Courtney Stoker on Feminist Geek
Courtney Stoker is a blogger, gamer, and graduate student of Victorian science fiction who describes herself as "a science fiction fanatic of the H. G. Wells/Connie Willis/Octavia Butler/Joss Whedon/Doctor Who/Star Trek variety." In other words, she's a bit of a geek. She's also a feminist. And these worlds: They do not always exist in perfect harmony.
Case in point:
"While sci fi fans don't mind (and often excel at) criticizing their sci fi shows, they are generally only supportive of criticizing that focuses on 'literary' details—plot holes, bad writing, continuity in the canon, inconsistent application of science," Stoker says. "But as soon as you start talking about the bigger structures in a show's texts, like racist logic, sexism, classism, whatever, some douchey white dudes with serious entitlement issues are going to dismiss you."
Indeed. So Stoker, who blogs at From Austin to A&M, agreed to answer my questions on navigating geekdom as a feminist—from the subversive potential of Doctor Who cosplay to the social implications of sexy Star Wars corsets:
SEXIST: Sci fi shows are often dominated by white guys—either as lead characters or creators. How can female fans—and other fans who aren't well-represented in that narrative—subvert the perspectives of these shows?
Courtney Stoker: Fan communities have the potential for an extraordinary amount of subversion. The old school stereotype of the sci fi fan is one in which the fan does not think critically about the object of his (obviously, the old-school sci fi fan stereotype is a dude) fandom. The sci fi fan collects and memorizes trivia without adding anything to the story, and this is a marker of his lack of imagination.
I think cosplay is often seen this way as well, by people who are not overly familiar with it. Cosplay (I use this term very broadly, encompassing the related activities of dressing like a character, wearing sci fi show-related items of clothing—even if it's just a Doctor Who scarf with regular clothes— and role-playing as a character) is usually seen as straight-up copying and appropriation, in the same way that collecting is usually depicted as the uncritical consumption of a franchise. Even fan fiction, that extraordinary genre, is sometimes seen by the non-initiated as a sign of a lack of creativity and talent—most fan fic writers even separate their fan fic from their “real” writing. But all three of these activities—collection (of physical items and knowledge), cosplay, and fan fiction—are places where the fan can critically talk back to, interpret, and deconstruct the object of her fandom.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a graduate student studying English literature, my preferred method of subverting science fiction TV (and the fan communities of which I am a part) is literary critique. I do this through my blog, mostly, but plan on doing academic research later in my career. Critical writing has the upside of being taken more seriously by other fans and non-fans, even in blogging. It's also something I do well, but it can lack the joy of cosplay, for example.
Any act of participation in the creation and deconstruction of the show can be a radical act. By cosplaying, by writing or reading fan fic, by blogging about the (good and bad) choices made by the writers, a fan asserts her importance, her active consumption and interaction with the material. She is not a passive consumer, forced to accept the narratives and values given to her, but a creator and a critic.
All of which is not to say that it isn't important for sci fi shows to get their collective acts together, and start portraying the experiences and narratives of people who aren't white dudes. But a fan who loves these shows doesn't necessarily need to feel guilty about loving them, because she can subvert their weaknesses and actively participate in them.
SEXIST: What obstacles have you encountered in raising a feminist viewpoint in geek/subculture communities?
CS: I should preface this answer by letting you know I haven't been at it very long. I've only been a sci fi fan for a few years. And I stayed away from certain fandoms because of their reputations. I'm a Star Trek fan who doesn't care about canon and finds the original series unwatchable, so I steered clear of ST forums and fan spaces. I love Joss Whedon (LOVE him) and everything he's ever done, but I'd heard horror stories about how horrifyingly sexist those fan spaces are (*cough cough* Whedonesque), so I didn't touch them.
I think the only reason I even tried to participate on Doctor Who fan forums is because a) it had been a while since I've posted on forums, and I forgot how bad and emotionally exhausting they can be and b) Doctor Who fandom is U.K.-based. I have this (entirely inaccurate) fantasy of the U.K., where it's just the U.S., but with more socialism and no Tea Partiers. But being based in the U.K. also meant that the fandom didn't have the reputation that, say, Whedon fandom has. I just assumed that a British sci fi fan community would be feminist-friendly and safe. And I had fallen in love with this show with the breathless abandon of a teenager falling in love for the first time. It consumed my life and I talked and thought about it constantly. I watched all four seasons in the space of two weeks, and was literally sobbing the entire last ten minutes of David Tennant's finale. I hadn't been this passionate about a show since Buffy, and I wanted desperately to share that love with other fans.
