Saturday, 16 June 2012

Pop Culture vs Geek Culture: I Call Shenanigans

Can we talk about this image for a minute?

I'll admit that I'm missing a couple of the pop culture references here, so let's just work with what I've got.

Top row L-R: Snooki, Kristen Stewart as Bella Swann, Kim Kardashian, Kat von D, Lady Gaga.

Snooki: Apparently famous for being on Jersey Shore. I live under a rock as far as pop culture is concerned, so this means nothing to me. But I don't judge.

Bella Swann: Vapid, personality free, man dependent, in an abusive relationship. Kristen Stewart: Independent-minded, intelligent, hates Twilight, calls people out in interviews over use of the word "bitch". Not such a bad role-model, maybe?

Kim Kardashian: OK, appears to have made a career out of a rich dad, a pushy mum and a sex tape. Can't argue with that one.

Kat von D: Famous for reality TV show LA Ink; dropped out of secondary school age 16. Wikipedia tells me she's a really good tattoo artist and plays the piano, so, you know, wevs.

Lady Gaga: Top-class musician, highly intelligent, is scantily clad but purposefully never sexy, outspoken campaigner for LGBT rights and condom use. If my hypothetical future daughter told me she wanted to be Lady Gaga when she grew up, I would be thrilled, personally.

Gaga, Kardashian and von D seem to have been picked on for the fact that they're showing quite a lot of flesh in these photographs. This seems to be a comment on the fact that in order to be famous enough to be considered a role-model, you have to dress a certain way (i.e. not very much). First of all, this is something we call slut-shaming. A person's choice of attire reflects on their sexual availability in, er, no real way at all, actually.

Secondly, if indeed they are dressing that way to stay in the limelight, I would reckon this says more about the sexist constructs they're trying to break through in order to do whatever it is that they're doing (in the case of Gaga, making great music and making people think about the way women are encouraged to dress in the process) than it does about the women themselves. Geeks, all your comments along the lines of "tits or gtfo" are part of the problem here, and following them up by whinging about negative role models when you see a scantily clad woman just makes you look like a hypocrite typing one-handed.

As for the bottom row, you could have gone through the series from which it was taken and plucked out Inara from Firefly (inaccurate sex-negative stereotype of a sex worker), Seven of Nine from Star Trek (sexualised fembot), or any number of racially appropriative damsel-in-distress stereotypes from across Stargate SG-1. Other suggestions included female Shepard (as a counterpoint to whom every single one of the Asari, who become either matriarchs or sex objects beyond a certain age); Starbuck (originally a male character); or Princess Leia, who, whilst being a total badass, does commit the apparently cardinal sin of baring a bit of flesh in one instance.

Not to mention that all bar one of the top row are real people, and all the bottom row are fictional characters.

I'm not going to argue that the bottom row is composed of largely positive role-models. I know I would love to be Zoe from Firefly when I grow up. But saying that women in sci-fi/fantasy/geek culture aren't subject to the same ridiculous aesthetic and character judgments as the mostly real women in the top row is out of line and simply not true. If you don't believe me, think of some of the examples I've cited above. Look at the pictures and notice how all but one of them is white, and all of them are slender and conventionally attractive. Think about video games - consider Lara Croft, with her improbably large breasts and her new rapealicious backstory. Think about comic books - consider the physically impossible contortions of female superheroes showing tits and ass at the same time, or the completely unnecessary reboots that distort a character concept beyond all recognition. And think about how all those images come from series that originally and/or primarily follow a male main character.

I completely agree that "role model" is a value judgement, and that the people currently considered role models in popular culture should give us pause to re-examine our values fairly deeply. But I absolutely do not think that geek culture should be allowed a free pass on this. If anything, the kind of ignorance that leads people to post graphics like that is a sign that geek culture needs a pretty hefty kick in the butt and a sanity check.

Geeks: set your own house in order before telling someone else that theirs is a mess.

EDIT: To summarise, I give you a graphic that's being circulated in response to this original.