A woman... and a geek?

Geeky women have a lot to put up with, from sexist portrayals of women in their favourite media to friends, family and coworkers doubting their competence, says Wisrutta Atthakor. But why should female geeks give up on what they're interested in?

Wisrutta Atthakor, 25 April 2009

I am a woman and I am a geek. I like playing computer games and I built my own computer. OK, so I didn't make my own motherboard or get out the soldering iron, but I bought the components and stuck them together myself. I even have a pocket-sized set of screwdrivers to hand in case I need to tinker inside my computer.

Yet, every time I walk into a computer shop I am almost always automatically treated as if I know bog all about anything with an electric plug attached to it, save maybe how to operate a kettle and a washing machine. Every time I go to a computer or electronics shop with my husband, their services are invariably directed at him. My in-laws ask him to set up their home network, even though I set up ours.

Oh yeah, I forgot. Clever little girls should be pretty and sweet, and leave the boys to their toys

I know there are plenty of women geeks out there, yet sometimes I feel like I am all alone in this little world that I live. Even friends find it bemusing and even rather amusing that I would rather sit at my computer for hours killing imaginary monsters or training imaginary units to take out imaginary aliens than sit in front of the telly for hours rooting for the next top model or who will be the next one out in X-Factor.

Someone even said to me once: "You know, you're beautiful and clever, but you're such a geek." Coming from someone who is herself clever and beautiful, I utterly resented that comment. So, let me get this straight. Being a geek is a bad thing ... right? Oh yeah, I forgot. Clever little girls should be pretty and sweet, and leave the boys to their toys. Huh! Well, at least I know that the games I play are imaginary and I have no delusions of actually being able to obtain a Strength+10 sword to better kill that 'boss' that will be invading from another dimension.

Even though I don't personally know many women who like playing computer games and who build their own PCs, I do know that there are plenty out there. But the gaming community still seems out-of-bounds for most.

The gaming industry is one of the largest industries in the world, with millions of people playing online games like World of Warcraft. Indeed, probably more women play World of Warcraft than any other role-playing games, or other computer games that have been considered by the gaming community to be 'serious' games, by which I mean stuff like first-person shooters and strategy games, including real-time strategies and turn-based strategies; however, serious gaming seems to be considered a male domain. People tell me things like "oh, women don't like violence" or "women aren't good at strategy games" or "women's reflexes aren't as good as men's and therefore they aren't as good at computer games". What a load of bullshit, I say!

A few years ago, and this was before the days of the Wii and the DS, I managed to get myself a part-time job in a high street computer games store. On my first day of work, I was asked by a male colleague whether I played any computer games. Because of the nature of the question and the way it was being asked, I already knew I was in for a treat. (Ha! A woman. Working in a computer games store? Bet she knows nothing about computers or gaming, so let's find out by asking her leading questions and then laughing at her answer.) I replied casually that I did enjoy playing computer games, which set him up for what he probably thought was the kill, saying mockingly: "So, you play The Sims then?" Uhuh, because that's the only the computer game that girls know: The Sims. "No, actually, I prefer FPS, RTS and RPG," I retaliated, in as blasé a manner as I could muster, and sure enough, it shut him right up.

Unfortunately, the way women are represented is not going to change in geek culture any quicker than it is going to change in action films, or any other industry that portrays women as sex objects and invokes gender stereotypes

Geek culture seems to be considered by most as a kind of marginal, underground culture populated by sad and lonely men. As a woman who considers herself a geek and likes things that are considered 'geeky', I seem to be ridiculed by the mainstream-loving folk but also sidelined by the 'sad, lonely male geeks' themselves. What does that make people like me? Even sadder and lonelier and even further down the social ladder?

I appreciate that there are many things that make gaming an alien culture to a lot of people, especially women. Women characters are often portrayed either as helpless damsels that need rescuing or as scantily clad, 'sexy' large-breasted warrior women to serve as eye candy for male gamers. There are even huge debates on whether Lara Croft is a feminist icon or just another of the men's wet dreams. This type of portrayal of heroines in computer games is mirrored in mainstream science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as graphic novels and comic books, all of which I also enjoy.

However, negative female stereotypes are prevalent in all types of mainstream entertainment media, not just 'geeky' media, but somehow accepted as the norm. I'm not saying it's right, of course not! It annoys me every day, but somehow I feel as if its effects are bigger and more ridiculed in geek culture and it somehow puts women off these genres more. I don't see how the stereotypes in science fiction are any worse than the seemingly accepted stereotypes of women in advertising, film or TV shows.

It seems to be OK – even though it isn't, really – for James Bond to have plenty of 'sexy' ladies at his command. Even the 'Bond girls' who appear competent and are able to kick ass still need to be rescued at the end of the day. Yet people seem to think that that's alright, and both women and men enjoy James Bond films. So, if people don't stop watching films and watching mainstream media just because of the unfair portrayal of women, then I don't see why I need to stop playing computer games and reading science fiction, fantasy and graphic novels for the same reasons.

The way I try to stop myself from feeling too isolated is by finding female characters that fall outside of gender stereotypes

Unfortunately, the way women are represented is not going to change in geek culture any quicker than it is going to change in action films, or any other industry that portrays women as sex objects and invokes gender stereotypes. The root problem itself needs to be addressed everywhere, but it shouldn't alienate women in quite the way that it does in geek media, as compared to elsewhere. I suppose the way I try to justify it to myself and stop myself from feeling too isolated is by finding female characters that fall outside of these stereotypes. Admittedly, such characters are few and far between, and I can think of only a few to back up my argument, but surely that's a start.

One character that comes to mind is Death, in Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels. She is a character who, I would say, defies most of the usual stereotypes that are widespread in this genre. She is not a damsel in distress and her attire doesn't consist of just a nipple covering and g-strings, although she does still conform to some preconceived ideas of beauty. She is clever and level-headed, and is quite often an emotional support for her younger brother, Dream. In fact, she is probably the most 'together' of her dysfunctional family, the Endless, who are "a group of beings who embody powerful forces or aspects of the universe".

Another example is Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager, as well as her chief of engineering, Lt B'Elanna Torres. Again, like Death, Janeway is intelligent and level-headed, and she commands respect from her crew members as well as being a compassionate leader. While Star Trek does still contain a lot of those 'sci-fi babes' stereotypes, I do think it's a positive thing to have a female captain and chief of engineering on the same starship. In fact, if I remember correctly, Torres was one of two engineers being considered for the position of chief of engineering and she came out on top, over her male competitor, because she was the better engineer. Thumbs up to them on that one!

So, while the gaming industry, and science fiction and fantasy genres of entertainment culture, have a long way to go in their representation of women, I have found ways to justify my love of these things to myself and hope more women will jump on the bandwagon. At the end of the day, despite all the faults and shortcomings of the geek entertainment culture, I do still like my computer games and I do still like reading those books and I make no apologies for it. I am not ashamed to say that I am a woman and I am a geek.

About the author

Wisrutta Atthakor

Wisrutta pronounces her name wis-ROOT-ta and is finishing off her PhD in biotechnology while also trying to fit in gaming, karate and Muay Thai. She currently lives in Edinburgh with her husband and cat, and rants to them a lot about the injustices women face on a daily basis

Author's Articles | Author's Website

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