Tony Harris vs. Cosplayers, and the Fake Problem of the Fake Geek Girl

Women? On my internet?

Tony Harris is worried about con- hot women demanding his attention at conventions. Games with female protagonists receive half the marketing budget of games with male protagonists. So it goes. Another day, another round of defensive flailing from geek men, bravely standing at the gates of geek culture. But guys, the vulvas breached the gates a couple decades back. We’ve stormed the castle, and claimed a wing of our own. We’ve redecorated. With ponies.

The Harris debacle was a debacle because it was all so typical. Middle aged dude, used to being at the top of the geek heap, vomits out a couple of ounces of unreconstructed, anti-woman bile, in the guise of tackling the ‘problem’ of the fake geek girl. This used to be an occasion for debate: how do we keep the fake geek girls out? how to tell a fake geek girl, from a true geek girl? These days, it’s an occasion for gifs and disdain. Harris didn’t get a lot of support, not even from the usual suspects. The fake geek girl has just about had her day. A thousand odd internet raspberries later (this Jemma Salume comic is the best), he’s managed to make a complete ass of himself, and reaffirm the cosplay community’s commitment to not being terrible to each other. Good work!

Over in the gaming community, commentators are furiously debating the whys and hows of games with female protagonists selling fewer copies than games with male protagonists. Is it because they receive fewer marketing dollars? (Probably). Is it because women don’t like games? (Ha ha). Is it because male gamers are scared of women? (Sigh). And what if, goes the subtext in the hand-wringing-est of the articles, we get more women involved in gaming and they just go and RUIN IT for the rest of us? What if those fake geek girls drive the market into a Farmvillian Abyss from whence we can never return? And so. Male geek outrage over the tide of vagina dentata is a little bit more acceptable in the gaming community (if only because there’s like a five a year lag in outrages, vis a vis the comics community), but a good laugh was still had by many. Focus shifted instead, to hashtags like #1ReasonWhy and #1ReasonMentors, with the gaming community thoughtfully exploring the dearth of women working in the industry, and how to change that.

Jessica Valenti, writing about the contemporary American feminist movement, recently said that, “Something strange is happening to feminists. We’re winning.” The first battle, of getting into the conversation, of taking and holding ground, has been won. We’re here.

Valenti goes on to say that, “Perhaps more interesting than the wins themselves, though, was the widespread media attention and cultural acceptance of feminist outrage. All of a sudden, women’s anger at the attempted defunding of Planned Parenthood or a male politician’s comment about rape wasn’t the mark of bitter “man haters”; it was an understandable reaction from smart, engaged women.” (#winning).

As a community, geeks are moving on. And maybe that’s why attacks by sexist bottom feeders are getting worse. The kind of total war harassment campaign that Anita Sarkeesian experienced is becoming more, not less common. Even as the conversation moves forward, with the basic feminist groundwork assumed (yes, women read comics; yes, women game; yes, there is a problem with men complaining about ‘fake’ geek girls), the pushback is getting fiercer. Even crossing over into criminal territory.

Meanwhile, New York Magazine has announced a bold new age of internet niceness. Don’t you miss the wild west days of yore? Not Katie Baker, who points out that,

“If you’re a woman with an internet presence, you need skin as thick as a redwood trunk to deal with the barrage of insults and threats that you’ll unquestionably receive from misogynist trolls who want you to stop writing about topics that men also like to write about, or stop writing about feminism, or just stop writing, period. This has always been the case, but it’s not getting better for most women I know. In fact, it seems to be getting worse.

Ask any woman with an email address or commenter handle, from Anita Sarkeesian to any 12-year-old with a Formspring; I’ve never met a single one who wasn’t somehow affected by negative feedback that focused specifically on her gender, not her work. Women are edged out of practically every popular internet forum that isn’t specifically “for women,” from Reddit to the skeptic community. High school girls kill themselves because of cyber-bullying. Facebook refuses to delete photos glorifying rape culture even though they’ll censor, say, tribal women in Senegal or breastfeeding moms. For every Creepshots or “Is Anyone Up?” that finally gets shut down, another one pops up.”

It’s getting better, but every little bit of improvement comes at a high price.

Tony Harris does not need hugs.

Back to Harris. While so many were engaged in the vital work of deconstructing his bullshit, supporting the women smeared by his screed, and making awesome comics about his descent into hilarity, others were busy defending him. Not so much his words, as his right to utter horrible strings of words, and still be hugged on the internet. But Tony doesn’t need your hugs. (Tony doesn’t want your hugs, not if you aren’t at least a seven, because he’s earned that). A conversation about sex, gender, race, or disability making valuable progress? Here’s comes the derailment train!

