Why I Hesitate to Call Myself a Fangirl


I am not easily offended. I’m typically the first to understand the place that humor (especially dark humor) can take when dealing with sensitive topics. I make jokes about suicide and Alzheimer’s, despite (or maybe because?) that I had a good friend commit suicide and currently have another friend stricken with Alzheimer’s. I even don’t really get bothered by rape jokes, provided that they’re actually funny jokes (for example, Sarah Silverman).

I start with this statement in the hopes that it will stay the knee jerk reaction of “she’s just too sensitive” and “she’s making too much out of it” with this topic. I know I will still get those reactions, and I know this will inevitably get the same hate that other women who have written about this have gotten. But the fact that these reactions are expected is part of why I’m writing this. You see, it’s all about microagressions.

I have been a geek all my life. I’ve loved Doctor Who since I was a kid, Star Trek and Star Wars were part of my formative years, and I eagerly look forward to any fantasy (or time travel) movie released, even the ones that stink. Yet, when I talked to Dr. Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at USC, about what I wanted to do for my thesis, I had described myself as a fanboy geek.

“You don’t describe yourself as a fangirl?” he asked me. And that got me thinking. Why didn’t that term come to me first?

Outside of a couple of isolated events, I have found fandom to be very open and embracing. I have never felt I was treated less of a fan because I was a woman. (Because I haven’t spent a bunch of money on the fandom in question, or because I prefer film and TV over books, yes.) I’ve never had someone give me inappropriate comments about my body, but I also don’t cosplay and tend to wear clothes that wouldn’t be getting comments anyway. Finally, I have enough of a “screw you if you don’t like me for who I am” attitude that if anyone tried treating me differently, they would soon learn to not do it again.

My partner and I, trying not to fangirl over Col. Chris Hadfield

And yet I hesitate to call myself a fangirl. Why?

A fanboy, while in the public image still has some negative associations as a man still living in his parents’ basement with no life, is actually a fairly positive image within fan communities now. Just as it’s now chic to be geek, to be a fanboy has gone through some changes. It now means just someone who is enthusiastic and obsessed over a specific item (typically science fiction, comic books, or video games/technology). A fanboy, in short, is someone who can tell you how many different ways the character of Bones said, “I’m a doctor, not a …” in the various Star Trek iterations or how many strike outs Yankees player Derek Jeter has had in his career.

However, a fangirl is much more negative, both in and out of fan communities. The phrase means someone who is fawning over the (typically male) stars of said media, and watches/reads the media not for the content, but for ‘the pretty’. For example, the Cumbercollective: the group of (typically young and white) women who watch anything (and everything) with Benedict Cumberbatch, and are supposedly watching Sherlock not because of the plot or acting or because of the characters, but in the off chance that Cumberbatch will take his shirt off for a scene or two. It harkens back to Beatlemania and the cry of the fangirl is the squee as the heartthrob takes the stage.

In other words, while I’m a fanboy of Doctor Who (I used to be able to name all the companions), I was a fangirl when I met Marc Evan Jackson, the voice of Sparks Nevada from the podcast The Thrilling Adventure Hour, and got his autograph.

me, fangirling over Marc Evan Jackson. Photo by Rich Sutton.

So what exactly is the issue here?

Being a geek is a tough road. Up until fairly recently, and even still somewhat, if you were into geeky things like comics or gaming or science fiction and fantasy, you were teased and mocked, dealing with the stereotype of not having a life. You earned your way into the geek world the hard way, and many of us claimed the word “geek” much like the gay community claimed “queer.” Yet, that means there is a sense of entitlement about the word: not everyone can claim to be a geek, and you have to prove yourself before you’re allowed in.

Whether this is comes from being a new fan (you’ve only been watching for a couple of episodes? not a true fan), being a fan of only one aspect (you only like the reboot Star Trek movies produced by J.J. Abrams and haven’t seen the original series? not a true fan), or not showing your appreciation enough (you don’t have the regular movie, plus the special edition, plus the director’s cut, plus the director’s cut special edition, plus the book the movie was based on? not a true fan), there’s a sense of gatekeeping within the geek community whenever a new fan enters the mix. It’s a sort of dog sniffing to make sure you’re not a threat aspect to the whole thing, and it happens all the time and has been an aspect of fandom probably since fandom started.

