Changing in the Phonebooth: Expressing the “Inner Nerd” in Real Life

Sometimes, I feel a lot like Clark Kent.

In the kitchen at work, a group of my male coworkers are discussing the upcoming DC franchise films, Batman vs. Superman and The Suicide Squad. The magnetic power of the Joker’s character to the actors who play him is discussed. Someone mentions Wonder Woman and that Marvel does a better job of including women than does DC. The tone of the conversation is animated, and I, in my Marvel Comics sweater (it’s casual Friday), am itching to be part of it. Just as I find an opportunity to interject, the talking fizzles out–opportunity missed.

There is much I could have contributed, especially from a woman’s perspective and as someone who’s a big Marvel fan. I felt like Clark Kent, watching everyone talk about Superman’s daring endeavors in front of him. I could have said something, sure. But past experiences have informed my present. I stayed quiet. I listened from afar.

Why?

I’m sure part of it is navigating social situations in a (relatively new) workplace. But most of it, I think, stems from a reason which explains my go-to silence, explains the fact that when I do interject in conversations like these I’m drowned out by louder voices:

Being a nerd is a man’s title.

Of course, there are decades of facts to contradict this. The first Star Trek fans that protested the original series’ cancellation were women; women were very involved in what is arguably one of the first “fandoms.” This Washington Post article from July illustrates with a helpful graphic that Comic Con attendees in recent years are split 50/50 between those who identify as male and those who identify as female.

But there is a long-established mentality that most can’t shake. It’s the idea that, fundamentally, women are not invited into any circle which has been established in history as a “man’s” territory. It dates back to the concepts of “public” and “private” spheres of the 19th century, pinpointing where men and women “belong.” It’s the mentality that roots the “fake nerd girl” meme, which is less prevalent now than it was, say, in the early 2000s, but still pops up on my newsfeed every now and then:

 

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There is the assumption that women (a) flock to “nerdy” things because men like them, and/or (b) don’t have valid “nerdy” opinions on video games, TV shows and movies (particularly sci-fi) because they are “claimed” by a significant male population. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to “let my inner nerd dance in the rain,” as the saying goes, growing up. But being a woman, it was a surefire way to isolate me from my female friends–especially in formative years of elementary school–and to confuse my male friends.

In high school, I had 2,000 tumblr followers and a popular character roleplay account (the character I roleplayed, I should mention, was male). I quite literally became someone else when I was online–I felt like Superman. My friends at school knew what shows I liked and that I blogged, but nobody, not even my family, knew the extent to which I dedicated myself to expressing my fandom love online.

Only when I got to college did I finally let my nerd flag wave publicly, and even then, there was a constant voice in the back of my mind telling me, Tone it down. My whole life, I’ve presented myself as much like a Clark Kent as possible–average, unassuming–before delving into the corners of the Internet at night to express my affinity for all things fandom. Even now, I have different accounts on social media for different purposes–and when those accounts overlap–when, say, a “real-life” friend follows my “fandom” account–it’s like I’ve been found out. I’ve been discovered. And whatever way I’ve been able to present myself, however freely, on those fandom accounts comes to a halt. I close the account and start again. It’s an endless process.

And I’ve come to realize, especially with a broadened perspective and an understanding of gender inequality and social injustice in mind, that while not everything comes down to gender disparity, there is a lot of it rooted in my problem.

Granted, regardless of gender, the word “nerd” has never had the best associations (which I take issue with in general). Stereotypes of male nerds have become quintessential aspects of media portrayals: maybe they live in their parents’ basements guided only by the light of next year’s comic convention. Maybe they’re a little pimply or can’t get laid. This stereotype has faded a bit in recent years, which is good, but for women, nerdiness continues to be something you fake, something you don’t know enough about, or something that makes you unapproachable or undesirable.

For women, everything is about image. Everything is about presentation. The male gaze means women are viewed with potential mating and attraction in mind at every turn. What happens should a woman enter a “man’s” territory, with as much knowledge as he has of a particular topic, if not more? She’s deemed a loser. Unwanted. A “future cat lady.” Yeah, nerds and fanboys might have Halloween costumes made of their stereotypical image. But haven’t you noticed lately how popular it is to let the Nerd Boy “get the girl”? Become successful? (Check out most of John Green’s books for examples of that phenomenon.)