Onezumi throws out the inevitable yellow card: someone is being bullied on the internet, and it isn’t the women who weren’t hot enough, genuine enough, or genuinely hot enough for Mr. Harris. “There is only so many times you can watch people metaphorically light a man’s house on fire for saying something unworldy before it just becomes pitiful bullying. I’m seeing tweets that range from reasonable to threats to people just plain telling him his art sucks [sic, bolding ours].” The specter of the feminist bully, lives to haunt men another day. Come on ladies, haven’t you learned anything from history? Change happens when we calmly explain to the powerful that they are wrong, and if they wouldn’t mind, could they please stop being so dern wrong (*hugs*). And then, moved by our loving reeducation program of explaining things that they have no business being ignorant of (like say, not being awful), they’ll change.

Here’s the thing. Tony Harris’ rant wasn’t a minor misstep. It wasn’t the fevered wailing of a man out time, confronted with women in the workplace, women in the geekplace, women being, well, humans, for the very first time. Harris is a comics professional who regularly attends conventions. As such, he works and interacts with real geek women on a daily basis. His rant is indefensible, not just on the basis of its ugliness, but because the women he is complaining about are his colleagues and customers: his community.

That someone dressed up as a comic book character might need to further prove their love of comics is utterly, and completely mind-boggling. Let me assure you, Mr. Harris, no one cosplays for the peen.

Let’s not shift the responsibility from the accuser to the accused: Harris doesn’t need to be treated with kid gloves; we play by irl grown up rules here. As a white guy, Harris would never be considered the “exception to the rule.” He’s probably never had his knowledge or passion for comics questioned. But chalking this kind of vitriol up to ignorance gives him and others like him far too much credit. We’re way past that now. The flood of, yes, vitriol that Harris has been hit with, came straight out of his blind spot, one that he and his ilk have willfully maintained in the face of the (often too slow) diversification of the comics industry, and the con floor. The impact on him and the rest of the comic book community at large would have been much different, had the fandom politely said, “Now Tony, I get what you’re saying BUT…” The swift and vociferous denunciation of his post was proportional, it was earned, and it was exactly the medicine necessary to counter his poison.

Fans that don’t particularly care for cosplayers or ‘get’ why they do it have been quick to attribute to Harris more logical critiques that simply can’t be found in his incredibly unprofessional, word salad of male discontent. Let’s be clear: whatever other issues there may be with the cosplay community, aligning yourself with a man who is ultimately, just very upset that the tail he could theoretically chase (while working) isn’t up to his standards, does your argument no favours.

As Colleen Doran said in an excellent piece on the realities of being a woman in fandom,

“There is nothing behind this Fake Geek Girl nonsense that doesn’t boil down to bullying. Nothing. What people wear, how they behave, whether or not they are true fans, whether or not they are supportive enough of whatever is in your portfolio: all of that is a red herring. It’s bullying. You think you’re high? We’ll bring you low. It’s gatekeeper behavior. Here’s what it boils down to: If you are a girl, you owe me. If you are a girl, you threaten me. If you are visible in any way, you owe me. If you are visible in any way, you threaten me.”

Hey Team Tony? Take your medicine, or get out of our fandom.

P.S. We’re all out of sugar.

But you’re bullying him.

Nope! But more seriously, this is the same wailing derailment that crops up every time progress is being made.

And make no mistake, a blow up of this magnitude represents progress for cosplayers, for con-goers, and for ‘geek culture’ in general. It’s progress because it sends a loud and clear message that sexist dickbaggery is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. That it will no longer be tolerated. Let’s be clear: ‘geek culture’ has been a hostile, male domain for too long, and Harris’ rant was just more of the same. Like Onezumi, we’re tired. But we’re not tired of fighting. We’re tired of having to fight a battle that’s already, in so many respects, been won. What we’re seeing in rants like Harris’ are the last gasps of swiftly dying beast. This is the middle class, white, male geek on the run, and mad about it.

Anyone else bored with the whole damn thing?

There is a difference between bullying and social censure. Censure can tip over into bullying, but these are two different things.

Bullying is the deliberate singling out of individuals or groups for the sole purpose of causing pain and asserting power over them. There is no higher purpose to bullying. People on the ‘right side’ can engage in bullying. People on the ‘wrong side’ can engage in bullying. All it requires is a thin edge of power and enough casual malice to dedicate yourself to spreading around a little misery. Social censure is something different. It’s a kind of organized disapproval of individuals or groups who have transgressed, who have broken with the accepted moral, ethical (sartorial), covenants of the group. Social censure isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s just how we enforce the generally unspoken rules of daily life. We police all kinds of behaviours. Everything from fashion, to property, to sex. It’s through censure that we maintain the integrity of a given group, and demonstrate disapproval for those who break with us. So while it can cause harm (exhibit: Scarlet Letter, Mean Girls, Easy A), it doesn’t always cause harm, and isn’t evil as fuck, per se.

