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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11 responses to “The Weirditude of Gender Nerdery”

  1. Wednesday says:

    MLP toys have been rooted-haired since forever, and it’s one of the things collectors really seem to like about them. Mane brushing can be hypnotic. Elaborate hairstyling can be as fun and fussy as painting miniatures, making perfect dioramas with action figures, etc. I pulled down $55 for charity recently by offering a boil-permed, more or less show accurate Pinkie toy, because that’s work-intensive.

    When a male fan comes into a store and tells a female fan of a show and property primarily targeted at females that one of the biggest selling points of that property’s main toylines is worthless, that nobody important wants it? Think about what that says. Amber’s anger is valid.

    I’m not going to get into your dismissal of the gender problems inherent in the brony phenomenon – it really is more complicated than growing pains and assholes, it’s about visibility and entitlement, let’s leave it at that.

    • The Gneech says:

      Well, FWIW, I’d be interested in your views on the topic. 🙂

      -TG

      • I don’t speak for Wednesday, mind (among other things because she’s developing a planned piece for other publication), but I can give you my own perspective, for what it’s worth.

        The phenomenon and positive force of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has been remarkable. Here is something that, before the Faust cartoon, had been dismissed as not only trash but girly trash — held up as one of the great symbols of just how bad ‘Girls’ programming’ could be. And, by developing a show that wasn’t just well written and funny, but was written as a good show any kid would like, Faust created something that… well, anybody would like. Guys and girls, men and women.

        That was remarkable and fantastic, and did great things to break down what in the end are artificial gender barriers in the first place….

        And then the popular consciousness seized upon the ‘Brony.’ And the story stopped being about how MLP:FIM was a great show that transcended boundaries. It became about how LOOK THERE ARE MEN WHO LIKE MY LITTLE PONY, with equal parts laughter and stunned silence. The specific term for the Fandom became Brony — a masculine term. The popular press began focusing on the merchandising power that was available thanks to the unexpected and incredibly lucrative 18-49 year old male demographic who liked the show.

        Somewhere along the line, the story stopped being about how a good show was enjoyed by both men and women, and became about how men liked it.

        There is a fine line between embracing something and co-opting it. The Brony appellation and chunks of the fandom are crossing it. That’s what Willis was writing about in his strip, and that’s where the problem is. We’re going straight back to gender stereotyping and marketing, only now the girls are being pushed away from My Little freaking Pony.

        Speaking as a proud fan of the show who really likes his rooted-hair Twilight Sparkle-on-Vespa-scooter, I don’t feel like I need to be a ‘Brony.’ I’m a fan, same as Weds. I enjoy the show. I’m enjoying the merchandise. I’m enjoying the movement and the subculture.

        I don’t want all of that to become fodder for pop culture snark and dismissive language. And yeah — a good number of the ‘Bronies’ are being jerks. That’s the nature of fandom — but it becomes something that can easily canalize into proscriptive behavior.

        I really, really want this to be a major step towards the merging of “boys’ TV” and “girls’ TV” into “kids’ TV.” I really don’t want it to become an excuse for guys who feel their entitlement being threatened to overcompensate and drive those cootie-ridden womenfolk out.

        • The Gneech says:

          I agree that the story being “all about the boys” is very annoying. And, well, you can’t argue with feelings, so to stand around saying “It doesn’t make sense to feel alienated by something just because #OTHERGROUP likes it!” isn’t going to do any good.

          I will mention here that I posted a link to this essay in a MLP community and got roundly blasted — not to mention the less-than-happy tone of Wednesday’s response. So it’s clear that I either expressed myself badly or stepped on what were already sore toes.

          One person described it as ‘This isn’t “get off my lawn.” This is “you already own every other house on the block, can’t you just stop partying all over ours?”‘

          I can’t say they’re wrong; I can’t say they’re right. It’s such a completely different way of looking at what at the end of the day is an obscure node of pop culture that all I can come up with “Type Mismatch.”

          -The Gneech

          • Consider this: there are many fans of, for example, anthropomorphic animal culture, from the funny animal variety to the serious anthropomorphic variety. The common term for this fandom is ‘furry fandom,’ and there are — as you know way better than I do — many kinds of fans, nuances of fandom, and means of expressing one’s fandom while being a furry.

            It is well known that outside the fandom, popular culture and non-furries tend to equate Furry with the sexual side and connotation of the fandom. And many furries get frustrated over that fact.

            Now. Consider this. Consider if the fandom’s collective name and reference in popular culture wasn’t ‘Furry’ but ‘Furvert,’ and that one specific kind of Furry liked and embraced the name and didn’t see why this would bother anyone. Articles would be written about the Furvert phenomenon. People would make jokes about Furverts.

            Do you think many Furries would appreciate one very narrow slice of anthro fandom becoming not only the dominant vision people have of that fandom, but in fact caused a term that excludes people outside that slice to become the de facto name of the fandom?

