The History of Women in Geek Culture Should Not Be Overlooked

a girl holding up a sign "Boys tell me that I'm not a real gamer."

Gamer Dominique Villanueva in still from the The Doubleclick's music video "Nothing to Prove." 

There is a strange and pervasive cultural myth that geek girls are like unicorns—we’re rare and mythical creatures who can’t possibly be real. This anxiety over gender is deeply tied to nerds’ concerns about the mainstreaming of geekdom.

Combative male gatekeepers to geekdom—from comic book store employees to Magic: The Gathering judges to Comic Con panelists to video game developers—have a history of marginalizing, challenging, and harassing perceived interlopers. The (mostly) straight, white, male people police geek culture using concepts like “geek cred” (having an impossibly detailed knowledge of a fandom’s minutia), claims that girls are thin-skinned princesses who can’t handle the culture, and implications that female nerds are either only tagging along with their boyfriends or trying to sleep their way to success. A few years ago, the idea spread that “Fake Geek Girls” are only latching on to current trends in popular culture to be seen as cool.

a geeky girl says 'Hasn't read all 700 issues of batman... neither have you."

Geek girl meme by Rachel Edinin

What’s ironic about all this is that while television, film, video games, the comic books industry continues to mostly cater to presumed male audiences—across media, female creators and storylines with women at their center are the exception to the rule—women make up at least half of people who spend money on geeky media and events.

For example, take gaming. While many video games exhibit rampant misogyny and playable main female characters are rare, an estimated 48 percent of gamers are female. There are significantly more adult women playing video games than there are teenage boys. The videos in Felicia Day’s gamer-centric web series The Guild have been viewed more than 89 million times altogether. But in the mainstream cultural consciousness, video games are still seen as the domain of teen boys.

One place where geeky people actually turn up IRL and confound notions of what nerds look like is at conventions. This past year, website The Nerdist declared that “Women Totally Dominated This Year’s San Diego Comic-Con International 2014.” Also this year, women were the majority of attendees at Seattle's Emerald City Comicon. At least, that’s according to a post-con survey conducted by the con’s organizers.

a chart showing that 52 percent of emerald city comicon atendees were women

Without cataloging the preferred gender identification of every pass-buyer, and knowing that the number of respondents likely represents but a small segment of Emerald City's 70,000 attendees, we can’t necessarily assume that there were in fact, more geek girls than fanboys at the con, only that women might be more likely to take surveys. As The Mary Sue rightly noted, “All that this graphic might mean is that the folks who actually care enough about ECCC to want to help make it better were majority women.” That might be true—women certainly have more incentive to give feedback on how to make geek spaces more inclusive.

All this shows that women are not only geeky—we’re invested in geekdom. It’s part of our identity and millions of women are working to make that culture better. At the fourth annual GeekGirlCon ’14 in October, over 7,000 Trekkies, Trekkers, Jedi Knights, Twi-hards, Bronies, Whovians, Browncoats, Steampunks, Sherlockians, X-Philes, Saltgunners, Scoobies, Potterheads, and even some Muggles turned out to an event that explicitly says “no ‘geek cred’ is required” to be part of the celebration, or the community.  

To get another picture of the huge part women play in geekdom, look at the results of fan-ticketing service Eventbrite’s recent online survey of 2,600 convention ticket-buyers. The gender split of fans was nearly equal overall and for respondents under 30 (about 45 percent of the sample), the split was exactly even at 50/50.

a chart shows that gender for eventrbrite ticketed events is nearly equal

To that last point, generational factors seem to make a difference in who relates to the culture, and how the culture functions within communities. At The Daily Dot, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw recounted her experience of two conventions this past Summer in London, England: Nine Worlds, a relatively new event, and Worldcon, an event in its 72nd year. According to Baker-Whitelaw, “Nine Worlds was smaller, younger, and catered to a more varied crowd including comics, TV, and fanfic followers” and that Worldcon, while a cultural institution, had a core demographic of older members who seemed out of touch with the interests and concerns of younger geek communities. She noted that while the programming organizers at Worldcon made conscientious efforts to embrace diversity, “older fans who came up through pre-Internet fandom... often considered themselves superior to the newcomers.” Nine Worlds, on the other hand, went above and beyond to make sure all attendees felt welcome and safe, distributing badges with preferred gender pronouns and making their code of conduct visible. Additionally, Nine Worlds has a robust Geek Feminism track that includes panels on feminist geek activism, geeky crafting as a political act, sex work in the works of Joss Whedon, and ways to get more women into creative industry job positions.

Newer cons ensure continued success by embracing a wide array of geekery and fandoms that to cater to emerging, youthful, geek audiences through mission-based tone, mood, and environment.

As geek culture evolves, and women become more visible members of the community, it’s tempting to assume that geek girls’ surging numbers are simply the result of the mainstreaming of geekdom. But fangirls have been around just as long as fanboys, playing Pac-Man, contributing to and editing fan magazines, writing fan fiction, vidding, and cosplaying.

