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Tansy Rayner Roberts

What Geek Girls Wear (Is None of Your Business)

November 19th, 2012 at 8:55

Superheroes are hot right now. So hot, in fact, that some of the merch (occasionally) gets targeted at girls.

When sparkly pink and black retro Batgirl, Supergirl and Wonder Woman t-shirts first turned up in the girls section of Target a couple of years ago, I bought them for my daughter Raeli because I thought they were awesome. Luckily, she agreed with me, and they came at the beginning of a long and fun (and occasionally frustrating) journey of discovering comic book heroes together.

For the next year, though, the only superhero t-shirts I found were “for boys” and though I grabbed a couple I thought she would like, she immediately recognised the dark blue and black code as not being “for her” and rejected them. (she has since got over this and I suspect still regrets the loss of the awesome plain black Batsymbol t-shirt that her younger sister wore as a dress for 3 years because it was enormous on her)

Nearly two years ago, when she turned six, Raeli had a superhero party. Most of the parents of boys had no problem digging out a costume or character for their child, while many of the parents of girls struggled to think of any. Anyway, a few girls came as superheroes, some came as princesses, most of the boys came as superheroes, one came as a dinosaur. Everyone had a great time and the important thing here is that I had an excuse to buy a Wonder Woman costume for my (then) six-year-old. I also like to think that a few kids came away from that party at least having learned that the Justice League looks great on icecream cake.

Superhero t-shirts and swimsuits and underwear and pyjamas have become a whole lot more prevalent over the last few years in Australia, as has a lot of other superhero merchandise, and even more of it (though still a small proportion) has filtered into the girls’ section. Polly Pocket was briefly both Supergirl and Wonder Woman. Fisher Price created a Batgirl to go with its many boy superhero characters. The DC and Marvel LEGO occasionally has sets including women, and Black Widow flies the Quinjet. More to the point, clothes, jewellery and accessories regularly turn up for the 8-12 girl range in particular, sporting girly superhero symbols.

At Raeli’s gymnastics show last Saturday, I spotted several pink sparkly outfits with the Supergirl ‘S’ printed on them, sometimes in silver and glitter. I don’t think it’s unfair to assume that that most of the girls wearing those tops haven’t read Supergirl books/comics, or seen her in a cartoon, or anything, whereas a higher proportion of the boys who wore their Spider-Man or Iron Man costumes to the same gymnastics show probably have done.

This has nothing to do with me feeling all superior to the parents who haven’t introduced their daughters to superhero comics, and far more to do with the fact that Supergirl is DAMN HARD TO FIND outside the clothing racks. Apart from a few blink and you’ll miss it DC Shorts (which haven’t screened in Australia), we have to go back several years to a few animated episodes of Justice League Unlimited, or that Supergirl origin movie where the marketers were so afraid of turning off young male customers that they called it Superman/Batman: Apocalypse.

Girls don’t get to have as many superheroes as boys. They don’t get as many shows, or movies, or toys that tell them they can save the world. They get some, and my Where the Wonder Women Are series has been about highlighting just how many interesting female superheroes are out there, but that doesn’t mean they are easily accessible for most 8-12 year old girls, the prime introducing-to-comics age, and the age at which most male comics fans discover a treasure trove of superhero wonder.

It wouldn’t actually shock me if I discovered that the people who create those clothes are often just doing “the Superman S in pink” rather than specifically referencing a hero called Supergirl, much as the traditional boy shorts with skulls on them get reproduced as much shorter girly shorts with pink skulls on them. (I wish I was kidding).

For a lot of girls, the Supergirl t-shirt (or the Batgirl handbag or the Wonder Woman lipstick) is actually their first introduction to the idea that girls can be superheroes. And that’s okay. That’s actually awesome. I’ve talked before about how Raeli fell in love with Supergirl based on the picture on a drinking glass. Seriously, you don’t have to read Supergirl comics to get the concept. She’s like Superman, only she’s A GIRL.

