Policing access to nerd culture through gatekeeping and harassment creates real harm for women, and nerd culture as a whole
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
Logan David // Illustrator
I’ll never forget the first time someone called me a man. I was four, and had just gotten my long hair chopped into a pixie cut for summer. My dad took one look at me after leaving the salon and with utter disappointment, asked, “why do you look like a boy?” Fast forward to Christmas 2008. I’m fifteen, and I can barely wait to use my first gaming computer that I spent months begging for. I plug in my headset and log in to my favourite online game, only to meet a chorus of: “fat bitch,” “slut,” “ugly man whore.” I unplug my headphones. What I learned all those years ago is that the worst thing I could possibly be to men was someone who looked like them.
Nerd culture, at least the one that’s packaged and sold by pop culture, has always had an emphasis on male whiteness. Which should come as no surprise since pop culture—like all mainstream things—reflects dominant hegemonies. From STEM to filmmaking, and everything in between, whether explicitly or implicitly, those who exist outside the accepted hegemony are told they are not wanted here. Yet, there’s a strange and pervasive cultural mythos woven into the fabric of geekdom that geek girls are like unicorns—rare, mythical creatures that couldn’t possibly be real when that is the opposite of the truth.
One would think people who believe they are the world’s leading experts in nerd culture would know the names of the giant’s shoulders they stand on. Like Rebecca Heineman, the winner of the first ever video game tournament in 1980 or Stevie “KillCreek” Case, the first esports player ever signed to the Cyberathlete Professional League in 1997. How about Terri Brosius, the voice and occasional writer behind many award-winning games like every System Shock and Thief title from the nineties up to now. Mayim Bialik is probably the closest we’ve ever gotten to a real Dana Scully.
That’s precisely the rub—gatekeepers idolize, sometimes simultaneously fetishize, the fictional embodiments of not just female empowerment but also Black joy, disabled and LGBT representation. While at the same time, there’s little to no emphasis on the same real-life ‘outsiders’ that built the foundations of the very kingdom of nerd culture that gatekeepers feel so compelled to protect.
Nerds are supposed to root for the outsider, for heroes who are celebrated precisely because they don’t fit into conventional notions of heroism. Not just when they’re fictional like Buffy Summers, Miles Morales or Kate Kane, but real people, too.
It’s been over a decade since I got my first gaming computer. I don’t have it anymore, although I’ve built a few others since then. These days when I hit the lobby in a game like Battlegrounds, turning on the chat feature is still always a potential invitation for harassment—but I don’t stay quiet. The first time I unplugged my headphones was also the last. That’s not to say I tolerate abuse – rather I call out and mute the insecure people pretending they hold the keys to my happiness and acceptance. They’re the ones who need to be muted, not me. I’m not a professional, or even particularly great, but I don’t have to be. It doesn’t matter. It never did, because I already know I belong here, and I have nothing to prove.