Ending Sexual Harassment In Geek Culture

I want to run a quick question by you.

Which of these do you think is an appropriate reaction to art criticism of a piece of art you enjoy?

  • A: A discussion about the differences in styles and desired effect by the artist with an eye towards the commercial viability of the property, exaggerations of form consistent with a dynamic image and the difference between presenting photorealism and depicting a heroic ideal.
  • B: Ignoring the criticism because you disagree and going about your day.
  • C: Spamming the critic’s email and Facebook page with “You can’t get rid of us. We’re infinite. You’re nothing but a loudmouth c*nt and we’re going to show you the only thing you’re good for.”

If you answered anything other than C… well, you’re actually a well-adjusted human being.

As opposed to being a syphilitic feces-throwing man-child, anyway

As opposed to being a syphilitic feces-throwing man-child, anyway

Because, let’s face it: how much of a freak of genetics do you have to be to think that the proper response to somebody – anybody – disagreeing with you about Wonder Girl is to threaten to rape them? In the realm of potential absurd over-reactions, is there anything, anything more insane, than somebody deciding that the only possible response to believing that somebody’s opinion about Mass Effect, or Altair or Black Widow or The Dark Knight Rises or what-have-you is to promise to track them down and violate them with a stick? I mean that is insane. Pants-on-head, smearing-shit-on-the-walls insane.

And yet so many of my friends – just about every single woman I know who’s active in geek culture, in fact – this isn’t an abstract thought exercise. This is their daily lives. They are deluged with anonymous threats promising rape and worse… because some rando has decided that they must suffer for the crime of being a woman with an opinion online… and they know what you look like and where you live.

And nobody seems to care. Because this is the new normal. This is what, apparently, is accepted in geek culture now.

Yes, this is another column about Nerds Behaving Badly. If you think you’re tired of reading them, imagine how tired am of writing them.

So let’s talk about this shall we?

Janelle Asselin And The Comic Critique Controversy

The story, as so many of them do, starts with something innocuous. In this case, it all starts with a critique. Janelle Asselin, a comics veteran, wrote an in-depth and incredibly detailed breakdown of just why the cover of the Teen Titans relaunch was a lousy cover.

“Oh can you throw a paper airplane in there? We need a bit of whimsey so you can tell it’s not just Stripperella and the Glowering.”

And let’s be fair: it’s pretty much a garbled mess on many levels. There’s no dynamism to the image or any indication that these characters are interacting on any level. The most recognizable character – Robin – is relegated to fourth-tier status by size as he… I dunno, eats a candy bar or something? Meanwhile, there’s barely room for the title and all of the little random, context-free details like the gunship and a freaking paper airplane that just serve to clutter things up without providing any real insight to the story, the characters’ personality or really anything that might make you want to actually, y’know. Buy the comic.

But let’s be honest: the meat of the criticism is Wonder Girl. And by that I mean: her boobs. There’re other anatomical issues but the boobs are the biggest1 – because they’re notably fake. As in silicone. Unenhanced breasts don’t behave like that – especially without any sort of support from a serious push-up bra. And  of course, the entire cover (and most of the critique) is centered around them. The tits of a girl who is, canonically, around 16 or 17.

I should mention that Asselin is a veteran of the comics industry. She was an editor and associate editor on a diverse array of DC titles including Batman, Batwoman, Detective Comics, The Savage Hawkman, Birds of Prey, Robin and Gotham City Sirens, a frequent contributor to Comic Book Resources, and Comics Alliance, the weekend editor at The Mary Sue and an academic researcher with a focus on comics. Which is to say: it was literally her job to know what does and doesn’t make a good cover.

It’s a strong, but not terribly stinging critique. I mean, shit, was on the receiving end of far harsher criticism from my professors during my brief tenure as an art major. To be fair, I haven’t been a comics professional in quite some time, but it’s not like Asselin told the dude that he should cut his fingers off with tin-snips rather than call himself an artist2

Naturally, this was taken with grate aplomb. While many people may have disagreed with her assessment, it was generally agreed to be a valid and professional break-down of some notable flaws in the image over the course of a civil discussion.

Nah, I’m totally shitting you. People went bugfuck. Because if there’s anything that needs defending, it’s a crappy cover.

Comics professionals like Brett Booth and his fans complained that this was a hatchet job because Asselin wasn’t properly reverential and implied that she wasn’t a real comics professional:

 

…while others prefer to diminish her accomplishments directly because vaginas.

