Slut Shaming and Concern Trolling in Geek Culture
Last month, science geek and costumer Emily Finke attended a sci fi convention dressed in a screen-accurate uniform from Star Trek: TOS, where she was met with microaggression, mock-concern and men intent on outing her as a Fake Geek Girl. So she decided to write something, "because I haven't caused enough flame wars on the internet this week."
“Honey, your skirt is a little short.”
To be fair, it was a little short. It was short intentionally. I was dressed in a science officer costume from Star Trek: The Original Series. Not the sleek little work-appropriate but still sexy jewel tone tunics from the new movie, but the flared, strangely-constructed, unapologetically teal and chartreuse polyester cheerleader dresses that fit perfectly with the (now) retrofuturistic vibe of the original show. It’s a screen accurate dress. And by “screen accurate” I mean “short”. And at the beginning of the day, I just assumed the lady who commented was pointing out that I needed to tug down the dress a bit. That was the first comment. After the next 30 or so, I had had enough.
I was at Balticon, a great science fiction convention that leans more to the literary side than the ones that are normally in my wheelhouse. This was my second year going to this con, and my second year costuming there. Last year I brought several costumes, but only wore one: a fairly conservative X-Men costume that didn’t involve skintight spandex, cleavage or even any bare skin below my neck. I did that because I knew the moment I walked in that it wasn’t the kind of con I wanted to wear my Ms Marvel costume. I wore that outfit for all of Saturday, became extremely annoyed with the response I was getting and then dressed in normal clothes on Sunday.
Finke dressed in her X-Men costume at last year's Balticon
As a costumer, you have to develop a fairly keen sense for what is a safe space and what is not. I felt safe at Balticon both years. It isn’t a space where any harm would come to me. I could wear anything I want there and I wouldn’t come to any legal form of harm. That said, the responses I was getting made me want to run away. Or possibly take a shower to wash off the feeling of eyes and comments.
This year, in my Star Trek dress, I was just as uncomfortable, but I decided to say frak it and ignore them. The discomfort came from a constant stream of microaggressions. A constant flow of women leaning in and stage whispering in mock-concern about how short my skirt was. A constant flow of men grilling me about whether I had watched the series, and trying to trip me up on trivia. And many of them looking affronted when I corrected them that I was not, actually, Nurse Chapel or Yeoman Rand. For one thing, if I was Yeoman Rand, I would have the perfect blonde basketweave beehive. For another thing, the rank braid on my uniform shows that I’m a LIEUTENANT, thank you very much, Mr. Fake Geek Girl Screener. I assume I passed?
At a convention like Dragon*Con, or CONvergence, or Pandoracon, in costume I feel like I’m part of the convention crowd. Yes, I’m a good costumer, and I look good in my costumes, but at the end of the day, I’m another nerd geeking out like crazy over her favorite subjects.
Dragon*Con isn’t perfect, and in most ways, is a much less safe convention for a woman. However, at Dragon*Con, I am accepted as a costumer. At a con like Balticon, I’m celebrated as eye candy. I felt like I was placed in the role of Convention Booth Babe, receiving both the objectified interest from the men and the scorn of the women.
That’s a problem.
I do need to point out here, that none of this came from people involved with the con. In fact, everyone even slightly officially affiliated with Balticon was respectful, concerned and nerdily-excited about my outfit, my hair, the screen-accurate seams. The staff, the volunteers, the program participants, even the people working the tables for other events were all wonderful.
The people attending, on the other hand, were Not Comfortable With The Way I Chose to Present. I felt like they really, really wanted me to go back to my room and change into a long, historically accurate, shapeless Medieval dress. Or jeans and a geek t-shirt. Either would be acceptable: not too aggressively feminine, but not dressed nicely enough to make them nervous they were being invaded by mundanes.
We in the nerd community have a tendency to make fun of the “fashionable people” or the “cool kids”. The ones who dress alike and spend their lives being sheep to the newest styles. Part of the fascination on social media with watching Abercrombie and Fitch’s fall from grace seemed to be a form of schadenfreude, against the pretty people who had made our lives hell in high school/college/life and who so proudly wore that brand as a mark of tribal membership.
We celebrate our community for being thoughtful and intelligent and welcoming of weirdness. But we do the exact same policing to our own that we see in mainstream society. Women who, at one end of the spectrum, put too much effort into their looks, whether in costume or not, are ostracized. Women at the other end of the spectrum, who don’t meet the standards of nerdy attractiveness set by the menfolk, are ignored entirely. If you don’t fit that happy medium of “kinda hot, but not hot enough that you know you don’t have to sleep with me”, you’re either a non-entity, or a walking Barbie and treated as such.
