Racism and Misogyny in Nerd Culture: When Your Local Public is “Riggety, Riggety Wrecked”
My partner pointed out recently that she has witnessed me inflict all of the following on acquaintances in the past month:
An elaborate explanation of why I’m certain Han shot first, made to an indifferent bar-goer who had referred to it as “that scene in that movie”
The chronology of all the games in The Legend of Zelda series with special attention rendered to the intricacies of the split timelines originating in Ocarina of Time
A much-too-winded take on why Samwise Gamgee was actually the bravest little hobbit of them all
An in-depth analysis of why Fallout New Vegas is a better story than Fallout 4
A rant about why Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-man run deserves more respect
An indignant roast of choosing Bulbasaur as a starter, because that just makes the first two gyms in Pokemon too easy (this was a particularly low moment, as the acquaintance in question was a fourth grader)
So yeah, I’m a nerd. I love the allure of alternative worlds that Sci-Fi and Fantasy dish out. I love the intricate, intimate communities of fans who invest their time and energy to lovingly build the fandoms surrounding these worlds.
But not all is well in nerdom; it’s a space mostly dominated by white bros, because the white bros aren’t good at sharing anything. The racism and misogyny make this local public a shitty place for too many people.
For those not up on their nerdom, there have been several virulent displays of racism in nerd culture in recent memory; There has been frequent use of blackface in cosplay (which, for those of you who aren’t nerds, is when you dress and roleplay as beloved characters from-- usually nerdy-- franchises, often at public gatherings). There was the #BoycottStarWarsVII ordeal, because new major characters are a variety of skin tones (this despite the original trilogy prominently featuring Billy Dee Williams’s portrayal of Lando Calrissian, who blew up the second Death Star, and James Earl Jones famously lending his voice to Darth Vader, who is arguably the most iconic character in the franchise. . . none of this is to mention we’re talking about a universe of Twi’leks, Hutts, Neimoidians, and a billion other Lucas/Henson-inspired beings. So it seems to me these bros are saying a world of fricking muppets is cool, but we better not include people with not-white skin tones).
And the flagrant misogyny of nerd culture is arguably even more overt: Women are routinely groped and/or body shamed at different “cons” and fan events. We have witnessed the advent of #gamergate, aptly described as a “senseless, never-ending onslaught of Internet misogyny,” where game makers and critics striving for a more diverse and thoughtful video game culture are trolled by hateful fanboys, where threats against (mostly female) game developers, critics, and writers have become so violent that some are being investigated by the FBI. More recently, fans of Rick and Morty have harassed female writers of the show, going so far as publicly releasing their private information, such as their home addresses, and sending threats.
But it’s a deeper and more pervasive issue in my public sphere than any of these situations might suggest; it’s not just about isolated racist and/or misogynist actions or a fringe group of nerds. It’s woven into the fabric of nerdom itself in problematic ways. Blogger Arthur Chu has underscored how “getting the (hot) girl” is part of the nerd mythos, that the misogyny that suggests straight male nerds are entitled to sex is embedded in nerd culture. Aaron Barksdale writes for Huffpost about his experience balancing his nerd identity and that of being a person of color, being constantly asked to demonstrate his nerd cred to white people.
And, of course, these issues are intersectional. Tai Gooden writes, “Cosplay is supposed to be an escape from reality — instead, it can make the realities of racism and sexism more visible than ever,” and follows the experiences of WOC cosplayers in her article for The Establishment. An illustrator was harassed online for portraying Hermione from the Harry Potter series as a WOC (although JK Rowling never specified Hermione's skin color in the books). Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones was harassed by an enclave of internet trolls that compared her to primates, threatened her, and sent her pornography, to the point where she deleted her social media accounts. She was harassed by nerdom for being both black and a woman. It’s not so simple as these moments being isolated actions within nerd culture, but manifestations of the racism and misogyny built into the culture itself.
And this kind of culture has been a cradle of the alt-right movement. Emma Grey Ellis thoughtfully writes for The Wire about how nerd culture and the alt-right are intricately intertwined:
“The stark parallels between Gamergate and the political atmosphere of 2016 may come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t: both saw their impact and reach amplified by self-interested parties who underplayed the obvious nastiness they were also promoting. With 2014’s Gamergate, Breitbart seized the opportunity to harness the pre-existing ignorance and anger among disaffected young white dudes.”
While one might try to argue that these ignorant, disaffected white dudes are somehow the minority in nerd culture, nerd culture as a whole does not seem concerned about it. The “good white dudes” and others who aren’t directly implicated in the violence and threats remain silent (or at least enough of them remain silent enough) for this racism and misogyny to go on unchallenged within nerd culture.
How can nerds like myself actively resist and push back against this inequality woven into nerd culture itself? In the title and throughout this essay, I have referred to Nerdom as a “local public.” “Local Public” is a term from Public Sphere theory, articulated by Jurgen Habermas, which I find helpful in thinking through this issue. For Habermas, the public sphere was the collective voice of the people and how it operated, believing that the most legitimate form of governments were those that listened to and were run by the public sphere. Like other scholars drawing on the public sphere model (like Patricia Roberts-Miller, who I’ll be getting to in a second), I imagine different arenas as their own, smaller public spheres. Community literacy scholar Linda Flower calls these spaces (these smaller facets of the larger public sphere) “local publics.”
