Oh, You Sexy Geek


Published on

Courtney Stoker's 2012 presentation for PCA/ACA conference in Boston

  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

Oh, You Sexy Geek

  1. 1. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney Stoker In July of last year at Comic-Con (the largest media convention in the country), a paneltitled “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” purported to address the trend of female geeks dressing “sexy.”From the panel description: Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? When geek girls show off, are they liberating themselves or pandering to men? Do some "fake fangirls" blend sex appeal with nerdiness just to appeal to the growing geek/nerd market, or is that question itself unfair? And whats up with all the Slave Leias? The discussion at Comic-Con was framed in terms of individual choices, not structuralinfluences, and this limited the conclusions the panel could come to. The dichotomous choiceoffered—“Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? […] are theyliberating themselves or pandering to men?”—fails to take into account the complexities ofwomen’s positions in geek culture, the politics of cosplay, or how cultural ideals of beautyinfluence women’s fashion decisions and choices. Geek cultures—centered on video games, science fiction and fantasy, and comicbooks—are traditionally thought of as boys’ clubs. Even though women often make up half ofgeek populations, their roles in geek culture(s) are limited by the perceptions and actions ofadvertisers, producers, designers, marketers, and fans. Women are considered valuableadditions to many geek cultures, but usually as decoration. Which means that most of thewomen “celebrated” in geek cultures are conventionally beautiful, thin, white, abled cis womenwho position themselves as sexy objects for male geek consumption, usually via cosplay. Forthe uninitiated, the term cosplay is a combination of “costume” and “roleplay” or “play,” andrefers to when fans costume as characters or objects from their favorite media (like video Page 1
  2. 2. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney Stokergames, movies, and TV shows). Cosplayers usually wear their costumes to conventions, andthe “roleplay” aspect of cosplaying is often minimal in North America, and limited to the posesstruck for photos or occasional interactions in the convention hallways. This presentation will explore the ways in which female geeks’ choices are limited bygeek cultures, how the trend of self-objectification among geek women can signal both ahostility towards women as equal participants and a resistance to that hostility, and howblaming women’s performances is a hand-waving exercise intended to gloss over theculture(s)’ problems. The sexism that persists in geek communities is not special. It is not separable andinherently different than sexist institutions and behaviors in the “real world.” This means thatthe sexualization and objectification of women is not unique to geek cultures, though it isparticularly severe in geek media. Video games, comics, science fiction, fantasy—these mediaforms are often at fault for promoting unrealistic (and, pretty regularly, physically impossible)standards of beauty for women. They fashion their female heroines and villains as sexy objectsto be consumed, unlike male counterparts. Further, geek industries bring the objectification ofwomen into the real world, hiring, for example, booth babes for conventions. Booth babes areconventionally attractive models hired by media companies to wear skimpy clothing and enticeconvention-goers to their respective booths. Geek women exist within this culture, whichdevalues their contributions as producers of media and meaning, but values their contributionsas adornment. This project is about self-objectification, not objectification by others, but the two are notwholly separable, any more separable than my putting on makeup and high heels this morningand the objectification of women in advertising and fashion magazines. Just as media Page 2
  3. 3. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney Stokerrepresentations of women influence women’s decisions to diet, wear cosmetics, get plasticsurgery, lighten their skin, relax their hair, shave their legs, and wax their bikini lines, geekmedia representations of women influence geek women’s decisions to dress in “sexy” cosplay. By “sexy” cosplay, I mean cosplay that appeals to heterosexual male fantasies,participates in the objectification of the cosplayer, and (purposefully or not) positions thecosplayer as an object for consumption by male geeks. There are two ways to participate insexy cosplay; one is to choose a character whose costume is already sexy, and another toalter a character’s costume in order to make it sexy. First, let’s look at cosplayers who do not alter their costumes. A rather visible exampleof this kind of sexy cosplay is women who costume as “slave Leia.” The Star Wars characterhas two main costumes that cosplayers choose from. [click] The first, and least popular, is thecostume from A New Hope. This is the costume with the iconic buns. [click] The second, andmore popular, Leia costume is “slave Leia,” the bikini-style costume worn by Leia in Return ofthe Jedi when she is the prisoner of Jabba