Whenever mainstream culture stereotypes geekdom as a bunch of greasy, cheeto-stained white guys in sweat pants mouthbreathing in the basement of their parents’ house, we bristle collectively, because we know it’s unfair and inaccurate – a caricature some forty years out of date. But when we ourselves make assumptions about what the “average geek” looks like, we still tend to picture some variant of this same guy, with his Boba Fett statues and Kirk v Picard t-shirt, and treat him, if not as a yardstick, then as genesis: the archetypal Patient Zero who first spread the disease of dorkness to his likeminded fellows. We think of women and POC as interlopers, latecomers, erasing the history of their participation in fandom in a bid to reassure a particular resentful, insecure cluster of white men that, even if they’re not the only fans around, they’re still the most important, because they were here first: that men like them were solely responsible, not just for fandom as a concept, but for all those geeky fields – like computing, video games, movies, science fiction and fantasy – with which it’s now associated.
To be honest, I should be the last to complain about this, as being a fat, bearded and ponytailed speccy bastard I’ve certainly profited from this image, being taken far more seriously at work or in fandom than I’ve sometimes deserved, just for looking the part. And I’ve certainly been guilty of assuming that fandom is mostly white and male, even when I should and did know better.
It’s a trap that Joanna Russ warned us about already, in How To Suppress Women’s Writing. If women, if people of colour, keep on being seen as new to fandom, even by those who welcome them to it, they never quite become part of fandom, regardless of how long they’ve objectively been a part of it. It’s that constant surprise that women are reading science fiction, playing games, writing fanfic, the privileging of supposedly masculine hobbies (videogames, roleplaying) over female ones (cosplay, fanfic) and the rewriting of history that excludes or minimises those who aren’t white men. Half the time it’s not even done consciously, just a reflection of the culture fandom moves in.
The struggle to make fandom as a whole more inclusive, more welcoming, might therefore (temporarily?) make those women and/or people of colour already in fandom feel less included as well as empower them, if the focus in such struggles remains on the novelty of having such exotic creatures in fandom. Or alternatively, if the onus remains on women, on people of colour or LGBT people to prove that they belong in fandom, have history in fandom. What we (white men) need to do is not just welcome, but embed everybody else’s history in our own, to take the Russ pledge: The single most important thing we (readers, writers, journalists, critics, publishers, editors, etc.) can do is talk about women writers whenever we talk about men.
Because we have been here before as fandom, in the sixties and seventies and we did try and be inclusive, be more welcoming. But what happened was that we got the “women in comics” panels, but then those became all any woman was invited to appear on. We need to move beyond feminism 101 and inclusion 101. How to do that? I’m not sure, but I still believe voluntary quotas are part of the answer.