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?

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