Wonder Women

A fight about sexism in geek culture goes a lot deeper than scantily-clad superheroes

Heather Freeman and Kylie Martonik are completely nerding out.

In the back room of the Comic Book Shop on North Division in Spokane, their voices get progressively louder as they talk superhero films. The good ones, the bad ones, the so-so ones.

“Look at the movies back in the day that were coming out: Spiderman was OK for back in the 2000s. But Fantastic Four sucked. Daredevil kinda sucked. Electra, Hulk — all those movies sucked,” Freeman, in a bright red Dr. Who shirt and black cat-eye glasses, argues, matter-of-factly.

“The Halle Berry Catwoman was TERRIBLE,” Martonik, with short brown hair and sporting a black Transformers shirt, adds.

“All those superhero movies that come out in the 2000-ish era were horrible. But now look at the really awesome movies that we have, like Avengers, Captain America, the Batman trilogy,” Freeman says, listing each one louder than the next.

Thor!” Martonik says.

Iron Man is by far the best comic book movie out there,” Freeman adds.

Freeman, 25, and Martonik, 22, are smart — and not just about geek culture. The two are students at Eastern Washington University, studying Women’s and Gender Studies and Computer Information Systems, respectively. They are also proud nerds. Freeman works at the Comic Book Shop, and Martonik works at a local videogame store — jobs that allow them to work in fields that encompass their “passion.” Freeman is an avid comic and role playing game fan who remembers reading manga (Japanese comics) alone in the back of her high school basketball team’s van on the way back from tournaments. Martonik is a sucker for original Transformers comics and action figures, and plays a lot of videogames.

They’re both aware that sexism has long had a place in nerd culture.

“When I first started working here at the Comic Book Shop, I always got the question ‘do you just work here or do you actually read comics?’” Freeman says. Martonik rattles off a list of insults she hears over her headset when she’s playing games online. The most common? “Get back in the kitchen, make me a sandwich,” she says.

Like many women in nerd circles, the pair says the jokes have gone too far.

Freeman and Martonik have recently been caught up in a tailspin of Internet drama over whether females — particularly good-looking females — can truly be nerds or not.

The ordeal escalated last year when an Internet meme called “Fake Nerd Girl” went viral. It features a photo of young girl with dark glasses, with “NERD” written on her hand. Around her face, captions — like, “I love Back to the Future! What the hell is a gigawatt?” — poke fun at her.

Playful ribbing would have stopped there, but instead, the meme was the catalyst for an all-out fight. Last July, writer Joe Peacock penned a column for a CNN.com blog saying that the issue of “pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention” needed to be addressed. Ex Machina artist Tony Harris lampooned female cosplayers (fans who dress as comic or movie characters) for taking advantage of vulnerable male nerds by dressing scantily at conventions. Blogs and forums exploded with misogynistic outrage toward women.

“The majority of it always focuses around looks,” Freeman says, “‘You don’t look like a nerd. You’re too pretty to be a nerd.’”

But female fans like Freeman and Martonik are declaring that there is room for all nerds — no matter how they look, or what gender they are. The pair have organized the Geek Girl Project, a female-friendly website with forums on all things geeky. And they’ll kick off their project this weekend by inviting any female who identifies as a nerd to have her photo taken at the Comic Book Shop — a riff on the popular “I am the 99 percent” photos.

“The culture is growing. And it’s changing,” Freeman says. “And people are scared to hell of it.”

The Oscars of comic books are the Eisner Awards. Portland comic book editor Shawna Gore has won one during her 16 years in the industry. She’s worked with giants like Will Eisner, Frank Miller and Mike Mignola.

“Just a few years ago, maybe it was 2007, a man who had been waiting in line to see me for a portfolio review told me he ‘had no idea girls could be comics editors,’” says Gore, who has edited Emily the Strange and several Star Wars titles.

Gore says that though her experiences with sexism in the comic industry have been few, the outcry against women online reeks of larger issues.

“I don’t think it’s hard to see that people — mostly men, apparently — feel threatened by the idea of having their allegedly sincere interest in geek culture co-opted by outsiders,” she says.

Rachel Edidin, an associate editor at Dark Horse Comics, lashed out at the original Fake Geek Girl meme with her own interpretation. Using the same bespectacled girl, she wrote headlines that attacked male geek territorialism: “Hasn’t read all 900 issues of Batman. Neither have you.”

Since creating her own counter-meme, Edidin has written at length about sexism in geek culture. In a November article for Comics Alliance.com, she attacks the idea that being a “geek” can’t be a self-imposed label. And, even more, that the word “geek” is a gendered noun — a male noun — that carries baggage. “Girls in a guy zone become a threat,” she writes. “They taint what they touch by association.”

Gore and Edidin agree that their experience working in the comics industry has been a positive one filled with encouraging, accepting male figures.

“I’m very much and very directly a product of amazing folks — mostly guys, especially early on — who invited me into their club houses and freely shared the stuff they were enthusiastic about,” Edidin says. “I was amazed the first time I discovered how virulently sexist so much of geek culture is, because my avenues into it were so actively inclusive and outspokenly feminist.”

And locally, Freeman and Martonik think that giving the world a look at the diversity of faces that make up the “girl geek” community is a way to start curbing the sexism so prevalent in the world.

“I think humanizing us would make it a little bit harder to harass us,” Freeman says. “I love comic books. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it, because it’s nothing you should be ashamed about. It’s your passion. Have it out there and say it loud.”

The Geek Girl Project • Sat, Jan. 19 from 4-10 pm; Sun, Jan. 20 from 4-9 pm; and Mon, Jan. 21 from 11 am-7 pm • The Comic Book Shop • 3207 N. Division • geekgirlproject.webs.com

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter @ The Hive

Tue., Sept. 28, 7 p.m.
  • or

About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...