Long before GeekGirlCon or Nine Worlds, girl geeks were organizers of early fan gatherings, fan-based initiatives, alternative media-making, and indie publishing opportunities. Bjo Trimble spearheaded a letter writing campaign with her husband, John, in 1968 to save the original Star Trek series from cancellation—resulting in a third and final season for the classic franchise. The Wimmen’s Comix collective was formed in the 1970s as a response to sexism and misogyny in the underground comix movement. WisCon, the first and foremost feminist science fiction convention in the world, held its inaugural con in 1977 and will be convening their 39th event in 2015. Some of these geeky foremothers were honored at Geek Girl Con this year: Seattle-based radio producer Jamala Henderson organized and moderated a panel on Geek Eldersintroducing audience members to four women involved in 1970s and 80s Star Trek and Star Wars fan communities. Women have been integral to building geek communities—history that should not be forgotten or overlooked.


Here is a not-at-all comprehensive list of where to find geek women bypassing the constraints of traditional media (and often sexist institutions) to both direct the conversation, create communities, and influence geek culture. Although they're now defunct, I should note that organizations like Friends of Lulu (1994-2011) and Girl-Wonder.org (2006-2013) were essential advocates that promoted and encouraged female readership and participation.

GEEK GIRL RESOURCES:

• Black Girl Nerds - A site about being a nerdy black girl and why we love it so much.

• GeekGirlCon - A nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting awareness of and celebrating the contribution and involvement of women in all aspects of the sciences, science fiction, comics, gaming and related Geek culture through conventions and events that emphasize both historic and ongoing contribution and influence of women in this culture.

• Escher Girls - A blog to archive and showcase the prevalence of certain ways women are depicted in illustrated pop media, specifically how women are posed, drawn, distorted, and/or sexualized out of context, often in ridiculous, impossible or disturbing ways that sacrifice storytelling.

• Legion of Leia – Has a mission to raise awareness of the fact that women love sci-fi.

• The Unicorn Files – A photojournalism project to show that female geeks exist, and are a wide and diverse group.

• Geekquality – A project standing at the intersection of fandom and media criticism, with the goal of celebrating and encouraging diversity within the geek zeitgeist.

• The Mary Sue - Promotes, watches, extolls, and celebrates women’s representation in all of areas of geekdom and works to make geekdom safe and open for women.

• The Valkyries – A collective of women who work in comic book retail, providing a network of support, as well as promoting female-friendly spaces and female-friendly comic book works. 

• Women in Horror Month - Women in Horror Recognition Month (WiHM) assists female genre artists in gaining opportunities, exposure, and education through altruistic events, printed material, articles, interviews, and online support.

• Graveyard Shift Sisters – A space to highlight and celebrate the experiences and achievements of Black women and women of color in the horror (and science fiction) genre. 

• Geek Mom – A community of writers, readers, and media geeks, dedicated to the vision of creating a smart, savvy, social online experience for geek parents everywhere.

• Parenting Geekly – A place for geeky parents to find product reviews, technology and media guides, and advice, all with a nerdy twist.

• Border House – A gaming blog with feminist analysis for those who are feminist, queer, disabled, people of color, transgender, poor, gay, lesbian, and others who belong to marginalized groups, as well as allies.

• We are Comics - A campaign to show—and celebrate—the faces of creators, publishers, retailers, readers; professionals and fans in the comics community. Has a mission to promote the visibility of marginalized members of our population; and to stand in solidarity against harassment and abuse.


Related Reading: Geek Culture — A New Hope. 

In the next article in this three-part series, we look at how LGBTQ communities are influencing geek culture!

Jennifer K. Stuller is an Ink-Stained Amazon, a co-founder of Geek Girl Con, and was sorted into House Ravenclaw. Her feature “Leveling Up: Geek Woman Are Connecting Like Never Before” can be read in Bitch’s upcoming (Re)Vision issue

by Jennifer K. Stuller
View profile »

Jennifer K. Stuller is Co-Founder and Director Emeritus of Programming and Events for GeekGirlCon -- an organization dedicated to the recognition, encouragement and support of women in geek and pop culture and STEM. Stuller is a writer, scholar, media critic, and feminist pop culture historian. She is an author and contributor to multiple publications, including Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, and the editor of Fan Phenomena: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She has spoken at national and international conferences and regularly appears at the Comic Arts Conference, the Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses, and San Diego Comic-Con International. She is a frequent presenter on the topics of media literacy, geek activism and community-building, ever endeavoring to use her powers only for good.

Still Reading? Sign up for our Weekly Reader!

1 Comment Has Been Posted

Love Gamer Girls

Gamer Girls are under estimated, and there are many of them there that can be just as good if not better than their male counter parts. If you love Video Games and you're really into them you're a gamer. There are many different gamers that are out there . Here's a look of inspiration https://www.facebook.com/Sjokz she's one of the casters in the EU LCS scene. Keep on playin and hope to see you online and on the streams.

Add new comment