Fangirls, in contrast–i.e. Becky on Supernatural–are portrayed as ridiculous, irrational, borderline-stalkers. Always negative traits. Always traits associated negatively with “being female.” Again, this isn’t to say that men do not experience this problem–it’s just so much more exacerbated when in 2016 women are still chastised for entering “no-woman’s land.”  I have to be afraid of coming on too strong in expressing all my knowledge about something I love, whereas if I were male, it’d be chalked up to charisma. Zeal. Enthusiasm.

This is what’s always drumming in the back of my mind. The back of my mind constantly buzzes with the assumption that if I express my affinity for this or that, I will come on too strong. I will be unwanted. When I go on dates, I try to appear as “normal” as possible–nope, no fanfiction written by this gal! And it shouldn’t be that way. I should be confident in my ability to express myself however I wish.

But I’m not.

Now, in my particular situation today, I’m sure my coworkers would not have minded if I interjected a few comments among theirs. They’re all very nice people on an individual level. And arguably, I stopped myself from speaking up. But that’s just it–I’ve been conditioned to do so. Too many times have I been talked over and chastised for my “nerdy” opinions. I’ve had too many condescending conversations in convention centers with men who presume I know nothing. The amount of times a man has given me an odd look for actually knowing my fan lore, in any fandom I’m in, is countless.

I’m tired of hiding behind my baby-blue suit and thick-rimmed glasses. I want come out of the phonebooth, but who knows if I’ll ever be ready to?

Review: “X” Marks a Solid Premiere

SPOILERS AHEAD! Read at your own risk…

It’s finally here, Philes! Around 16 million people tuned into The X-Files Season 10 premiere on Sunday, January 24th–despite the fact that it began 24 minutes late due to the football game. The long-awaited return of this sci-fi classic continued to blow up Fox ratings on Monday the 25th with the second of the two-part premiere (it rated higher than all the episodes of its 8PM timeslot predecessor, Gotham, put together!). The numbers should say it all, really.

And yet, apparently, they don’t quite. While most fans are flocking to Twitter and Tumblr to pour out their love for the new episodes, critics aren’t as enthused. Many consider the first episode, “My Struggle,” to be rushed, confusing, and full of conspiracy-related jargon. The Entertainment Weekly recap essentially called it a failure. Vanity Fair essentially assured viewers that “it gets better.”

I skimmed a couple of these reviews before I watched “My Struggle,” and I wish I hadn’t. I did not make the same mistake with last night’s episode, “Founder’s Mutation.” Regardless, I will try to present my ideas here with the least outside influence as possible. Here’s my two cents: It may be new. It may even be a little jarring. But especially after last night’s episode, it is The X-Files through and through.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 2.42.32 PM.pngPart of what makes “My Struggle” quintessentially X-Files (which critics took issue with, ironically enough), is that it does not dip its toes in the metaphorical water–it dives right in. Whether you’re a longtime fan or just starting out, the new X-Files takes you immediately on a wild ride without holding back. Lots of speeches made by Mulder about government conspiracies, lots of assumptions and little references about the show’s history–and, as critics pointed out–the episode leaves you with more questions than you had going in.

But isn’t that always what The X-Files does? How many episodes in the original run made you lean back and say, “Wow. I really understand 100% of what’s going on with this alien mythology. Thanks, Chris Carter!” That’s just the thing. Carter, the show’s creator, is notorious for leaving us hanging in many aspects. Are aliens on our side, or against us? Do they even exist at all? To what extent can we trust our government? Frankly, I don’t expect any of these questions to be answered fully in this new season. Why should any fan? That’s part of the fun of the show. It keeps you guessing.