But in what’s become de rigueur for talking to women who dare to have opinions about geeky things, several enterprising defenders of bad taste decided that some opposition research must be done. In doing so, they found that Asselin was also doing an survey on sexual harassment in comics. Naturally this meant that – as a feminist – Asselin must have an agenda to destroy comics because that’s what feminists do: strip you of your god-given right to shitty T&A because fuck you penis, that’s why. And of course, she was called a feminazi, a feminist bitch, a sad bitch and other lovely names and accused of having an agenda because of course an academic survey of people’s experiences in the comic industry must be ideologically driven.

And then the rape threats started coming in. After the chucklefucks discovered3 her survey, they decided the best thing they could do would be to skew the results… specifically so they could use the question box at the end to tell her they were coming to fuck her until she bled.

Because she didn’t like a comic cover.

What the fuck.

Here’s the thing though: this isn’t about whether or not Asselin is legitimately afraid for her personal safety – while not ignoring that these are threats from people who know what she looks like, where she works and where she lives – or if these threats are at all credible. It’s about the fact that this is so common place, that women get so many threats that it stops bothering them. 

 

I want to reiterate that so that it sinks in: women getting so many anonymous, sexually violent threats that it just becomes normal to them.

This is what we’re letting our culture turn into, people.

The Silence of the Ladies

Cold hard fact: geek culture has a problem with women. We have shown it time and time again. Tess Fowler. Anita Sarkeesian. Mattie Bryce. Zoe Quinn. Lea Hernandez. Colleen Doran. Gail Simone. Kate Leth. Laura Hudson. Jennifer Hepler. Alice Mercier. Courtney Stanton. Elizabeth Sampat.

Whenever the subject of how women are treated in geek culture comes up, people will immediately rush to dismiss and diminish and derail the conversation. They will argue that everyone takes shit online. Or that women just need to learn to grow a thicker skin because this is how the big boys do it. There will be people who want to say “it’s important to note that guys get this too!” or rush to complain that it’s not all men who do this. They will want to play “devil’s advocate” or complain that they don’t harass women so it’s unfair for people to bring it up because it’s “tarring men with a broad brush” or maligning otherwise well-meaning dudes so just shut up about it already because it’s not really a problem anyway because their friend is totally a woman and is cool with this shit and never gets threatened.

"Meanwhile, at stately /r/mensrights manor..."

“Meanwhile, at stately /r/mensrights manor…”

Or she’s strong enough that she just ignores all of those threats because who really gets scared about random people saying shit online.

And you know what?

It’s all bullshit.

Because when people rush to qualify how it’s “not all men” or “it’s not a problem”, it’s a way of distracting from the two real issues at hand.

First: that it’s directed at women specifically because they are women. I write a lot about feminist issues. I even have my own dedicated haters who crop up in the comments to complain every time I talk about anything smacking of feminism. And not only do I not get even a hundredth of the shit that Asselin has – or Lea Hernandez or Kate Leth or any of the other women I’ve mentioned earlier – but I’ve never had rape threats directed at me. Nor have 99% of the high-profile male writers and bloggers who cover the same issues. Nor do any of us get the same volume of violent threats. Or the stalkers. Or the harassment. Because for women, this doesn’t just stay on the Internet. It follows them  everywhere.

 

The second is that when people argue or derail the conversation about it, they’re trying to distract from the fact women are being threatened in order to shut them up. To make them go away. To chase them away from the community entirely. The “Beat Anita Sarkeesian” game wasn’t about refuting her arguments, it was about making the scary woman who (they think) is going to rob them of their gaming T&A go away. The harassment that Zoe Quinn faced for her game Depression Quest was because people wanted to make her stop talking. Jennifer Hepler had her children threatened because people didn’t like what she had to say about Dragon’s Age 2, a game she helped write. Janelle Asselin gets rape threats for criticizing a comic book cover. Kate Leth – an outspoken critic of the casual harassment and misogyny in geek culture – gets targeted by men who are determined to “punish” her for… making comics they don’t like.

 

It’s not just comics. It’s not just games. It’s geek culture as a whole. And we’re letting this cancer rot us from the inside out.

The False Myth of Geek Enlightenment

Of course, part of the problem is getting geeks to even acknowledge that it’s happening. And one of the most pernicious ways we brush this under the rug is by pretending that we as a culture are so much wiser, so much more enlightened, so much better than the jocks, the bros, the frat boys… all of those guys who are practically synonymous with date rape and sexual harassment. Nerds and geeks aren’t the bulliers, we’re the bullied. We’re the outsiders.

It were ever thus

It were ever thus…

And therein lies the problem. We’re not the outsiders any more. Geek culture is mainstream culture. We’ve basically won. But we continue to define ourselves as outcasts and losers – insisting that being a geek means being a socially awkward freak who is still – somehow – morally and intellectually superior to the people around him.

