Of geeks and girls

Editor's note: Rob Salkowitz is an author and business analyst specializing in the future of entertainment, media and technology. His latest book is "Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture" (McGraw-Hill, 2012). Follow him @robsalk.

The term “geek girl” has had to carry a lot of unwanted baggage lately. Intended as a positive self-identity for women and girls with well-developed interests in nerdy pursuits ranging from pop culture to science and engineering, it has become a flashpoint for gender friction within fandom and the target of suspicion among self-appointed guardians of subcultural boundaries.

That’s too bad, not just because girl geeks are as deserving of respect as their male counterparts, but because the emerging persona of the capital-G Geek Girl has the potential to expand old conceptions of both fandom and gender and get us past some of the current silliness.

This positive potential was in full display last weekend in Seattle at the second annual Geek Girl Con (GGC 2012). The program featured celebrities spanning the gamut of nerdom, from comics writer Gail Simone to game designer Corinne Yu, television producer Jane Espenson to Rat City Rollergirl Kitty Kamakaze.

Cosplayers, gamers, Browncoats, makers, steampunks, manga fans and enthusiasts of all stripes were all represented among the crowd of about 3,500. The event seemed busy but not overcrowded, thanks to the move to the more spacious digs of the Washington State Convention Center.

Though much of the programming focused on pop culture favorites like sci-fi, manga, videogames and comics – topics that generate predictable excitement and visibility –several panels featured women in rocketry, robotics, software design and engineering, with special emphasis on helping girls and young women overcome social stigmas against pursuing these areas in school and at work.

Over the weekend, lots and lots of young women came up to the microphone to say, “My friends and I are the only girls at school who like x, y and z. … We just don’t know how to get people to understand us.” Seeing those girls get spontaneous applause from the audience and a panel of respected role models is reason enough to stand up and cheer for GGC.

Social acceptance has been a problem for nerds of all genders since time immemorial, but it’s especially tricky for girls dealing with traditional gender role expectations in addition to the usual conformist pressures. While the male Science Nerd, Movie Geek or Comic  Book Guy are familiar cultural tropes, for better or worse, women do not have established personae that give their geekdom context and history.

Women who have attempted to define themselves within the existing norms either run up against the tribal hostility of the subculture (“are you really as big a nerd as me, or are you just here to get attention?”) or the more generalized gender anxieties of modern American culture (“get lost, feminazi!”).

Sadly, even in 2012 it is still necessary to confront those issues, which is why we have “Girl Geek Con” rather than “Geek Con.”

Nevertheless, men were present in fairly large numbers and not unwelcome. Scenes of fathers and daughters bonding over games, comics or science were common. Lots of exhibitors, whether artists, retailers or fan groups, seemed to be made up of couples in equal partnership. Dark Horse editor Rachel Edidin summed things up nicely by observing that “GGC is a con where the default gender happens not to be male.”

The aspect of defining geek girls inclusively across subcultures, rather than exclusively in relationship to male fans and male-dominated pursuits, came through loud and clear at GGC 2012, particularly in the deliberately wide range of female geek personae on display.

One especially fascinating example was the “Sporty Geeks” panel – women in organized competitive leagues for roller derby and Quidditch (a real-life adaptation of the broomstick chase game from the Harry Potter series). The panelists pointed out that the creativity of team names and player alter-egos connects these sports with greater geekdom in the cosplay spirit, in the same style as professional wrestling. But unlike WWE, these are unscripted competitive sports, not just entertainment spectacles. “Women participate in derby because it’s a contact sport, not because it’s a women’s sport,” observed professional rollergirl Kitty Kamakaze. Disrespect her authority at your peril.

The message here is simple. Geek girls just want to have fun and be themselves participating in the great collective social rituals that we’ve built around pop culture, fandom, art and entertainment in the 21st century. It’s not rocket science – except, of course, for the actual rocket science.

In that sense, events like GGC offer a preview of the future of pop culture. Young girls are being exposed to the same kinds of nerdy entertainment and intellectual opportunities as boys, and cultivate the same depths of unabashed enthusiasm for them. The current generation of geek girls, by speaking out and defining themselves in positive terms, are creating recognizable personae that are both authentically geeky and authentically female.

And the sooner people learn to deal with it, the better.