Aug 04 2011

The Weirditude of Gender Nerdery

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This will be a long one, Websnark style. I apologize for the length, but I’ve got a lot to say here.

Imagine, if you can, what life was like for geeks and budding geeks in 1975-1976. Batman was all about camp. Star Wars was a pile of notes on George Lucas’s desk. The only really cool thing we had was Star Trek, and that was a canceled, not-terribly-popular show that was on life support by means of a Saturday morning cartoon. The only people who cared about it were NASA employees and the uncool kids.

But we made the best of it, and when you had enough kids together you could actually decently “play Star Trek” with a different actual person taking the role of Kirk, Spock, etc. Since I had the largest collection of Star Trek figures, including the Enterprise Bridge Playset, I got to call the shots on what we would do with it. On one particular afternoon, we actually had something like six of us together, including a girl whose name has long been lost out of the fuzzy recesses of my memory. She had dark hair, and I remember liking her because she was into all the same fantasy/SF stuff that I was, or at least didn’t go “Ew!” at it the way most of the girls did. But she lived in a different neighborhood, which when you’re six years old, might as well been another planet, so I rarely had the opportunity to play with her.

In any case, I was handing out figures for people to play with; I kept Spock for myself naturally, but pretty much let everybody else take whomever they pleased. But I left Uhura in the box, because she was such an nonentity. All she ever did was answer the phone and occasionally say, “Captain, I’m frightened.” What kind of a character is that?

This girl — I’m going to call her Melissa for purposes of the anecdote (and because I do remember knowing a girl named Melissa) — strenuously objected to this when I suggested she play Scotty. “I don’t want to play Scotty!”

“How can you not want to play Scotty? Scotty’s cool!” (May not have been my exact words … I was six.)

“But I’m a girl!”

This stymied me. It had never been an issue before: most of the time there were no girls around to play with anyway, and so if there were girl roles required, one of the boys would just take it. Playing a cross-gender role was something you just did if it was required to make the playing happen. (I myself became quite adept at the role of Kimba’s girlfriend, which seemed perfectly ordinary to me at the time and caused me much confusion when it bugged my best friend later. But that’s another story.) But for !Melissa it was apparently a big issue, and that left us stuck, because there was only the one girl figure: Lt. Uhura, who was only surpassed in boringness by Yoeman “Look At My Legs, Captain” Rand. If there had been a Lt. M’Ress figure, or even a Number One (Majel Barrett as human supercomputer, one of the coolest characters in Star Trek ever and therefore absolutely hated by the network), all would have been fine.

(It’s worth noting that Uhura did become cool later, particularly in Star Trek III, but that was decades away. Even her badass moment in “The Lorelei Signal” episode of the animated series only came because none of the Men Folk were around to be badass instead. And remember also, I was six, and didn’t realize that the reason Uhura was boring was because race and gender politics forbade her from being interesting at the time.)

This was my first real confrontation with the phenomenon of The Chick, and it’s something that really starts jumping out at you once you notice it. As someone in the blogosphere recently said (and I’m still looking for the exact quote, I’ll get back to you with it): many writers, especially of pop or genre fiction, default to male (and usually white male) for a character unless there’s a specific reason to do otherwise. Need a leader? White male. Smooth talker? White male. Gadgeteer? White male. Romantic Interest? Oops, guess we’ll make this one a female. Etc. Among other things, this leads to there being a character who is The Diversity Kid (“Chinese girl in a wheelchair, score!”), whose main role is to be The Diversity Kid, and who always rings false in the role.

Even being aware of this tendency isn’t enough to keep it from happening in your work: in NeverNever, both Mopsy and Jenny sometimes fall into the “The Chick” category, although I did try to make them interesting characters in their own right. (I was a little annoyed with myself at how often Jenny needed rescuing, but on the other hand just about everybody in the cast needed rescuing at least a few times.) Suburban Jungle was a bit better in this regard, largely because I started with a female protagonist and built the cast to be the people who were important to her life. Given how easy it is for me, a person who at least likes to think of himself as being proactive on this issue, to fall into it, it’s not hard to see why this is an ongoing phenomenon.

