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Semiformalishmaybe

Fake Geek Girls and Unbalanced Communities

Some months ago there was some community grumbling over a trend of some male geeks to label some women as "fake geek girls", the idea being that they're not actually geeky but are pretending to be so in order to get community status/access to geek males/whatever.

The pushback, particularly from certain parts of the feminist community, was that use of this label must stop, it being an example of misogyny.

I think it's a bit more complicated than that.

In my view, the term is valid but probably applies only rarely. People sometimes pose in order to gain social standing of various kinds. Males and females both do this, for many more categories than geekdom. Being able to recognise that that happens and that it's part of human nature seems simply sensible to me.

The term could easily be misused, either by males who want geek culture to be primarily defined and populated by males, or to discredit the intellectual abilities of women in general.

What do we do with terms that could be useful but can also be easily abused? Some would have us bar them (the whole "race is a social construction" crowd do that, yet generally still retain the ability to tell a swede from a taiwanese; they're arguing to vacate the term while working with a strawman or at least antiquated notion of race). Some pay them no mind. And some just listen a bit more carefully to make sure they're being used responsibly.

I favour the latter. To me, destroying a concept or its terms is a big deal, and should not be done lightly. There are some terms I do suggest we destroy, but my suggestions there are generally rooted in a broad theory that suggest a different-from-mainstream way of looking at a topic (e.g. sex/gender versus gender-roles). I would not suggest we destroy the concept of race any more than I would the idea of posers; both are reasonably useful concepts, and if others misuse them, we can criticise that misuse.

I recognise this attitude towards language requires a certain amount of discipline and care that radicals might not happily sign onto. I tested this using my normal go-to for the liberal form of idiocy; the "cslounge" chatroom on IRC, where one of the people who's a reliable source of unintelligent/radical analysis accused it of being a showy attempt at being fair. As expected. This is of course not only a liberal fault; conservatives occasionally do the same thing. The urge to destroy potentially misusable terms is embarassing though, in the same way that the third-wave gender-theory language, the criticism of cultural appropriation, or the game of finding things mainstream people say and figuring out ways to "feel marginalised" by them, or several other bad ideas are.

Hopefully we can move past all that someday and have a mature, decent liberalism/feminism/activism that has vision, accepts nuance, and is wary of radicalism.

And of course, for those of you who are skimming, I don't mean to impugn any female geeks who might be reading this; I have known plenty of female geeks over my life, from people much older than me to the pretty young, and very few posers. Some of these were CS professors and network techs, others fellow students. I believe women are roughly (and more-than-likely almost identically) as capable as men in geeky pursuits.

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Valid or not, the term is sexist and offensive because of the presuppositions it encourages and the defensive position it forces an oppressed minority into. I couldn't help but recast this as a William Satire article in my head, and it really helped put things into perspective for me, so i thought i'd share. The analogies are not all perfect, but i think they capture the spirit of my objections rather crisply.

Token Blacks and Unbalanced Workplaces

Some months ago there was some workplace grumbling over a trend of some white employees to label some blacks as "token blacks", the idea being that they're not actually contributing employees but are obligatorily hired in order to profess equal opportunity/fill quotas/whatever.

The pushback, particularly from certain parts of the civil rights community, was that use of this label must stop, it being an example of racism.

I think it's a bit more complicated than that.

In my view, the term is valid but probably applies only rarely. People are sometimes granted advantages in attaining positions of various kinds. Whites and blacks both get this, for many more opportunities than employment. Being able to recognise that that happens and that it's part of societal culture seems simply sensible to me.

The term could easily be misused, either by whites who want the workplace to be primarily defined and populated by whites, or to discredit the employability of blacks in general.

What do we do with terms that could be useful but can also be easily abused? Some would have us bar them (the whole "gender is a social construction" crowd do that, yet generally still retain the ability to tell a man from a woman; they're arguing to vacate the term while working with a strawman or at least antiquated binary notion of gender). Some pay them no mind. And some just listen a bit more carefully to make sure they're being used responsibly.

I favour the latter. To me, destroying a concept or its terms is a big deal, and should not be done lightly. There are some terms I do suggest we destroy, but my suggestions there are generally rooted in a broad theory that suggest a different-from-mainstream way of looking at a topic (e.g. race/color versus racial stereotypes). I would not suggest we destroy the concept of gender any more than I would the idea of underperformers; both are reasonably useful concepts, and if others misuse them, we can criticise that misuse.

I recognise this attitude towards language requires a certain amount of discipline and care that radicals might not happily sign onto. I tested this using my normal go-to for the liberal form of idiocy; the "cslounge" chatroom on IRC, where one of the people who's a reliable source of unintelligent/radical analysis accused it of being a showy attempt at being fair. As expected. This is of course not only a liberal fault; conservatives occasionally do the same thing. The urge to destroy potentially misusable terms is embarassing though, in the same way that the third-wave gender-theory language, the criticism of cultural appropriation, or the game of finding things mainstream people say and figuring out ways to "feel marginalised" by them, or several other bad ideas are.

Hopefully we can move past all that someday and have a mature, decent liberalism/civil rights/activism that has vision, accepts nuance, and is wary of radicalism.