the Hutt. At major science fiction mediaconventions, like Comic-Con and Dragon*Con, it is common to have an official group slaveLeia picture, because of the popularity of this costume with cosplayers and other convention-goers. In the slave Leia cosplay, we see a classic example of sexy cosplay in which thecostumer chooses a costume that is already heteronormatively “sexy.” Next, let’s look at an example of a cosplayer who alters their costume to make themsexy. [click picture] This is LeeAnna Vamp as Chewbacca from Star Wars, who is on the left.This cosplay was featured on IGN, a website about gaming and entertainment. Notice howVamp positions herself compared with the actual Chewbacca. Chewbacca stands firmly andaggressively, feet apart to keep him stable. LeeAnna, on the other hand, stands off-center, Page 3
  4. 4. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney Stokerwith her legs together and crossed: a passive position. In the kneeling photo, her positionsuggests sexual availability and exposure (not sexual aggression), with a slightly open mouthand legs parted. These positions, along with her revealing costume, position LeeAnna as asexual object for consumption. [click] In both altered and unaltered sexy cosplay, we thus see a desire to be seen asattractive by straight men. These women visually signal to a viewer (there’s always a viewer forcosplayers) that they are conforming to heteronormative beauty standards. They do this bypositioning themselves as sexually receptive and passive; by wearing costumes thatemphasize body parts that our culture associates with sex appeal, like breasts, hips, buttocks,and navels; and by emphasizing their femininity and conformity to beauty standards. As Naomi Wolf points out The Beauty Myth, women in the U.S. are rewarded forcapitulating to narrow and often impossible beauty standards. She claims that beauty is acurrency, with which “women must unnaturally compete for resources that men haveappropriated for themselves” (12). Ariel Levy’s exploration of raunch culture in FemaleChauvinist Pigs demonstrates, however, that women must often do more than merely performbeauty work. She argues that “hotness doesn’t just yield approval. Proof that a woman activelyseeks approval is a crucial criterion for hotness in the first place.” In a world of booth babesand sexy cosplay, this is apparent. What makes the sexy cosplay sexy is not merely that thecosplayers are thin, young, and buxom, but that they are performing and actively seeking maleapproval. [click] For a particularly egregious example of this, I’m going to show you the videocreated by some geek women, mostly actresses, who formed a group called Team Unicorn.[play to 1:28] The video is very repetitive, so we can stop it there. Page 4
  5. 5. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney Stoker Almost everything about this video marks it as a performance in the service of geekmen. Of course, the participants in the video, Team Unicorn, consist of young, thin, light-skinned women who conform to cultural beauty standards. There are a number of particularlyporn-like shots, in which the young women are naked, strategically covered by light sabers,video game controllers, or DVDs, and on piles of geek toys, movies, or comic books.Meanwhile, the men in the intermittent shots do not match cultural standards of male beauty ormasculinity. They wear cheap costumes and dance in awkward or silly ways. The women inthe video wear sexy and high-quality costumes, and their dances mimic those of pop stars,which is to say, their dances are meant to appeal to straight male viewers. The video is alsoframed by Seth Green saying, “Hello friends. Don’t you want to meet a nice girl?,” positioningthe video as an introduction to women as dating partners or sex objects. The video is notmeant for geek women to view, and feel empowered by seeing representations of other geekwomen. It is meant to be viewed by men who wish to believe that, despite their own inability tomeet cultural standards of masculinity, there are geek women available to them who are “sexy”in two ways: 1. These women do fit a physical standard of beauty, and 2. These women wantto please men, want to be sexually appealing to them. The video’s YouTube description claims, “This music video parody proves Geek andGamer Girls really do exist.” Since, at the time, there had been multiple headlines proclaimingthat women make up 50% of gamers and Comic-Con attendees, this description seemsdisingenuous. This is because geek women who are not “hot” are routinely ignored or erasedin geek culture. This video would more accurately describe itself as “proof that conventionallysexy women who are also geeks want to have sex with you, presumed straight geek maleviewer.” Page 5
