When Sword and Shield Are Not Enough: Geek Girls and Trolling

Let’s start this article off right: I’m not here to make an attack on men, male writers, or male nerds. I’m not here to present a soap-box argument about the ills of the world and the dangerous political atmosphere that faces women today. I’m not even here to critique or attack works of fiction, be they literature, film, or video games that have portrayed women in unfortunate ways in the history of geek culture. This article is not about any of those things, and though there is a forum for all of those discussions, this isn’t it. Instead, this article is going to discuss something near and dear to my heart. We’re going to talk about the dangers of geek culture and trolling.

Trolling starts like this. You’re someone on the internet, and you’re snug and safe behind your keyboard. In your enclosed capsule of technological wonder, you begin to believe that you can do or say anything you’d like because your anonymity gives you that freedom. There is no one to confront you and your ideas besides other people in text on your screen. Emboldened, you let loose whatever hate-filled nonsense you feel best expresses your ire and launch it at the nearest target, be that a media celebrity, someone doing a blog post you disagree with, or just someone in your online gaming circle or local fan forum. You leave comments, detailed threads, even long discussions full of hate-filled awfulness, intent on trying to express your opinion or just cause a reaction. All in all, you’re out to hurt someone else for the sake of your own amusement and self-entitlement. If this sounds like something familiar, it’s because nearly every inch of the internet has trolls and we’ve all encountered them.

Now, while trolling in general is usually worthy of both an eye-roll or two and the ubiquitous “don’t feed the trolls” response by the more fair-minded, rational internet denizens, it seems that trolls have been getting more aggressive. More than that, it seems that when dealing with issues of women in geek culture or gaming, the trolls have joined together in a chorus—an almost Voltron-like chorus—of woman hatred that has turned them into the Megatron of misogyny, a rolling wave of troll looking for any reason to smack at a woman speaking her mind. And they arrive, it seems, whenever a woman in the geek community opens her mouth and says, “Hey, there are some issues here that are not exactly gender-friendly: let’s talk about it.”

The major example of such a situation is the now nearly-infamous Anita Sarkeesian situation. For those who are unfamiliar, Anita Sarkeesian is an online media critic whose vlog Feminist Frequency explores gender issues and common anti-feminist tropes. She put together a Kickstarter on May 17, 2012 called “Tropes vs Women: Video Games” which was aimed to address similar issues found in video games. Along with raising her initial goal of $6,000 in under twenty-four hours, Sarkeesian became the target of a hoard of misogynistic abuse that included racial slurs as well as threats of sexual assault and death. Google Sarkeesian’s name a few weeks back and you’d be able to find games offering players the opportunity to beat up Sarkeesian with a click of your mouse, or crude sketches of the young lady being raped by video game characters. The media responded with overwhelming support of Sarkeesian and decried the monstrous misogyny spewing from behind keyboards across the internet, with articles exploding in The Escapist, Wired.com and Huffington Post, to name a few. In the end, the Kickstarter raised $158,917 and the web series will go forward. Yet this incident is just one indication of a trend across the internet and the geek/gaming world in general that has me scratching my head and wondering when our society regressed back to the Middle Ages. 

The issue of misogyny in the geek and gamer world is not a new one. Women have been talking about it for years — how unfair it is when they’re not let into a gaming group because it’s a “guy’s game” or how there are less female game developers out there, but more games featuring gravity-defying body proportions and poor characterizations of women. We’ve all complained about the chainmail bikinis and being the only girl in the comic book store. But the times they are a’changing, and geek has embraced not only being chic, but the inclusion of women as part of the diverse pageantry that is geekery. And as those barriers have relaxed to embrace the women who have been around the communities for so long, often marginalized and under appreciated, the undercurrent of misogyny has done exactly what that word implies — it’s gone underground. And given half a chance, it bubbles to the forefront to rear it’s ugly head. And believe me, trolling is real ugly. 

Another nasty situation recently making geek news occurred when media blogger Ryan Perez went after Whedonverse actress and Guild star Felicia Day. Perez, who was writing for Destructoid at the time, Tweeted about Day and called her “a glorified booth babe” and questioned her relevance to geek society. He used his platform to knock a woman in the industry, seemingly for no other reason than the fact that she is a woman. He woke up the next morning to a nightmare PR backlash when Wil Wheaton stood up to defend his Geek and Sundry pal and combated Tweets with Perez. The blogger was shortly thereafter separated from his job at Destructoid as the fan’s exploded and the geek community rose up in defense of Day. Perez’s defense was that he was drunk, and though he tried to backpedal, the situation provided yet another spark in the ongoing debate about the internet and the insidious bias against women that seems to be lurking under the surface.

These two are only the mega examples of female bashing that have captivated geeks everywhere. In response, the call has gone out from every platform, from celebrities to bloggers to internet videos, calling for the trolling to end. But can it be ended with such a call to arms? I believe the actual issues themselves, the bias itself, must be tackled for the problem to be combatted. And that bias goes back years, to times when geekery was considered a man’s game, and women had no place there. When these mediums began to become mainstream, the soreness over women’s inclusion became a taboo problem to have, and anyone who disagreed with the inclusion of women became the bad guy to be shamed. While many discussions were fostered about the misogyny of geek media, those who perpetuated such feelings were left to stew silently while being told they could not have such feelings. Where they were engaged, they were battled by the sword and shield of political correctness and bashed into silence. Now, the result is a geek culture facing a tide of soreness, pushed down until it explodes in the form of the passive aggressive, the cowardly, and the anonymous. 

So how can this be combatted? What is the answer? I sing the praises of a beautiful vlog post put forward by Jay Smooth about the issue, as he asks for everyone to consider how to handle trolls in general when “don’t feed the trolls” becomes an answer that promotes the same insidious silence I’m talking about. As a brilliant response, it speaks for itself.

I also think that as this problem evolves, those facing this kind of hatred and bigotry are faced with the option of standing up to a tide of noise that wants to drown them in negativity and misogyny. The only way to deal with that is for the community as a whole to become aware of it and be prepared to stand up. But in the end, I think informed discussion of the gender issues facing geekdom will be what combats this problem, a conversation supported by men and women, where words are used as a form of communication and not a bludgeoning device to put someone back in their place. The problem is evolving, as are the answers, across the internet and in our nerdy communities as a whole.

And in case people think that trolling is just an internet thing, I’m going to close this article with a story. At a recent convention, I was running a live-action role-play game for thirty-five people with a female narrator of mine. She was in a tight costume and we were preparing her role when a guy playing the game approached us. I’m paraphrasing when I say that he blurted out that she ought to cover up her chest because her body was distracting to him, and he was unable to concentrate with her in the room. I informed him, rather in shock, that women have body parts that he might find distracting, but that that wasn’t her fault. The player then pitched a fit and stormed out, indicating that her body was to blame for his lack of ability to concentrate. This, I might add, he made a point to do in front of the young children that were present. Both my narrator and I were stunned by the moment — had we just been trolled in our game? Was he serious? And if he was, how did we respond to that?

The discomfort felt by my colleague over this was something we discussed at length, and it was at that moment I realized that this isn’t just an issue that exists on the internet. The place of women in gaming and in geekery is an ongoing discussion that transcends the keyboard and had just stepped, live and in brutish color, right up to me in my safe space, my own game. And it was something I, as a female game designer and storyteller, was going to have to tackle head-on. 

I guess that’s all any of us can do.


Top image by CatieMonster on Tumblr.

Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.


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