Monday, February 8, 2016

Can I Play Too?: Misogyny In Nerd Culture

“Girls shouldn’t like video games, that’s boy stuff! That would just be, I don’t know..weird.”

I was in my second summer as an outdoor educator at the local Audubon Center. Brock was ten years old and often had more energy than I could handle. He was at our camp every day, and had so far acted out this season by shoving me into a door, and pretending to slit my throat from behind with an imaginary knife, or shoot me with a pretend machine gun. He thought it was hilarious. I had multiple talks with him about how his allusions to violence were inappropriate and actually scared me to some degree.

I had found out that the best way to have a calm conversation with Brock was to let him talk about videogames. He was primarily a PC gamer, and had advanced intelligence for his age. I listened to him talk about MineCraft for hours, and how he would purposefully try to kill other players on a PVP (Player vs Player) server because they were least expecting it. He also found joy in rounding up the MineCraft villagers and killing them all at once, in a sort of genocide. When he was feeling less destructive, he loved Club Penguin.

“Brock,” I started, “girls can play video games. I like and play video games. Girls can like anything that boys like.” I was trying to be as simple and direct as possible. “Don’t ever think that certain genders can do things that others can’t. Anyone can like or participate in anything that they want. Please remember that for me. It’s important.”

He nodded his head and looked confused, but sat in the corner with a book anyway. He had finally calmed down, and I hoped that I had gotten through to him, at least a little bit.

A few years previous, I was in my senior year of high school. It was Spirit Week before homecoming, and I had gone all out with the themes and my costumes every single day. Spirit Week was like Halloween for five days in a row, and I wanted to take full advantage. The last day of the week was “Superhero Day” or something of the like, and my boyfriend at the time wanted to both wear costumes from the Batman universe, or really just wanted an excuse to dress as The Joker. I figured that I could be Catwoman, because I found her character interesting anyway, and began to assemble my outfit.

This boyfriend was obsessed with superheros, and also pretty manipulative and controlling. I knew that if I was going to pull this off, then I had to know everything that there was to know about Catwoman. I spent hours researching and reading everything that I could on her, and decided that I would wear a black, very 1990’s outfit that my mom had worn to see ZZ Top. I also grabbed a black eye mask, and cat ears for the top of my head. I couldn’t find a cheap version of mask that took up half of Catwoman’s head, with the ears and the face covering all in one piece. Besides, it was Spirit Week, and I had already put way too much thought into this.

I came to school that Friday, feeling fierce. I was thrilled with how my outfit had come together. I saw my boyfriend in the hallway, and ran up to him, hoping that he would be as excited about my costume as I was. He turned and looked at me, his face twisting into disgust.

“Why don’t you have her correct mask on? That looks so stupid. You might as well take it off or just not be Catwoman.” He said, eyeing the ears on top of my head.

I felt like someone had shocked me in the chest. “Actually,” I began, my voice a little weak, “Catwoman’s style evolved. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, her costume looked more like this, so I figured that it would be okay.”

He continued to give me a dirty look, and I could see that he was irritated that at that moment, I knew more about Catwoman than he did. He never responded, and walked away to talk to some of his friends. I continued to receive compliments on my outfit all day. I left the ears on. At that point, I never wanted to take them off.

Fast-forward to college a couple of years later. I was hanging out with some of my friends between classes in the afternoon, watching Attack on Titan. The topic of party themes came up, and one of my guy friends stressed that he hated “Nerd” or “Superhero” themes.

He began to rant. “All girls do at those parties is wear Superman or Spider-Man shirts, suspenders, and fake glasses. It’s stupid. It’s like when a girl takes a selfie on Facebook with a Batman shirt and her glasses with the caption “I’m so nerdy.” No, you’re not nerdy, you’re just a slut in glasses trying to get guy’s attention. If I see a girl wearing a Marvel t-shirt, I automatically start asking her as many things as I can about the Marvel universe. And you know what? They never know as much as me. If you are going to say that you like something, you should know everything about it and not just try to come off as some “nerdy girl”.”