  6. 6. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney Stoker Because geek women are often clearly aiming their performances at geek men, geekmen and women often place blame on the women who dress this way. [click] A comment onGeek Tyrant, written by a blogger who is posting a collection of “cosplay cleavage,” isillustrative. Venkman writes, “And ladies, maybe some of you will find these images offensive,but these are women that are dressing like this. We didn’t ask them to, they do it on their own,and if women dress like this, the fact of the matter is...guys are going to stare [sic].” Thissentiment lands the blame for the objectification of geek women squarely on the shoulders ofwomen, and characterizes men’s responses to these women as inevitable, natural, anduncontrollable. [click] Needless to say, however, the images included in the blog post make itclear that these geek men feel they have nothing to apologize for. The blogger is notsuggesting that men do not objectify women (after all, they go to cons to see “cleavage,” not tomeet women or fellow geeks), but he refuses to accept responsibility for this. Rather, hesuggests that women need to just accept that “guys are going to stare” at women who performa certain version of “sexy.” It is thus women’s responsibility to prevent their own objectification.[click] There are some obvious problems in this kind of hand-waving exercise, but the mostimportant one for us today is that one of the reasons geek women seek the approval of geekmen is that geek men have positions of power and privilege in both geek industries and ingeek fan communities. While women understand that sexy cosplay won’t get them respect, perse, they also know that it is most likely to get them positive attention, recognition, and limitedacceptance in geek communities. Women who do not or cannot seek sexual approval from themale geek community are more likely to be ignored, derided, or dismissed. They are morelikely to be called harpy feminists or annoying squeeing fangirls than to get approval and Page 6
  7. 7. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney Stokeracceptance. Team Unicorn, for example, was rewarded generously for their performance withrelative fame and funding for a slick new website. They also managed to buy legitimacy in thisvideo with the inclusion of Seth Green and Stan Lee. One has to wonder, would Seth Greenhave agreed to a video proving the existence of female geeks if those geeks had been fat,queer, or disabled? The pressure is on for geek women to position themselves as sexy consumable objectsfor geek men. When they do so, their decision is framed as a freely-made choice. On the otherhand, men’s behavior in reaction to sexy cosplay, like leering, sexual harassment, or otherforms of objectification, is usually framed as inevitable and natural. The pressure women feelto perform “sexy” for their fellow geeks is usually ignored or dismissed, and the conversationbecomes similar to the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel at Comic-Con, in which the problem isframed as about geek women, not geek culture. Are women selling out, or being empowered? The answer to that question is that it’s more complicated. While women performing sexyfor their fellow geeks are unquestionably doing so within a culture that encourages thisperformance and values women merely as decoration, they may also be using sexy cosplay tosubvert that culture’s objectification of women. In John Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture, he describes jeans as objects ofpopular culture that can embody contradictory meanings. Jeans, he argues, have multiplemeanings given to us by jean producers, such as associations with heteronormative femininity,youth, toughness, and/or hard work. These meanings come from the top, and represent theinterests of those in power. People can tear their jeans (or write on them, or bleach them, orcut them off) to subvert and resist those meanings, but this doesn’t mean that the originalmeanings just go away. Rather, both meanings coexist in the garment simultaneously. Page 7
  8. 8. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney StokerAccording to Fiske, this means that popular culture objects, like jeans, “can entail theexpression of both domination and subordination, of both power and resistance. So torn jeanssignify both a set of dominant American values and a degree of resistance to them” (4). Sexycosplay works in the same way. There are ways in which individual sexy cosplayersincorporate meanings resistant to the culture’s demand that they proffer themselves asconsumable objects. [click] Olivia Waite, a geek and erotica writer, wrote about her personal experience withthe slave Leia cosplay, after I had blogged a version of this essay at the Geek Feminism blog.Waite was a big fan of Star Wars when she was a child, and her favorite character was Leia,who she describes as “badass, intelligent, and passionate.” She writes that when watching Return of the Jedi, as soon as [Leia] shows up in the gold bikini, with the high ponytail and the neck-chain, every cell in my being went, She must be so pissed about that. Because what people forget, when they talk about Slave Leia outfits, is that it’s the one costume she doesn’t choose for herself. She’s forced into it, compelled to wear that bikini for Jabba’s dubious and slobbery pleasure. And I can see why people are upset that this happens—because if there’s one thing we do not need to gratify so much, it’s the male gaze in film—but at the same time, I think it’s important that this happens to Leia, because it happens to plenty of women, all the time, every day, around the world, with or without help from a gold bikini. And here is what Leia does, when you force her into a scanty outfit and choke-chain: she takes that chain, and she kills you with it. She doesn’t let her Page 8
