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Nerds And Male Privilege Part 2: The Arguments

A few months ago, I wrote an article on nerds and male privilege. Maybe you read it.

Believe me, nobody was more surprised than me when it proceeded to go viral and start rocketing around the internet. It garnered a lot of attention and a load of mixed reactions, some good, some bad, some downright puzzling. It made for a great lead-in as to just how some male behaviours can work against us when it comes to dating and I got to enjoy my five minutes of internet fame. I sort of figured that this was the end of it and was ready to move on to the next series of articles. I mean, after all, I didn’t start my blog to be about gender relations; I’m just a guy trying to help geeks improve their love-lives and get better at dating.

Well, man plans and the gods laugh and all that. It seems as though I’m not quite done with the subject yet.

Y’see, there were certain recurring themes and arguments in the comments, both here, on Reddit and Kotaku, especially regarding my immediate dismissal of entire classes of arguments about whether male privilege — especially as it pertains to geek and gaming culture — exists. And since I’m the sort of person who can’t seem to leave it well enough alone…

Let’s take another whack at the ol’ hornet’s nest again, shall we?

The Three Ds of Arguing

Back when I wrote “Nerds and Male Privilege”, I included a link to the “Sexism In Games” bingo card as an example of the most common arguments and ones that, ultimately, make my point for me. A number of people felt that this was my attempting some sort of rhetorical end-run around actually having a discussion about how male privilege affects women or even whether or not male privilege exists and thus cheapening or even disproving my argument. Amusingly, they then promptly proceeded to make just about every argument on there. So many, in fact, that one Redditor decided to play “/r/Gaming” sexism bingo with the comments in just one of the threads about the article.

Not even the one in the sub-forum for Men’s Rights.

I dismissed these arguments in part because that’s not what the article was about; it was about making people aware about how male privilege manifests itself in geek culture and that the attitudes that male privilege engenders directly affect women’s involvement and inclusion in geek culture. After all, there’s nothing quite like being told by a community that you want to be a part of that you’re only valued as a commodity or reward, is there?

But, more importantly, these arguments pull the attention away from the subject at hand and lead the conversation down roads that it was never intended to go. As a result, the main thrust of the article — guys, you have advantages that lead you to act a certain way that is off-putting to women — gets lost while everybody is sucked into a never-ending morass of goalpost moving and verbal gerrymandering.

These arguments tend to fall into what I call the “Three Ds of Internet Arguing”: Dismiss, Deflect and Derail.

Dismissal entails denying that the issue exists at all in the first place, evidence be damned. This often involves long and tortured explanations about how something really isn’t sexist at all and is perfectly rational and egalitarian. Occasionally it involves explaining to someone how they’re completely misinterpreting things, they’re oversensitive or overemotional.

No, you’re sexist! You’re trying to oppress men!

Deflection is all about verbal judo and flipping the accusations around on the accuser. In terms of arguing male privilege this usually appears as variations of “No, women have all the power, they’re more manipulative than men” or “You’re discriminating against us!”.

Derailing is the most common version of these arguments and serves to change the subject of the conversation, usually by the people in question. Suddenly, instead of discussing geek culture’s implied accepted roles for women, we’re discussing the hierarchy of oppression or why we’re talking about this instead of, say, female circumcision (which is, like, way worse). Or dealing with assertions that, by extension, anyone who agreed with the article wants to ban all “sexy” characters from video games forever.

Now don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying that there can be no disagreement on the subject or that by arguing with me at all you’re conceding the fight or automatically making my point for me. I am, however, saying that the arguments — as represented on the bingo card — fall in line with these types and ultimately do refer back to the point I was making.

But hey, let’s actually go through a few of these, shall we?

“You’re Only Saying This Because You’re A White Knight/Trying to Get Laid/Trying to Appease Your Girlfriend.”

This one showed up a number of times, and it’s the one that amuses me the most. I mean, honestly, if writing a post on a semi-obscure blog was all it took to get a guy laid… well, shit, I probably would never have actually started Paging Dr NerdLove because there would be no need for it.

For that matter, why exactly would writing an article make my girlfriend happier than, say, cleaning the litterbox more often? It’s a mystery.

Ultimately, this is a case of dismissal. This argument implies that the only reason why I would even pretend this exists is because I have ulterior motives. Otherwise, I would never bring it up/betray my gender.

Amusingly, I received a few variations of this from some feminist blogs as well; I paraphrase (because I can’t find the link and Google is failing me) but evidently my whole point of bringing this up was “just so that guys could pretend to have a whiff of a clue and trick women into fucking them.”

“Comics/Gaming/RPGs/Etc. Are A Subculture That Appeals To Men! You Trying To Take That Away!/But It’s Not FOR Women! If They Can’t Deal With It, They Shouldn’t Be Here!”

These deflections tend to be variations on the same argument; that privilege is inherently a zero-sum game and by making concessions to women regarding the levels of sexism in geek culture requires taking something away from men.