Unpacking the role that the public sphere and smaller, local publics play in deliberative models of democracy, Patricia Roberts-Miller writes, “When assemblies are homogenous. . . then some set of issues is never going to be raised” (193). So if nerd culture is unable or unwilling to sense the racism and misogyny within itself, it’s because its own culture has disavowed POC and women. Nerd culture, as a whole, doesn’t seem racist and misogynist. It is. It’s a space for straight white men (and a host of other normative signifiers), made by straight white men, a homogeneous enclave.
But enclaves can be dismantled (and Patricia Roberts-Miller posits that for Deliberate Democracy to be successful, they should be), through discourse. Rather than prop up enclaves, Roberts-Miller writes that deliberative democracy “requires that people try to present their own arguments in ways that people who are different might understand” (197). For this process of dismantling enclaves and changing the values of a public sphere to be effective, Roberts-Miller argues, the topic of discourse has to become the inequality itself. In nerd culture, that is being done in several places.
Consider feminist media critic and activist Anita Sarkeesian, who has created the web series “Tropes vs. Women in Videogames,” explicitly calling out misogyny in nerd culture (which, unfortunately, put her at the forefront of #gamergate and made her the target of relentless harassment, though Sarkeesian has been outspoken and explicit about how this behavior only serves as further example of the misogyny she’s speaking out against). Her series is worth watching and creates a counterpublic discourse dedicated to making the misogyny explicit.
There is also the work of Marissa Lee, founder of Racebending, an “international grassroots organization of media consumers that advocates for underrepresented groups in entertainment media.” The work of Racebending is to challenge the established normativity in media, helping educate people about how the media industry continues to discriminate against POC. They have taken advocacy steps for several big budget, decidedly “nerdy” films which cast roles that, in the original books, were POC but were whitewashed, such as Akira, The Hunger Games, and The Last Airbender.
(Racebending’s panel from San Diego Comic Con)
Another example of explicit misogyny in the local public of nerdom being addressed is in the television show Rick and Morty. Rick and Morty, the sci-fi cartoon from show creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, is a delightful weekly dalliance in “high-concept sci-fi rigamarole” that wades into the murky territory of existential philosophy and (often obscure) nerdy references. Harmon and Roiland have explicitly worked to make their writing staff more gender-balanced, and the third season of the show demonstrates this through the increasingly nuanced take on gender dynamics. The show itself frequently critiques the fragility of masculinity, building a platform in nerd culture that quite explicitly addresses these issues. Just consider the character of Rick.
Rick, *belch*, is the sort of brainiac anti-hero idolized by these Alt-Right nerds; to quote his grandson Morty, “he’s more like a demon, or a super f’d-up god.” But while his intellect might be godlike, the character of Rick is an intensely emotionally fragile one, though he doesn’t admit that. In one episode in the third season, he turns himself into a pickle (“It’s pickle Rick!”, it’s also hard to overlook the phallic, Freudian implications of this action) because he doesn’t want to go to therapy with his family; he is so emotionally fragile that he’d rather risk literally pickling his innards and dying a fermented death (“Toxic Masculinity” in an absurdly literal sense) than address his lack of emotional intelligence. Rick is male fragility writ large.
But fans are upset about these gender dynamics and attendant emotional concerns being part of the show. As mentioned earlier, “fans” began to threaten female writers of the show online and release their personal information. Rather than embracing these (growing ever-more-nuanced with each episode) caricatures of masculinity and how they speak back to nerd culture, many fans seem to ignore them or be downright hostile towards them. And that’s a missed opportunity for the kinds of conversations that can transform nerdom’s public sphere.
But showrunner Dan Harmon has not let these issues go unaddressed. He continues to publicly shame the misogynists and the culture of misogyny in the show’s fanbase, particularly those bros harassing the female writers of the show:
“These knobs, that want to protect the content they think they own—and somehow combine that with their need to be proud of something they have, which is often only their race or gender. . . I’ve made no bones about the fact that I loathe these people.”
Harmon goes on to assert that the more gender-balanced writing room has only served to make the show stronger.
Like Sarkeesian, Lee, and Harmon, we have to own our local publics and take responsibility for striving for equality within them. We need to find ways to make spaces for a wide range of voices and experiences, which is what I have found so appealing about nerd culture to begin with-- the range of imagined worlds and universes and how those worlds help us creatively reimagine our own.
Within Nerdom, I’ve too-often been arguing about entirely the wrong things. Sure, I still think Han shot first, but let’s talk about the clever political move of actor Diego Luna insisting on his Mexican accent being part of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story because he knew how important it was for people to see (and hear!) people like themselves as heroes. Sure, let’s deliberate on the Zelda timeline, but be sure to talk about the intense saga of gender politics between Princess Zelda and her father, King Rhoam, being played out in Breath of the Wild. Sure, let’s have our comic-cons and PAC conferences and gaming expos, but let’s make those places inclusive and make explicit the ways in which they are not.
And Nerdom is just one of the local publics I occupy. These problems are also woven into the fabric of others I love-- the lay of the land in academia is sexism, racism, and elitism; rural identity is plagued with them, too; woodworking is framed almost exclusively as a “white bro” space; natural conservation (though many notable conservationists have been women and people of color) is a bro-down; and on and on and on. These local publics are ones I need to be accountable for. They are local publics where I need to be consciously working to make them more equal, open, and accessible for everyone, purposefully and meaningfully addressing racism, misogyny, classism, elitism, homophobia, and all kinds of other inequalities directly and explicitly.
What local publics are yours? And how are you going to address inequality within them and challenge hateful, enclave thinking like that of the alt-right?
Un-linked Sources Consulted
Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.
Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Deliberate Conflict: Argument, Political Theory, and Composition Classes.