  9. 9. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney Stoker clothing get in her way or limit her more than she can help—she waits for her moment to strike, and then she conquers her would-be conqueror and saves the day. And I was a little kid, not yet desensitized to violence [...] Jabba’s death scene freaked the hell out of me. It wasn’t a clean blaster shot to the chest or a slice from a lightsaber that sent sparks flying or made you turn invisible. There were struggles, and flailing, and twitching limbs. The shots are close-ups, and very dark—it’s vicious, and vengeful, and physical, and very very personal. So for me, wearing that gold bikini does not mean Here I am, a sexy toy for your amusement and gratification. To me, that gold bikini says, If you fuck with me, I will end you. It says, What I wear is not the same as who I am. Waite’s is a particularly powerful example of how women can create subversivemeanings in their sexy cosplay. Hers doesn’t even require an alteration in the costume, thoughit may include a more aggressive stance for pictures, or even a performance of the chainchoking. But it is, all the same, resistant to the cultural meanings put onto the costume by theproducers of Star Wars and by the powers that be in fan communities. In Waite’s cosplay, thegold bikini is a symbol of female power and resistance to objectification. At the same time, itholds those dominant meanings as well. It contains the raunch culture assumption that womenare primarily valuable for their performance of “sexy” and a resistance to that grossobjectification. It symbolizes the titillation of women in sexual slavery and a challenge towomen’s subordinate status as the sex class. From my own experiences in geek fan cultures, Idon’t believe Waite is an anomaly, a pioneering feminist geek who uses sexy cosplay to Page 9
  10. 10. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney Stokerchallenge the messages found in geek media and geek culture. There are others like her,whose sexy cosplays are also challenges to the status quo. It is also important to note that not all cosplay (sexy or not) is progressive oroppositional, either. As Henry Jenkins points out in Textual Poachers, To say that fans promote their own meanings over those of producers is not to suggest that the meanings fans produce are always oppositional ones or that those meanings are made in isolation from other social factors. Fans have chosen these media products from the total range of available texts precisely because they seem to hold special potential as vehicles for expressing the fans’ pre-existing social commitments and cultural interests; there is already some degree of compatibility between the ideological construction of the text and the ideological commitments of the fans and therefore, some degree of affinity will exist between the meanings fans produces and those which might be located through a critical analysis of the original story. [...] Readers are not always resistant; all resistant readings are not necessarily progressive readings; the ‘people’ do not always recognize their conditions of alienation and subordination. (34)That is to say, not all geek women recognize their conditions as alienated and subordinatedmembers of geek cultures. Not all sexy cosplay is (or can be) oppositional or progressive, asWaite’s reading of the costume is. However, this does not mean that geek women aresomehow to blame for their objectification. As Jenkins notes, fans make their choices in thecontext of their cultures, and not in isolation of social factors. The beauty myth, raunch culture,and the male domination of geek culture(s) all contribute to female fans’ choice in sexycosplay, even if they choose to resist the meanings handed down from those in power. In order Page 10
  11. 11. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney Stokerto fix the culture of objectification in geek culture, we cannot look to individual women andcosplayers, but rather to those in power, whether they be content creators (like George Lucas,Stan Lee, Felicia Day), influential commentators (like Chris Hardwick, Jerry Holkins, MikeKrahulik), convention organizers, or forum moderators. The problem here is not “self-objectification,” as my essay title suggests, but the pressure to perform sexy (or be ignored,derided, or dismissed). The fact is, “sexy” is not the only way that geek women representthemselves; it is merely the representation recognized and rewarded by geek culture at large.That has to change before the position of women in these culture(s) can change. Page 11
  12. 12. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification PCA/ACA 2012, Courtney Stoker Works CitedFiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Kindle ed. New York: Free Press, 2005. AZW file.“Oh, You Sexy Geek!” Panel at Comic-Con, 21 July 2011, 10:45 AM. My Comic-Con 2011 Sched*. Comic-Con, n.d. Web. 25 September 2011. < http://mysched.comic- con.org/event/c31518fe1aa3bb6b788ba63757b84fba>Venkman. “Collection of Cosplay Cleavage.” Geek Tyrant. Geektyrant, 15 July 2011. Web. 9 April 2012.Waite, Olivia. “In Defense of Slave Leia.” Olivia Waite. Olivia Waite, 29 August 2011. Web. 8 April 2012.Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991. Print. Page 12