We’re used to defining ourselves in opposition to others and assuming that by not being X (in this case, jocks, bros, etc.) we’re also not Y (bullies, rapists, harassers). We get caught up in the identity of “geek” being “outsiders”, meaning that we’re the excluded. If we start to question those definitions then… who are we? How are we supposed to identify ourselves? How are we supposed to know that, deep down inside, we’re the superior ones?

Far easier to pretend it’s not a problem. To minimize the issue. To brush it under the rug. This is why whenever we hear about someone in our culture being harassed – online, at cons, in comic stores – there are so many who are quick to pretend it it’s not a real issue. We get the “It’s not all men” protests because it’s more important to reinforce the inherent superiority of geek culture than it is to address that it’s a large and incredibly visible  portion of the community. Better to enforce the No True Scotsman fallacy and pretend they’re not a real part of the culture than addressing that they exist and they’re causing measurable harm. We get the devil’s advocates who believe it’s more important to consider the harasser’s side of things than the effect he’s having on his victim. We get the no-drama-types who prefer to blame the person who points out that there’s a big fucking problem than the person actually causing the problem because drama.

And of course, we have the ones who just hate women and want them to be consumable products for their pleasure.They prefer that geek culture has a locker-room atmosphere and believe that removing casual sexual harassment from it is an offense to both God and man.

That identification-by-opposition, by the way, is part of the reason why geek culture has that love/hate relationship with geeky women. Because to be a geek is to be an “outsider” by definition4 We don’t get to have the “cool things” that the other groups have – like, y’know, women. This is why for so many, geeky women become fetish objects – they represent everything we want but have been denied to us and we end up desiring and resenting them at the same time. It ties into the idea that women somehow hold all the power. And now they’re presuming to be part of our world where we supposedly have the power? What the hell?

So geeks freak out at women and try to bully them into silent compliance. And – as Marjorie Liu says eloquently at her blog:

Sometimes it feels as though talking about misogyny in this industry is like dealing with Groundhog Day: there seems to be a continuous reset, a collective male amnesia around the issue.  As if, when a woman speaks out, it’s for the first time and everyone is shocked.  Just shocked, I tell you.  Sexism exists?  OH MY GOD.

And the rest of us let them. The men of the geek culture are  all officially part of the problem.

Silence Is Approval

Now I can already hear many of you bristling at this: you’ve never sent any rape threats, you’ve never attacked a woman for having an opinion you disagreed with. You’ve never sexually harassed anyone. You’re not “that guy”.

Congratulations. You’ve achieved the baseline of human decency. But just “not being that guy” isn’t enough. If you don’t want to be tarred with the same brush as the cancerous assholes who target the women in our community, you need to speak up. Because this isn’t women’s problem. This is a man’s problem. It’s men who are the cause and it’s men who can and need to be the solution.

Because our silence is enabling them. Our silence is seen as approval. It’s validating their shitty behavior because nobody is speaking up against them.

 

This why we can’t be silent any more. We can’t pretend this is a woman’s problem. We can’t pretend that we’re not part of the problem because we’re not the harassers. As I said when I wrote about Tess Fowler, we – men – need to be the ones who stand up and make this behavior unacceptable. We need to be the ones who call the harassers out on their behavior. To not hide behind the fig leafs of “not all men” or “not my problem”.

See, we have the platform. We have the voice. We have the male privilege that says male voices have more impact, that we aren’t dismissed as easily. And we need to use it. We have to be the ones who make geek culture a place where this sort of toxic hate and abuse of women is unacceptable. Do not let this behavior go unremarked. Push back against idea that belittling, harassing or abusing women is somehow a masculine virtue, that it’s acceptable because “Internet, lulz” or “guys just being guys”. Marginalize these people. Isolate them. Excise them from the community – we don’t need them, we sure as shit don’t want them.

There will be push-back. There will be people who insist that just calling out bullshit doesn’t actually do anything because trolls are trolls and assholes are going to ass. Fuck them, they don’t want to see things change. There will be people who will call your motivations into question; they’ll call you a “white knight” and insist you’re only trying to impress women and get laid by standing up for them. Fuck them too; they know damn good and well how much power a male voice telling them that their behavior is unacceptable has on the community at large. They will say anything to try to distract you, shift the goal posts, derail the conversation, try to turn it around and make it about you. Don’t let them.

If we’re going to pretend that we’re better,then we need to be better.

No more silence. No more tacit approval.

It’s up to us men to stand up and be men.

  1. HA []
  2. Which, incidentally, is what I was told… in class. []
  3. Which makes it sound like she was hiding it… []
  4. A bullshit definition, but hey… []