“Girls” vs. “One Girl”: Moviefone, Tokenism, “The Avengers,” and the “Fake Geek Girl”

Yesterday around noon, something happened that happens every single day. A woman said something disparaging about other women* in order to ingratiate herself to men*. Or perhaps to convince herself that she is not as worthless as her lesser female* counterparts. Either way she saw fit to explain to us, her fellow penis enviers, how to talk about Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. The original title of the article was “Girls’ Guide to ‘The Avengers’.” It’s now been changed to “One Girl’s Guide To ‘The Avengers’: What You Need to Know If You Know Nothing,” but it’s still really, really marginalizing and offensive.

[Trans* rights note: This article is primarily about cis dynamics because I don’t have nearly as much broad experience with the reception of queer geeks into the community. Please feel free to share your own experience in the comments or contact me about guest posting!] 

There’s a couple of pressing issues here. Let’s go point by point.

1. She tried to explain how to talk about a Joss Whedon film. To women.

Jessie Heyman is teaching us how to talk about Joss Whedon’s “Awesome with a capital A” action film, something we know nothing about. How could we? It’s such a sausage fest. I mean why would an action director like Whedon be bothered with taking care of female audience members — oh.

Joss Whedon is a self-professed feminist, a writer-director who fought like hell to get Warner Brothers to make a Wonder Woman movie. And he ended that brilliant speech with a statement so simple and profound that it bears as much repeating as anyone can muster:

I’m pretty sure Joss Whedon invited ladies to the party. The Buffy fandom was heavily female, especially for a genre show. Gosh, we practically had him first, which brings me to my second point:

2. She tried to explain the Marvel Universe to a fandom that has a sizable (and vocal) female minority.

She tried to explain the Marvel universe (incorrectly) to women, a demographic group that dominates the Thor fandom, the demographic that popularized, if not invented slash fanfiction.

So when Ms. Heyman warns us:

What NOT to say:
“Do you think Scarlett Johansson is pretty?”
“Oh, so it’s like the ‘New Years Eve’ of superhero movies?”
“Who could concentrate on the story with all those biceps?”
“Boys are so weird.”

It’s not only incredibly condescending and not actually funny except for one line (Avengers kind of is the New Year’s Eve of superhero movies), it’s marginalizing. It’s alright for fanboys to rhapsodize about Scarlett Johannson’s catsuit but fangirls get laughed at for sexualizing male superheroes (and female ones)? I mean Scarlett Johannson is pretty. I’ve never met a woman who actually pulls this “I’m the only attractive girl in the world” thing. If you’ve met her and dated her that’s your own fault.

And then there’s this:

Exiled from his homeland of Asgard, the blue-eyed demi god is charged with protecting Earth from his power-hungry brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Heyman wrote this guide to give us a “cheat sheet” for a movie our boyfriends would take us to but the clues she gives us are out of date and not actually true. THOR ends with Thor restored in the eyes of Asgard. He saved it after all. If he found a way back to Earth it would be either to find and stop Loki or to maintain his LDR with Natalie Portman. (Because dating Natalie Portman in a genre universe always ends well for the hero’s moral fortitude. You’ll end up killing younglings. Honestly.)

“We were aiming for satire,” Moviefone pleads. But what exactly were they satirizing / portraying for laughs and then claiming satire when the laughs fell short? The “Girls’ Guide to ‘The Avengers’” reads like a conversation between Penny and Leonard on The Big Bang Theory. It trades in a stereotype that has existed in geek culture since geek culture has existed, the “Fake Geek Girl.”

Over at The Mary Sue, Susana Polo eviscerates the misogyny behind the stereotype, namely the idea that the Geek Girl’s motives are always in question, partly because now being a geek or a nerd is okay. (As Chris Hardwicke would say “nerd rights!” *fistpump*) and partly because there’s a patriarchal belief that women are always seeking attention from men. Allow me to draw a few parallels. [TRIGGER WARNING: Misogyny, Rape]

A survey of things that have been said to me:

In a sports bar: Him: “Buy you a drink?” Me: “Ah no thanks.” “Oh c’mon why else would you be in a sports bar?” “Maybe because I grew up a Phillies fan and followed Jimmy Rollins when he was in Triple-A.” “Oh, that’s hot.” “Having to prove that to you wasn’t. Go away.”

On the quad: Him: “You okay?” Me: “Yeah. This Roethlisberger thing is really upsetting.” “Yeah she’s just doing it for attention.” (I look across the lawn, see my friend who was raped by someone she knew and has to see every day. I turn my head and see my other friend who was raped while she was unconscious and was character assassinated by the police when she tried to report it. I recall how painful it was to me to just hear these stories. No one wants that kind of attention.)

In the comics store: (My male best friend looks around a corner of shelves to see two girls dressed in Hot Topic, browsing the Hellboy collectibles.) MBF: “They shouldn’t even let them in here. They’re just doing it for attention.” Me: “They’re buying expensive figurines for attention?” “They just want geek cred, you know?”

