Guys, Geeks and Gals: What the Media Missed About the Misogyny of Nerd Culture

The day before Anita Sarkeesian, the founder of Feminist Frequency, was scheduled to talk at Utah State University, administration members received an e-mail warning about a shooting massacre that would happen if Sarkeesian spoke:

This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history, and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.

Feminist Frequency is a non-profit organization that creates YouTube videos that deconstruct depictions of women in video games. Portions of Sarkeesian’s website are devoted to topics like “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” and it features videos like “Damsel in Distress” and “The Legend of the Last Princess.” Under current laws, Utah State University campus police would have been unable to prevent people with weapons from entering her talk, so she decided to cancel the event.

For Sarkeesian and other women who try to speak out in a male-dominated gaming environment about the stigmatization of women in gaming culture, violent threats are almost daily occurrences. In just one week, Sarkeesian received over 157 hate tweets. Several of them threatened to rape her, and she was called a bitch, a whore, a cunt. Unfortunately, events like these have become almost weekly occurrences ever since she began her organization. Last August, she was forced to move from her home after one individual made death threats to her and her family.

“Nerd culture” is meant to serve as a counter-cultural foil to the cool masculinity of mainstream manhood. It’s meant to be a safe haven for the outcasts in school, the shy kids who could quote Star Wars and Lord of the Rings at length, who stayed up night after night playing World of Warcraft and coding. There is a sense of camaraderie about being a nerd, about banding together and being bonded by your differences. But recent events have revealed that it’s not a haven for everyone: there is still an immense amount of misogyny and female-directed violence in the nerd world and in nerd culture—and very few people are willing to talk about it.

So while nerds may have gained the coveted badge of alternative cool kids, there’s still been a replication of female-targeted violence, stereotypes, and male entitlement that dominates other parts of our society. This issue has only become more ingrained in the ethos of the “nerd world” as the media has popularized being a nerd. And this popularization came without a critical conversation about women in the nerd world, so it has amplified the damaging parts, incorporating them into elements of shows, movies, and popular video games for comedic relief.

All of the popular manifestations of nerd culture, including video games, shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and movies like Revenge of the Nerds, have perpetuated the notion of women as objects to be won. They are the things to which the nice, nerdy guys are entitled by sheer virtue of their being considered a “nice” or “harmless” guy. And as the narrative goes, if girls won’t go out with you, it’s probably because they’re shallow, don’t understand you, or are too dumb to realize a good thing when it’s right in front of them. Even if they do end up with the “nice guy,” in television or movies they’re superficial characters, a vapid peripheral aspiration that the main characters can only dream about, rather than a true character who has equal intellectual capacities and equal screen time, a phenomenon perhaps best exemplified by Penny from “The Big Bang Theory.” Interestingly, the original pilot for the 2006-2007 precursor to “The Big Bang Theory” did feature two main female characters, one of whom was a scientist right from the first episode, but it wasn’t picked up by any major television networks. Instead, the creators were given a second chance to rework the show. What they came up with was the current “Big Bang Theory,” minus the main female scientist.

This entitlement also manifests itself in persistent and elaborate schemes that the “nerds” in media portrayals devise to get girls to fall in love with them by wearing them down. Steve Urkel’s character from Family Matters is famously interested in neighbor Laura Winslow, and one of his best known punch lines is “I’m wearing you down, baby. I’m wearing you down.” But what serves as a comedic punch line in television shows and movies is far from it in real life. In reality, this sort of attitude, the attitude that encourages nerdy guys to just keep trying and trying, even after a girl says no, can be intimidating, unwanted, unpleasant and invasive.

Making these persistent attempts at “winning” the unattainable trophy-girl into punch lines and story arcs has trivialized the real and dehumanizing reality of being the object to win. It has neglected to address the culture of entitlement that these sorts of narratives legitimize. When female-targeted violence is born out of frustrations and sentiments that voice entitlement, frustration, and “nice guy” excuses, it isn’t seen or heard as violence against women. It’s re-branded as something else. When Elliot Rodgers shot six female students who are part of a sorority because he felt it wasn’t fair that they never went out with him, the “perfect guy” and “supreme gentleman,” conversations erupted about mental health issues, gun control, and the lonely boy shooter who somehow took a wrong turn.