So censure works to reaffirm the rules when they’ve been broken, and to reaffirm the integrity of the group when it’s been threatened. Both of these are at work in the reaction to Tony Harris:

1) People reacted to his words by expressing their absolute disapproval. This resulted in ‘the rules’ (don’t be a sexist jerk) being reaffirmed.

2) People reacted further by sending messages of support to each other, and reasserting the cosplay world as positive, fun loving and not unbearably sexist and gross. Tony Harris hurt the women (and men!) who cosplay and part of the widespread reaction to his words is simply shoring each other up.

This is not bullying. Calling a thing by its name, (in this case, a misogynist), isn’t trolling, bullying, or mean. It is simply necessary. (Also, Tony Harris really is a tracer).

That we can name and shame at all, that men and women are working to censure Harris for his rant, shows how far we’ve come. We are, slow going as it is, (#)winning this fight.

Beyond ‘fake geek girls’ is just this: geeks, doing their thing.

Of this endless fake geek girl/nerdbait/geek culture-gone-mainstream merry-go-round of bullshit, Rachel Eddin says that, “it’s not a zero-sum game: insularity and identity-policing will consume geek culture faster and more thoroughly than any legion of imaginary interlopers. For decades, we’ve prided ourselves on being forward-thinkers, early adopters, willing to challenge cultural norms and think and work outside the boxes imposed on us. Imagine how far we could go if we could then stop replacing them with boxes of our own design.” At the end of it, there are no ‘fake geek girls’. There’s no ‘nerdbait’. There’s no need lady factor, ruining the profit margin of the comics/game/toy/movie industry. There are just geeks, some of them a bit more knowledgeable than others. Some of them a little more invested in geek culture, (whatever boundaries we draw around that) than others. Just enthusiastic people, enjoying books, movies, games, and an endless variety of cultural products, and sharing that enthusiasm with each other. That’s fandom, at its base.

If we keep the spotlight on how disingenuous this type of anti-girl judgement is, if we don’t stumble into hand-wringing about meanness, or fall into small minded gatekeeping, the cultural shift that is already in progress absolutely can and will be realized. This is our fandom, guys, and we ain’t going nowhere.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

9 thoughts on “Tony Harris vs. Cosplayers, and the Fake Problem of the Fake Geek Girl

  1. As a 43 year old geek girl I can somewhat understand your perspective. We were taught to associate geek with feelings of alienation and bullying that doesn’t exist in people even 10 years our junior, let alone 20. It would be an interesting chicken-and-egg argument – were we alienated because we embraced sci-fi and fantasy or did we embrace sci-fi and fantasy because that’s where all the other alienated kids hung out? Maybe our true spiritual heirs are a different sub-group entirely now.

    Regardless, as a woman I am more than thrilled to see younger women embracing geek culture and I don’t demand they go through hell to earn the title. Even though much of what was ‘geek’ has become popular culture, women still have a harder time entering into it and embracing it. Our culture has always strongly sent the message that it is better to be pretty than it is to be smart and that one can’t really be smart and pretty at the same time. ANYTHING that serves to combat this in any way is okay in my books.

    Middle age white men (and some women) need to get over the pain of their childhood and stop lashing out just because the next generation doesn’t have it as hard as they did. Isn’t that what we fought for in the first place?

  2. I would like to attempt to add some generational perspective here, as it seems to be sorely missing.

    I will first say that I do not agree with what the antagonist in question said and did. I do agree that it is bullying. Comics, and by extension, “geek culture” should be inclusive to any who are interested, regardless of gender.

    That said, I am a 43 yr old male. I played Dungeons & Dragons and collected comic books and was thoroughly mocked and insulted for this. I did not had the best skin, nor was I particularly strapping or handsome. What was the insult used against me so often?

    I was called a geek.

    In my day, by definition, the hot girl is not a geek. The hot girl was the hot girl – she was popular and sought after by the popular boys. She was invited to parties and did not give the geeks the time of day. She never, ever sat home playing D&D on prom night. She often laughed along with Popular Boy when mocking the geeks.

    Again – I am only pointing out the world 30 years ago. I am not saying that’s how the world is today, where some elements of geek culture have been widely embraced. Where some Hot Girls are inwardly geeky, truly enjoy comic books and video games, and perhaps would give the time of day to the geeky boys.

    It’s a little hard to believe, but I concede that it maybe true. Comic movies are the highest grossing films now. D&D has survived the test of time and evolved into other forms (Magic, RPG video games, etc).