Despite this, the show put forth a couple of established answers they were teeter-tottering on before, which was great to see. For example, we see clearly in “My Struggle” that Walter Skinner is entirely on the side of Mulder and Scully and the discovery of the truth. In the original series, his stance was often very ambiguous til the end, and one might have wondered if time apart from the duo would have turned him to the dark side (read: the FBI’s side) once more. That’s not the case. “There were so many times I wanted to pick up the phone and call you, and I couldn’t,” he laments to Mulder. We also see established very early on that Mulder and Scully have slipped back into their roles as Believer and Skeptic, respectively–though of course there’s always room for development there.

“My Struggle” was also criticized for being too plotty–which I would counter with five simple words: we’ve only got 6 episodes. While “My Struggle” probably isn’t an Emmy-worthy episode on its own–it is necessary to establish the tone and mythology of the season to come. This new season exists, as Carter and Gillian Anderson have reiterated, in a post-9/11 world in which everything we take as fact about the government, about America, about the world is up for debate. In “My Struggle,” we’re introduced to Sveta, an alien abductee, who sets up a series of questions Mulder and Scully will have to attempt to answer this season. Mulder’s beliefs, his trajectory of understanding what his government is hiding, come into question. What does Mulder want to believe in? Is the government deliberately hiding the existence of aliens, or their misuse of alien technology? And how does this all relate to the world we live in today, with its conflicts and wars and inconsistencies? At the end of the episode, Scully vows that she and Mulder have to “get these sons of bitches” who are hurting victims like Sveta, Mulder’s sister Samantha, and, of course, Scully herself. We have a motivation for them both to return to the X-Files despite all they’ve been through investigating them. And that, to me, is a great place to start, especially with such a limited number of episodes.

We’re led from “My Struggle” into “Founder’s Mutation,” an episode which to many critics increases in quality exponentially from the first. I wouldn’t say it it necessarily improved on quality, writing, or acting–those factors were strong in both episodes to me. However, “Founder’s Mutation” represents the true essence of the show: a bit of camp, a decent amount of gore, and engaging from beginning to end. The episode, unlike the first, is fast-paced and has a very “original series” feel, in that it’s a case-of-the-week episode with undertones of the overall mythology of the season. It’s also confirmed that Skinner is 100% Team X-Files (he outright lies to one of his colleagues to cover Mulder and Scully’s tracks followed by an enthusiastic, “Welcome back, you two”).

Perhaps the most important component of “Founder’s Mutation”–that which seemed to resonate most with fans–is the personal aspect. In probably some of the most moving scenes on the show to date, Scully and Mulder, in their respective imaginations, explore what it would have been like to parent William had Scully not given him up for his safety.

What I love about these scenes is that they aren’t just simply an expression of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” on behalf of William’s parents. Rather, they illustrate Scully and Mulder’s separate fears for their son, as well as their separate interpretations of the kind of child he is. Scully, obviously, spent more time with William before she gave him away (Mulder, if you recall, was in hiding). Her made-up memories of William as a child, then, illustrate simple, human things–taking him to school, holding his hand. Despite his “alien” side, Scully, in the short time she raised him, saw him only as her baby boy. Mulder, on the other hand, holds his son close and talks to him about the extraterrestrial, the supernatural. He imagines himself launching a toy rocket with him–always thinking outside of human comprehension.

And when their daydreams take a turn for the worse, we see how they reflect their respective characters. Scully is afraid for William ever having to reconcile his humanity with his extra-terrestrial side. imMulder, on the other hand, fears the one thing he’s been fighting for decades–the secrecy of his government–would take William away from him. In a sequence eerily similar to that of Samantha Mulder’s abduction through her brother’s eyes, we see this fear, this guilt for not keeping William safe, manifest itself.

What a brilliant and moving insight into each character and where they stand in terms of their child together–it’s definitely something I wish had been explored in 2008’s I Want to Believe, that was only touched upon very briefly. Bravo!

