Getting women to embrace their nerdiness

(Michael Lyons/Ryersonian)

(Michael Lyons/Ryersonian)

A few years ago Jen Jenson, a professor in pedagogy and technology at York University and a long time video gamer, was troubled by something she kept encountering over and over again.

Women she spoke to continually offered justifications of why they didn’t play video games, saying they weren’t good with technology or they didn’t have the right skills. She remembers interviewing a young undergrad, a really fantastic tennis player, and when asked why she had stopped playing video games, the woman said, “Oh, you know, I just don’t really have any co-ordination.”

As part of her research, she and some colleagues formed and observed a sex-separated grade school video game club. At first, the boys mostly played in silence, while the girls did a lot of chatting and joking. As the club continued, the girls got better at the games and their behaviour became more and more like the boys. When Jenson and her team introduced the brand new Guitar Hero, both the girls and boys, all newbies to the game, behaved the same.

This blows my mind. While the discovery seems like common sense — people who are new to an experience aren’t going to be as skilled as the more experienced and in turn will behave differently. However, when the gender layer is added and we begin to assume unskilled behaviour represents facts about girls and women, its clear to me that this is an issue of society, rather than female-specific traits.

Thinking about it, I started to realize how unjust this is, and that it can also extend beyond women in video games. Jenson’s work starts to uncover the myriad of ingrained assumptions forced on children from a young age as facts of life, like the idea that videogames are for boys, not girls.

In that sense, women saying they can’t play video games or enjoy other nerdy pursuits, long assumed to be for boys, only starts to become clearer; if you tell a young girl over and over again that something she’s interested in isn’t for girls, she’ll soon believe it.

“I can blame media for a lot of this aspect,” says Hope Nicholson, a researcher who also runs a small publishing house, and a self-described fangirl. “There are relatively few programs throughout time that have shown female ‘geeks’ on TV or film, and it’s natural to assume that there must not be that many if that’s all the representation you see. We really need a geeky version of Girls, is what I think, before things start to change.”

Nicholson is one of five panellists featured at “DMGTalks: Gigs and Careers in Fandom and Geek Culture”. Dames Making Games, an organization that seeks to get women and marginalized groups involved in game making, are hosting this event focusing on women who have made careers out of their geeky passions. This is fantastic because the more nerdy women we have, the more incentive women have to follow their nerdy desires.

Nicholson being a delightfully nerdy example; she was associate producer on Lost Heroes, a documentary about Canada’s lost comic book heroes; she headed up a successful Kickstarter campaign to reprint Nelvana, a Canadian comic about a Nazi- and alien-fighting Inuit demigoddess released in 1941. Now she’s in the middle of another Kickstarter — which has already met its goal with more than a week to go — to reprint Brok Windsor, another forgotten Canadian comic about a medical doctor who receives superpowers while adventuring to faraway places.

She’ll be joined by friends and colleagues with interests that span video gaming, web comics, movies, and beyond, who each explore their interests with other fans in all sorts of different publications and mediums. In short, they are all part of fandom — an amorphous subculture made up of fans who feel an affinity to different aspects of (usually nerdy) culture.

“I’m early in my fandom career right now, but I think that even if I was to go back to a non-fandom based job, I would continue to work in this field as much as I can,” Nicholson says. “It really has grabbed me.”

Despite the dedicated work of women like Nicholson there is still this insidious resistance to women in nerd culture and fandom. Many professional women — recently, I think of video game developer Zoe Quinn or cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian who, it turns out, was a student of Jenson’s during her studies at York University — face vicious campaigns of harassment, including threats of rape and death, by men on a regular basis. As Jenson’s work demonstrates, there are these gender essentialist assumptions we all believe, like the idea that women aren’t good at video games, which are patently untrue.

According to a 2013 study about the Canadian video game industry, 58 per cent of the country’s population is gamers, and almost half of those gamers are female. Systemic sexism is beginning to be addressed among some circles in different industries, and many nerd culture-related conventions are tackling issues of sexual harassment to make those spaces more safe and welcoming to everyone. This, however, is just a start.

Nicholson says she’s been hearing comments lately suggesting females are becoming the “gatekeepers of popular culture,” guarding what’s cool. “I never understand this mentality myself, it does seem to be slightly jealous, but there are so many male-dominated groups and clubs in the comic field, how can you blame a group of women for wanting to have a little space of their own to enjoy?”

“And there are a lot of people who just don’t understand our complaints about the misogyny that happens in the field,” she adds. “Sure, it’s as pervasive as anywhere else, but instead of reacting with defensiveness, just take a second to listen and understand. It’s a community, and it should be one that’s a bit more pleasant than it is now.”

DMGTalks: Gigs and Careers in Fandom and Geek Culture will take place Saturday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Bento Miso Collaborative Workspace, 862 Richmond St. W. It is free, but pre-registration is required.


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