Life as an Extreme Sport

First the Fake Geek Girl, Now the Philly LadyNerd

Apparently not content to let the fake geek girl meme go unchallenged, Technically Philly lowers the bar today and offers us an infographic on what a Philly LadyNerd looks like. This is apparently in response to “what your average Philly geek dude might look like.” Pay attention to the language: Technically Philly wants to show you what the average Philly geek looks like.

What do we have?

We have a thin white man and woman, each wearing skinny jeans and other fashion accessories that are currently tied to a Brooklyn hipster aesthetic: Etsy, plaid shirts on guys, bright colour-blocks for gals. Hair makes the presumption of normative straight white hair; “soft” bangs for the gal, “no style” mess for the guy. The various accessories are all high end, have particular cultural markers that indicate a specific class and association – the white iphone, the hip places to eat, the music.

As has been quickly pointed out on Twitter, this barely scratches the surface of the nerd/geek culture in Philadelphia, and while it does cross the line into defining what a “real X” is via physical description and assumption of interest (a la the fake geek girl meme), it is, most problematically, painfully and exclusionarily white.

I commented to Polianarchy that I was disappointed to see Technically Philly join in on the defining what a geek/nerd girl looks like and does, even in jest, because there has simply been so much of it lately. One of the co-founders of Technically Philly, Christopher Wink replied: it’s really sexism to playfully share common set of identities? Community happens by shared experiences.

And right there, right there, is the problem. The graphics of the Philly geek dude and LadyNerd are attempting to “playfully share a common set of identities” and “shared experiences” to create community – and in doing that, set up a broad exclusionary criteria. Are you fat? Gutterpunk? A minority? Hate soy lattes? Can’t stand the music being stereotypically associated with nerd-types? Sorry, this community isn’t for you because you don’t share the experience.

Oh sure, people – and I suspect especially Technically Philly – are going to say that I’m overreacting, that the people on Twitter who looked at these graphics and said “uh no, I’m a Philly geek/nerd/techie and I don’t identify with that” are just being sensitive and should have some fun.

You know. The same thing geek girls are told when they object to the fake geek girl meme, or resent being told that they can’t really be a geek for X exclusionary criteria. As Dr. Andrea Letamendi notes, this can be categorized as microaggression.

The theory of microaggressions was developed back in the 70”²s to denote racial stereotyping, but was expanded by psychologist Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. in 2007 to encompass a wide variety and classifications of these subtle and seemingly harmless expressions that communicate “hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults” toward people who aren’t members of the ingroup. These outgroup members might include women, racial/ethnic minorities, LBGT members, and others historically marginalized in our community.

Why are microaggressions harmful? They seem silly, right? But these 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. For instance, here are the implied messages about women in the comics community:

  • “You do not belong.”
  • “You are abnormal.”
  • “You are intellectually inferior.”
  • “You cannot be trusted.”
  • “You are all the same.”

These messages can therefore be pervasive and potentially damaging to a large group of people. And the reason they are micro-aggressions, Dr. Sue explains, is that the person delivering them may be well-intentioned and non-threatening in nature, maybe not even aware of their own biases. They, too, are have their own experiences that have shaped their perspectives. In most cases, when confronted, the person will deny that they meant any harm, explain that they were joking, and tell the recipient that she is being too sensitive.

I was over the moon thrilled with how inclusive the Philadelphia Geek Awards were last year; race, gender, sexual identity—everyone seemed included, and it was really wonderful and something that I could be legitimately proud of being a part of.

Unfortunately, Technically Philly’s geek guy/LadyNerd stereotypes today are about the exact opposite of that. We need to do better, as a community, to make sure that the message we send out is one of inclusion. These posts, and the response, fail to be inclusive on multiple fronts, and that’s something we, as Philadelphia techies, geeks, and nerds, should be ashamed of and refuse to embrace.

