Thursday, September 8, 2011

Let's Talk About Sex, Objectification, Appreciation, and Slave Leia

Sex, objectification and how they relate to female geeks is one of the less talked about, but most hotly discussed, topics in geek culture. And nothing brings this topic to the surface like the convention season and the ubiquitous presence of Slave Leias


I found an article on a geek feminism blog about Slave Leias that made me want to pull my hair out. In the article author Courtney Stoker attempts to take on sexism in geek culture by shaming geek women and their choice of cos play, whether it be the boring and overdone Slave Leia costume, or something else equally sexy.


Let's start with the title. Putting the phrase "geek girls" in quotes was an awesome touch, as if women who look like that aren't really geeks. This is a big problem in the geek community - not being taken seriously because you're conventionally attractive. Nice to see a fellow feminist blogger swimming in the same pool of sexism.

Then there is this quote:

"I’ve been researching and thinking about cosplay for a while now, and one of the most distressing trends I’ve been grappling with is how women will choose characters, costumes, or costume constructions based on how “sexy” the costume will appear on them. This is not just a cosplay problem, but a geek problem. And until we start having an intelligent conversation about it (preferably a conversation that starts with the assumption that it is a problem), it’s not one that geek communities will ever be rid of."
So why is it a problem? Because it's "sexy?" And again, why the quotation marks? Oh that's right, because in order to be good feminists we can't ever think anything is sexy, especially if a man also thinks it's sexy! It is far more distressing to me as a feminist geek to have the motivations of other women questioned. How does Ms. Stoker know that these women chose these costumes just to be sexy? And if they did, who the hell cares? Maybe some of them are rape and abuse survivors who are trying to reclaim their bodies. Maybe some of them have overcome an eating disorder and feel comfortable in their own skin for the first time in ages. Or maybe they want to dress as their favorite characters and feel they can pull it off. Point is, making the assumption that women can't make decisions on our own because we're so crippled by the patriarchy that it's a wonder we can even breathe let alone think is simply ridiculous. Yes, sexism exists. Yes, it is a problem. You know what isn't the problem? Sex and women who like sex and feeling sexy. 

Ms. Stoker actually comes close to the real problem at one point:
Too often, women in geek cultures are only welcomed if they are decoration, sexy versions of the things geek men love, not equal participants or fellow fans. Forever Geek […], for example, has, in just the past two months, posted with glee about female models naked except for high heels and stormtrooper helmets gracing skateboards, a car wash in which women dressed in sexy Princess Leia costumes washed cars, and Star Wars corsets. Geek communities love women, as long as their members don’t have to think of those women as people.
Making women accessories is the problem, and that's a problem in all kinds of media.

Sexiness on its own isn't the cause of this, but when a woman's presence is strictly to be looked at and sexualized then there is an issue. Women can be sexy, conventionally sexy or otherwise, and still be equal participants in geek culture. 
womenfighters:

In honor of a surprisingly successful tumblr launch, a cartoon.
[EDIT] The artist behind this is Grace Vibbert (aka Milesent), thanks for the source, Kate!

If visiting this blog makes you sad, I suggest you follow it up with a visit to Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor. It’s full of bad-ass looking ladies being awesome. 

Unless a woman is being forced to dress that way, she's not objectifying herself, she's participating in the culture in the manner of her choosing. And I don't see anyone at the doors of a convention saying "You're not sexy enough. Tits or GTFO." In fact, we have seen the opposite happen. Telling women what is objectifying, what is degrading, and that she can not make the choices she wants in her life because she's just a brainwashed tool of the patriarchy is not feminism. Well, at least it isn't my feminism, nor the feminism of many modern women. These antiquated notions of trading the patriarchy for the matriarchy of a few feminists who think they know better than you what is degrading to you need to go.


And what the hell is wrong with a Star Wars corset?  


Ms. Stoker makes some very broad and sweeping generalizations about women in geek culture, and dives into some territory that makes me more than uncomfortable.
But the actions of women are not the cause of their objectification. Women have a lot of good reasons to perform beauty work and to dress sexy, especially in the sexist cultures represented at your average con. Women aren’t the problem, whether they crossplay and eschew femininity altogether or they pull out the sexy Leia costume. The problem is that women who dress sexy, who frame themselves as sex objects, are rewarded by geek culture for doing so. They get attention, approval, and recognition from the culture when they dress as sexy Leia (or any sexy geek thing). They have pictures taken of them at cons, and they get posted and reposted on the internet. They are recognized as geeks (and generally as somewhat authentic geeks, even if they aren’t talked about that way) and welcomed into the community (maybe not as full members, but at least as desirable). There’s nothing wrong with wanting attention and approval in one’s community. What cosplayer and geek wouldn’t want those things? What female geek doesn’t want to be welcomed into the community with enthusiasm and excitement (instead of derided as a harpy feminist or annoying squeeing fangirl)? The problem, then, isn’t what women do, but a culture in which the only way that women can be recognized as a desirable part of the culture is when they participate by making themselves consumable sexy objects for geek men.
So you don't think the fact that 200 women chose to dress as Slave Leia is what gives it media attention? If you see a lot of something, you're going to take notice. The Slave Leia costume was ubiquitous enough to be a thing. If female cos players decided that instead they were going to swarm conventions dressed as Samus Aran it would get media attention, too. Fads and trends get noticed, and that's how they perpetuate! And this, dear readers, is the real problem with the Slave Leia costume - it has been done to death. It's not original. It's not creative. My friend Kim is a fellow City of Heroes player and an avid cos player. She also happens to be conventionally pretty. She made this costume based on the uniform of her City of Heroes super group:

This kind of cos play also gets attention. In fact, a quick Google image search of DragonCon costumes shows there is a wide variety of costumes on display, including this wonderful Princess Zelda costume:

To say that only the Slave Leia and other such sexy costumes get attention is preposterous, and it makes me wonder how much research she actually did for this piece. Did she actually go to conventions, actually talk to other participants? Or does she just follow the reporting of major news outlets on such conventions? It has been my experience, as well as the experience of other female geeks and cos players, that artistry and craftsmanship are what really draws people's attention to your costume. Not to say that a woman bearing cleavage won't get looked at, but people are going to remember Kim and Princess Zelda here long after the memory of those boobs is gone. 

And also, what the hell is her fascination with attention and "being rewarded?" She is again assuming that women only cos play for the benefit of men. She never once considers that they do it for themselves or that they (gasp!) find it sexy themselves, or that they (double gasp!) really like the character they're portraying. What a way to belittle women! Again, this is not the feminism I subscribe to. In fact, I hardly see how this is feminist at all.  

She also dives back into the notion that being sexy doesn't make you a real geek, and reinforces the stereotype that women do this, dress sexy around geek men, in order to tease, titillate, manipulate, and use. In short, she is slut shaming, and we as women, geeks, and feminists can do better than that. We also deserve better than that. 

Sex is not the enemy. It's ok for feminists to enjoy sex, and it's even ok for us to enjoy sex with men! I know, I know. You may clutch your pearls now. I know I did. There are bigger fish to fry on the feminist landscape, and I'm sick and tired of my sex life, my grooming habits, my manner of dress, and my relationship with a man being used as weapons to call my feminism into question. How are we elevating women by tearing down these very personal choices? 

Also, Princess Leia killed Jabba the Hut while wearing that costume. She was hardly an ornamental character.