An alternate title for this post is Why I Hid My Star Wars Geekery for Over 30 Years.
Note: Posting on this topic scares me. I’ve wanted to write about this for months, but I kept putting it off. What if I insult someone who endured terrible bullying, beyond anything I’ve ever experienced? What if I attract trolls? But oh well, I’ve decided to ignore my fears and get on with it. This is the first article in a planned series.
There’s been quite a few articles, online discussions and Twitter campaigns over the past few years about the “recent” proliferation of geek bullies. If you’re not familiar with this situation, then I highly recommend reading We Are The Trouble With Nerds by Rob Kaiju. (Fair warning, it is not easy to read and there’s some profanity.) In a twist that is both sad and hilarious, a nasty troll showed up to spew some hate in the comments, pretty much reinforcing Rob’s article.
Most of the geek vs. geek hatred appears to be directed at female cosplayers. Noah Berlatsky does a great job of discussing this in his article Why Comic-Book Guys Are Afraid of Cosplay for The Atlantic. I’m not a serious cosplayer, but I’ve always envied those folks a wee bit (and I certainly love any excuse for wearing a fun costume). Learning that those girls are subjected to such blatant attacks really ticks me off!
As far as I can tell, the underlying themes of all geek bullying seem to be a toxic brew of misogyny, homophobia and the absolute belief that personal pain + freedom of speech = a divine calling to hurl the worst possible insults at others.
Or, said another way:
Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they.
While there’s no doubt that the rise of social media has brought this crap to the forefront, I would like to point out that it is not a new thing. Geek and nerd culture has never been this open, warm, welcoming place…at least not in my experience. From my point of view, declaring my love for Star Wars has always been a tricky situation.
Fanboys vs. Fangirls
Way back in 1980, I was a sensitive 9-year-old girl so dazzled by The Empire Strikes Back that I could hardly think about anything else. Other kids in my neighborhood, both boys and girls, were happy to act out new Star Wars adventures with me, but I walked around with this absolute certainty that none of them could possibly love that other world as much as I did. I was obsessed. Day and night, my brain was filled with visions of Jedi, stormtroopers, droids, exotic aliens and…all the possibilities of living in a galaxy far, far away. I tried to describe this dreamy bubble of Star Wars-fueled fantasy through the eyes of my main character in Not So Long Ago, Not So Far Away:
Two days have gone by. Nothing seems real to me. My head is in the stars….The chores fly by in a blur. The vacuum cleaner is my own little droid. The handle of our ancient lawn mower is the steering mechanism for a supersonic space cruiser. Even the feather duster becomes an exotic alien pet that carries secret messages between spies. I name it Fizzwicky.”
Back to the real world, circa 1981…when my bubble burst. It wasn’t one dramatic moment. Most kids had moved on to other interests but my obsession with Star Wars was still going strong. Then I had several small skirmishes with fanboys who needed to put me in my place. It wasn’t a gang; they didn’t jump out and attack me with plastic lightsabers on my way to school. Quizzing and ridicule were the main weapons of choice.
I would declare myself a huge Star Wars fan and a boy would narrow his eyes and start quizzing me. Not simple questions pulled from the movie scripts, oh no! Really obscure bits of trivia related to the exact name/model of a certain character’s blaster (I could draw a picture of it) or the chemical biology of Mynocks (um, they like to chew on power cables?). If I failed the test, which I usually did, they would laugh at me &/or tell me to go play with dolls.
Slowly, I started to believe that boys equated fandom with facts, statistics, and a nearly encyclopedic inventory of knowledge. My kind of fandom – fantasies in which I dreamed up totally new characters, planets and stories – were considered silly girlish nonsense. So I stopped telling most people I was a Star Wars fan.
Now let me say right now that there were plenty of young boys who enjoyed the same sort of fandom that I enjoyed…I think one of them may be named J. J. Abrams. And I know for a fact that there are geek girls out there who can answer just about any piece of obscure trivia you can dig up on Wookieepedia. I’m not trying to be sexist. That said, I still think there is a predominantly male tendency to quiz, judge and exclude others from being a “true fan.”
This is not just a sci-fi geek thing. You want to see this same behavior out with the “cool kids?” Watch a pretty girl walk into a bar wearing an LA Dodgers baseball hat. 9 out of 10 times, some dude is going to ask her questions about the baseball team. And if she can’t answer those questions or, (*gulp*) looks him right in the eye and says she just likes the hat? There’s a high probability that he’ll make rude comments about how she should not be “allowed” to wear that hat.
What is that all about? Seriously! Can anyone explain it to me?
(This is a true story/scenario that I’ve witnessed several times. The girl in question thought those interactions were funny, but they always gave me a bad feeling. There was an underlying current of aggression.)
Just last year at the Decatur Book Festival, I was wearing my favorite piece of fangirl couture – this Millennium Falcon a-line dress – and enjoying the day. Some snotty little boy marched up to me and shouted, “Hey, why are you wearing that? You should not be wearing that. You’re a girl!” I mean the little toad was truly outraged and his parents just stood there laughing. At first, I smiled and laughed too. I mean, little toady boys don’t scare me any more. But then I remembered how it felt when I was younger. I thought about how intimidating he would have been to a grade-school girl, especially a child like Katie the Star Wars girl. Then I took the opportunity to give him a little Jedi lesson in manners. When his parents pulled him away, he was still thoroughly disgusted with me.
One more thing…I love The Big Bang Theory and was really looking forward to their May the 4th episode last year, but I was so disappointed. Sure, Bob Newhart was brilliant. But did anyone else notice the not so subtle message of “Star Wars is for boys” in that episode? Amy and Bernadette hide away to bake a Death Star cake for the guys so they won’t be forced to watch the movie marathon…only to discover that they’ll be forced to watch all six movies anyway. Oh the horror!
Et tu, Big Bang Theory?
Anyway, I’ve gotten a little off topic here. Not shocking, but I need to bring this post to a close with a few final thoughts.
Bullying plays an important role in my first novel because it’s such an important topic to me. I never experienced the terrible sort of bullying that’s depicted in the novel. I was a chubby, loud, overly sensitive little girl with low self-esteem and a desperate need to please. Some days I’m still that girl. Growing up, there were a few ugly incidents that still make me cringe and want to curl up in a ball, but they had nothing to do with Star Wars geekery. My bad experiences were very minor compared to some of the other things I’ve seen and read on this topic.
I hope that no one who has experienced bullying will read this and think that I am trying to trivialize the problem. At the same time, I really don’t think this bashing behavior is a new thing. And I think its roots are deeply embedded in our entire culture, not just geek culture.