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 2.10.35 PMA general critique of both episodes seems to center around the Mulder/Scully dynamic. Fans have expressed their annoyance over Twitter and other social media outlets that the pair’s relationship isn’t quite resolved and feels forced. I’d disagree with this as well. While I’d say the fans probably know more about “MSR” than even the actors do, perhaps it’s best to take a step back before we make too many judgments. Seven years have passed between the last time we saw this couple (in I Want to Believe) and now. Realistically, lot can change for any relationship in that amount of time. Furthermore, we found these two a bit rocky in I Want to Believe to begin with. To me, the logical trajectory would be that Mulder and Scully spend some time ]truly finding their roots again, within themselves and with each other. Remember in the early seasons of the original, when just Mulder’s hand on Scully’s shoulder was enough for fans to analyze? We have that dynamic again–except this time, there’s years of history and emotions attached. I see nothing wrong with that.

Others say, particularly in regard to the second episode, that Mulder and Scully slip all too quickly back into their old rapport. Again, it’s important to keep in mind the time frame. We don’t have 24 episodes to flesh out Mulder and Scully’s dynamic like we did before. So, we are given their fundamental friendship and trust in each other–which will never truly go away. Isn’t that better than starting out the show with them despising each other? There’s resentment and tension, sure (the scene where Scully storms back to her car in “My Struggle” is so tense, I was squirming in my seat as I watched)–but all that will drive new changes in their relationship. I don’t think this season is the death of Mulder/Scully. Conversely, I think it’s a new, exciting chapter to carry the necessary character drama through the season.

I’ve only watched the first two episodes once through, but in short, I’m optimistic about this revival series. Of course it’s different–seven years since I Want to Believe have changed our characters, our actors, our writers, our world. But in my opinion, these first two episodes alone feel so much more like The X-Files than did the choppy, disjointed I Want to Believe. It’s a new age for the show, and anyone who’s expecting what plays on their Season 4 DVDs word-for-word has another thing coming.

I, for one, can’t wait for more.

Conversations

Over the weekend, I finished reading Gloria Steinem’s newest memoir, My Life on the Road. It was a very interesting read, if slightly disjointed–it spoke to the ways in which Steinem’s idea of “home” was uprooted when she was very young and continued to inform her ideas about travel and “settling” throughout her life. Most importantly, she discussed the interesting people she’s met in a lifetime of traveling, and how they’ve shaped her ideals and her understanding of the world. To me–someone who’s only left New England a handful of times and the United States once–Steinem’s journey was something I watched from the outside. As I read, I admired her ability to relax into wherever life–quite literally–took her. I didn’t realize such experiences could happen so close to home.

This morning on the train into South Station, a man probably in his seventies sat next to me a stop after mine. I was absorbed in my latest read (The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller), so I didn’t really pay much attention to him.

Until, that is, we were squished next to each other in a way only the MBTA can muster, after another man took the end seat in our row. The stale smell of tobacco and the sensation of being overly crowded made its way through my senses.

“Excuse me,” he said politely, leaning his McDonalds coffee cup against my coat as he adjusted his many layers of clothing and various belongings to provide room for all three of us.

This is not an atypical occurrence–trains into Boston are notoriously crowded in the morning and evening commutes. So I figured I’d just do what I always did–bury my nose in my book until the train arrived at my destination.

But then the man spoke up again. First it was in regard to the snowstorm we had over the weekend, general topics of that nature. I took this time with my short, polite answers to appraise him. Plaid scarf, dirty dark coat, a worn black messenger bag in the overhead compartment. Smiling, crystalline eyes. Long, unkempt fingernails. A propensity for talking too close. I thought my lean toward introvertedness would keep me from giving this man too much time.

And then, much to my surprise, the conversation took a turn.

We started talking politics. And I don’t mean that the man began ranting at me–he began asking my opinions, quizzing me on my historical knowledge (“When was the last time the United States declared war?”–if you think it’s a trick question, you’re on the right track. My answer to him was another question: “…Officially?”). I found out he’d been a lawyer (which he jokingly attributed to his frequent questions), and he was unabashed about his opinions. It’s fortunate most of his aligned with mine, but either way, I was pretty impressed with his ability to just let go and discuss his honest thoughts. We pored over feelings on Trump, on America’s current economic situation. I realized I had solid knowledge from many a history course in the back of my head which had not been stimulated in years. An intellectual conversation on the train ride to Boston was not something I expected hopping on this morning, but I’m glad for it.