Thoughts on Gender and the Philly Geek Awards

I’m lounging in bed this morning, not so much hungover as sleep-deprived, and I’m trying to figure out how to put last night in to words. It’s a bit of a sorry state for a writer, but I have a good excuse: I was exposed to one of those things you always hear about but never think really exist, and then coming face-to-face with it rearranges your reality enough that you just have to stop.

What unicorn did I run in to? Philadelphia Geeks.

I mean, sure, I’d heard here and there that Philly had a vibrant geek community. There certainly seemed to be a lot of space for techies and co-work places and the like. And I’d seen some glimpses of the potential when I went to Mega-Bad Movie Night at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

But still. You know how it goes, right? You hear about great possibilities and then they don’t really live up to it. Or, worse – they’re misogynistic. And what with everything that recently happened with ReaderCon and Scalzi having to explain how not to be a creep, and the general continuing argument/debate over misogyny in geek/gaming communities (see, the internet, always), you can’t really blame a girl for being apprehensive – especially when a lot of the promotion for the geek scene comes from mostly a bunch of guys.

Well, they’re mostly a bunch of guys I owe a giant mea culpa and apology to. Tim, Eric and the rest of the Geekadelphia crew put together an amazing event: The Philadelphia Geek Awards. Last night was the second year of the awards, a black tie event held at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and it does just what it sounds like: celebrates the local geeks.

Except it did so much more than that.

Geek of the Year Tristin Hightower. See the full gallery of pictures at this link.
Take a look at the nominees for hacker of the year. Stephanie Alarcon and Georgia Gutherie. Both women. The nominees for the Philly geek of the year? All women. And the rest of the nominees were healthily represented by not only women but Not Just White Dudes! (Which I admit I’m not going to focus on, but holy diversity! That was amazing – especially at the after party! In my PNW geek experience, you find the geeks by looking for the pasty group. At National Mechanics, you identified the geeks because they were dressed to the nines!)

Sure, you think – in categories where only women are nominated, clearly a woman will win. But look who took Local Annual Event of the Year: Women in Tech! To screams and ovations!

The scientist of the year, Dr. Youngmoo Kim, bragged about his wife having multiple degrees and just how sexy it was that she was smart. Female presenters got up and proudly declared they were scientists and engineers. It was actually rare to see an award on stage without a woman as a part of the team – and it was clear that the women weren’t tokens.

I know, I know. I’m gushing. But, geeky women – tell me, honestly. When’s the last time you were out at a bar and guys approached you asking what flavor of geek you were, and then wanted to talk about that? Sure, I got oogled – and I did a lot of oogling myself, because damn, Philly’s geeks (male and female) clean up nice! But I had conversations. I just want to emphasize this: I had conversations! In a bar! About Doctor Who and medicine and science and stem cells and MakerBots and Firefly and Joss Whedon and comic books and philosophy, all while drinking and dancing and – it was just a bar of geeks who wanted to be geeks!

If you don’t know how rare that is, you’re so lucky.

And I am so lucky to have seen that this kind of world can and does exist in Philadelphia. So thank you, Eric and Tim and Jill and everyone else involved in making last night happen, and for the many folks I talked to, drank with, and had an after-after party with, for making a bit more room for one more geeky girl.

Living in Shatner’s World

I grew up in an ecumenical household. There was no battle between the Stars – Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica. As long as it was space opera, it was welcome, and this was the influence of my father. I don’t have any memories of this starting, because it always was.

What I do remember, however, is my first.

Oh, you typically hear of “the first” – genre-wise – with regards to Doctor Who; who was your first Doctor? And while I certainly have a first Doctor (Nine, thankyouverymuch), it doesn’t have the same hold on me as my first captain.

Oh captain, my captain – Captain Kirk.

Yes, Sir Patrick Stewart was wonderful as Captain Picard, and I suspect you can trace much, if not all, of my interest in philosophy and history and most importantly, ethics, to Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his thoughtful troubleshooting and conflict resolution. I will happily debate episodes, quote Darmok to you (and Jalad, at Tanagra), and discuss all the ways in which John de Lancie was a fantastic foil to Picard.

