my intention here. You are perfectly free to be obsessed with zombies, read all the X-Men you can get your hands on, and play as much WoW as you have time for. In fact, I encourage it. Go do what you love, and do it whole-heartedly. I may not participate in all of those things.

 And that's okay. We cannot be into every thing that is considered nerdy, and we don't have to be. You are not a better person, or a better nerd, for having seen more Star Trek or having been a Batman reader since you were little. Cosplaying for years does not mean that you have more points than someone who has cosplayed once or twice. I love my Doctor Who to death, but my roommate doesn't, and that's okay. I know people who live and breathe comics, but they forgive me for not being into them. I might be a little sad, because I think my roommate is missing out. But I'm sure comics fans feel the same way about me.

I can't put it any better than John Scalzi did: "Who gets to be a geek? Anyone who wants to be, any way they want to be one." There is no hierarchy, no standard, no exclusion. There is just a community, an informal community of people who love the same things. "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."

We don't have to share all the same things. I guarantee you we won't. And we won't all share them in the same ways, either. I may not have seen more than two Tom Baker stories, but that doesn't mean I love Doctor Who any less than someone who has. Someone may cosplay a character that they think is badass, and if they don't know everything about that character, that's just fine. To each their own.

Geek culture is a wonderful, beautiful, huge world full of surprises, ever expanding and coming upon new fandoms. There is no gate. So let's stop trying to build a gate of standards, and let's stop trying to guard that gate. We are better than that. Nerd sins are forgiven--and we don't need a priest to do so. We only need each other. As Jeff said many times that night, "We accept all kinds here."

And that's how it should be. 

What are your nerd sins? How do you feel about them? What are your experiences with gatekeeping in nerd culture? Share with me in the comments!