I take it we aren’t cute enough for you?

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

A few times within the lifetime of this blog, there’s been a major emergency in geekdom: a geek girl has needed a confidence boost.

I hear you cough. Someone just said “geek girl” on Geek Feminism, the home of “ahem, geek women, THANK YOU”?

No really, I mean it, a geek girl. A prepubescent girl has been bullied or heard some gender essentialist crap, and a call to arms goes out. The best known is probably Katie Goldman, the then seven year old whose mother wrote in November 2010 that Katie was being bullied for liking Star Wars, a boy thing:

But a week ago, as we were packing her lunch, Katie said, “My Star Wars water bottle is too small.  It doesn’t hold enough water.  Can I take a different one?”  She searched through the cupboard until she found a pink water bottle and said, “I’ll bring this.”

I was perplexed.  “Katie, that water bottle is no bigger than your Star Wars one.  I think it is actually smaller.”

“It’s fine, I’ll just take it,” she insisted.

I kept pushing the issue, because it didn’t make sense to me.  Suddenly, Katie burst into tears.

She wailed, “The first grade boys are teasing me at lunch because I have a Star Wars water bottle.  They say it’s only for boys.  Every day they make fun of me for drinking out of it.  I want them to stop, so I’ll just bring a pink water bottle.”

Katie’s story went viral including at the official Star Wars blog and a year later CNN reported that at GeekGirlCon when a brigade of Storm Troopers formed an honor guard for Katie, and that there’s an annual Wear Star Wars day as a result.

We had our own smaller burst of geek support on the Geek Feminism blog in May this year, for five year old Maya, who was turning away from her love of cars and robots. 170 comments were left on our blog for Maya, second only to Open Letter to Mark Shuttleworth (200 comments) in our history. In addition, it wasn’t an especially difficult thread to moderate as I recall: a few trolls showed up to tell Maya goodness knows what (sudo make me a sandwich LOL?) but in general people left warm, honest, open stories of their geek life for Maya.

Here’s something I was struck by: when I tweeted about Maya’s post, back in May, I saw replies from men saying that they were crying (with joy, I assume!) about the response to Maya. I have to say I do NOT see a lot of admitted crying about other posts on our blog, no matter how positive or inspirational. (People love the existence of the Wednesday Geek Women posts, but they are consistently our least read and commented on posts.) Or crying about stories that are negative and horrifying either.

It’s going to be hard to stand by a statement that I don’t begrudge Katie and Maya their outpouring of support, but: I don’t begrudge Katie and Maya their outpouring of support. I don’t think they should have less of it.

… but I think geek women and other bullied or oppressed geeks should have more.

Thus I do want to ask why girls? Why do we not have 170 comments on our blog reaching out to women who are frustrated with geekdom? I want to get this out in the open: people love to support geek girls, they are considerably more ambivalent about supporting geek women.

I’ve compared harassment of adults with bullying of children before: they have a lot in common. What they don’t seem to have in common is a universal condemnation from geekdom: bullying children? Totally evil*. Harassing adults? Eh… evil, except you know, he’s such a great guy, and he hasn’t got laid in a while, and (trigger warning for rapist enabling) he does have the best gaming table, so what are you gonna do, huh?

There are a number of reasons, I know, even aside from the (provocative!) title of the blog post. Some of them are more sympathetic than others:

  • Talking to adults about overcoming difficulties is harder. There can’t always be as much optimism or tales of It Gets Better. For some adults, that’s bullshit. (It’s not always true for children either and telling children this can be a disservice too, but it is more culturally comfortable.)
  • Adults are often angry when they’ve been mistreated. In this case, feminists are often angry. It’s harder to engage with angry people. They (we) are less appealing. We may not be grateful for your thoughts. Sometimes we pick them apart publicly if we don’t like them enough. And call you mean names.
  • When a child is bullied by another child, the bad guy is reassuringly definitely not you.
  • Children don’t talk back, or can’t. If an adult says that It Gets Better, the appropriate role for the child is to smile and look grateful. (This is also true of women when listening to men, but generally somewhat less so.)
  • Many of us are more familiar with the experience of being a bullied child than being a harassed or oppressed adult, and can be empathetic more easily.
  • We really really want to believe that things will be basically OK for Katie and Maya, even if they haven’t been for us and people we love.