And of course, for those of you who are skimming, I don't mean to impugn any black employees who might be reading this; I have known plenty of black coworkers over my career, from people much more senior than me to pretty new hires, and very few underperformers. Some of these were CS professors and network techs, others fellow programmers. I believe blacks are roughly (and more-than-likely almost identically) as capable as whites in workplace pursuits.
I don't think the term requires or necessarily encourages the perspectives we're worried about. The "valid or not" bit to me is enough to settle it for me.

I am similarly unbothered by having terms for "token $minority" even if we rarely have use for them; rarely is not the same thing as never.

If people are offended by even having a word for something like this or even the possibility of populating the category, I am not sympathetic. That's the wrong level at which to uphold social justice.
I don't think the term requires or necessarily encourages the perspectives we're worried about.

Seriously? A specialized gendered term for talking only about female posers isn't oppressive? Where are all the complaints about "fake geek boys", then? There should be just as many if "geek posing" is not gender-bound -- perhaps more, considering the present imbalance in the community! Promoting a gendered term only serves to focus the oppression where it hurts most.

... rarely is not the same thing as never.

If people are offended by even having a word for something like this or even the possibility of populating the category, I am not sympathetic. That's the wrong level at which to uphold social justice.


Having a word and promoting its use are two dramatically different things: if nearly all uses of a word in the wild are offensive and oppressive, maybe it's time for it to be relegated to a footnote in history books or an entry in dictionaries.

I'm genuinely curious: have you actually seen the term "fake geek girl" used in any way other than to cut down or marginalize a woman? (Not counting mentions in a meta-discussion such as this..) If your concern over people discouraging its use is merely theoretical, i'd say the palpable problem of institutionalized sexism in geek culture is much more relevant.
There are fake geek boys too, I am sure. If I find myself needing to discuss them, I'll use that term. Although I think I will concede that perhaps it'd be simpler to just use the term "fake geeks" or "geek posers", because the girlness is not essential to what we'd like a term for. Unless we were to believe there were some gender-specific form of the concept that would lead us to reapply the qualifier, anyhow.

I am not promoting the use of the term though, just defending its legitimacy (although your response has pushed me to think a bit about it and add the caveat above).

I am not keen to write off words if they describe a concept that I might want to talk about, regardless of how they're used in the wild. Any form of commitment to social justice that would write off potentially useful terms is a form I think is rotten; it conflates fighting injustice with destroying language that might let people say unjust things.

I have never heard the term "fake geek girl" until it came to the attention of bloggers a few months ago. I have never heard it in person, never seen it in use except as part of those discussions on blogs. My concern is primarily over the tactics used in social justice movements. I have seen parallels to that firestorm in the blogs over other terms, and used this as an opportunity to talk about the problem in general; my intent is to suggest a general norm of rejecting the kinds of criticism that some parts of the activist community suggest here.
I have never heard the term "fake geek girl" until it came to the attention of bloggers a few months ago.

Not in so many words, but the concept of "fake geek girl" was pretty much exactly the charge leveled against me in high school, about ten years ago. The lead parent mentor of the robotics club made no secret of the fact that he thought I was only there to attract a boyfriend. (In reality, I was dating the president of the club, but only because I'd passed that responsibility on to him - the previous president had appointed me, but I was too busy to be in leadership roles in both theatre tech and the robotics club.) The worst part is that, due to standard-issue impostor syndrome, he was very effective at convincing me I had no right to be there. I was actually much more livid that he gave the same treatment to the other two girls in the club, one of whom went on to study mechanical engineering at MIT -- she was obviously "real," even if I couldn't believe I was too. I did want to date my boyfriend, so clearly I was implicating myself. Never mind that, you know, he was dating me, too, and that I'd been to meetings before he ever had. Or that there were plenty of guys who only showed up to enough meetings to look good on their college apps.

No, the parent mentor never used the exact string "fake geek girl" (nor, you'll note, did that horrible Joe Peacock piece). The words are not the problem; the concept is. And the concept is heavily dependent on the notion that girls, somehow unlike boys, only ever do anything to attract sexual attention. That notion is dangerous (cue arguments that women "dress/drink/whatever to get attention"), asinine (what, men never want sexual attention?), and patronizing (aww woodgie you will only ever be performing for the males).
There's a difference between understanding that posing for various social groups sometimes happens for a variety of groups by a variety of people, having concepts/words to handle that eventuality, and believing that many/most/all members of a specific group of a specific type are posers.

I agree that it'd be sexist and factually off to assert that women cannot or generally lack technical skills, potential cultural membership/leadership in geek culture, and the like.

I don't think having the category or term is what would make one sexist though, nor is the category or term per se problematic; we'd have to look at how it's being used.

I recognise the frustrations you air and would not like to see gender-based assumptions of suitability for these things continue any more than I would race-based assumptions of the same sort. I'm not sure we're having entirely the same conversation here. I'm not saying that it's cool to assume women are "fake" in this culture or any other. I'm saying that it's ok to have a term/concept for when they, like anyone else, are posers, and that such terms are generally ok based on the reasoning that posers exist at some rate for any group. Although as in the discussion with wjl helped me see, it's probably best to generally use as generic a term as possible ("fake geek") rather than one that suggests that being a poser is specific to being female.

