Chomiji (chomiji) wrote,

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An Old-School She-Geek

Hello, visitors!   I left this journal entry public because I thought some interesting discussion might develop, which it has. But I don't know all of you, and today someone has left a comment here attempting to bring a vitriolic argument on a related topic into this space (it hit the spam filter and was screened). Please don't do things like that in my space.

It's been a bad couple of weeks to be a geek woman, what with the Readercon Creeper (see linkspam) and before that hit, the CNN article about how good-looking young women in skimpy costumes aren't really geeks (see Scalzi's blog, which has a link to the original piece).

Among the comments on the Scalzi "Who Gets to Be a Geek" piece was something that crystalized for me some uneasy feelings I'd been having myself about the recent co-evolution of geekdom in general and the women who are part of it. One commenter stated:

Speaking personally: I used to think that geek culture was one of the few places that I, as a non-femme fat chick, would find acceptance. It was exciting to know that I didn’t have to look like a bikini model in order to make friends and potentially find partners. Unfortunately, now that there really ARE bikini models running around in my spaces, I’m feeling more and more marginalized. My one refuge from my culture’s violent reinforcement of body standards is evaporating, and it’s upsetting.

I don't want to feel as this commenter does. But in my heart, I sometimes feel that way, even though I know it's wrong.

Some 50 years ago, there was a bookish little girl called Cho-chan. (Yeah. transparent distancing device is transparent.) Cho-chan was always a little pudgy, bad at sports, shy to the extreme, and bored and annoyed by what is now called performative femininity. Clothes usually didn't fit her well, her feet were too wide for girlish shoes, she wore glasses, and though she liked cute things such as baby animals, she didn't see what cute had to do with her.

She was a source of irritation to her mother, who had appearance issues of her own and who came from a New York garment-industry family in which dressing smartly was a way of life. However, she did allow Cho-chan to read books for escape at family events and sometimes pick out her own clothes and dress fabrics.

Cho-chan broke up with her queen-bee best friend from infancy when both girls were 8, and by the end of grade school, her friends were one other girl who liked horses and a couple of boys who were not embarrassed to play space ship (play as in "let's pretend," not a video game: there were no video games yet) or talk science with a girl. Her lack of interest in dolls (except as action figures), clothes, and later on, pop and movie stars gave her little in common with most of the girls her age, and also, she wasn't scared of bugs or snakes or worms or gross things like that. "Cho-chan is so weird."

As Cho-chan grew older, it became permissible for girls to wear trousers to school, and by the age of 15, she wore jeans and T shirts and clunky shoes (Earth shoes, for instance, and desert boots) all the time, except when she was forced into a dress for religious observances and major family get-togethers. When she and the other girls in Home Economics had to sew cute little 1970s tunics with matching shorts, all the other girls obtained pop-art bright or pastel flowered prints. Cho-chan managed to find a brown-and-black on cream Polynesian tapa-inspired print. Her sewing project stuck out like a licorice bonbon in a wad of cotton candy.

Cho had made some early more-or-less solo forays into fandom as a small child, with a series called "Space Cat," and she continued with The Hobbit and Star Trek:TOS (which was just "Star Trek" back then). By middle school, she was reading both science fiction (Asimov's Foundation series, Dune) and the new wave of YA fantasy that was just coming out (Susan Cooper, Patricia McKillip, etc.). Other girls generally ignored her or made fun of her, and on one memorable occasion, threatened to beat her up in the gym locker room.

In high school, she found a few other fannish people - mostly boys - and had an actual social life for the first time: she was on stage crew (as the only female electrician), the literary magazine, the TV quiz team ("It's Academic"), and the Diplomacy Club. When she went away to college, she knew what to look for, although she was still very lonely at times. She joined the gaming club and the SCA. She went to cons and tournaments and feasts. (And squirmed uneasily away from SCA asshats who looked down her cleavage and got grabby, but that's another story.) She met her husband in the SCA.

During this entire time, she usually only had one or two female friends at a time. Most of her female socializing was with either her younger sister or an old friend from high school (who was a languages geek and had also been on the quiz team), and later with her sisters-in-law.

She would not have multiple female friends at one time until 2007, when she started blogging on LJ.