At that point in my life, I didn’t have a voice to tell him that he was saying was completely offensive. Instead, I felt embarrassed. I quietly thought of the two Spider-Man shirts that I had in my closet, and the light-up Spider-Man shoes that I had bought in the little boy’s department (My feet are that small, and it is awesome. I have Toy Story shoes too). I grew up watching the animated Spider-Man series with my dad. We would sing the song together, laughing,

Is he strong? Listen bud--he’s got radioactive blood.”

It was something that we shared. I had seen the films countless times, and spent a week terrified to sleep alone after first seeing Willem Dafoe’s performance as The Green Goblin. I had only read a handful of Spider-Man comic books and certainly didn’t know everything that there was to know about Spider-Man and never claimed to, but I felt ashamed. He was my favorite superhero, but maybe this friend was right. Spider-Man wasn’t for me anymore. I wasn’t allowed to like him.

In the same group a few weeks later, I was going on and on about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sensing that I was boring those around me, I digressed, enthusiastically saying “I’m sorry! I get super nerdy about Buffy.”

One of my other guy friends snapped his head up from his computer, where he was playing League, and met my eyes. “I hate when girls say that. When girls say they are nerdy. You are not nerdy. Do you know what that means? It means that no one wants to talk to you. That you are greasy from staying up late at night playing on your computer and have acne. It’s not cute to be a nerd. You have to know everything about all things in nerd culture. Girls like to pretend to be nerds to get attention but most of the time, they are not.”

Again, I was offended, but instead thought that my comment had offended him. I didn’t mean anything by it. I liked all of the same things that this friend did. I felt fake. Like he thought that I tried hard for attention. It was awful. I began to question all of my interests and if I was “allowed” to talk about them in certain company or if I really was some sort of “pretend nerd”.

During my last semester of my senior year of college, I ended up at a local bar with some of my classmates after our night poetry class. Mondays were long, and we had an awesome time writing in a barn and petting baby goats for inspiration, and wanted to continue the conversation and hang out before going home. We started talking about video games, when one of my classmates and friends told me that men were awful to her when she played her games online. She said they were mean because she was a girl, and we agreed how horrible and unfounded it was. I brought up my childhood best friend who would often play games on her brother’s Xbox under his Gamertag. She would leave the headset on, but wouldn’t talk or reveal that she was a girl because the boys would relentlessly tease her and make her feel uncomfortable. The best part is, she would always beat them. The worst part is, if she did decide to talk, it would be met with comments like “Dude, you so just got beat by a girl!”

“It’s messed up.” my classmate responded. I took a drink and cleared my throat. “Yeah. It really is.”

Women are sexualized at conventions. We are quizzed and challenged on anything geeky that we may like to prove that we are qualified to be a part of that fandom. Last time I checked, Star Wars is mainstream anyway. Me dressing up with my best friend to watch the movies and trying to memorize everything that is canon but not in the films, maybe not so much. But I enjoy it and that is no one else’s concern.

I introduced one of my girl friends at a party to guy that I was also friends with, knowing that they both loved Zelda. My girl friend knows more about Zelda than any person that I have ever met, but instead of bonding over it, the guy asked her tons of questions, so she could “prove” that she actually had played all of the games. He even asked her about the musical score. She knew every answer, but wasn’t really interested in talking to him ever again after that. Who could blame her?

To a certain extent, I get being protective of things that you like. I am completely guilty of being obnoxious with anything Joss Whedon, especially Buffy. When you like something so much, it becomes a competition. You can see others that share the same interest but hardly know anything about it as being fake, and it is totally evil of me to have this mindset. At one point in time, the things that I love now were new to me too. Fandoms are supposed to be a great place for discussion, shared love, and celebration. Not to prove who knows the most. I am constantly working on this.

But this superior and judgmental attitude should never come into play because a girl likes comic books or videogames, or anything else that men in nerd culture have claimed for themselves. Women in nerd culture should not be talked down to, disrespected, or sexualized. Men cannot police what they wear. If I want to wear my Spider-Man light up shoes, or a sexy costume as cosplay, then it is for me--and my right. I struggled to write this because I was worried that some of the friends that I mentioned would read and be offended. But they didn’t worry when they offended me, we are still friends, and they might have even forgotten about these conversations all together. Men can have the privilege of forgetting. Due to my anxiety and my gender, I hardly can.

