Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

On Geekdom and Privilege: Sympathy For The ‘Pretty’?

June 23rd, 2011

By Arturo R. García

According to some of my fellow geeky bloggers, the woman in the picture above is a victim.

That’s the new Miss USA, Alyssa Campanella, who some people are seemingly rushing to induct into the “scene” because of some comments she made in this interview:

Campanella expresses her love for shows like The Tudors and Camelot, and says she was a “science geek” in high school, which is commendable. I don’t question her fandom. But interpreting her statements as some sort of victory for fandom in general not only appropriates her words, but strikes me as vexing for a number of reasons.

First is the fact that this interview was only aired because of Campanella’s participation in an industry promoting an exclusionary body standard, an industry that tacitly encourages parents to exploit their children in hopes of “moving up the ranks” to reach her level. Campanella was on this platform to begin with because she’s trafficking in privilege. If she were a plus-sized woman, a transgender woman, or a woman of color, it would be much less likely for us to even hear the name “Alyssa Campanella” in this setting.

In Campanella’s case, her geekdom will more than likely be framed as a way to make her “exotic” to certain advertising demographics – and make no mistake, she is not there because she enjoyed studying biology, or chemistry. She is there because of her body, and people who do not have her kind of body, or the cis-male equivalent, are Othered by many of the people who both control events like Miss USA or watch it. That is privilege, and while recognizing that doesn’t excuse any rationalization for insulting her, neither is it evidence of “jealousy” or “self-loathing” when discussing that privilege.

At this point I’d like to make a couple of key distinctions: it is sexist when people only accuse female celebrities of “pandering” to geeky audiences. There’s little evidence that male actors and performers aren’t scripted to declare “relatability” any less than their female counterparts; male celebrities have their own set of stereotypes and corporate messages to live up to. But it’s also problematic to equate skepticism regarding declarations of “geeky cred” by celebrities of any gender with the street-level harassment many women have reported at conventions or at comic-book shops.

The factors behind that harassment go beyond the individual misogynous acts or attitudes practiced by their attackers. It’s the encouragement of that mindset by many of the companies supplying our geeky products. When DC Comics tells retailers it plans to continue to target the 18-to-34-year old male demographic, despite promises of a “new, diverse DC Universe,” that fuels the narrative depicting fandom as an all-male fiefdom. That attitude should be questioned by geek media at every turn, not only at the storefront, but at the corporate level.

When DC promotes hyper-sexualized character designs like the new one (shown at right) for Harley Quinn, or allows writers like Judd Winick to emphasize that titles like Catwoman will be “sexy,” while marginalizing female creators, that sends a message of exclusion to anyone who is not a white cis-hetero male, and it perpetuates the corporate-driven perception that women who look much like Campanella are only valued at all because they’re handy props to entice customers to buy their products.

The fact is, geeky women are not, and have never been “Unicorns.” Despite what advertisers want you to believe, women have always been involved in fandom, be it as creators, critics, cosplayers and consumers, of all body types and ethnicities. Want proof? Here’s a picture from Newsweek, taken at an early Star Trek convention, along with the caption, emphasis mine:

In the early conventions, a majority of attendees were women, [costume designer Angelique] Trouvere says. Because of that, more men started to attend, and today convention audiences are usually evenly split along gender lines.

Despite that fact, businesses haven’t just been ignoring female consumers, they have been telling their clienteles that “hot girls” can’t be geeky, and telling them that geeky women have to be “hot” for their opinions to matter, or to be taken seriously as characters across the media spectrum. Movies like She’s All That and television shows like The Big Bang Theory depict female geekdom as something that is Not Normal, something they must be “cured of” before they can be accepted into society at large.

And make no mistake, a lack of acceptance is part of the real-life experience for many geeks, both male and female: in some of the threads involving the debate over “hotness” and geekdom, people have mentioned being mocked, harassed or outright bullied by schoolyard peers. But seemingly at every turn, people who discuss being bullied are told to “grow up” or to “get over high school.” As if bullying doesn’t really do anyone any harm. Just tell that to the parents of this anonymous child in Lakeside, Calif.:

“My prevailing thought when I wake up in the morning is, ‘I don’t want to find my son hanging from the rafters,’ ” said the mother of a Lakeside middle schooler who has been bullied for three years. She asked that her name not be used for fear of further assaults on her son.

He has been punched, slapped, hit with rocks, called names. Asked about transferring to another campus, he declined. What if the same fate — or worse — awaited him there?