Which is, to be perfectly honest, kinda nuts. But it does imply one thing: that at a certain level the one making the argument realises that they are the de-facto privileged and they worry about not having that privilege.

Now to be fair: some elements of geek culture are male-dominated; comics and gaming are perfect examples of this. This does not, however mean that they’re inherently intended for guys exclusively, nor does it mean that they also have to be as exclusionary to women as they tend to be.

Realizing that drawing all of your female characters with 36DDD tits and posing them in physically impossible ways in order to show off their boobs and arse at the same time while wearing dental floss costumes might be a little offensive to women is hardly the same as saying that you’re not allowed to enjoy sexy art or that sexy art shouldn’t be allowed. Similarly, campaigning for female characters who are more than “Hero’s Girlfriend” or “Fan-Service Station Attendant” doesn’t mean that there can’t be femme fatales or even characters who are there for titillation.

The problem isn’t that these characters or drawings exist. The problem is that these are the vast majority. When 99 per cent of the female characters, whether it be comics, movies, or video games are designed to look like porn stars and the ones that aren’t can be counted on the fingers of one hand, it’s not terribly surprising that women might be oooged out by it… and the implied attitudes that come with it. When your only choice for a gaming avatar are “Bustier and Thong” and “Battle Bikini”, it sends the message that “You are only welcome here as a sexual object. If you do not meet these criteria, we have no use for you.”

Nobody’s saying that there can’t be sex-kittens, voluptuous pin-ups or fetishised characters. But leavening them out with realistically-proportioned females in practical costumes who aren’t there to be rescued, raped, murdered, tied to the train tracks or the prize for beating the main boss isn’t taking away your rights or preventing you from enjoying the games.

“But They Call Her A ‘Bitch’ Because They’re The Bad Guys.”

This qualifies as a derailment.

This one came up repeatedly in the context of criticism of Arkham City, a game that I (and other bloggers and journalists) dinged for being an excellent game with some troubling aspects. In this case, the various henchmen running around Arkham City constantly refer to Catwoman as “bitch” and make repeated comments about beating and/or raping her and Harley Quinn.

Now I will give you this much: yes, the characters saying this are criminals locked up in a city-sized jail, presumably with very few female inmates.

However, let’s keep in mind that these are not real people. All of these characters are constructs without free will or animus. They aren’t making jokes about “Riding the Harley” because that’s just how they roll; someone had to decide that this is what they were going to say. Someone had to record those specific lines. This wasn’t a case of emergent gameplay that took the creators by surprise — it was decided that whenever the player controlled Catwoman, the henchmen would call her bitch and threaten her with sexual violence.

Worth noting: these characters are violent offenders in a prison and male-on-male rape is rampant in the prison system. Yet nobody is telling Batman that they’re going to make him their bitch or that they’re going to bust out his teeth so that it feels better when they force Bats to blow them. Nobody’s calling Batman a faggot or threatening to run a train on him after they beat him unconscious. Rape, after all, is a statement of power, domination and degradation… and who represents everything the criminals hate or resent more than Batman?

But they don’t. Because they weren’t designed to.

The writers and designers didn’t include these behaviours or lines for when the player controls Batman. They did for Catwoman. This makes all of the difference.

“You’re The One Who Hates Women — You’re Saying They Can’t Be Both Sexy And Tough.”

Another deflection, implying that by criticising the portrayal of these characters the critic is, in fact, the sexist.

Of course, this requires that the definition of “sexy” mean “wears extremely revealing clothes” and “has massive breasts”, which is patently untrue. Sexiness doesn’t derive solely from the level of fan-service the character provides, and it’s absurd to try to limit to just how much skin we can or can’t see.

There are a number of female characters — sadly, a relatively small number — who manage to be strong, fully realised and sexy characters without wearing stripper-tastic costumes.

Just off the top of my head I could name:

  • Ashley Williams: Mass Effect
  • Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer: Uncharted 1, 2 and 3
  • Kate Kane: Batwoman
  • Matoko Kusanagi: Ghost In The Shell
  • Jade: Beyond Good and Evil
  • Agatha Heterodyne: Girl Genius
  • Nausicaa: Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind

Interestingly enough, Lara Croft — once the poster child for absurd outfits and gag boobs — has undergone a redesign making her far more realistically proportioned and sensibly dressed. And speaking as someone who has gone climbing over and in ruined temples in the jungle… yeah, you’re not gonna wear shorts.

“But Trash Talk is Normal on Xbox Live. Women Are Just Too Sensitive to Rape Threats and Feigned Masturbation.”

Another deflection, and one that relies rather specifically on XBL or Playstation Network multiplayer games, because it falls apart fairly quickly if you look at it with respect to, say, voice chat in World of Warcraft.

So again, I will give you this much: Yes, there’s a lot of shit-talking in online games. But ask any woman who plays a first-person shooter and you’ll quickly hear about the difference when guys realise there’s a woman in their midst. Suddenly it’s all about the rape or the fapping sounds. Guys may threaten to make other male player their bitches, but they’re not going to be asking those other guys how big their cocks are, if they’re cut or uncut and whether they’re a top or bottom. Women on the other hand will be told to show their tits and inundated with demands for cyber sex. They’ll be called “cunt” and “whore”, but if they complain they’ll be told that they’re too “sensitive” or “emotional” to play.