There’s no easy answer. Many of us are very deeply invested in It Gets Better rhetoric, because the alternative is sure pretty sucky. But at the same time, if you’re doing one thing to stop gendered bullying this year, say, leaving the 170th supportive comment for a five year old girl, while kind, was probably not the single best use of your one thing. Join the fight. Make it better yourself. And, since you aren’t in fact limited to one thing, leave kind or supportive or co-signed righteously angry comments too, while you’re at it, and not only for children.

* At least, in the context of these discussions. I am far from believing that geeks are universally actively working to save children from bullying, nor that they are incapable of perpetrating child abuse.

When your misdeeds are archived

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers. It’s the last for this round.

This one is actually from me, it’s related to some questions I’ve been asked by various people who will remain anonymous (and who didn’t formally write to Ask a Geek Feminist). I have my own thoughts on this, and I also think it can vary (helpful!)

What do you think people and groups should do about sexism in their “archives”? By this, I mean for example, older stuff on their blog, or Facebook postings from years ago, or similar? A lot of people have sexism in their past, varying from “I used to be a pretty committed sexist actually” to “um, I didn’t really think about it, and I wanted to fit in, and I went through a ‘Your Mom’ phase for a while there”. Things you do on the Internet are pretty long-lived now, and your sexism sticks to your name while it remains visible.

Assuming someone or someones have control of their content, and they have sexism they don’t like in there, and they have reason to think it’s going to hurt someone. Should they remove the content? Should they edit it with warnings and apologies?

Have you seen this in a real situation? What did they do? How did it work for them and for women near them/involved in their community?

At least for systemic stuff, I tend to be on the ‘edit’ side of the fence. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. even if you’ve totally changed and are ashamed and sorry, being a reformed sexist is something that may make people, women in particular, cautious about you. Living with that is part of the deal. You don’t get to get access to Has Always Been The Best Person Ever cred because you weren’t.
  2. it also serves as a guide to How To Do It, for other reforming sexists (or How Not To Do It, if you apologise but don’t actually change)

And while writing an apology that is short and not self-serving is a challenge, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try.

On the other hand, I, in general, do wish that much informal discussion on the Internet yellowed and started to curl at the edges and be difficult to read as time passed, sometimes. I realise that the invention of writing was some considerable time ago now, but even so, having to stand by your casual thoughts for years is a big ask. I can’t see that one should make a special effort to preserve evidence of one’s sexism if that same set of archives is going to disappear in its entirety.

Sexist joke bingo

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

In collaboration with Hoydenizens and others, a bingo card for arguments in defence of sexist jokes, specifically, the variants on “but it was FUNNY”.

5x5 sexist joke bingo card
5x5 sexist joke bingo card

Text version at bottom of post.

Extra suggestions:

  • the catch-all “it’s just a joke”
  • “why the fuss? it was one itty bitty teeny weeny joke!”
  • “you don’t understand my culture at all”

Don’t forget your bingo basics, that is: “One only gets to yell BINGO! if somebody on the internet is advancing an assortment of those arguments simultaneously.” Sometimes, for extra Internet points, you might be able to play (‘ware, porn images) porny presentation bingo or general anti-feminism bingos I and/or II simultaneously.

You can use this bingo card under Creative Commons Zero, that is, public domain (without credit and freely modifiable). Here’s the SVG. There’s a version at the Buzzword Bingo generator that randomises the square placements and uses full sentences, if you are so inclined.

This bingo does assume a male joke-teller, the management acknowledges that it is not only men who tell sexist jokes.

Text version:

sorry, but I found it funny oversensitive much? take it as a compliment wasn’t even sexual he’s not used to women
so cute when you’re angry actually at men’s expense heard a woman tell it once edgy satire of our PC society you heard it out of context
your complaint is what’s sexist you seem very uptight about sex FREE SQUARE: LOL wasn’t meant that way thought police
my wife thought it was hilarious works when I’m with friends just his way I’m offended by your complaint you’d tell it about a man
attracted attention to his message you enjoy being offended absolutely no sense of humour I found it funny and I’m a woman acceptable on TV

A unicorn races around the world before the truth has got its boots on

Background: the Haecksen miniconf is a one day event at Australia’s linux.conf.au Linux conference in January highlighting women and women in Open Source tech and community. It’s been running since 2007: I was the one who founded it (under the name “LinuxChix miniconf”, it was changed by Joh Clarke for the January 2010 event).