So, my fandoms and me. It's always been mostly book fandom, until I discovered manga in 2006. By about age 25, I had more or less given up on TV.

I always read books with male protagonists. And as I got older, I identified with them. No one ever made them feel bad for not caring about their appearance. People cared about what they did, not what they looked like. And very early in adolescence, I became entranced that with male-male buddy relationships that I would learn, much later in life, to call "slashy." This suited me, because the relationships these guys seemed to have were the type of relationships that I wished I could have: equal partners, with mutual respect.

As a child, the female fictional characters that I did like or with whom I identified were tomboys: Petrova Fossil in Ballet Shoes (who wanted to grow up to be a pilot - and eventually did so), Goth in The Witches of Karres (who has adventures with the grown-up protagonist and who is rather scary and never, ever cute), Marian the girl with the dogs in The Horse without a Head (the caretaker of all the stray dogs in her town), Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and streetwise cockney Dido Twite in Joan Aiken's Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. I never felt that I could be as brave and adventurous as these girls, but they didn't care about clothes, their hair, or pleasing boys by being pretty and meek. I could appreciate that. And they didn't mock or scorn mousy brainiacs like me. Sometimes they even defended timid girls and became their friends. (This narrative didn't work so well with my eventual ideal of an equal partnership, but oh well.)

The grown-up descendants of these fictional girls were harder to find during my early adult years. It wasn't that I needed someone who didn't like or was even just indifferent to men, either. Raederle in McKillip's Riddlemaster series was "the second-most beautiful woman in An," but she ran away after her love across several nations without any concern about packing a wardrobe (or even, as far as I could tell, a hairbrush). Paxe, the badass female guard captain in Elizabeth Lynn's The Northern Girl, had both male and female lovers at various times - but worry about her hair and clothes? Are you kidding? More recently, tough demon hunter Maxine Kiss (in her eponymous series by Marjorie Liu) and the various badass women in the manga Black Lagoon have appealed to me.

But to many characters in fiction, as in real life, being a tomboy is something that gets left behind. You grow up and learn to care about clothes and make up and fitting in with our society's ideals of female appearance. If you're pretty enough, you'll stand out, and otherwise, you want to hit as many points of conventional performative femininity as possible so people don't think you're weird. Other women don't talk to you if you're weird. And it's not that you just have to do this to get a man or a job: you have to like it and care about it.

I won't do it, I can't do it. I was never conventionally attractive, and now I am almost 54 years old. I have no patience for clothing that isn't comfortable, my life is complicated enough without taking time to put on makeup before I leave the house (and it won't matter - I'll still have my same blunt, strong features, but with makeup on top), and my feet have become even wider and more tender with age, so that shoes with more than an inch or so of heel are torture after 30 minutes of walking or standing. Alone with my husband, I feel sexy. In the presence of others? Not so much.

For most of my years in geekdom, nobody really cared about any of that. Like the woman whom I quoted at the begging of this rant, it was wonderful to know that nobody except the odd pervy guy was judging me on anything but my enthusiasm for and knowledge of my various fandoms.

Nowadays, geekish enthusiasms are cool. The movies of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter brought hundreds of thousands into at least the fringes of fandom, and people who would never have spoken to someone like me 30 years ago are reading manga, watching geek-cool things like Dr. Who, and talking up fannish topics on LJ and DW. There are large numbers of women involved. And they say things like "It's OK for a strong heroine to be pretty and care about clothes and makeup!"

I ... want this to be true. If it's OK for women to be anything they want, then they can want to be decorative and well dressed and impeccably made up. Of course they can!

But are they going to judge me unworthy because I am not, and don't want to try to be?

I have had younger female fans tell me that liking slash fiction is bad, because it marginalizes female characters. I have had people seem (it may have been in my own head) to tell me I should like feminine female characters in manga series I was reading because I am female and I'm supposed to support female characters: even if they were the type of people who wouldn't have interest in someone like me if I were one of the characters in the cast.

Why do beautiful, self-confident fangirls make me want to run away from the things I love, and hide so they won't see me?

I am way too old to be this insecure.

Aren't I?


This entry is also posted at Dreamwidth. Comment at either location, as you prefer.

Tags: fandom, geeky, me, news, rantage
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