We switched gears and talked about literature. I found out he wrote plays and studied acting as a passion outside of his profession–though he never sold any of his works. He said his biggest inspiration was the renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill, of whom he gave me an extensive familial history. As an aspiring writer, I found this extremely interesting. O’Neill apparently resented the fact that his father “sold” his acting talents when he bought the rights to The Count of Monte Cristo and performed it with a traveling troupe, Vaudeville style. This, the man explained, was why he never wanted to publish his literary works or make money off them. He’d been afraid of “selling out.” It’s a Bohemian, starving-artist mentality I hadn’t quite heard in a while outside the movies.

In the fifteen minutes we chatted, I felt like I’d taken a million semesters’ worth of college courses. Hearing from someone’s personal experience really solidifies so much of what makes up history. I finally introduced myself and he told me his name was John, just as our train came to its final stop.

One of his last remarks to me was a question: “Have you ever heard of Willie Sutton?”

“No,” I said honestly. It was a response I found myself saying a lot in our conversation, but not bitterly–as a student of liberal arts I feel like you’re trained to be a lifelong learner.

“He was a bank robber during the Depression. When he got caught, a reporter asked him why he robbed banks. He said, ‘Because that’s where the money is!'”

It was a silly joke, but as I told him, it was the 1930s in a nutshell if I’d ever heard it. It set the tone for the rest of my morning. I left the train with a smile, with an openness for whatever came my way. My conversation with this surprisingly friendly man was my intellectual warm-up for the day.

I didn’t exactly travel somewhere I’d never been. But in a way, I had. Who knows which parts of John’s anecdotal out-loud musings are based in fact–but for him, they are fact. They make up his understanding of the world, like traveling made up Gloria Steinem’s. This morning, I got a glimpse into someone else’s worldview. It made me realize: Isn’t every conversation with someone new, or about something new, a kind of journey in itself?

Maybe I’ve traveled farther than I thought.

Review: “Abonimable” and “Monstrous:” Moffat and Gatiss Strike Again with a Sexist Sherlock

A follow-up on this post I wish I didn’t have to write, here are my thoughts on the holiday Sherlock special. (I should first mention this: In line with my feelings about social media’s influence, I myself tweeted throughout the show but did not go through the tag or others’ tweets on my timeline, lest I be swayed to form opinions that aren’t quite my own. What you’re about to see are my immediate, if calmly collected after a bit of not-so-delicately expressed rage, thoughts.) Spoilers ahead.

As I’ve said before, it’s no secret I was extremely disappointed with Series 3 of Sherlock in its devaluing of emotional depth, mocking of the fans, queerbaiting, and general lazy writing. There were little moments I liked, but overall, suffice it to say I have not watched any Series 3 episode more than once. I have a feeling I’ll be saying the same about this special episode, “The Abominable Bride,” a year down the road. Nonetheless, I hunkered down under a blanket and tried, very ardently, for an hour and thirty-five minutes to remember what I used to love so much about Sherlock. It was smart; it was sexy, it was visually stunning and featured the kind of writing I could only dream of producing.

Let me be clear: some of the episode had those things. I will admit when I first saw John Watson onscreen again, my heart swelled a bit. I’ll always be attached to the essences of the characters and how they are portrayed–or used to be portrayed–in this adaptation. It was also wonderful to see Holmes and Watson truly at home in 1895. The game was afoot. Little references to lines from the stories appeared here and there. And a huge driver of the storyline touched upon Sherlock’s drug addiction, which I am glad the writers chose the opportunity to explore in-depth. Also, a lot of this episode adhered to the original canon and paid homage to some classic moments. In Series 2, we saw Sherlock and Moriarty battle it out on the rooftop. In this episode (in Sherlock’s drug-addled mind, anyway), they are at the edge of the iconic waterfall which sends them both to their (not-so) death. Visually, of course, the episode was great, too. I especially liked Inspector Lestrade’s explanation of his run-in with the Abominable Bride, full of transitions and camera tricks wherein the viewer is simultaneously immersed in snow-flurried London and the Baker Street flat. In essence: not all bad. There were even a few moments which pandered to the John/Sherlock “fandom” (which is, in essence, the entirety of the BBC Sherlock fandom): Sherlock’s made-up Moriarty rolls his eyes at the Reichenbach Falls after Watson sweeps in to save his friend: “Why don’t you two just elope, for God’s sake?” That’s a question I’ve been asking since 2012, Moriarty. Who knows.