The current logo of the miniconf is of a unicorn driving a robotic Tux penguin (the latter being the logo of Linux), you can see it at the Haecksen miniconf site. This year’s organiser Lana Brindley planned to sell t-shirts for the event, which had the text:

UNICORN:
[yōo-nǐ-kôrn’] noun
1. A fabled creature, represented as a horse with a single spiralled horn.
2. metaphor A person who is believed to be non-existent, and worthy of note if spotted in the wild, such as a woman working with technology.

There was a small Twitter storm in which the shirt was judged sexist, here’s a short sample:

For some reference on the in-jokes the unicorn reference is to the Unicorn Law: If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source.

The organisers of the Haecksen miniconf are always to date affiliated with LinuxChix and are women in tech and friends of women in tech. I guess the problem, certainly unanticipated by me without hindsight, is that there’s very little precedent for Open Source conferences to have such a woman-friendly sub-community that they’re going to be adopting the language of unicorn-ness for the purposes of mocking the straightforward sentiment and adopting it in a kind of reclamation.

What was meant: A whole conference of us! Are you going to treat us like unicorns now huh? We have horns you know…

I’m sorry that Lana faced a tweetstorm over it, it’s much too harsh for the lesson. The miniconf has been selling insider t-shirts since 2007 (the 2007 shirt was “At this year’s linux.conf.au, stand out from the crowd”, with an image of a women-figure of the toilet door type standing in a line-up with man-figure shapes, which wouldn’t necessarily be read as friendly either). This year the attention to sexism at conferences has risen enough that it came to the attention of not-insiders who nevertheless care about women-in-tech and are watching out for sexism.

I suppose this suggests for future events (women-in-tech ones generally, not Haecksen miniconfs in particular) that designs and publicity should be run by some outsiders for a “will this sound like a serious endorsement of sexist sentiments?” check. Not only because of the impression left on folks on Twitter, but the potential impact on attendees too. If this was my first linux.conf.au ever… I don’t know how I’d read that shirt.

Lana: sorry about what happened, it’s never nice to be in the eye of a Twitter storm, especially when your intent was to do good and you had consulted plenty already. If the spotlight had come on us in 2007 I bet I would have had the same problem.

On a related note, I grow increasingly tired of the 140 character limit on tweets, I think it contributes badly to situations like this. It’s hard enough for apologies/explanation to catch up with something that bugged people without having to eke them out 140 characters at a time with five replies coming in in between each tweet. But then, as everyone who has ever had anything to do with my writing will attest, 140 characters is not my genre.

Harassment and bullying

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Warning: discussion of harassment and bullying. There is mention of self-harm and links to real-life bullying accounts at the end.

The substantive part of Corey’s comment which was not published on my “Why don’t you just hit him?” post was the following:

It’s like if you’re a parent of a bullying victim, and you find yourself repeating ignore it
So I’m supposed to treat women like they’re my children. Isn’t that extremely sexist and patronizing?

I didn’t reply to it initially because I think it’s a misreading: here’s the full paragraph of mine that Corey excerpted (emphasis as per the original post):

This is the kind of advice given by people who don’t actually want to help. Or perhaps don’t know how they can. It’s like if you’re a parent of a bullying victim, and you find yourself repeating “ignore it”, “fight back with fists” or whatever fairly useless advice you yourself were once on the receiving end of. It’s expressing at best helplessness, and at worst victim-blaming. It’s personalising a cultural problem.

I am, of course, saying that if one advises that women should or must hit back at harassers/attackers, then it resembles giving a bullying victim the same advice. Since the entire post is discussing why that advice is often bad advice, I’m fairly clearly not making the argument there that people should treat women as if those women are their children; I’m making the argument that they do, and they shouldn’t.

So much for that.

Except… that’s not quite right is it? Of course you should not treat unrelated adult women who complain of harassment at geek conferences like they are your children, because Corey and I would both tell you that’s sexist and patronising.