But it’s William Shatner that is my captain. Every afternoon, Dad would make sure he was home in time to watch Star Trek with me (in reruns, obviously). We watched Kung Fu, also, but it just wasn’t the same. There was something about Star Trek. Maybe it was because I had been raised on science fiction, Dad choosing to read me scifi novels instead of children’s books. Maybe it was because of NASA and the shuttle and the sense of the potential out there – space, that final frontier. Maybe it’s because as they’ve aged, William Shatner and my father have become similar, in posture and appearance and voice. Maybe it’s a little of it all, bound together with those afternoons watching the TV, rapt, with Dad.

It’s that ephemeral thing that makes something yours, and that fondness hasn’t faded over the years, even if I haven’t always followed Shatner’s career closely.

So it was with some apprehension I looked at the Philadelphia ticket sales for Shatner’s World, William Shatner’s one-man play. While I came of age after that particular incident that was so soundly mocked on SNL, I was a con-goer when I was young, and I’d heard the stories, and I was wary. I have these wonderful memories and an enduring warmth for Shatner; did I want to risk it on a play that might snuff that out and, for lack of less poetic a term, shatter illusions?

I did what any girl in my position would do: I called my father and asked him what he would do. Was it my only chance, he asked me. I confirmed that it was, and Dad held the beat for just long enough before asking, nicely, if maybe I was a little wrong in the head.

William Shatner. When would I ever have the chance again? Sure, he’s going to be here for a comics convention in May, but that’s crowded and… different. Perhaps it’s my con-going youth, but crowds of people paying large amounts of money for a signature and perhaps a photo is just not what a con should be, and not how meeting someone you admire should be. You can call me old-fashioned, I’ll do the yelling to get off my lawn.

So I shrugged and I bought a ticket. The play, after all, had been getting wonderful reviews – at worst, I would lose a few more of the illusions that I had clung to into adulthood. At this point, there aren’t too many left, so they’d be in good company if they did go away.

But oh, oh, they didn’t. I came out of the theatre more starry-eyed and head-in-clouds than before, and so did everyone else. I have never left a show where everyone is talking about the same thing: how amazingly profound what they just saw was, and yet, that’s exactly what happened.

Shatner’s World is a retrospective of William Shatner’s life. It’s a narrative, so while it starts with him as a young man, the stories are what link the show together, rather than strictly linear narration. Shatner’s. Famed. Delivery. is not on hand here, save for casual mocking – instead, it was more like listening to a good friend tell a story – a long, engrossing story that you don’t want to end. This play wasn’t polished; he stuttered and stammered, he got lost in his story, he slipped up and misspoke and corrected and laughed – or then again, maybe the play was just that polished, that these slip-ups that felt natural were worked in to feel natural.

That, right there, is the genius of the experience – while clearly being rehearsed, it felt not-rehearsed-at-all. And Shatner is fast on his feet; he had quippy remarks for the crowd, especially as they reacted to young and shirtless images of him, and the poor person handling the spotlight had a rough time of it when his (or her) aim was off, and Shatner started deviating from his story to give staging directions.

Or was that scripted, too? I couldn’t tell you.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been a fan for my entire life, so I know these stories. I know about his horses, I know about the tragic death of his beloved Nerine and how he found love again. I know the Star Trek saga inside and out, the rivalries and friendships. I know the jokes about him doing anything for money, about the CDs and Priceline and on and on…

And yet I sat, rapt. I was leaning forward on the edge of my (very nice, thank you again lovely usher who moved me to a plush box seat with generous leg room) seat, absorbed in everything Shatner said. And I wasn’t the only one. When I did pull my eyes off the stage to see how the crowd was reacting, rather than just hearing the sighs and laughter, it was hard to miss the fact that almost everyone else was leaning forward, too. Drawn in, and to, attention.

