I've been thinking about fake geek girls—or, more, the tenacity with which the geek community has latched on to the bugbear of the fake geek girl. Even in a community with a reputation as argumentative, the intensity and volume of the vitriol directed at the fake geek girl is unprecedented. It's flat-out weird.
So, what makes the fake geek girl such a threatening spectre? What, exactly, does she threaten?
Image of "Imposter," via College Humor
"Geek" is a gendered noun. There's a GeekGirlCon, but no GeekGuyCon: every con is GeekGuyCon, unless it specifies otherwise. You don't say "geek guys" the way you say "geek girls": once you've said "geek," the "guy" is pretty much taken as read.
When a label is gendered, it carries all the attendant baggage. What does that mean to geeks? Well, we, as a culture, regulate masculinity very closely. It's valuable in ways femininity isn't, and that makes it more fragile as well. The worst words you can call a man are the ones that question his masculinity, or, worse, imply that he's feminine. Even "girl" gets thrown around as an insult.
Take a moment to think about what that means—to women, but also to men; and particularly to the way men are taught to see women. Girls in a guy zone become a threat. They taint what they touch by association. A girl who's into guy stuff, that's understandable, an upgrade; but a guy into girl stuff is a broken machine.
If you start there, it's easy to see how we might have become predisposed to looking at female-identified geeks with suspicion. They're other. They don't fit the narrative. They require qualifiers, not just "geeks," but "geek girls" or "girl geeks": already a step removed from the real deal.
So, when I say that "geek" is a gendered noun, and that its default gender is masculine, I'm saying something about how it intersects with a specific set of cultural values—and, by extension, I'm saying something about the value of masculine identity to the geek community.
At the same time, though, geek culture is a haven for guys who can't or don't want to fall in step with the set of cultural trappings and priorities of traditional manhood in America. At least in theory, geek culture fosters a more cerebral and less violent model of masculinity, supported by a complementary range of alternative values. But the social cost of that alternative model—chosen or imposed—is high, and it's often extorted violently—socially or physically. The fringe is a scary place to live, and it leaves you raw and defensive, eager to create your own approximation of a center. Instead of rejecting the rigid duality of the culture they're nominally breaking from, geek communities intensify it, distilled through the defensive bitterness that comes with marginalization. And so masculinity is policed incredibly aggressively in geek communities, as much as in any locker room or frat house.
It's not surprising, then, that being a woman in geek culture was for a long time a profoundly gender-deviant act. "Girl" and "geek" were a zero-sum dichotomy: to claim space in one, you had to relinquish equivalent claim to the other. Recently, though, there's been a dramatic change: a sudden surge not only in the visibility of women in geek culture, but of the visibility and popularity of more traditionally feminine avenues of engagement with that culture—stuff like cosplay and crafting, both overwhelmingly female-dominated areas. At the same time, women are finding ways to reconcile geekery with femininity, which means that geek identity is no longer unimpeachably male. For the first time, there are visible swathes of geek culture that aren't only female-majority, but unabashedly girly—in a culture where feminization is very directly equated to deprecation of value.
And all of this is happening in a community primed to respond aggressively to newcomers, and particularly to female newcomers. Some of that comes out as direct aggression. Some of it comes more subtly, in the form of perpetually challenging or dismissing credentials. Thus, the new stratification of "real" vs. "fake" geeks, where "real" is conveniently identified as the more traditionally male dominated modes of engagement.
Keeping that definition narrow and making sure it discourages newcomers also guarantees that you'll keep a staunch set of female allies. For those of us who had to mortgage significant parts of our identities at the door, it's hard not to see the new generation of geek girls as interlopers, getting a free ride where we had to laboriously claw our way in. When you're part of an underrepresented group, it's easy to fall prey to a reductive fallacy that there's only room for one way to be female (or Black, or disabled, or queer, or...) in geek culture, and anyone who approaches that identity from a different angle threatens your claim to it—not so different from geek culture's own struggle to maintain a discrete identity as our iconography and media bleed their way into the mainstream. If those people can be geeks, what will be left for me? And if the tent is that big, what, ultimately, is membership worth?
The truth is, of course, that it's not a zero-sum game: insularity and identity-policing will consume geek culture faster and more thoroughly than any legion of imaginary interlopers. For decades, we've prided ourselves on being forward-thinkers, early adopters, willing to challenge cultural norms and think and work outside the boxes imposed on us. Imagine how far we could go if we could then stop replacing them with boxes of our own design.
Rachel Edidin is an Associate Editor at Dark Horse Comics. You can follow her on Twitter at @RaeBeta
This post originally appeared on Comics Alliance.