Gendered Spaces and Geek Culture

Cultural geography is the way that humans create and occupy cultural spaces. Humans occupy more than just their physical space; they occupy spaces within their nationality, gender, race, political parties, hobbies, careers, and in many other cultural ways. While studying the cultural geography of gender, feminist geographers noticed that gender stereotypes are not limited to people themselves. In fact, definitions of masculinity and femininity can be applied to particular spaces and group memberships, in what feminist geographers refer to as ‘gendered spaces’. Gendered spaces are spaces that humans occupy that have been socially assigned genders.

When people are treated badly in a space because of their group membership, they obviously tend to stay away from those spaces. Gendered spaces have been historically used to keep women away from information and therefore away from power. If women are not allowed to participate in a space, it is unlikely that the space will ever shift away from its gendered label. For example, consider the kitchen. Although it has been decades since women were the only ones in the kitchen, the kitchen is still an extremely gendered space. So much so that misogynists often instruct successful women to return to that domain.

Geek culture exists as a gendered space. Despite the often-reported increase in female membership, geek culture exists with a clear masculine label. Geek is a gendered noun. When the word ‘geek’ is used, it is almost always used to define a man. Female geeks are considered abnormal. When a woman is a geek, she is always called a ‘geek girl’. Geek is never her noun, just the descriptor before her gender. Women who attempt to occupy space in geek culture face harassment and abuse for seeking membership in a gendered space. Geek culture is such a male gendered space that women who attempt to occupy space are often accused of only doing so for male attention.

Men discourage women from getting involved in geek culture in many ways. The male-dominated feel of many specialty shops often scare women away from attempting to join physical space in geek culture. Many women report that they feel ignored or negatively singled-out when they enter comic or gaming stores. Women who are new and seeking advice find their questions met with condescension or ridicule. Employees laugh at their lack of knowledge instead of trying to help them, or only recommend ‘feminine’ titles and accuse women of only being interested in male characters because of their physicality. Sexist reactions to women in specialty shops is not limited to the customers: female employees also report sexual harassment from coworkers and negative comments from customers.

Women are also guilty of preserving gendered spaces. Due to the generally unwelcoming feeling surrounding geek culture, women who finally feel like they have entered the space successfully may feel defensive. Women who worked hard to get into geek culture may feel that the space for female membership is limited. They may see other women occupying that space as a threat to their own membership instead of as a potential ally. Some women perpetuate the ‘fake geek girl’ trope by attaching the title to other women in geek culture, or challenge other women’s credentials with the goal of discrediting them.

Once a space has a societally-labeled gender, that label is incredibly difficult to change. Despite increased female membership in both the fans and creators of geek media, geek culture’s male label remains prominent. The process of changing gendered spaces to be truly neutral is long and painful, but recent media attention to the inequalities in geek culture has helped. The best way to change geek culture to be less male-dominated is to increase representation in geek media and to always, always, always treat newcomers with respect, kindness, and helpfulness. Always remember that there is still work to be done.

Interested in hearing more about geek culture and gendered spaces? Come see me present at DragonCon this weekend! The Comics and Feminism panel takes place at 10am on Monday in Hyatt Hanover F! Hope to see you there!

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