Creeping At a Con: Nerd-dom’s Gender Problem


By Paulie Spiceflow

Comi-Con has long been the butt of jokes. You’ve heard them. It is a convention for virgins who like to dress up and play video games. Lately, things have changed. More and more members of the female persuasion have been spotted attending Comi-Con as well as other fan conventions. You’d think my fellow nerds would celebrate this development but no. Rather than welcome the ladies, some guys have taken to harassing them with inappropriate comments, groping, even stalking. It has given rise to a new term: creeping at a con. If it continues unchecked it just might go back to being a convention of boys.

The decline of the old Comi-Con stereotype is something that should be celebrated. No longer is it the realm of “zit-covered virgins living in their Mom’s basement refusing to grow up.” Today, it is estimated roughly 40 percent of convention attendees are women. Every year, more and more women and young girls are joining sci-fi and fantasy fandoms. In fact, adult female gamers now outnumber teenage male gamers. Games designers are now building games with elaborate story lines, strong female characters, and encouraging more player-to-player interaction. All of these elements are believed to appeal to female gamers. The old days of a single player fighting the CPU are over.

As a nerd, I am absolutely ecstatic about this recent development. Sadly, not all nerds feel the same way. Female convention attendees are often sexually harassed with some Con organizers doing nothing to stop it. San Diego Comic-Con made it into the national news due to widespread reports of harassment. It is more than just off-handed comments. Women report being groped, verbally abused, even stalked by other attendees. A new group called Geeks for CONsent is putting pressure on convention organizers to have stronger harassment policies and to actually enforce them.

It is not that some nerds don’t know how to act around ladies. Some of the incidents reported on the Geeks for CONsent website are so outrageous that you get the sense it is something more than social awkwardness. Some guys are skeptical the ladies have the same genuine love of all things geek, believing that most just like dressing up or are there to be booth babes (girls hired to stand near a convention booth to draw attention to it, often used at auto and boat shows). In other words, they aren’t real nerds and therefore don’t belong.

Even if these girls aren’t real nerds, that is no justification for harassment.

I think the problem goes a little deeper. Let’s face it, many nerds grew up bullied and humiliated by their peers. Many were totally ignored by the opposite sex. Some girls were downright mean, acting openly repulsed and disgusted at a nerd’s advance. Feelings of hurt and rejection can easily carry into adulthood leading to some unhealthy attitudes towards women.

Boys, it is time to grow up. If you let that old pain and anger dominate your behavior as an adult, then you are still just a boy. Nerd-dom is not a boys club and doesn’t have an entry exam. It doesn’t matter how many movies you’ve seen, how many comic books you own, or how many hours you’ve spent playing games—it doesn’t belong to you. It doesn’t belong to anyone. Fan conventions are supposed to be for everyone, whether they are hardcore or casual fans. Deal with it.

I think the dramatic shift in the gender balance is part of the broader shift of nerd-dom into the mainstream. Nearly all Americans are obsessed with technology. The tools of nerd-dom are becoming part of everyday life. The information age has taken Americans out of factories and put them into office where they have to take orders from a nerd they teased in high school. Not only that, science fiction and fantasy movies and TV shows are extremely popular, grossing billions in ticket sales and advertising deals.

After high school it is the nerds that rule, not the jocks.

Times are a changin’ but not everyone likes change. Some nerds are traditionalists, wanting to preserve it only for the worthy. It is what made them special, after all. They want it to stay niche, sort of like how indie music fans don’t want their favorite bands to become popular or “sell out.” Traditionalists view the shift as Cons selling out to commercial interests, watering down the experience in order to push up attendance. Being inclusive is the same as selling out. Most probably aren’t overtly sexist; they just want to preserve their little clique.

Then there are the egalitarians. To them nerd-dom is not about purity or protecting turf. It is about embracing diversity and weirdness. Many of them experienced the same bullying and humiliation but learned a different lesson from it. They don’t want to treat others as they were treated. They want to welcome everyone no matter how weird or different. That means welcoming girls into the previously girl-free realm.

It isn’t just about the ladies. Egalitarians want everyone to feel comfortable embracing their inner nerd.

Despite the disgraceful incidents of sexual harassment at Comic-Con, I think the egalitarians are winning the struggle within nerd-dom especially when it comes to gender. The fantasy and gaming genres have seen a massive increase in female fans. Not only that, fantasy literature is seeing a huge increase in female writers. On Amazon’s top 100 fantasy books, 49 are authored by women. Many of these bestselling novels have female protagonists as well.

As a science fiction fanatic, I am disappointed to see my genre unable to attract the same number of female fans and writers. On Amazon’s top 100 science fiction books, only 13 are authored by women. The largest sci-fi franchises also tend to lean toward male leads. Star Trek (Kirk, Spock, Picard, Riker) didn’t have a female lead until Star Trek: Voyager only to go back to a boys show in Star Trek: Enterprise. Doctor Who, The Walking Dead, Defiance, Fringe, Last Ship, and Falling Skies all have dominantly male leads.

I am not saying these franchises are sexist or lack good female characters. Only that their casting tilts toward the lesser sex.

Yet there is reason for hope. The biggest movie of 2013 was a science fiction film about a teenage girl thrown into a fight to the death. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire grossed over $400 million in the US last year. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is not a sex symbol and doesn’t play the damsel in distress. In fact, she is the one doing the saving. The movie and the books have spawned a new wave of novels with dystopian themes and a young female protagonist. Examples include Divergent, The Host, and Feed – all written by female authors.

Nerds need to embrace the cultural shift taking place, including the greater inclusion of women. Girls are never going to become hardcore nerds if they are met with hostility. The goal should be to get as many of them hooked as possible, so that we all have something to share. Also, if girls want to dress up in sexy costumes at conventions, we should encourage it for God sake! That means no harassment, no groping, etc. If you want to get a picture with them keep your hands to yourself. If you have to do the hovering hand, do it!

The disgraceful behavior at fan conventions must end. Some may not be comfortable with change but acting out and being abusive is not the way to handle it.