        • The Gneech says:

          A few days of stewing on this has made a thought occur to me. Women may feel that “men are taking” MLP from them … but at the end of the day, aren’t both men and women kind of ‘taking’ it from the kids by turning their show into an argument over gender politics to begin with?

          That’s something I -do- feel bad about, in retrospect.

          -TG

      • Zem says:

        That’s probably the best explanation I have read on this matter, Eric.

        I have made my own tiny rant on it when this comic strip came out (I have my reservations about what David Willis -who is a very skilled cartoonist otherwise- is doing with his Shortpacked! strips, and I felt that this was one of those cases when he took sides in a fandom without truly understanding or without real need that an issue is made of something), but I better understand the possible concerns of people on this side after reading your comment. It’s something I find difficult to conceive (FiM, as mentioned, is a girls’ show to the core, and I do not see how it could be changed to appeal more to both genders without effectively destroying it, or how anyone could watch it without being aware of the fact – Lauren Faust herself is an active feminist herself and still has a strong a strong sway over the show’s fate). It would make me really said if there really was a need to worry about such a risk though, for many of us the whole “brony” idea was about the exact opposite.

  2. Erin says:

    Like Wednesday says, some female fans of MLP are angry that “bronies” are complaining about exclusion and ‘erasure’ from the fandom because you guys have no right to complain. So much about nerd culture is dominated by men and male characters. Most spaces are open to you; most stories are about you. Trying to equivocate women and girls wanting spaces just for them (that aren’t dominated by men) and stories about them (that aren’t dominated by men) with men feeling excluded from women-dominated spaces and stories is fucking ridiculous.

    These two things cannot be equated. The majority of the spaces and stories are dominated by men and women, as a result, often feel excluded, erased and alienated. It is incredibly entitled of men to stomp into our spaces and demand that they be included. These spaces are created as a result of you guys not giving enough of a fuck about women and girls to make the majority of spaces feel welcoming. You don’t get to take a show centered around female characters and the power of their friendship and say, “You know what this perfectly good show needs? A MAN. It cannot possibly be perfect just the way it is because I’M NOT FEATURED IN IT. I’M ERASED, DAMNIT!!”

    But from this article, I wouldn’t expect you to understand the importance of providing spaces and voices for marginalized groups. You think you’re entitled to them because you have everything else when what you never seem to get is that you are the reason they are necessary in the first place.

    • The Gneech says:

      Trying to equivocate women and girls wanting spaces just for them (that aren’t dominated by men) and stories about them (that aren’t dominated by men) with men feeling excluded from women-dominated spaces and stories is fucking ridiculous.

      You don’t get to take a show centered around female characters and the power of their friendship and say, “You know what this perfectly good show needs? A MAN. It cannot possibly be perfect just the way it is because I’M NOT FEATURED IN IT. I’M ERASED, DAMNIT!!”

      I wasn’t attempting to talk about men feeling excluded from anything. And I certainly don’t think there’s any need for “more male inclusion” on My Little Pony. The show is just fine the way it is.

      If I understand you correctly (and please let me know if I don’t), your primary objection is to:

      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?

      …and that your opinion is that no, it’s not ridiculous, it’s completely different. Is that correct? I’m certainly willing to be convinced on that point.

      On the subject of entitlement, tho, how do you think the creators of MLP would feel about the idea that boys shouldn’t be watching their show?

      -The Gneech

  3. Nissl says:

    Just a couple of small comments, as a male fan of the show. The term “brony” still bothers the heck out of me because I’m not in any way a “bro.” But I may also be having trouble coming to terms with the fact that I’m finally definitively part of a fandom that is large enough to be labeled. And of course there’s the fact that half the bronies featured in media articles make me want to facepalm in shame.

    The term “brony” coming to cover all fans in the popular eye while being mostly male-exclusive understandably bothers a lot of adult women who are discovering the show (e.g. see comments on today’s Jezebel article). I don’t see this as much of a problem caused by conscious decisions among the fanbase; rather, it reflects the fact that 4chan, where the term originated, is a heavily male-skewed board. I would love it if adult female FiM fans settled on a consensus term for themselves (I like pegasisters, and suggest it when the topic comes up, but of course it’s not my place to decide). Of course, there is no assistance in terminology from a media that isn’t particularly interested in adult women who like the show (dismissively chalking it up to simple nostalgia) but are eager to talk about men liking the show.

    As for the comic, I think the idea was to show the extremity of nerdiness that any fandom can go to and the extent to which hardcore fans can start make anyone else who previously appreciated something at a more casual level feel unwelcome (certainly, there are plenty of comments like that surrounding this show). Dividing the genders by hair preference is a little troubling, but I am not immediately sure what other shorthand could have been used. However, I think the comments about one demographic group “having” a show in the last frame are what is particularly problematic.

    By the way, I would love it if the brushable hair toys looked anything close to the show rather than reminding me of mutant ducks with flank-length hair. But I am sure there are plenty of men who like the brushable hair as well.