Furthermore, a nerdy girl isn’t a novelty. A girl that likes superheros shouldn’t be painted as some wildcard, or objectified. She is a person that simply loves a thing. We can connect over that love and share our common passions. Don’t tear people down, no matter what their gender is, but instead, work together to promote what makes you happy. Then, we can all play together.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Sadness Game

The death of a coworker. The evening news covering head on collision fatalities and violence against children. Listening to the Spring Awakening soundtrack on repeat thanks to a new interest in 2008’s 90210 remake.

I spend my days in a small square, looking at the bamboo plant that I am struggling to keep alive and the stale Star Wars themed graham crackers that sit by my office phone. I think about walking by his office, and wonder if anything has been touched. Are his used pens as he left them? Are traces of his fingertips still atop his black keyboard? I think that if I look straight ahead, maybe I will see him standing blurrily in the corner of my eye. If I listen carefully enough, I’ll hear him breathily cackling at the front desk. I can still picture his eyes, wet and shining.

My ears echo with each click of my mouse. I shift my weight and pull a sticky note off of the pad, detaching it from the rest. The paper and adhesive block will never be the same as it was, no matter how carefully I go to place the paper back with the others.

To only know someone for 6 months and to lose them is a reminder that we cannot control who impacts our lives. That a card or a phone call could have been the one thing saving us from inevitable guilt. The words I should have visited will forever cling to my shoulders, reminding me of the present and hard truth.

“If you didn’t give me this recipe, I was going to send all of the feral cats in my neighborhood after you.”

“We have to stop meeting like this.”

“For Thanksgiving, I am going to go home, open a bag of chips and a can of coke, make a bologna sandwich, turn off my phone, lock my doors, and watch football. And that is how I like it.”

And now we’re left. Before having a full time job, we don’t realize just how much working can consume us. I see my coworkers more than my friends and family. I am in close proximity to them, for 40 hours a day. I hear them laugh, clear their throats, sneeze, have heated phone calls with loved ones, staple papers, and roll their office chairs into their desks, shaking desk decorations and computer monitors. I recognize their shoes in the bathroom stalls, and know who is moving by the outside of my cubicle by how heavily they walk.

We tell each other about our successes and grievances, because we are just close enough. When someone hurts, we all feel it, like a hand pushing in the center of our chest. But when someone is gone, the denial and essence of their body wandering through the building is stronger than the realization and grief that follows. We move as one entity, swelling and spreading, but coming back together to nod our heads at one another as we walk to our cars at 4:30pm, Monday through Friday. This is our ever moving, symbiotic relationship. The turning of a hourglass at the beginning of each week. A crack in the glass and a loss of sand doesn’t make the time and pattern run as smoothly.

In realizing all of this, I feel sadness and fear, soft on my skin like a familiar blanket. My anxieties warm my face like the sun coming through the front windows of my childhood home and painting the stairs, running down to the hardwood floor. I want to lay in it. To close my eyes and accept what I know best. I remember the comfort of hopelessness and worry, and feel safer when I am mentally treading water, sitting on my couch in the dark from 2:00am-4:00am during the week, unable to sleep.

With optimism comes heartbreak. Happiness leads to vulnerability. Pessimism can go hand-in-hand with reality, and the furrow of our brows as we whisper I told you so.

And thus, we play The Sadness Game. It is easier to slip into tears and the feeling of your core physically sinking. This is what we know, this is what we turn back to. But is isn’t right, and it isn’t what we deserve.

We try to be positive. We Google advice and reach out to friends, look at pictures of baby animals and do yoga in the small amount of clean carpet space that we have for the week. It’s a fleeting struggle, grasping at the breeze that moves tree branches and backyard windchimes, only for it to stop and leave us in the still. It’s hard, and it’s walking uphill, when it’s simpler just to fall to our knees and roll backwards, staining our jeans and palms with green grass and crashing at the bottom.

But easier doesn’t mean better.

There is no winning with The Sadness Game. In the face of hurt, there is the perspective that we will one day, be okay. This ideal may seem like a picture book, an unattainable dream. But imagining it means that it exists, and is out there somewhere, floating. And when that breeze comes by again, we can catch it, put it in our pockets, and hold on to it for a little bit longer.