These instances of female-directed violence and threats of violence are often re-branded in and outside of nerd culture as something else because of the low visibility and foggy legal boundaries of gender-based hate crimes. As of 2014, law enforcement agencies reported 5,928 hate crimes, 0.3% of which were purportedly based on gender. However, this low percentage of gender-based hate crimes may be due to the oft-unclear criteria for determining what constitutes a gender-based hate crime at the state and federal level, rather than an actual lack of violent hate crimes against women. Only twelve states currently include gender identity in their criminal hate crime laws. Many argue that crimes against women ought not to be classified as hate crimes because they are somehow fundamentally different —since a victim often knows her perpetrator—and because crimes against women are so frequent that they would distort the statistics of hate crimes. But these justifications, while undoubtedly questionable in their own right, also create a gray area. For all the instances of anonymous aggression and violence over the Internet, through e-mail, or on campus that target particular women or groups of women by virtue of their gender, there is no clear statistical, legal or social categorization for what these acts are.

Although the recent passage of the Violence Against Women Act aimed to toughen punishment for violent acts against women, it said little to nothing to clarify the confusing definition of what hate crimes against women look like in the United States. This relative silence from lawmakers, legal precedents and law enforcement has created a lack of public understanding of what this violence looks like, and so when it manifests itself—or threatens to do so—in “nerd culture” and in other parts of our society, we don’t know what to do with it. So we call it by another name.

Consequently, in media portrayals of the UC Santa Barbara massacre, Rodgers’ actions are distanced from the culture and context in which those sentiments of entitlement flourished. Instead, media publicity accounted for his actions through a series of understandable and lamentable life events that made his case seem isolated, even sympathetic—it could have been anyone, it made us think. One article on CNN that came out afterwards, titled “Inside the Gunman’s Head”, organized its information into a logical succession of events that offered some explanation for what went wrong: A Life-Changing Divorce, Bitterness after Puberty, Traumatized by Porn, Taunting and Bullying, etc. It was a relatable trajectory, it made us think no one’s really to blame—it just happened.

But it doesn’t just happen. It isn’t one event. It’s a trend. It’s ongoing. Violence against women, objectification of women and the entitlement to women—the objects of male success—these ideas are everywhere. Including the nerd world.
So when threats of violence and brutality are made against the women in the gaming industry who try to speak out against this misogyny, the big problem of the nerd-world ethos is shooed away from the public eye again. Instead, the speech of those women, like Anita Sarkeesian, becomes a security issue, and the institutions that are meant to foster this kind of critical thought can no longer allow them to speak out.

That is not to say that “nerds” or “nerd culture” ought to be wholly blamed for violence against women today. Violence towards women and gender inequality are pervasive and constant issues that permeate all levels of society—mainstream, offbeat or otherwise. But nerd culture should be held accountable for what it has contributed to the society in which it is permissible to be sexually threatening and violent towards women, as well as feel entitled to them. Nerd culture should reckon with its portrayal of women as objects, not actors, in a serious way.

After Anita Sarkeesian was driven from her home in August, Joss Whedon and others stood in support of Sarkeesian, and an open letter condemning harassment and threats of violence in the gaming community started by Andres Zecher of Spaces of Play garnered 1382 signatures. This is a start, but it’s not enough. The gaming industry and media networks need to incorporate formidable female characters and storylines into their repertoire, and encourage depictions of women that don’t hinge on sexualizing them or objectifying them as disposable backdrops to the more serious business of man-gaming. More than that, there needs to be more discussion about the homogeneity of “nerd world” and more action to promote the success and visibility of female, POC, and LGBTQ “nerds.” But for now, the safe haven oasis of epic sci-fi and fantasy sagas, nerd success stories, and video games are only safe for some of us. For the rest of us, it’s confusing at best, and frightening, anonymous, chaos at worst.