The image below has been making the rounds on my Facebook. It originally popped up on my feed on the page for “It’s Okay to Be Takei”, and has been posted around by about five or six other people. Images travel fast on Facebook:
A ten-picture graph, showing five women on top and five women on bottom. The five women on top are, from left to right, Snooki from Jersey Shore, Bella Swan, Kim Kardashian, Kat Von D, and Lady Gaga. They are captioned “Pop Culture”. The woman on the bottom row are, from left to right, Aeryn Sun from Farscape, Zoë Alleyne Washburne from Firefly, Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5, Jadzia Dax from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and Samantha Carter from Stargate. They are labelled “Geek Culture”. At the bottom is a caption reading “Female Role Models: Fuck Barbie. I’m Buying My Daughter a Ray-Gun”
Images like this irritate me. I don’t like the self-congratulatory aspect of geek culture which appears to have become an epidemic spread via images on websites like Facebook. But what good is complaining when I can, instead, unpack the image and try to start a dialogue on why geek culture needs to take a good, long, hard look in the mirror before patting itself on the back for the creation of such great female role models?
I’ll start with some minor quibbles before building up to the big stuff. The women in the top row, except for Bella Swan, are all real people. The women in the bottom half of the image are all fictional characters from television shows. Wouldn’t a more compelling, interesting, and challenging comparison for celebrating an alternative to mainstream role models for girls have been real-life women who are involved in geek culture? How about Lauren Faust, creator of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic? Or Lindsay Ellis, the Nostalgia Chick? Rebecca Watson, from Skepchick? Jane Goodall, the world-famous Primatologist? Dr. Alice Roberts, from Digging for Britain? Lisa Randall, the Harvard Physicist? Kate Beaton, the brilliant comic artist? Or Mayim Bialik, the actress turned neuroscientist turned actress? All of these women are talented, famous, and well-known for being badass in their decidedly geeky fields. I would love to see them celebrated as role models for budding geek girls.
I’m also interested in the particular pictures that the original creator of the image elected to use to display the differences between the top and bottom rows. The women in the top row are all more scantily-clad (except for Aeryn, who is wearing a tank top) and posed more suggestively and passively than the bottom women. This was obviously a deliberate decision on the part of the creator, and it caught my eye for two reasons: It reeks of slut-shaming, and secondly, it appears to be an odd denial of the amount of hyper-sexualization female characters in geek culture receive from creators and fans alike.
Since the focus of the image is on who makes a good “role model”, it would appear that the message of this image is that you can’t be a sexual being and a good role model for girls. Cover up, if you want to be respectable and badass, respectable women don’t draw attention to their sexuality so flagrantly!
Not to mention, geek culture does have a serious problem with taking hyper-sexualization of characters in media like television, movies, and comic books to ridiculous levels. There are already a couple of blogs, like Escher Girls and Comic Art Corrections dedicated to pointing out and correcting the laughable misunderstanding of basic human anatomy of some artists, in their quest to make as much boob and booty visible on a character in a single pose. I can still remember cringing in pain when I was first told the story of how Jeri Ryan in Star Trek: Voyager was literally vacuumed into her catsuit for the role of Seven of Nine and needed to shut down production of an episode if she had to use the bathroom because of how long it took her to peel out of the stupid thing. When I first saw Star Trek: The Next Generation as an adult, I created a drinking contest out of how many times the camera zoomed in to get a better view of Deanna Troi’s cleavage.
And, in the ultimate break of my irony meter, there are people on the comments section of the original image complaining about their favourite female characters (including Seven of Nine) not being included on the list, because they are, and I quote, “way sexier than any of the ones in that pic”.
What also bothers me about who was chosen to exemplify the traits of a “good role model” is that the characters are involved in combat in some way or another, hence the conclusion that one should buy their daughter “a ray-gun” instead of a Barbie. It’s a good time to be a tomboy, with Katniss Everdeen, Merida, Black Widow, and other tough ladies on the big screen, and women like the ones above on the small screen. That’s great! But why is that the most laudable, or, as the image tells us, the only acceptable way to be a woman and express yourself? There are multiple ways of being a woman, or being a man. Images like this seem to set up a dichotomy, where you are either a tough warrior woman, or a passive, overly sexual tart, with no in between or chance to go by your own rules.
Images with dichotomous messages like this concern me because I remember my own childhood of despising femininity and seeing it as the weaker, confining, less desirable option, wanting instead to enter the world of masculinity, of fun, and freedom; a form of internalized misogyny and femmephobia I am still recovering from, even now as a proud femme geek who loves expressing myself through traditionally “feminine” interests like crafting, fashion, jewellery, and making my own beauty products. The best part about enjoying those interests is that I am definitely not alone in them. Geek culture is full of people, women, men and gender rebels alike, who are great crafters, seamstresses, bakers, knitters, costume-makers, and creators. I wonder how many of them had a childhood filled with Barbie dolls for whom they designed outfits and hairstyles, and were still capable of having a jolly good time playing with ray-guns as well, rather than thinking of it in a purely either-or context?
If I ever have a daughter, or a son, I am not going to teach them that there’s only one way to be properly masculine and feminine, and that possessing stereotypical “hypermasculine” traits, like playing with ray-guns and lightsabers, doesn’t mean they are better in any way than those who like to play with E-Z Bake ovens or dolls. And I want to take part in creating a culture which isn’t hostile to femininity or which rewards only certain ways of expressing it. I hope geek culture takes part in that transformation, rather than inhibiting it by being stuck in outmoded ideas of the “right” way to be a woman or a man.