The shootings that took place in Santa Barbara last week, motivated to all appearances by the shooter's sense that he had in some way been denied his "rights" to sexual access to beautiful women, have led to some renewed reflection on the problem of misogyny among, for lack of a better term, the nerd society.
I've written about this before, but like a bad penny the issue keeps turning up, and for a simple reason: Misogyny is an inescapable part of American society, and thus an inescapable of fact of geek culture. Rooting out misogyny from geek culture is part and parcel of rooting it out of American society as a whole. But this requires, to begin with, an honest assessment of how we've gotten to where we are and why geeks, who to all external appearances should be among the more open and accepting groups in society, so often remain bastions of the worst attitudes towards women.
Before proceeding, I should probably note that it's not at all clear to me that the shooter, Eliot Roger, was a "geek" in the most fulsome definition of that word. By that I mean I have no idea if he was the science fiction loving, gaming, comic-book reading kind of guy that usually gets associated with the term. But what is clear from his psychopathically ranting murder/suicide video, is that he shared a self-perception that is common within geekdom -- that of the isolated, socially awkward, girl-repellent social outcast. His words attest to his belief that he had been "unfairly" denied his "right" to have sex with "hot women," and that therefore he was going to make those women pay with their lives.
This is a point that feminist authors have been making for some time with reference to a particular subset of guy-dom, namely the "nice guy." The "nice guy" is the opposite of the asshole jock. He hangs around the margins of the pods of attractive girls in high school, looking for the opportunity to ingratiate himself, to become a shoulder to cry on, a friend in need, on the premise that, when the asshole jock finally breaks the hot girl's heart, the "nice guy" will be there to pick up the pieces, and, by coincidence, get laid.
The problem, as has been pointed out elsewhere, with the "nice guy" trope, is that the "nice guy" is actually not really any nicer than the asshole jock. He's just pursuing a different strategy toward the same goal. What's more, because he views himself as, well, a nice guy, the fact that he never seems to be able to make any headway on the dating/relationship/sex front is doubly frustrating, since he can't understand why women would continue to date those "asshole jocks" who keep breaking their hearts when there is a "nice guy" like him standing there just waiting to treat them right.
If I sound like I'm speaking from experience, that's because I am. Growing up, I found myself involuntarily cast in the "nice guy" role. And, like most "nice guys," I tried to play it according to the script. Hang around, be there when needed, offer the crying shoulder, and wait for the scales to fall from their eyes! Of course, this never happened, because life doesn't operate according to a script, and human beings are much, much more complicated than that.
None of what I'm saying here should be construed to imply that most of the time, "nice guys" aren't actually genuinely nice. They are! Most of us geeky guys, who played Dungeons & Dragons on the weekends instead of going to keggers, who played in the marching band, and collected comics, really were genuinely nice most of the time. But we kept bumping up against the barrier between our own expectations of how things were "supposed" to work, and how they actually shook out in real life.
This, I think, is what is behind the conversation about the sense of "entitlement" that nice guys seem to have with regard to how women should treat them. That entitled attitude comes from the fact that we really don't have many alternative scripts that tell us how love, romance, and sex are "supposed" to work. Strange as it may sound, we need a more compelling narrative about love to explain what it is and how to get it than the one that we've been offered for most of the past several decades. Growing up, the movies I watched repeatedly told this story to me: Be the nice guy, hang around, and eventually she'll come around. Through your presence and friendship as a "nice guy" eventually love will come to you.
And it's not just our romantic comedies. To the degree that, particularly for males these days, pornography defines an element in their sexual initiation, they are told that sex is about easy, instant access, that women will willingly get naked for any random plumber or pizza delivery guy, and then that guy gets to do and say incredibly nasty things to her in the context of what is supposed to be a loving act. The pornification of sex is an element in this as well, but porn, like romantic comedy, is a fiction, a fantasy, that tells a story that bears little resemblance to how actual human lives operate. And, to be clear, we need some kind of story to construct our lives.
Human beings are creatures that organize our lives according to narratives. We see ourselves as the stars of our own movie, otherwise known as our lives. Our story, like most, has a plot. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but most importantly, it has a central conflict to be overcome. As teenagers, many of us wrote the script of our lives according to the tropes of romantic comedy, and what the romantic comedies we watched told us that being a "nice guy" (which, by the way, is not the same thing as simply being a nice guy), would eventually pay sexual dividends. And if it didn't, then clearly the problem was with the women we were being "nice" to, not with us.
Here's how Arthur Chu puts the problem:
We (male) nerds grow up force-fed this script. Lusting after women “out of our league” was what we did. And those unattainable hot girls would always inevitably reject us because they didn’t understand our intellectual interest in science fiction and comic books and would instead date asshole jocks. This was inevitable, and our only hope was to be unyieldingly persistent until we “earned” a chance with these women by “being there” for them until they saw the error of their ways. (The thought of just looking for women who shared our interests was a foreign one, since it took a while for the media to decide female geeks existed. The Big Bang Theory didn’t add Amy and Bernadette to its main cast until Season 4, in 2010.)
This is, to put it mildly, a problematic attitude to grow up with. Fixating on a woman from afar and then refusing to give up when she acts like she’s not interested is, generally, something that ends badly for everyone involved. But it’s a narrative that nerds and nerd media kept repeating.
Something of the same dynamic is behind the reaction to the term "friend zone," which some feminist writers have criticized as suggesting that same brand of entitlement -- the idea that our "proper place" is in the I dunno, "sex zone"? and we are being unfairly treated if we find ourselves cast into the outer darkness of the "friend zone."
