We’ve been talking about rape culture and myths about artistry (or, perhaps, artiste-ry) for the last few days, and god help us but it’s been depressing. I want to continue the conversation a bit but shift it to the somewhat less eye-gougingly bleak realm of the Nice Guy TM, specifically how it relates to geeky guys and girls.
I’m prompted by this post (on SP fave Sociological Images) about a recent xkcd strip. Now, xkcd has done some instant classic antisexist strips in the past, like this one and this one. In fact, xkcd even has a strip that handily illustrates Nice Guys TM. In other words, xkcd often serves as a kind of Feminism 101 for nerds, which is why it’s extra disappointing when the strip has its rare excursions into “woe is the geeky boy, who shall never get pussy” territory. The strip in question starts with a spot-on confrontation between a woman on a train and a strange man hitting on her, in which she firmly tells him that if she wanted his attention, she’d have shown it. It’s the conversation you always wish you would have with skeezy dudes on the train, if you weren’t worried that they’d retaliate in some way. The punchline of the strip is — haha! — the chick wanted it all along! She’s aching for some sweet sweet cock! If only men hadn’t been so paralyzed by feminist talk about rape culture and personal respect, she’d get hit on by more men, which is exactly what she wants on the train! (ETA: The mouseover is: “And I even got out my adorable new netbook!”) It’s funny because it’s true, and it’s EXTRA funny because she brought her cute netbook specifically so men would hit on her, just like when you wear a low-cut shirt it’s because you really want men to comment on your hot tits. Geeky girls are so hot! They’re so hot for you, geeky boy!
Look, I really love xkcd 95% of the time. But just as surviving violence doesn’t make it somehow totally cool to rape people, not meeting cultural standards of he-man masculinity doesn’t make it just fine to perpetuate rape culture. That’s what the Sociological Images post* gets at very clearly:
So this is the crux of the issue for me: nerds really are members of a subordinated masculinity, and from within that viewpoint it’s easy to dismiss anything which says that you are privileged and not downtrodden. Once you’re in that space, it’s really easy to start thinking in a certain way that says you’re not privileged just because you’re a man — and I think things like this XKCD strip can contribute to that way of thinking.
Of course, any man who falls farther from the pinnacle of hegemonic masculinity is less privileged than his more “masculine” counterparts, but he’s still a man. Nerd discourses sometimes let us forget that, and let us think we operate outside the system, because we’re not like those other, sexist guys — but it’s a fantasy. We can be better than that, but it means telling ourselves the truth, and not pretending that our interactions with women — even a simple conversation on a train — aren’t influenced and structured by the patriarchy.
This is how privilege works: you have less of it in some areas, and more of it in others. That’s how it works for everyone. This is why it’s important to think beyond yourself: not in some self-abnegating “I can never talk about my own problems” way, but in a way that understand that some forms of your own behavior contribute to a culture that hurts you too. (This is, for instance, why we don’t bash thin bodies to promote fat acceptance — because “fat acceptance” and “body acceptance” are really the same project.) So talking about geekery is actually one of those scenarios in which saying that patriarchy hurts men, too, is not a strategy to distract from women’s issues. But the xkcd strip is the fantasy of a Nice Guy TM: if only he weren’t so gosh-darn nice to women, he’d get some tail. The Nice Guy TM blames on feminism what is really the fault of sexism, thus imagining himself the True Victim of both.
I do think this particular comic may have worked fine if the same scenario were played out by known characters, instead of xkcd’s generic boy-and-girl stick figures. What’s so powerful about the “How It Works” strip is that very generic-ness: the joke is just that, that men are assumed to be individual human beings and women are not. But that’s also what’s happening in the male fantasy in the “Creepy” strip: the man is an (oppressed) agent of his own desires, while the woman is a mess of contradictions and unreadability.
All of which brings me to what is perhaps my favorite Nice Guy TM lament of all time, as well as the perfect cap to a post about geeks and rape and entitlement: Jonathan Coulton’s great song, “Skullcrusher Mountain,” about a mad scientist “in love.”
What I love so much about this song is that the creepiness builds from verse to verse (never disturbing the sweetness of the melody), so that what starts with “Welcome” ends with the most passive-aggressive murder threat ever:
You know it isn’t easy living here on Skullcrusher Mountain
Maybe you could cut me just a little slack
Would it kill you to be civil?
I’ve been patient, I’ve been gracious
And this mountain is covered with wolves
Hear them howling, my hungry children
Maybe you should stay and have another drink and think about me and you
Nice Guys TM, you see, pretend that we don’t live in a culture that systematically deprives women of power; they think (or rather, they pretend to think) that interacting with women is just a matter of being civil. I’m so nice, but women don’t like me! They say “think about me and you” as if we didn’t know that they could unleash the wolves at any second. They think women on the train are secretly doing everything — using a cute netbook, sitting there looking pretty — in order to snag their attention. They’re nice, not like those other guys — how dare you lump them in with the worst of their gender! You’re just like all the other girls.
*Note ableist metaphor in title. Hello there, privilege!