Whither the Geek Girl?

Coming into this gender studies course I wanted to develop a research question that addresses some observations I’ve made about popular culture. The entertainment and media that we consume are a big part of our socialization, they inform our understanding of what qualities our society expects from men and women. So we must privilege childhood and early experiences as being especially influential in shaping our beliefs about men and women.

In this video, which went viral last month, a little girl asks: what’s the deal with selling girls all this pink crap?

As a young boy I was a big comic book fan and superheroes and action figures were a big part of how I passed my free time. Video games were incredibly important too. My love of comics kind of petered off when I was a teenager, but then came back as an adult after I read Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” Video games were a major pastime – especially the punching and blowing things up kind – through the time I was a young adult, up until I became a parent.

So its very interesting to me, now that I have daughters of my own, when girls and women profess a love for superheroes and video games. If you look at how these products are marketed today, invariably they are pitched to men and boys. And yet there is a devoted cohort of girls and women who love their comics and games despite being largely ignored by producers and marketers.

What is going on here? What are the relevant questions to ask in order to learn more about this? I’m calling this problem the Geek Girl because it involves girls and women finding pleasure in (admittedly nerdy) pursuits much more frequently pursued by boys and men.

Jezebel weighed in on the video basically just praising Riley, but over at Skepchick, the commentary was more insightful. Their argument was girls-liking-boy-things is more about rebelling against socially imposed constraints on what is considered acceptable gender expression in kids.

Like Riley, we find it easy to see that not every girl or woman is necessarily going to want to stay within the strict confines of her assigned gender role, but find it a tad trickier to remember that boys and men face similar issues. As if to ask “Who could actually want to play with ponies and princesses?”

I only partially agree with this line of reasoning. On the one hand, we need some way of learning from the other’s point of view what value they find in these activities. Look at Riley. She’s holding a doll of “Fred” from Scooby-Doo. Who is Fred to her? Why does she like him? What is it about Scooby-Doo that draws her into it? It may or may not be about rebellion for Riley as Skepchick suggests, we’ll have to do some research to find out.

On the other hand, what has been revealed is that basically I’m looking at the problem very narrowly. The flip side of this must be boys and men who like to play with girl toys, or at least engage in activities we ordinarily we associate with being typically effeminate.

Do you remember playing with toys of the “wrong” gender? Or wanting to but not being allowed? More to come on the Geek Girl this semester!

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About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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4 Responses to Whither the Geek Girl?

  1. elfkat says:

    It’s always been this way. I had to put up with mom giving me the dolls I was quite clear at 6 about not wanting, in order to get the microscope I did want. And even though my brother got the train I wanted when he would have rather had the doll. Thank heavens we both wanted Legos and we were born in the mid ’50’s.

  2. When I was a kid, girl toys were creepy. I didn’t want to touch them (I know like cooties right?). But, I did like playing dress up even though I felt kind of guilty doing it.

    • elfkat says:

      There was nothing creepier to me when I was little than a Betsey Wetsey until my mom made me a lifesize doll that looked like me one Christmas. My favourite toys were my microscope, my field guides by Golden books and lincoln logs. I was a naby geek by the time I was 4 and they figured out I could read. I wanted nothing to do with any doll or anything pink. I even broke the pink glasses they bought accidently on purpose. Boys toys did interesting things. Girls toys were and are passive and gross.

  3. lumosliz says:

    I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like Barbies as a little girl… but the truth is, they were never as cool as LEGOs and science kits. My favorite color was blue from about the age of 4 until around 14, when I decided orange was even better (and it’s my current favorite color, though blue remains #2). I’ve always thought pink was pretty but in excess it’s somewhat nauseating (especially hot pink).
    Thankfully, my family has always been very supportive of my likes and dislikes, whether it’s food (I am rather picky, plus I’m a vegetarian) or toys. As soon as I started to show a natural curiosity in, well, everything, my grandfather started educating me about science. From then on I grew up watching Bill Nye after school and building with LEGOs, as well as doing all sorts of cool science experiments. It was early on that these studies kindled a love for anthropology in the form of “archaeology is the coolest thing ever, when I grow up I want to dig at Pompeii” (and, of course, I loved dinosaurs, but I didn’t want to be a paleontologist nearly as badly).
    When I got a bit older I started playing video games regularly and watching sci-fi and fantasy TV and movies—I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd and my dad got me into Star Wars, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings as a kid—as well as reading associated books. To this day I remain an avid fan of the traditionally male geek fandoms. Actually, I tend to bond more with my guy friends over a mutual love of video gaming—actually, my boyfriend and I play video games together a lot. The same is true of my sci-fi passion… my favorite TV show is Doctor Who (despite the fact that the Doctor points and laughs at archaeologists, but I suppose I would too if I had a time machine).
    I’ll wrap this up by saying that I don’t like when society labels certain toys, genres or activities as appropriate for one gender or another. I don’t think it’s being rebellious playing with toys meant for the opposite gender, I think it’s quite normal and frankly totally awesome. This girl is quite the hero!

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