This is not a problem unique to nerds, of course. It is just an extension of the same in-group presentation policing that every aspect of society does. However, once again, it’s coming from a community that delights in being offbeat, in being accepting, in being interesting. But only interesting within the narrow margins of what white male geeks consider “real geekdom”. Once a woman decides she wants to dress up as a character, or decides that she’s going to wear an awesome outfit even though she’s heavier than what society says should be acceptable, or, heaven forbid, decides to speak up on nerd topics, she is immediately ostracized, ignored or objectified. Often in much more subtle and ostensibly socially acceptable forms than the abuse heaped on Anita Sarkeesian or Rebecca Watson. Often in ways that are neither obvious nor actionable. Often in ways that are extremely mild until they pile up interaction after interaction, hour after hour, day after day.
So how do we fix these problems? The subtle ones. The microaggressions. The people who don’t realize that they’re causing harm through their words and actions. The women who want to make sure I know I look a little slutty. The men who might think they’re just having a conversation, but are really hitting every hot button of geek gatekeeping they can.
Cosplay is not Consent campaigns are great for events like Dragon*Con and CONvergence, but the kind of problems at this con were different and not easily addressed through something like that. No one touched me, or even made inappropriate come-ons. No one groped me, cornered me, made me feel like I was in danger. I never worried about walking the halls alone, even late at night, costume or not.
Finke, far left, dressed in her Star Trek: TOS uniform at Dragon*Con | Photo by Wille Escaba
These things aren’t really things a convention can control, except through patient modeling of appropriate behavior, and reaching out to a more diverse audience. Balticon is trying to do that, and I give them kudos for that. I really enjoy going to this con and I plan to go back next year.
Unfortunately, the default assumption of convention space is “male space” The really annoying thing about this whole discussion? Convention space has never been a space that was solely the domain of men. From the very beginning of the fandom that I chose to represent at Balticon — Star Trek — conventions had women. Women creating costumes, dressing as Klingons. Women discussing gender and racial politics in the series. Women participating in collaborative remixing of the canon. There have always been women objecting to “warrior women” on the covers of books and magazines and protesting the misogynistic habits of male writers who enjoy pinching and groping. There have always been women using science fiction to rewrite gender assumptions. They were there. They are there. They’ve always been there. The history of geekdom is not a history of men, it’s a history of invisible women.
At this point I could easily throw my hands up in defeat and say “It’s always been like that. I can’t do anything to fix it. I’m just one person in a long history of women and other minorities fighting for their voice in nerd space. And yes, I get tired of fighting it. Sometimes, like last year, I get so tired that I wear ‘normal’ clothes for the rest of the convention, just so I don’t have to deal with the crap.
But that’s not going to fix anything. If other women are feeling the same way I do, they might be turned off from that con entirely. Or lose all desire to attend any cons. Or participate in geek culture at all. It happens. All too often. The story of the woman dealing with comments about her costume is the same story as the girl who walks into a comic shop, only to have all of the denizens come to a complete stop and stare angrily at her. It’s the same story of the girl gamer who plays as a man so that she doesn’t get the come-ons and “compliments”.
So, in my case, I’ve decided that my solution starts with me.
Rather than bitching to my friends about the comments, backhanded compliments and trivia grilling sessions, I’m going to say something. I will respond to comments about my skirt being too short with questions about why that’s a problem. I will call out men grilling me about trivia (I do that already, but I need to do it more consistently.)
There is no reason I should have to do this, but I came to realize something in reflecting on events at Balticon: I am, at all conventions, surrounded by people who accept me, who care for me and who are willing to hand me a gin and tonic or three when I look like I’m about ready to punch the next person who comments on my skirt. It’s not a position of power, but it is a position of safety. Every place I go will not be a safe space, but the people around me make it one for me.
So my solution? Not be invisible. Not anymore. Not let my legs and skirt short speak for my presence, but speak for myself. Challenge the male gaze both metaphorically and literally. Sitting in the bar and fuming at other convention attendees won’t help. Opening my mouth and answering them just might. Or it might make other people witnessing the exchange think about what happened. Point out that I can both wear a short skirt and have a brain under my beehive. Out loud. And probably snarkily.
I have a privileged position, in that I can do this and then safely retreat to my friends and colleagues. I am not walking into a convention alone and for the first time. So if I can speak out a little bit and make sure that other women, who don’t have the space to safely challenge the microaggressions, might stick around and develop their own support network, I will challenge it. Because I can. I’m tired of being invisible except when being objectified, so I’m not going to be anymore.
And if anyone wants to fight me about it? You can find me in the bar. Surrounded by 40+ skeptics, costumers and science communicators who have had a little too much bourbon, and who fully embrace my right to be there. Good luck with that.