Now, fast-forward to today, where gender issues in geeky lit are in a state of high dudgeon. DC comics recently got reamed for its notable lack of female heroes and female creators (not to mention comics’ record generally for stuffing women into refrigerators). There is a strange backlash against girl geeks going on, especially ones who are what is traditionally thought of as “attractive” … and of course there’s a backlash against the backlash.

Into all this wanders My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which as I mentioned before is a very girly show for girls that is girly, but is also just a straight-up awesome show, thus having a lot of crossover appeal. That there should be bronies, geeky male fans of a girly cartoon show, should be considered a Grand Thing, shouldn’t it?

Well apparently, not everyone thinks so. Consider this comic from Shortpacked!:

Shortpacked!, by David Willis, for Aug 3 2011

Now, I’m not a regular reader of Shortpacked! so I don’t know the context here. This comic came to my attention by way of a MLP:FIM blog in which the blogger didn’t wanted to be associated with the term “brony” because to him it apparently means “male MLP fan who is a jerk about it.” This, as far as I can tell, is nuts. (Which is also my reaction to fans of anthropomorphic animals generally who don’t want to be called “furries.”)

But there are a lot of things in this comic that stick in my craw. First and foremost, it’s clear that the guy is being a jerk; however, this is being held up more or less to be, “This guy is being male.” That in itself is a trend I’ve been sick of for years. Second, there is a noticeable disconnect between MLP:FIM and the merchandise it is ostensibly being made to sell, and that creates natural frustration on the part of fans who want to support something they like by buying the merchandise. (“I love Rainbow Dash, she’s got so much attitude! I’ll go buy a Rainbow Dash toy! Er, what’s this doe-eyed waif with Rainbow Dash’s name on it?”) I can’t speak for everybody, but speaking only for myself I don’t have a problem with the doe-eyed waif qua itself, my problem is that there isn’t anything with the Rainbow Dash I was looking for. [1]

But my real problem is in the line “Males have 6/7ths of the Justice League, 90 percent of the Avengers, 12/13ths of Transformers, and now you’ve taken My Little Pony.” Presumably this is intended as an indictment of the concept of The Chick, which is a concept that needs indicting. But it’s also built on a fundamentally bad premise: how exactly has My Little Pony been “taken” and from whom? Does one jackass mouthing off suddenly turn all of the ponies into colts instead of fillies? Is the woman in the comic now somehow prevented from liking My Little Pony because it’s not an all-girls club any more? The little rejoinder at the end, “Sorry, we noticed something we didn’t have,” also sticks in my craw because, of all the crazy things, it feeds negative stereotypes — i.e., the rapacious and plundering white male.

In short, the fundamental premise of this comic seems to be that boys shouldn’t be liking stuff for girls because girls have so little stuff of their own. But isn’t that just as ridiculous as saying that girls shouldn’t like superheroes because superheroes are meant for boys? Either that or “boys are pretty much all jackasses and anything they touch is ruined,” which is also a premise that I don’t much care for. (The irony that this comic was written by a guy is also not lost on me.)

Some of this is just the natural growing pains of any fandom, I imagine. The original brony rant about “I’m totally not a brony!” was an almost point-by-point copy of the same “I’m totally not a furry!” rant I’ve seen a hundred times. But really, it’s getting old. Anything with human beings involved is going to include assholes sooner or later, and people really need to get over that.

Oh, and for the record, I handed over the Uhura figure so !Melissa could play her, and a good time was had by all. Until we realized the delicate hands of the Uhura figure didn’t have an opposable thumb and so couldn’t hold a phaser. But that’s also a post for some other time.

-The Gneech

[1] Well, there is the one set of tiny little ponies from the show, noticeably missing Applejack and Fluttershy. What’s that about?

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