Truthfully, I have less of an issue with this phrase, because I think it's more of an ironic way of describing unrequited attraction, something that's felt all the time by both men and women, who can just as easily find themselves cast into the friendzone as men can. Nevertheless, to the extent that the dwellers in the friendzone stay there because they're waiting for their chance to break into the, I'm just going to go with "sex zone," it recapitulates the same dynamic as the "nice guy" problem.
To an extent, these issues are connected to the larger problem that all adolescents face, namely figuring out how to move into adulthood as a relatively well-adjusted human being capable of carrying on mature and sustainable relationships. When you're fifteen, it's not like there is an intuitive process by which you learn to enter into romantic and sexual adulthood. Most of us sort of lurch there by fits and starts. And if you are one of those who feels forced to stand on the outside, looking in at people who seem to belong to a club that you can't figure out the password for, it can be a very frustrating experience. And I suspect that this was at the origins of Eliot Rodger's ultimately uncontrollable rage.
Arthur Chu again:
The overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.
So what happens to nerdy guys who keep finding out that the princess they were promised is always in another castle? When they “do everything right,” they get good grades, they get a decent job, and that wife they were promised in the package deal doesn’t arrive? When the persistent passive-aggressive Nice Guy act fails, do they step it up to elaborate Steve-Urkel-esque stalking and stunts? Do they try elaborate Revenge of the Nerds-style ruses? Do they tap into their inner John Galt and try blatant, violent rape?
For most of us, we eventually work our way through that process of growing up. We learn some degree of self-acceptance. We find people who genuinely care for us for who we are. But for many others, the frustration that comes from living a life that doesn't fit the romance "script" can be turned in one of two ways.
For a lot of us, it gets turned inward. For my part, a lot of my adolescence, and even into my twenties, was spent asking what it was that was wrong with me that women wouldn't date me. Ultimately, I got over myself at least enough to realize that until I was able to accept myself for who I was, no one else would either. But that's a hard lesson to learn when you're young, and truthfully, it's an ongoing process.
For others, it gets turned outward, to misogyny. Here what happens is that men assume that the problem isn't with them, but with women. So instead of accepting themselves for who they are, and accepting the women around them for who they are, they construct an image of a woman that would serve their needs -- a "hot chick," whom they can dominate and insult, and who will at the same time fulfill all of their nerdy fantasies (Slave Leia bikini, for example) -- but who has no independent identity of her own. A lot of the conversation about geek misogyny that has been going on the last few years has dealt with this problem. Having failed at being a "nice guy," the misogynist nerd becomes a dickhead, throwing around insults and objectifying women at Cons or insisting that women can't play, or are "fake geeks." Or they play out some creepy fantasy in the context of their favorite video or table top RPG.
Whatever the deeper pathologies were that motivated the Santa Barbara shooter, what he shared with those other geek guys was the sense of social isolation and sexual frustration that is sadly common among awkward teenage boys. Instead of growing the fuck up and adjusting his unrealistic expectations, and instead of turning in on himself, he projected his rage outward, with devastating results.
Until we begin to tell better stories about love, romance, and sex, stories that realistically convey what it means to meet someone, fall for them, and care for them, in one way or another this kind of problem will continue to replicate itself. And within the geek community, all of us recovering "nice guys" need to go out of our way to be genuinely nice guys, setting an example, and seeking to do what we can to make geekdom a safe space for all people, men and women, who just want to enjoy the same things as well do.
Just last week, I downloaded the recent movie, The Gamers: Hands of Fate. It's the latest in a series of low budget movies made by and for gamers, and compared to its two predecessors, it is a great leap forward in storytelling, both about gamers, but also about gender in gaming. The first two movies featured, respectively, a "princess" who needed to be rescued by a valiant adventuring team, and a novice "gamer girl" who turns out to be both a capable role player and an excellent min-maxer when it comes to creating a character for herself. (The second movie also features a male character role playing a woman, with all of the complications that entails).
The third movie, however, addresses the problem of geek misogyny head-on, and in multiple ways. It subverts the traditional rom-com "girl hates guy, guy pursues girl, girl falls for guy by the end" trope in multiple ways, and provides a number of strong models for women in gaming. Significantly, from the beginning it also explicitly calls into question the whole "women are prizes to be won" trope in fantasy literature.
In a subplot in the extended edition of the movie (available on Youtube), the gamer girl from the second movie, and her gamemaster boyfriend have a Three's Company style misunderstanding in which she believes that he's going to ask her to marry him at GenCon. When it turns out that he was only going to ask her to don a slave Leia bikini, and that he can't imagine marrying her because he didn't "win" her, she is understandably outraged. He then has to try to make things right:
Meanwhile, the "beardface" dude who is trying to win a date with the "hot" gamer by triumphing at a collectible card game comes to learn that there are a lot of things more important than "winning the girl."
These are the kinds of stories we need to begin to tell, first to undermine those stories that lead to unrealistic expectations about how men and women can and should relate to one another, but also to pave the way for stories that can allow for a more genuine kind of relationship, one that can be realistically modeled in the real world, in which men and women come together over mutual loves and interests, and allow attraction to take them where it will. It won't solve the problem of unrequited affection, but it will at least move the conversation to how to appropriately deal with it.
Until we learn to write a new script for our lives, we're not going to be able to aid in overcoming the problems of misogyny, either within the geek subculture, or within society at large.