And hey, if they’re especially lucky, the harassment doesn’t end just because you quit out of the game!

Xbox Live Douchebags: Puttin’ the “ass” in “Classy”. Screenshot: fatuglyorslutty.com.

But as I said, as soon as you step out of the world of first-person shooters and into MMOs, the argument that trash-talking is a normal part of online gaming starts to look thin. Many women will use male avatars, gender-neutral sounding names and refuse to use voice-chat systems such as Ventrilo. As soon as other players — guild members, pick-up groups or even PVP opponents realise that there’s a woman in their midst, the conversation now becomes about her gender… and more importantly, whether she has a boyfriend or will show her tits.

“Everyone Knows ‘Sex Sells’, And The Developers Are Just Making Things They Think Will Sell.”

Another deflection. And one that might be news to EA; The Sims sold over 16 million copies. Activision might be astonished too: World of Warcraft has sold over 12 million copies.

But hey, what about console games? Well, the top-selling game on the Playstation 3 was Gran Turismo 5, followed by Modern Warfare 2 and Uncharted 3 (there it is again!). On the Xbox 360, the top three sellers are Call of Duty: Black Ops, Kinect Adventures and Halo 3.

And let’s face it, every developer would give their left testicles to reach the level of sales of Super Mario Bros. with 40 million units sold.

Tits may get attention, but they’re hardly the dividing line between success and failure.

“But Men Are All Super-Buff, They’re Sexually Objectified Too! / Men Want To Watch Desirable Women, Women Want To Be Desirable Women.”

This is one of the most common deflections when the issue of how women are portrayed comes up. It’s known as a false equivalence — the idea that two things presented together as equal when in fact they aren’t. In this case, the idea that just because women have exaggerated physiques doesn’t mean they’re sexist because the men are just as exaggerated too. Of course, this doesn’t work for many reasons. To start with, it assumes — falsely — that the things that women find sexy are the same things that guys find sexy; that is, the exaggerated secondary sex characteristics. But we’ll get to that in a second.

The other issue is the reason for the exaggeration. Comics and games are fantasy, true, but the fantasy aspect differs when it comes to male and female characters. Male characters are a power fantasy; the large muscles and massive torsos are visual signs that this character is an unstoppable powerhouse. Kratos doesn’t look the way he does because Sony Computer Entertainment did focus-market studies and found that women reacted best to that design; he looks the way he does because he represents the powerful alpha-male that gamers want to be.

The women, on the other hand, are sexual fantasies. These are the rewards for the player — the character’s love-interest, the motivation to complete the game. They’re designed as eye-candy; they’re intended as something to be consumed, not something to escape into. Women like to fantasise about being desirable yes, but they also like to be powerful, and their definition of what they would consider to be sexy and powerful doesn’t mean battle-bikinis and thongs of power.

But hey, I’m a guy. It’s easy for me to sit here and proclaim what women find sexy, but I could be talking out of my arse. So why not take it to the source? I put out a completely unscientific poll on Facebook and Twitter about characters that women find sexy — video games, comics, anime, whatever. And the results? Well, let’s compare.

Here we have the exaggerated figures that are supposedly sexy too:

And here are the characters my female readers find sexy:

Notice a trend here? These are not the massive beefcakes alpha-males that are supposedly as equally objectified as Kasumi, Ayane or Ivy. These men have longer torsos with much leaner builds; they’re built like swimmers rather than weight-lifters. They’re not men who scream “unstoppable physical power”. They’re lithe and dextrous, not barrel-chested juggernauts with tree stumps for limbs.

And the other critical factor: it’s not just their builds that make them sexy. Gambit, for example is attractive because of his personality and his situation; he’s tortured because he can’t physically touch the woman he loves. Nightcrawler is the laughing swashbuckler, full of wit and flirty charm. Jareth is dark and mysterious and just a little dangerous and oozes sexuality.

Yes, the men are exaggerated as much as the women. But it’s the intent and the message that make all of the difference.

“It’s Just A Comic/Game/Movie. No-One Cares.”

A dismissal that’s patently untrue.

The fact of the matter is, people do care. Women feel excluded from participating in the fandoms they enjoy because of these attitudes. They feel as though they can’t take part because of the way they’re treated just by virtue of being female. They’re told they have nothing to contribute because of their gender and that their value consists of their availability as a sex object.

And geek guys wonder why geeky girls are so thin on the ground.

I’ll have more to say soon specifically about how male privilege in geek culture directly affects women, why guys should care and what we — men and women — can do about it.

Until then, back to the dating advice.

Harris O’Malley provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr NerdLove, as well as writing the occasional guest review for Spill.com and appearing on the podcast The League of Extremely Ordinary Gentlemen. Republished with permission.