Edited at 2012-09-05 05:28 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure we're having entirely the same conversation here

I was specifically reacting to the implication (in "I have never heard the term 'fake geek girl'") that this was either a recent phenomenon or a tempest in a teacup. The concept is a real one, with real weight in the lives of at least one person you know, and has been for a long time.


such terms are generally ok based on the reasoning that posers exist at some rate for any group

Except that the reasoning about how you can tell that "fake geek girls" are fake is sexist: they're fake because "we all know" that everything girls do is to get sexual attention from boys. In my case, I was "fake" because I had a boyfriend in the club, even though I put it more hours than plenty of the guys did, and even though, duh, my boyfriend had a girlfriend in the club. Arguably, he was under more pressure from his parents to do college-bait extra-curricular activities, whereas I was there because I was genuinely interested in robots. But questioning his "credentials" never even came up.

Tangentially, I find the concept of "fake geeks" in general to be kind of bizarre -- I believe in the existence of poorly-educated-on-the-topic-of-their-geekery geeks, but we've all got to start somewhere. Being all "you don't really care about Batman unless you've read the super-secret first edition whatevers" is just another form of classism, isn't it? Okay, there definitely exist marketers who try to make money by selling products that are based on various subcultures without actually caring much about those subcultures (Big Bang Theory comes to mind), but that is not who Joe Peacock is complaining about. He's complaining about women who are paying attendees of cons, but who he claims "have no interest or history of gaming," (which he can obviously tell just by looking at them). Even if he's magically right that some particular lady has no history of gaming, why should that preclude her from learning? If she's interested and wants to know more, doesn't that make her, you know, a geek?
The reason I wonder if we're having the same conversation is that I think the danger is the misapplication of the term, not the term itself, and the arguments I'm hearing don't seem to be savvy as to the difference.

I've never felt that "we all know" what you mention. When people believe that, that's a problem, but I don't think that problem attitude means we need to toss out a potentially useful term that might be used in that attitude; it could be useful outside the context of bigotry.

When I was a very young geek, attending the occasional meetup for programming and BBS-culture-type things, I was a bit of a poser; a fair percentage of the presumed competency I presented to the community was made-up, I repeated the positions/rants of others without really understanding what they were about (and without any real understanding as to whether they were positions I would hold if I were qualified to those opinions, etc). Replacing those fake bits and reliance on swagger with actual know-how took years, and I'm sure I wasn't the only insecure pup who went through that kind of progress. I look back and am embarassed a bit, both at the process and at some of the things I said (I rarely regret past opinions in this way when I think I had a good reason to hold them, but given that they were so fake, yeah, those memories are facepalm-city).

My point is that the problem is when different standards are used for men and women, that's a problem; the idea of posers is not itself problematic.
I've never felt that "we all know" what you mention. When people believe that, that's a problem, but I don't think that problem attitude means we need to toss out a potentially useful term that might be used in that attitude; it could be useful outside the context of bigotry.

You only have to look around you to see that your feelings are not the majority belief. Furthermore, plenty of studies have shown that even good people who consciously hold progressive beliefs like yours can still harbor covertly sexist attitudes because of the society they grew up in, which is why it's worthwhile to actively try and reinforce opposing attitudes and not merely to avoid overt bigotry.

Regarding whether the word is needed or useful, here's a rule of thumb: if two disjoint groups both do something scorn-worthy -- independently of their membership in those groups -- then we don't need a special word to describe when a member of the smaller, more ostracized group does it. And in fact, use of such a word is quite likely to support and uphold the false negative stereotypes that begat it, intentionally or otherwise. "Validity" of a term is too low a bar -- it doesn't take much for a phrase to have a well-defined meaning, but phrases that are primarily used to ostracize and marginalize are not deserving of equal mindshare in the marketplace of ideas.

Really, though, the whole pedantry surrounding "use of terms" vs. "negative use of terms" is a giant red herring. The problem is the prevailing attitudes, and the phrase "fake geek girl" reinforces those attitudes. The idea of posers is indeed not problematic, but the sexist phrase is. I'm not sure what you're afraid of regarding "tossing out terms", but i'll say that if 99% of the time someone uses a word, it serves to ostracize or marginalize, then indeed, 99 times out of a hundred, we should expect good people to object to it.
I don't mind if it's a minority belief. I am fine with challenging attitudes. I am not so fine with challenging words; I think it's grabbing the problem by the wrong end. We're both agreed that the problem we should be tackling is attitudes. I don't think abolishing focusing on use of a term helps with that; the criticism should (IMO) exist only in particular contexts, not blanket.
Thanks for sharing. You reminded me of an article i read recently describing how girls are systematically discouraged from "tinkering" while boys are actively encouraged. I can't seem to track it down now, but it nicely explains why we talk about "fake geek girls" when we don't talk about "fake geek boys" -- the "fake geek boys" are just the poorly-educated neophytes you describe in your comment below, deserving of teaching and encouragement. Would that such encouragement were genderblind..