That’s an incredibly empowering idea to girls in the 8-12 age group who have emerged from only having Disney princesses or fairies marketed at them, and are on the verge of discovering High School Musical (yes, still, apparently), supermodels and popstars (they still call them popstars, right?). And even if it’s not empowering, even if they have no idea what the symbol means, it’s okay for them to wear the shirt. Maybe it will empower them later. Maybe it will make someone else smile when they see them walk by. Maybe it fits nicely and is in a flattering colour. All of these options are valid.

(Frankly in the case of many female superheroes, the concept behind the character can actually be a whole lot more empowering than the reality of the stories featuring that character.)

What I’m saying is, it’s okay to like the way a superhero looks or what she represents, and to wear clothing that reflects that. It’s equally okay to like the way that a superhero (or other geeky property) shirt looks and not have the faintest idea what it represents. Because frankly, as the mother of two superhero-loving daughters, it makes me smile to see a bunch of girls wearing totally mainstream pink Supersomeone t-shirts, because it means that my children are less likely to be ostracised or mocked for the stuff that they like.

Also, those shirts look cute.

Girls can even be superheroes on their hen’s night! Also men can hire dalek costumes for stag nights, but by all means let’s focus on what the WOMEN are wearing.

I’ve been thinking about all this because of the wave, the sheer weight of articles over the last couple of weeks talking about ‘fake geek girls’ and how scary prevalent that meme/trope/idea is, and the horrible treatment that women and girls all over the world, in “real life” and online, are receiving because of that idea. The insults, the scathing disdain and the icky, icky gender essentialism.

While I have really appreciated the many critiques and discussions on this topic, and the number of smart people of both genders who have responded to this in interesting and thoughtful waves, what stuck in my head was a comment on one of those smart and articulate posts about how no, your experience and your opinion doesn’t matter, because *I personally* have met the fake geek girl and she’s everywhere. Here is my t-shirt related anecdote about a girl who didn’t know the full significance of a piece of clothing referencing a geek-associated property. Not actual quote there, but you get the idea.

And it seems to me that every time this topic is raised, someone or many someones (sadly not always male someones) is there with a t-shirt anecdote which apparently serves to justify the gross misrepresentation, personal abuse and in many cases workplace harassment that women suffer because a scary large number of “real geeks” feel entitled to be angry that women are enjoying fandom or fan-associated stuff in a SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT WAY. And yes this is just the same as other ‘I am more geeky than you, witness my obsessive superiority’ plumage displays that go on between (mostly) men in geekish, online and other communities, and yet it’s not just the same, because of the oppressive sexism and misogyny that turns these discussions and comments into something far, far more destructive and antagonistic.

The gender aspect of this discussion matters. It really, really does. Because what could be a mildly distasteful conversation about how annoying it is that our subculture has turned mainstream and a whole bunch of people who aren’t *that* into it are getting pleasure from it, and plus it’s really annoying how easy it is to buy t-shirts with our favourite geeky thing on it these days so we don’t get the thrill of the hunt… well, it pretends to be that conversation, but it’s not, because it turns into an exercise in “slut”-shaming and misogyny and “hot women only exist to torture us” so fast that it shames everyone by association. It’s embarrassing.

Because, of course, it’s not just about t-shirts. It’s also about young women who actually go to the time and effort of constructing a costume to wear a fannish event, only to be mocked, sneered at and bullied not only by “their fellow fans” but industry professionals such as Tony Harris. Really? They have to display their geek credentials BEYOND creating an entire costume to express themselves? Neil Gaiman certainly has something to say about that, and he’s not the only one.

Leaving aside the fact that most women who cosplay are actually OFFICIALLY PART OF GEEKDOM ALREADY, let’s just look at the hypothetical women who aren’t fannish and still wanted to cosplay. Why do it? Maybe they thought it would be fun, or a great challenge. Maybe they did it to join their friends, or in the hopes of making new friends. Shock horror, maybe they thought it might help them fit in, or to feel more part of the community? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that maybe some of them actually do want attention. That’s one of the many reasons people MAKE ART. Since when is it bad to want attention? Do fan artists or fanfic writers or actual professionals who have pride in their work beyond a paycheck, do none of them want their efforts appreciated?