Unfortunately, that love and passion made me a little vulnerable. I joined Gallifrey Base, the biggest DW forum out there, with an inordinate amount of trust and enthusiasm, and was promptly crushed for my trouble. I lasted a whole week or two before being told that I was a crazy, over-emotional lady, using my crazy, over-emotional lady problems to ruin everyone's good-natured fun. I avoided forums after that, but still listened to podcasts and found a few Doctor Who blogs that weren't overly upsetting.
I've blogged about Doctor Who and geek culture quite a bit lately, and I'd say about half of the responses I've received have been positive (and a few bright shining ones have been thanking me for saying what needed to be said). The others vacillate between mocking me for being a lady (the implication being that I am silly to talk about feminism or sci fi like I Know Things, on account of my obviously inferior lady-brain), mocking me for being a feminist (usually one Made of Straw), accusing me of inserting my dirty lady-feelings (irrelevant and irrational!) into a discussion of sci fi/geek culture, and determining that I am a Bad Feminist for any number of reasons. It's hard, sometimes, because I only talk about sci fi things because I am a fan. Sci fi is a huge part of my life and my
research. To have members of this community tell me that I am not qualified to Talk About Things on account of being a lady or a feminist is exhausting and disempowering. When I first forayed into this community, I thought that it would be progressive, feminist, and proud of its lady members (and not, you know, for their boobs). It's been a hard let-down.
While sci fi fans don't mind (and often excel at) criticizing their sci fi shows, they are generally only supportive of criticizing that focuses on “literary” details—plot holes, bad writing, continuity in the canon, inconsistent application of science. But as soon as you start talking about the bigger structures in a show's texts, like racist logic, sexism, classism, whatever, some douchey white dudes with serious entitlement issues are going to dismiss you. (It's actually sort of funny, because they can't really, like the rest of the world of douchey white dudes, tell you you're reading too much into the show, or taking the show too seriously, because ten minutes ago, they were posting about insignificant detail x in an episode that aired 20 years ago.) If I complain about the complete lack of plot in Avatar, for example, I'll hear murmurs of consent in a room full of geeks. If I say Avatar is inexcusably racist, however, that same room will suddenly get defensive.
SEXIST: Because these communities situate themselves outside the mainstream, is there any reluctance to recognize that mainstream forms of sexism—like privileging male voices or objectifying women—could be a problem in the community?
CS: Absolutely. Geek communities (particularly, in my experience, geek men) see themselves as outside of mainstream in several ways. They often consider themselves counter-cultural (in the U.S., this seems to be linked to the current trend of anti-intellectualism), progressive, and isolated. Because geeks situate themselves outside of the mainstream, it's difficult for them to either accept that sexism is a problem in the community (this is so patently obvious, however, that only the most sexist of geeks will not acknowledge it) or that sexism in the community is not a special and different case of sexism. The idea that geek sexism is unrelated to mainstream sexism is related to the Growing Up Geek narrative.
In the narratives about Growing Up Geek, geeks often frame their geekiness as a disability; these narratives make it sound like the vast majority of geeks grow up without any institutional power, even when the geeks in question are white, straight, cis-gendered, abled, middle- to upper-class, and male. The responses to the oft-asked, “Why are geek communities so goddamn sexist all the time?” often begin with the special case of Growing Up (a Male) Geek. The narrative goes something like this: Geeks are smarter than everyone else, and ladies like hot, not smart, so geek men have almost no contact with women until they become adults. They're socially stunted and bitter about their lifelong rejection by women, so they lash out at women to make themselves feel better. The cause of their sexism is their sexual frustration, not mainstream misogyny, even though many tellers of the Growing Up (a Male) Geek narrative will admit that male geeks often find the hypermasculine standard of our misogynist culture to be an obstacle to their social acceptance.
The problem with this narrative and how it functions in conversations about geek misogyny is that the hypermasculine standard that leads to geek men feeling disenfranchised while growing up is the result of a patriarchal culture. By becoming misogynists, geek men actually reinforce the sexist standards that lead to them getting beat up or made fun of as kids. Patriarchy is still to blame. And the inability to recognize this, not only by the individual geeks who become misogynists, but by critics of geek culture, makes sexism in these communities difficult to diagnose and counteract.
