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June 19, 2012

Women are fighting back in the battle for geek culture

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As a fan of fantasy fiction, it’s been entertaining watching mainstream cultural critics’ baffled responses to Game of Thrones, which has surprised many by becoming the biggest show on TV this year. Gina Bellafante of the New York Times was among the first to come a cropper when she made the rash statement that no woman could ever enjoy the show, only to find herself hounded across the internet by legions of female fantasy fans.

Last week, neo-socialist enfant terrible Laurie Penny weighed in on the show with a confused rant of its own epic proportions, which seemed to conclude that despite being violent, sexist and racist it was OK to enjoy the show in the same detached ironic way you might enjoy, say, a political protest. And accusations that Game of Thrones’ producers have steered away from scenes of rape contained in the original books, while amping up the consensual sexual content, continue to dog the show.

Game of Thrones’ only real crime is storytelling far more complex than mainstream critics have come to expect from fantasy. But there’s no doubt that the landscape of geek culture has serious issues to address around the representation of gender. The Tropes v Women project by Anita Sarkeesian sought to examine the ways that video games stereotype female characters, and sparked a vile torrent of online abuse . But it also revealed the other side of the gender conflict, raising more than $140,000 (£89,000) in Kickstarter donations to support her project.

Catwoman recently took on a new viral fame on Twitter thanks to a particularly absurd pose of, we must assume, a spinally deformed Catwoman showing some mighty cleavage, once again highlighting the ridiculous depictions of women common in comic books. Video games also provided another vector of geek discrimination, as the Tomb Raider franchise revealed that Lara Croft would be given more “depth” by making her a victim of attempted rape. Because, of course, women only develop emotional depth after being subjected to sexual violence.

Or indeed magical powers. Anne Bishop‘s fantasy trilogy Black Jewels features female characters whose magical powers are unleashed by sexually enslaving and/or being raped by male characters. It’s one of many “rapey fantasy” novels targeted by the book review site Requires Only That You Hate, where pseudonymous blogger acrackedmoon has been conducting a vigilante campaign against the phenomenon of Grimdark fantasy, which substitutes the mythic innocence of JRR Tolkien for dark sex and violence.

Other novels accused of Grimdark crimes include the vampire sex chronicles of Charlaine Harris, the fantasy novels of Richard Morgan that produced this dismal torture scene, and an ongoing feud with epic fantasist R Scott Bakker which has become one of the most entertaining sideshows in geekdom.

acrackedmoon’s reviewing style is kneejerk and many of her accusations less than fair, but there’s no doubt that fantasy writers have left her an open goal by filling their books with scenes of rape and torture in a misguided attempt to provide psychological depth that they aren’t skilled enough to create in other ways. And beware the writer who strays into this territory blindly. acrackedmoon is only one of a growing army of #feminazgul, women fantasy fans who take it on themselves to hound writers of Grimdark to their dooms. Such is the rough justice of the internet.

But the representation of gender is one major battle in a wider war for the soul of geek culture. Just three decades ago geek was a schoolyard insult thrown at those oddballs who could work a computer, liked books more than football and couldn’t look a girl in the eye. Flash forward and today it’s the geeks doing the intimidating in the corridor. The rise of the internet, the central role of technology in all our lives, and the reshaping of society around these phenomena have transformed the label “geek” from an outsider identity to a powerful cultural movement.

And at the heart of geek culture are all the genres of the fantastic: comics, video games, superhero franchise movies, bestselling fantasy novels. What were once cottage industries serving an audience of the bearded are now the central activity of huge media conglomerates catering to millions of people from all walks of life who identify as geek. And all those people who are not straight white males are quite rightly demanding they are represented in geek culture.

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