However, within the past couple of decades, something happened. It started becoming okay – nay, even cool – to call yourself a geek. The rise of the Internet and the popularity of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as business leaders started the rise in status of those who called themselves geek. Suddenly, ‘popular’ people were admitting to being geeks. Vin Diesel stated he liked Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop games. Nicolas Cage named his child Kal-El (Superman’s birth name). Barack Obama admitted to getting a private screening of Star Trek. And Meagan Fox (from the Transformers movies) admitted to being a fan of Lord of the Rings (the books as well as the movies).

But that didn’t mean the gatekeeping stopped. In fact, the Internet probably made it worse. Trolling (someone who starts arguments or posts deliberately controversial posts just to mess with people) combined with the ease of research meant that people were claiming to be a geek but may, in fact, not actually be as interested in the topic as others. Proving you were a ‘real’ geek became that much harder.

meeting Wil Wheaton at Planet Comicon 2013. Photo by Rich Sutton.

And then women had to get involved.

Of course, women have always been a part of fandom. But the rise in popularity of being a geek, combined with the incessant need for gatekeeping of the geek community, suddenly blew up in 2012 with an editorial from Tara Tiger Brown, lamenting about the increase of people claiming to be geeks, focusing on women. “Pretentious females who have labeled themselves as a ‘geek girl’ figured out that guys will pay a lot of attention to them if they proclaim they are reading comics or playing video games,” she wrote. She goes on to explain: “Maybe it’s just something that Generation X’ers lament about, as many of us old-timers believe that when it was harder to learn about something and you did it anyway, when no one else was building that computer in the basement but you persevered, that’s when your passions really shined through. That’s what being a geek is. Now if someone sticks a video game into their XBOX 360 console, they self-label themselves a ‘gamer.'” This is, then, the start of the mythological ‘fake geek girl.’

As noted in an article published the next day on the website Kotaku, the article generated a lot of immediate reactions, most of them against Brown. “Brown echoes Patton Oswalt’s belief that the internet has democratized information to the point that niche interests no longer have the meaning they used to. Be that as it may, so what? That doesn’t mean we have to start chest-thumping about our cred at every opportunity. If anything, it means that cred, or at least that sort of cred, is becoming increasingly meaningless,” wrote Hamilton, noting the incessant need for that gatekeeping. However, one look at the comments shows that the pervasive idea of women ‘pretending’ to like something geeky in order to garner attention is considered a real threat. “Dressing as a character you know nothing about is moronic, not nerdy. Some girls just dress as a character to get attention, don’t even care about the show,” one comment states, hinting at the concept of booth babes (women employed by staff booths at trade shows and conventions to bring people into the booth, typically dressed in revealing outfits).

This concept that women (specifically good looking women) can’t be ‘real geeks’ was expanded upon in an editorial by Joe Peacock on CNN, stating, “What I’m talking about is the girls who have no interest or history in gaming taking nearly naked photos of themselves with game controllers draped all over their body just to play at being a ‘model.’ I get sick of wannabes who couldn’t make it as car show eye candy slapping on a Batman shirt and strutting around comic book conventions instead.”

Genevieve Dempre responded two days later on the same blog. “It’s another reminder to women that while we may be appreciated for our decorative qualities, we certainly shouldn’t expect to be welcomed beyond that as active participants. It’s another hoop to jump through, and a glaring indication of the fact that we’re seen as girls first, geeks second, and that we’re always going to have to work harder to prove that we belong.” An article in the New Statesman written in August 2013 stated, “Women in particular are seen as jumping on a bandwagon, appropriating geek chic – just like female football fans, they’re only interested in the hero’s physique.” It’s an echo of the hipster complaint: of people jumping on something just because it’s trendy, and not because they actually like the item in question.

This idea of the ‘fake geek girl’ also leads into the concept of the ‘lesser’ fangirl, with fandoms that are predominantly female (particularly young female) being still ‘eligible targets’ for making fun of, whether it’s the fans of Twilight or the singing group One Direction. In an article on Den of Geek, Simon Brew brings up the ongoing nature of the (not so) difference between Apple fanboys and Sherlock fangirls. “Look too at the recent filming of ‘Sherlock’ around London. Our same correspondent [who had been immediately assumed to be a ‘Cumberbitch’, a fan of the show just because of Benedict Cumberbatch, just because she was female] walked passed the assembled crowd, and she noted that it was almost entirely female. Sherlock’s fervent female support has already resulted in the aforementioned ‘Cumberbitches’ term (a word that some are happy to adopt as their own), but it still tends to be approached more negatively. Contrast that with the queue for the launch of a new Apple product on launch day. That queue is mainly male, still comes in for some stick, yet is seen as more ‘acceptable’.”

me, trying to get Benedict Cumberbatch’s autograph.