“And why should he have to leave?” his mother asked. (The students and parents interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used for fear of further assaults.)

Or tell that to the mother of 17-year-old Tyler Long in Murray County, Ga.:

“They would take his things from him, spit in his food, call him ‘gay, faggot’,” Long said. “One day to the next, it was continuous harassment from the other kids in the classroom.”

His parents said they complained to school authorities about the pattern of bullying early on, but no action was taken.

“‘Boys will be boys’,” was the response Long said he got from school officials. “‘How can I stop every kid from saying things that shouldn’t be said? What do you want me to do Mr. and Mrs. Long? I’ve done all I can.’”

Is death now the litmus test for bullying? At what age does the “Get Over It” caucus believe bullying becomes “official”? Would these people also tell women who like Star Wars but are not “hot” to “get over it” if they’re sexually harassed at conventions, or while playing games online?

I know friends who were pelted with pieces of meat by schoolmates, years before any PSA campaign was there to tell them “It Gets Better.” In my own experience, I was able to avoid physical harm because a) I was fortunate enough to develop a circle of friends with some of my fellow Honors students and b) I showed just enough athletic ability in phys-ed classes and pick-up games in the playground to not receive much more invective than to be accused of “acting white” because I was a good student.

That was a privilege that I worked for, sure, but it was privilege just the same. Other people were not as fortunate, and there are kids out there today who will continue to be subjected to the same stereotypes older geeks were regarding gender and body identity, only through many more media outlets. These problems will not automatically start to disappear because an actor or popular musician tells a breathless interviewer he or she is a gamer, regardless of intention.

All of which is not to say that celebrities or “hot” people can never be members of the community. In calling herself “a history geek,” Campanella herself seems to fit the definition of a geek ally: she has some geeky interests, and she believes in evolution (thank goodness), but it’s not like she chose to cosplay Wonder Woman for the swimsuit competition, either. There might be some common tastes between some celebrities and their fanbases. But, again, barring any evidence to the contrary, there’s experiences common – not unanimous, but common – to this subculture that they did not go through. A star watching The Tudors doesn’t make him or her a “bandwagon jumper,” but it also doesn’t mean he or she can automatically empathize with a non-famous woman who’s treated coldly or ignored by her local comics retailer, or a non-famous man whose geekdom, while acknowledged “without complaint,” is painted as “less of a man” because of it.

Acknowledging that disconnect doesn’t make either side a bad person. That’s often a good starting point for newcomers to learn, and for day-to-day members to share their stories. That’s one way communities strengthen their ties. But it takes effort on both sides.

As rosasparks pointed out (via our own AJ Plaid) on Tumblr:

Perez Hilton may be a gay man, Lady Gaga may be an out bisexual woman but their identities alone do not make them awesome members of any particular tribe.

I am a bisexual woman of color. I don’t get a cookie, a medal or even a high-five. Not because of identity alone, because I hope my actions and contributions to society speak louder than my identifying markers.

If I act like shit, say horribly hateful and ignorant things, I’m not doing anyone any favors, myself and whatever tribe I belong to, nor does it reflect well on my ‘tribe’.

Come on. It’s absurd to assume that one’s self-identified ‘group’ makes them somehow an ally or a responsible member. That’s bullshit. We’re all required to be more than our ‘titles’.

F-CK THAT.

And there is nothing wrong with being an ally; people like Tim Wise do valuable anti-racist work from that position. When celebrities participate in campaigns like “It Gets Better,” it’s a gesture of support and empathy that deserves credit. But that is different than just saying, “I like [x] television show” – it’s people doing work for the communities they’re supporting. Even then, I don’t think Wise would argue that his work as an ally disqualifies him from his white privilege.

Recognizing that distinction, and the fact that many of the industries of choice for celebrities have played to insecurities and biases defining millions of people – geeky or not – as falling below a set of money-driven “standards” is self-awareness, borne of individual experiences that cannot be trivialized just because corporate America tells us geekdom is “chic” right now. And Campanella is the latest example of someone who is in a position to become a valuable ally, if she chooses to. But that takes more than telling us she’s a fan. Without that acknowledgement, any claim of “empowerment” is really an argument for privilege. And no celebrity, male or female, needs our help with that.

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Categories: Alyssa Campanella, beauty, Camelot, celebrities, comics, community, cultural appropriation, Miss USA, sexuality, The Tudors, tim wise, tv, video games, violence against women, women

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