I’ve linked to it before but it deserves it again: Courtney Stoker on cosplaying from a cosplayer perspective, and how it’s about art, fun and community, not boners. And this Bleeding Cool article (that reposts the Harris rant and his follow up rant which isn’t much better) addresses the story from a former judgy geekboy who learned to appreciate the different experience had in fandom by non-expert/newbie cosplayers by, um, having conversations with them and learning their perspective. I KNOW, RIGHT?

The idea that it’s okay to trash-talk women for expressing a geeky interest and maybe not being perfect at it yet is incredibly destructive, and yet sadly fits with a whole lot of other ‘accepted’ forms of sexism in our society. Creating unrealistic expectations of women and then punishing them when they fail to meet those expectations is, frankly, more mainstream than Star Wars and Batman ever will be. But that doesn’t mean that people in the geek community (sadly not just men) are not capable of doing it too.

Girls (and women) deserve to have superheroes, and TARDIS tutus, and even (yes, I’m gonna say it) Princess Leia slave bikinis if they want them. Especially if they go to the trouble of making them, though I am a fan of being able to get my geekery off the rack, personally. And the standard rule about not making gross public assertions about people based on what they look like or how they choose to dress? That one applies to geek activities too, because we all live in the world.

And of course I could have just linked to this awesome comic by Sailorswayze on Tumblr which sums up the whole double standard in a much shorter space, but then I wouldn’t have got to write about my daughter’s excellent sparkly superhero t-shirt collection.

Seriously, this is a great time for t-shirts.


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8 Responses to “What Geek Girls Wear (Is None of Your Business)”

  1. Grant Watson Says:

    My personal reaction to Tony Harris’ diatribe was “Oh *really*? Do we have to keep talking about this? Are we not all past this? (clearly not).” and a sort of sad weary resignation that this is all like Sysiphus pushing rocks uphill.

  2. Kirstie Says:

    While I’ve yet to be attacked whenever I see these discussions online I wonder how long it will be before I do get attacked. I am a jeans and t-shirt mum, with the t-shirt usually proclaiming a passion for Doctor Who, or showing a mash-up of various pop culture. My son’s clothes reflect the fandoms my husband and I follow as well. We wear these clothes out to the shops and park and basically where ever we go. Perhaps because I’m in-step with a man dressed the same and a toddler as well no one has dared to question my commitment to full-frontal nerdity?
    If only everyone could just accept that what someone else chooses to wear is their own business.
    Also – yay for there being so much super hero themed stuff EVERYWHERE these days :D

  3. Mel Says:

    Perfectly expressed exactly what was in my head, thank you Tansy.

  4. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    I witnessed cosplay at Supanova Adelaide – A father son team dressed as Batman. And thought that was frickin awesome. So it can be about family too. Not to mention that one of the senior colleges had Daleks and a Tardis, while spruking for signups.

    I was going to write about the Tony Harris thing but you may have ameliorated my pressure build up.

  5. Ben Payne Says:

    I can honestly say I’ve never heard of a fake geek girl before or come across any of these conversations! How bizarre they sound.

  6. Sheryl Nantus Says:

    I wouldn’t call Tony Harris an “industry professional”. I’d call him a very sad, sad fellow. Never heard of his work before now and if his claim to fame is this FB post it ain’t much.

    In over thirty years of going to conventions I’ve never seen this mythological creature and don’t expect to.

    I suspect it’s just another way of pushing women to the side and trying to keep fandom as a male-only thing. After all, what would *we* know about geek culture?

    (Author of the “Blaze of Glory” superhero romance trilogy which has a kick-butt female heroine, btw.)

  7. Calven Says:

    Definitely an industry professional. His work on “Starman” put him there more than ten years ago. I think dismissing him as merely a trivial troll helps dismiss this entire phenomenae as a whole.

  8. Ebon Shores » Geek Tribalism and Sexism Says:

    [...] can find two great articles here and here that either address the specific comments, or the wider issues that they spring from, and they sum [...]

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