Secondly, very few geeks who cite the Growing Up Geek narrative are actually that institutionally disenfranchised. It's particularly precious to see white straight dudes complaining about how marginalized they were growing up. While I certainly don't want to disregard these geek men's experiences—undergoing daily abuse, whether verbal or physical, for one's geekiness is certainly disempowering and not acceptable—the experience of Growing Up Geek is not equivalent to a lack of institutional power. And since a lot of the sexism in geek cultures come from the actual media and events—video games, television shows, award committees, cons—the most prevailing sexism is actually coming from geeks who control the media. Talk about institutional power! The Growing Up Geek narrative is, in most of these conversations about sexism, a hand-waving exercise, designed to make women feel sorry for geek men and forgive them for the sexism that is present in their community, while obfuscating the fact that misogyny comes not just from miscellaneous geek assholes, but from positions of power and wealth in our communities and in culture at large.
SEXIST: How do female fans navigate worlds where men are often heroes and women are often objects? How does that dichotomy contribute to the subjective identity of the female sci-fi fan?
CS: Obviously, women are going to internalize the perceptions of women in these narratives, in a similar way that women internalize the impossible standards of beauty depicted by magazine or advertising images or the male gaze found in films. When your favorite media shoves women into refrigerators, sexualizes violence against women, and aggressively objectifies women, it's easy to internalize misogyny.
Lots of geek girls reject everything feminine when growing up, so as to fit in with the boys. Lots of geek women still devalue their own gender by figuring themselves as different from regular, silly, squeeing, stupid women, as one of the boys. These women regularly agree with geek men who , for example, assume that any show with a primarily female fan base must be crap. They regularly agree that women, as a category, don't get or don't write good science fiction, but they are an exception. It's a classic move of the anti-feminist. Sure, Sarah Palin may want power and position, an exception to what she believes is good for women, but only because she's special. She's one of the boys. She hunts wolves from helicoptors! I don't think this is necessarily strategic. While it's difficult, when you're an intelligent and awesome woman, to consider yourself inferior to male geeks, there's a lot of internalized misogyny from the way that women are portrayed in your favorite media. It's a contradiction that's difficult to rationalize.
SEXIST: What do you think about women gaining an entry into sci-fi worlds through the creation of object-heroes? I'm thinking about Femme Doctors in high-heels and corsets, and lady Stormtroopers in halter-tops.
CS: This is where some geek women find their acceptable place in geek communities, because even the most sexist of geek men is going to be okay with women being around as long as they're dressed up like sex objects. Too often, women in geek cultures are only welcomed if they are decoration, sexy versions of the the things geek men love, not equal participants or fellow fans. Forever Geek (one of the very few non-feminist blogs I bother with), for example, has, in the just the past two months, posted with glee about female models naked except for high heels and stormtrooper helmets gracing skateboards, a car wash in which women dressed in sexy Princess Leia costumes washed cars, and Star Wars corsets. Geek communities love women, as long as their members don't have to think of those women as people. And cosplay has become an unfortunate site of, as you so aptly put it, the creation of object-heroes.
I find the femme Doctor trend in Doctor Who cosplay to be simultaneously irritating and wonderful, and that's because it's complicated. Some women do the femme Doctor that you describe—miniskirts, high heels, corsets. Some of this is capitulation to the object-hero trend, a result of internalized sexism and wanting to be accepted into this community. Some of this is also an attempt to reclaim femininity and female sexuality within a community that doesn't often recognize those things as legitimate. While I see value in that, these Doctors also suggest to me that a female Doctor would necessarily be useless decoration, because she sure isn't going to save the world in high heels and a corset.
But that's not the whole picture of femme Doctor cosplay, however. In researching my recent cosplay post (in which I addressed the femme Doctor trend), I actually found more pictures of creative, sensible (and still, many times, sexy) femme Doctor costumes, in which the fans wore clothing in which an actual female Doctor could function. And this manifestation of the Doctor, who is feminine but not a useless object, is, I think, the site of the most potential subversion. These femme Doctor costumes make up for a deficit in the actual show and the fan community, allow female fans to see themselves as the unquestionable heroes of the show, and make it clear that the role of female fans and female characters should not be decoration or objectified sidekick. These fans are not simply eye candy for male fans, but a representation of what a female Doctor, a female hero, could look like, and these cosplays make it increasingly clear that Doctor Who is doing its female viewers (and, frankly, its male viewers as well) a disservice by only including female characters as sidekicks and love interests.
UPDATE: Now with a very special bonus question!
Photo via Forever Geek.