But the way we treat harassment victims and the way we treat child bullying victims have many parallels:

  • we tell harassment victims it’s the price of admission to the awesome community; we tell bullying victims that it’s character building, the price of admission to adulthood
  • we tell harassment victims they asked for it by wearing certain clothes or being a certain gender or not being a certain gender enough among many other things; we tell bullying victims that they’re so satisfying to tease, because of the way they react, that they are different from their bullies in some way and hiding that difference is the way to go
  • we tell harassment victims that he’s basically a nice guy and he’s just a bit inexperienced with women, or with alcohol, or with both, and that his social skills need gentle nurturing; we tell bullying victims that their bullies are actually fine kids with good qualities that we don’t want to crush by labelling and punishing them as bullies
  • we tell harassment victims that it’s a private matter that they could solve by ignoring it, or fighting back; we tell bullying victims that it’s… a private matter that they could solve by ignoring it, or fighting back

When they do report it, we also often leave them both with such failures that bullying victims and harassment victims both come to internalise the lesson that their persecution is a private matter, or at least that better keep it a private matter than tell anyone with power about it, because people with power will just back each other up.

(Should be obvious: I don’t support required reporting, or shaming people into reporting. I do support solving the problem when they do report.)

So harassment and bullying are the same class of problem, in fact they blur into each other very strongly: bullying of children and adults often includes harassment and assault (among the other forms of bullying, like sudden unexplained ostracism and you’re-our-friend-today-no-you’re-not yoyos and so on), an individual incident of harassment or assault might be the beginning of or part of a bullying relationship.

And neither can or should be solved by the victim, whether by ignoring, or by fighting back, or by changing themself into someone or something that the bully or harasser will approve of.

While, yes, adult harassment victims are not the same as child bullying victims, and they shouldn’t be treated exactly the same, here’s what I would argue: we should be treating them both a lot better. If you think that it would be extremely patronising if your chosen approaches to dealing with bullying in a child community resemble approaches to dealing with harassment in an adult community, then perhaps your understanding of the rights of children who are bullied isn’t bloody good enough.

It also really puzzles me, frankly, that geeks, who I think are a population that has disproportionate experience of being bullied at some point in their life, are so unwilling to recognise the dynamic and similar ones when it occurs in their culture.
Continue reading “Harassment and bullying”

Beginning a feminist journey

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question. (See the status of this project, also.)

I am a girl geek in a relationship with a guy geek, and this guy geek was raised by his mom and his aunt to hate men and hate himself for being a man. In puberty he rejected that and swung a bit in the opposite direction, and now he’s in a place where he believes in the equality of the sexes but he has internalized stereotypes and vitriolic messages about both sexes. He recognizes that and he wants me to help him learn about feminism. Well, that’s great! But I haven’t got the foggiest where to start. We tried reading the Feminism 101 sites together, but it’s too unstructured. Do you know of anyplace else I could find an approach to teaching feminism to men, specifically, or have any advice for helping him confront the internalized hated?

I’ll be interested in the Hive’s thoughts too, but to be honest I’m not sure you can provide structure in this quest, ultimately. It’s a big messy pile of issues, and one person’s structured look at it will be another person’s incoherent mystery.

I wanted to post this after the linkspam put up the lists to the latest round of self-education posts, because he needs to accept responsibility for his own education. If he’s not willing to do a lot of listening and doubting and struggling to understand and looking back at his six-months-ago self and being embarrassed at his lack of clue, you can’t make him and we can’t make him.

Let me talk about myself for a bit. I’m very privileged, and I’ve spent a few years now reading about intersectionality issues and oppressions other than patriarchal ones. I don’t get an ally cookie and reading the social justice blogosphere is far and away not the only thing an ally can or should do. But here’s what’s worked for me:

  • reading a lot of things, mostly in my case blogs, with stories in them about oppression playing out in people’s lives;
  • thinking privileged things like “surely that’s an exaggeration” “but I’m not like that” “but my friends aren’t like that” “but I’ve never heard of anything like that” “I think your point would be better made if you…” and so on;
  • (at least sometimes) noticing myself thinking those things and keeping them inside my own head; and
  • (sometimes) noticing oppression that isn’t happening to me personally and thinking “that’s fucked up” and (sometimes) analysing, criticising, or trying to end it.

Not a direct answer to your question, but perhaps your partner does need to ask himself what it is he needs structured for him and why.

For others, were there any resources that provided you with some structure to your early feminist or anti-oppression thinking, even if they later turned out to be incomplete or problematic in and of themselves? If you’re a male feminist/feminist ally, how did you start out learning and what are you learning at the moment?

Note: discussions of what one can do to learn about or further social justice can themselves end up ableist and classist among other things. There are many types of activism and the types that can be done or are preferred by conventionally educated abled folk with leisure time aren’t the only kind. Be careful with your ‘must’s.