    But there is certainly a little truth to the suggestion that some of these so-called “geek girls” are merely praying on geeks for 1. Attention, 2. Fame, 3. Marketing by big corporations.

    I’ve started watching some of the Cosplay shows and some of these impressively attractive girls are indeed amazingly, surprisingly very into what they do. And i respect that and appreciate their efforts. But make no mistake – that doesn’t make them geeks.

    Geeks are not hot girls. It’s purely a matter of definition. A hot girl putting on glasses and calling herself a “geek” doesn’t magically give her the experiences that a true geek has lived through. She’s never been stuffed into a locker or beat up for carrying a copy of Monster Manual at her school. She’s never been the subject of ridicule for knowing what issue Spider-Man got his new black costume. It’s not debatable – “nerd cool” or “need chic” is a very recent trend, and an oxymoron.

    So while I do not agree with any form of bullying or exclusion, I can understand why, to some, the self-anointment of geek status would be somewhat offensive or irritating. Especially when in reality the elements of geek culture being embraced are actually huge parts of popular culture now. What was considered geeky (see: uncool, only losers with few friends engaged in) 30 years ago are now embraced by the popular kids. And so they are not geeks – not hardly. The same holds true for many of the self proclaimed geek boys too of course.

    By all means hot girls – embrace the culture. It’s a joy to see passionate people fall in love with things I loved 20-30 years ago and still do love to this day. You carry the torch of inclusion – you embrace a fantasy world previously ignored by the majority of your gender and its a beautiful thing to see how awesome you all are at it when those big beautiful bouncy brains of yours come up with amazing costumes and role-play. I truly wish I was born 20 years later, as it was a far lonelier world for Spider-Man or iron man fans in the 1980s.

    If I may suggest a compromise – please reconsider calling yourselves “geeks”. You’re not. You never were and you never will be. You’re popular, beautiful, seemingly well adjusted and you are enjoying a maturation of the culture where now days you don’t have to be a geek to participate.

    Geek was not a good thing. Being a geek meant that to everyone else you were ugly, unpopular, an generally a loser. Of course to us geeks we ha no idea other than the fact that a good day was one where we didn’t get bullied by the popular kids. So really, the sooner that awful, hurtful label is eliminated, the better it will be for everyone.

    Then angsty douhebags like the author of that hateful post won’t be so put off because he was shoved into a locker with his underpants pulled up his ass crack when you never were. From what I’ve read that’s his main beef – “how dare you call yourself a geek when you’re a popular, beautiful and creative person who everyone loves!”

    In a sense, he’s got a point. It’s a shame he can’t see that it’s purely a generational difference & a matter of definition, and that is where he fails.

    God bless you, hot girls into Cosplay – please never stop.

  3. Very fun. Sad that the con sucks. You’re going to Otakon this year, right? can’t wait to see ya there!BTW, nominated you on atocuncs of blog-related comic and most influential blog.

  4. I think within all “male-dominated industries” people become very uncomfortable with women not fitting into the roles we *think* they should embody. Whether that’s being a “fake nerd” or a “fake musician”. Basically what the article says about creating a box of our own design. I think this is partially due to one’s tendency to be too possessive over the things we love and perceiving that we loved whatever nerdy thing first, therefore we think we love whatever nerdy thing “better and more genuinely.” The only comparison I can make to this is how people feel like when THEY are in love it is different and more special than anyone’s relationship EVER. But I digress! Good article!

  5. I appreciate your take on this so much! It really is an eloquent portrayal of my feelings on the subject that, at the time, I could hardly get across to my ‘social network’. Being a giant squid of anger makes it hard to type.

  6. It makes me really sad that you took the post I wrote and spun it as if I were defending this man. I’ve added a section on the top of my post that (I hope) distills what I was trying to convey in a smaller package.

    My post wasn’t about if what he did was right or wrong. My post wasn’t even about my feelings on the matter. Why? Because every other blog on the internet already posted about it and nailed it. By the time I got to be able to post about it – it was old news.

    I’m guessing you aren’t familiar with my work at all by the way you quoted me, as the reason that what he said upset me so much was that I’ve been often accused of not being geeky enough in exactly the way he was describing.

    I decided to step back, push my feelings aside and try to take a slightly different look at the situation. I wanted to hear from my readers their thoughts on how these sorts of situations could be handled to prevent it from happening again. Where is the line? How can we educate? Was it too far? Not enough?

    The title of the post was a discussion question that I hoped to explore in the comments, but it seems you’ve taken it to be the entire content and point of my post and attacked me for it.

    1. We read the entire content of your post, and that’s all we’re speaking to. This post is not only and forever about that, though; it’s about how the phenomenon of policing reaction when initial action goes officially unpunished serves to support initial action and undermine criticism.

Comments are closed.