But where Sherlock is flawed–where it has always been flawed–cancels out all that for me. I think “The Abominable Bride” is one of the most overt displays of institutionalized sexism I have seen on the show to date, and while I’m not surprised, I’m disappointed as ever.

The most problematic parts of the episode lie in the case itself. A young bride, after shooting herself in the head, is said to be wandering around London terrorizing the city and, well. Killing men. Wherever she goes, a trail of the word “You,” “You,” “You!” is left behind in blood on the walls. Intriguing. I immediately began making connections to Wilkie Collins’ classic Victorian mystery The Woman in White. But the episode went in entirely different direction, to say the least.

After some witticisms and flashes back and forward and back again, Holmes, as usual, solves the case. Actually, it’s Mary, Watson’s wife, who solves it, leading Holmes to exactly what he needs to see: an underground society of mysterious figures clad in purple.  It turns out the Bride’s “death” was staged, helped by her friends in purple robes. Mary would know–because she is part of this society. So, we find out, are Molly (the coroner in disguise) and Watson’s maid. It is they who organize the fake autopsy and the means for the “Abominable Bride” to wreak havoc on those who have wronged her and all like her in her society.

You might be thinking, what does that have to do with anything? Just who or what is behind this woman’s anger? Who is the enemy here? Who is terrorizing London?

Answer: Women. All women.

The robed figures take off their hoods. And each and every one of them are women. Holmes calls this case a pitting of fifty percent of the population against the other. These women have come together to essentially “punish” men for oppressing them (the “You! You! You!” in question). Which sounds all well and good, until you throw murder into the mix. Women, then, are portrayed as irrational, violent, and resorting to any means necessary to express their rage. Furthermore, the women’s garb is another issue altogether. As was pointed out by many on Twitter and Tumblr, the pointed hoods, cult-like nature of the group point to another group we know too well:

Need I say which?

The Bride’s story, clearly, is meant to parallel with Moriarty’s, or a version of Moriarty’s Sherlock is so afraid of–wherein Moriarty cheats death. This is what wracks Sherlock’s brain; this is what nearly leads to his demise in the episode. Moriarty is insane; he is Sherlock’s greatest adversary. He will always be thrumming in the back of Sherlock’s mind. He might be dead physically (or not, who knows), but he’s always alive in Sherlock. Sherlock himself, then, is so shaken by the similarities between the Bride’s fake suicide and Moriarty’s death on the rooftop that he is determined to solve the case–to quell his own fears. This potentially very interesting component is entirely overshadowed by the Bride’s apparent motivations. Her and her “society’s” idea of writing wrongs is to kill other humans, to kill men instead of working towards equality. Murder, to these women, is just a statement, a campaign tactic. A means to an end. What kind of example does that set? What does that say about how Moffat or Gatiss value women as a gender? As people? That they are the adversary. They are the insane, the irrational, willing to fake death for their end.

The Moriarty of the human race.

“Abominable.” “Monstrous.” Just a couple of words Holmes and Watson use to describe the case. Women are the enemy. If there was any attempt on the part of Steven Moffat or Mark Gatiss to right their sexist wrongs of previous seasons, it completely backfired here. Perhaps most disturbingly, this episode just goes to show that feminism has become a dirty word. Feminism does not mean “hatred of men.” Feminism does not advocate the murder of men. Feminism promotes equality among genders. That’s all. And I am appalled that Moffat still views gender merely as opportunity for a few quippy jokes and an easy storyline.

“I’m your landlady,” Mrs. Hudson says early in the episode, “Not a plot device.”

If only that were true.