I don’t know that I expected to laugh, but I hoped, and I did – hard and often. What I didn’t expect was to tear up, which I also did at several points, and where I also know I wasn’t the only one, because you could hear the sniffles traveling through the crowd. And it wasn’t at the necessarily expected points, either – it was in moments like hearing his sorrow over his horse, his acceptance at being Captain Kirk, his pride at the house his kidney stone bought, in his first trip to NASA and his final recording for Discovery.

It was in the tender, and the funny – and he was able to turn a story from one to another in the span of a few steps across the sparse stage.

Shatner gets mocked a lot for saying yes – he’s known for doing almost anything put in front of him. But he explained this philosophy in his show, and it makes sense: it’s easy to say no. It’s easy to stay inside, away from the world, disengaged. But one of the hardest things you can do is say yes. Yes to opportunity, yes to life, yes to potentially making a fool of yourself, yes to wonder and awe – yes to love.

Is it Shatner’s World? It is while he’s on the stage, and I’m lucky enough that – even in such a culturally distant way, he’s so central to mine. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I think the ultimate answer to that question, is yes.

TV Thursday: A Eureka Moment

Being a pop culture junkie has it’s ups and downs, and one of the downs is having to embrace a suspension of disbelief on shows in order for the premise to work. I won’t name names, but we all know of shows where if The Lead wasn’t there, life as the Characters in Peril know it would be over. Someone wouldn’t receive their life-saving surgery, someone would go to jail (or get away with murder), a dirty bomb would go off in LA (oh wait), or whatever. This is necessary because the premise of the show is that Lead Character is A Badass That the World Needs. (I’m sure there’s a TVTropes for this, but if I go into that website, I’ll lose the next few hours of productivity, and I don’t have time for that.)

And this is why Eureka is one of my favourite shows on TV. The ostensible lead of the show is Sheriff Jack Carter, a no-nonsense, applied theory sort of guy who tends to Save the Asses of the scientists in the military-industrial research town of Eureka, Oregon. Carter’s not a genius in the sense that the numerous scientists populate the town are, and he often serves as the stand-in for the audience, requiring that the complex science-y ideas that drive the plot be explained to him (and thus the viewer). But Carter often (frequently) saves the day because his outsider perspective as a non-scientist allows him to suggest “outside-the-box” solutions that the trained scientists are too knowledgeable to see – a scenario that anyone versed in interdisciplinary science knows is very true to life. (In fact, Bad Astronomy’s Phil Platt makes a very convincing argument for why Carter is a scientist in this Blastr post.)

The fact that Carter is both Not A Scientist and Saves the Day a Lot is something that is lampshaded at least once a season on Eureka, which in itself is refreshing – the show knows that the premise of the Everyman Hero is a bit worn. But Eureka has started to take it a step further: they actually have episodes where Carter is indisposed, because he’s getting a training certification or off to visit his daughter at her out-of-state college, and in these episodes? The world does not end. In fact, even though there’s threat of world-ending, and in the case of the Carter is indisposed because he’s being re-certified someone repeatedly suggests getting him, other characters are competent and able to deal with the problems in Eureka without Carter.

Which is a relief, because the town certainly existed before Carter – and managed not to blow itself up in that time.

Eureka is one of my favourite shows for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it celebrates science and the scientific method, and does so in a way that makes science fun, sexy, and desirable. In Eureka, being smart is the default, and the geeks are sexy and acknowledged as – and what’s not to love about that?

But more than appreciating the geek love and pro-science stance of the show, I love the fact that the writers realize that although Carter is an amazing character, there is literally an entire cast of smart, funny characters to work with – and while the audience may miss their clear stand-in without Carter, the city doesn’t need Carter to survive.

It’s rare to see a show so clearly acknowledge the elephant in the room that comes with having the premise of a show based on an outsider saving things, and to do so in such a graceful manner.

If you don’t watch Eureka, you’re really missing out. The second half of season four starts up on July 11th, and SyFy is running several marathons prior to that so you can catch up. Plus, the first three seasons are available on Netflix Streaming. Trust me, if you love science, have a sense of humour, and can appreciate not only geek jokes but self-awareness in writing, Eureka is a show you should be watching.