This isn’t the first (nor presumably the last) time the female fans of Sherlock have been treated as ‘extra rabid’ or obsessed. In an interview with Zap2It, Amanda Abbington (who plays Mary Morstan, fiance and then wife to John Watson in the third series of Sherlock), brings up the slash subtext of the Watson/Holmes relationship. (Slash is fanfic or fanart that is homoerotic in nature.) Trying to explain why it’s worrying to her as a mother (she is the partner of Martin Freeman, who plays Watson, and has two children with him), she stated, “I’ve seen some particularly explicit paintings of Martin and Ben. Let’s not say it’s John and Sherlock; it’s Martin and Ben, because you don’t see Basil Rathbone and his Watson. I don’t think it’s about the characters; it becomes about the actors.”

However, a quick Google Image search on the phrase “Sherlock Holmes slash” brings up not only images of Freeman and Cumberbatch, but of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law from the two Sherlock Holmes movies as well as artwork of other portrayals of these two iconic characters. The main reason Freeman and Cumberbatch is up front and center is it’s currently the one in the media’s eyes (Elementary doesn’t count, since they genderswapped Watson, which disqualifies a Watson/Holmes pairing as slash).

This was just the latest in a list of interviews with the cast and crew that seems to marginalize the female fans. For example, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat stated, “Also, it’s got such a huge female following. The original [Sir Arthur Conan Doyle] stories had a huge female following, which I’d never forgotten, and that’s because the Victorian ladies liked the way Sherlock looked. (Laughs.) So I thought, use this massively exciting, rather handsome man who could see right through your heart and have no interest … of course, he’s going to be a sex god! I think we pitched that character right. I think our female fan base all believe that they’ll be the one to melt that glacier. They’re all wrong — nothing will melt that glacier.”

Of course, when he talks about the male fans of Doyle’s stories (like himself and co-creator Mark Gatiss), the reason they love the original stories is because of how well-written they were, or the depths of the plot and character, but the idea that the women are fans for the same reason is not even considered. Meanwhile, Mark Gatiss (who is gay and also a fan – and occasional writer – of Doctor Who) can make a Doctor Who fan film (“The Kidnappers”) where he jokes about sexually molesting Peter Davison (who played the fifth Doctor), and it’s all ‘ha ha, isn’t that funny’; but when a fan artist makes a picture of John and Sherlock having sex (usually consensual sex), it’s suddenly going too far.

Dr. Andrea Letamendi, in an article for The Mary Sue, explains succinctly of how these comments are microaggressions (wherein each item isn’t bad by itself, but when placed in context with all the other times it happens shows a pattern). “[T]hese comments actually communicate messages that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person. Sure, these incidents typically appear minute, banal and trivial. Sometimes they produce a good laugh. But repeated experiences of receiving them can have a long-term psychological impact.”

Photo of me with Cecil Baldwin and Jeffrey Cranor. I was totally cool. Not.

So, where do we go from here?

As I stated at the beginning, it takes a lot to get me offended. I’ve seen multiple articles scoffing at the female fans of the various things I’m a fan of, and am able to shrug it off for the most part. But it does point to an overall larger issue that needs to be addressed.

Thankfully, the concept of the fake geek girl is being combatted on many fronts, and the very definition of fangirl is starting to evolve. More and more women (myself included) are claiming it in the same way we had claimed the word “geek” in the first place. Geeky singing duo The Doubleclicks wrote the song “Nothing to Prove,” showing the power of females in fandom with support from geek icons such as Wil Wheaton and Adam Savage, and created a Tumblr for women to show their geekiness. There’s even a contemporary young adult novel called Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell that’s about a young girl’s interest in fan fiction, and was chosen as the social networking website Tumblr’s first book club selection. Tumblr itself has become known as the home for fandoms and fangirls.

But women fans are still not taken seriously. When the creators and media make comments that seem to deride the idea of women being fans of something, we need to speak up (politely and respectfully) to indicate how it’s just the latest in a long line of comments that marginalize females in the geek world. If you are one of those who think I’m making too much of it, remember why it used to be shameful to call yourself a geek in the first place, and realize that it’s a very similar issue. The best thing to do is to start the conversation, and hope that all parties realize there’s more being said than what’s actually being said.

And then I can fangirl out if I ever get a chance to meet Martin Freeman.