We women, we geek girls, we have to prove ourselves. We have to earn the right to enter certain spaces because we are suspect, not just from men, but from the women who have already ingratiated themselves with those men. In a culture that’s now obsessed with authenticity, showing an interest without being the smartest expert in the room is a sign of “poserdom,” especially if you’re a woman. Never mind the fact that multiple Marvel and comic book star Chris Evans (Captain America, Scott Pilgrimcan’t remember the name of the villain in the second Fantastic Four, a movie he starred in.

Life is not a trivia contest. A good comics conversation is often about telling the story together, filling in each other’s gaps. There are very few people in the world that can afford to be an expert on all of comics. (I, for example, have a pretty high level of knowledge when it comes to DC and Vertigo but only working knowledge of Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, and IDW, even less so for graphic novels and manga. I have friends who have an encyclopedic knowledge of manga, but wouldn’t know who Jason Todd was if you shoved a red hood in their face.) If my friend got into the wrong conversation, an anti Fake Geek Girl advocate like Tara Tiger Brown might jump down her throat for calling herself a geek, all in an attempt to maintain the illusion of her own specialness. Tara Tiger Brown is a geek girl. She’s authentic. She’s okay with hating on other women who are “posing” geekdom because her geek identity outweighs her gender, which brings me to my last point.

3. “Girls’ Guide” vs. “One Girl’s Guide” They’re both terrible. You’re all terrible. Grow up, learn sisterhood, and stop hurting others to further yourself.

After the internet (or to be specific, Tumblr) exploded over Heyman’s article, the editor at Moviefone posted this:

[Editor’s Note: As you can see, we’ve gotten a lot of heat for this article. It was meant to be a satirical piece, and obviously, it did not come across that way. There are plenty of female superhero fans, and our intent was not to make them feel marginalized. We’ve changed the headline to reflect the focus as we originally intended it (but did not communicate as well): One woman’s perspective on the Avengers]

It was just one woman, guys! Calm down! She’s a lady, ladies! She’s okay with it. Oh, you’re not? Well it’s her fault. She said it. She said it was okay. My name’s on the masthead and I read it first but they’re her words. I just published them. How can you be mad? She’s a lady too!

Tokenism allows one individual to speak for or represent a group. The logic is that because we have one member of an oppressed group who’s okay with it, we’re not being racist, sexist, cissexist, ableist, or classist. “But my girlfriend thinks that sandwich joke is funny!” “But I have a black friend!” “But my wife is pro-life. How could she be anti-women?” Though identity politics are obviously relevant, the concept of kyriarchy shows us that there are several ways to be both blind to your own privilege and complicit in the oppression of people like you, people that you should consider allies. Having a token minority allows the powers at be to be “politically correct” but not socially progressive.

We see tokenism in the entertainment industry in blockbuster archetypes: the black guy who tends to die first, but still gives the movie “diversity points,” the lone girl on the action TV show, the gay best friend (and/or sassy drag queen) in the rom-com who doesn’t ever seem to have a role outside of approving the female lead’s fashion choices. Other than these anomalies, the casts of mainstream shows and films tend to be overwhelmingly white, cis, hetero, and male (assuming it’s a plot driven work and not a relationship driven one.)

“But most procedurals are male dominated because most police stations are male dominated!” you say. Yes. Perhaps. But most police stations don’t have a Hulk, and most police forces have at least two, if not more, female detectives and many, many more POC. “But that’s just Lena Dunham’s life experience,” you say. “It would be less genuine if she added a person of color when she doesn’t know many.” Why should creators apologize for the limits of their experience?

I now point you to Levar Burton, actor, advocate, Star Fleet Officer, and creator of Reading Rainbow in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Seeing yourself represented in the popular culture is really critical in terms of forming your own self image. I’m old enough to have been around before seeing black people represented in the popular culture in diverse ways. When I was a kid, it was a big deal to see a black person on television. So that’s why it was important in a science fiction thing — in “Star Trek” — it was huge. I read a lot of science fiction books as a kid. As a kid of science fiction, “Star Trek” was important to me and seeing a person of color in a command position was hugely important to me. My kids grew up completely different. Hip hop is the lingua franca on the planet. It’s a very different world. “Star Trek” was really important to me growing up. I embraced the vision.

Media is how we change the views of the world. Stories shape how we expect the world to be. The token, expendable black guy does not further the profile of black people in the media the same way that having a black head of a superhero team does. Having a virginal Final Girl finally manage to beat the slasher does not further the profile of women in the same way that Buffy the Vampire Slayer does. Having Rupert Everett help Julia Roberts tell Dermot Mulroney she loves him does not further the profile of queers in the media nearly as much having openly gay superheroes who lead their own titles. Having Penny ask stupid questions in the comics store on Big Bang Theory makes it genuinely harder to be a girl geek. So we have to call these people on it. The less a cultural group is represented in the media, the more likely it is that people will draw generalizations from that representation. So don’t fake it. Call bullshit, especially on people who should know better. We need to fix this now.

Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this Earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who’s confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.

– Joss Whedon, Equality Now! address, 2006

If you’re becoming catastrophically depressed, head over to io9 and read Cyriaque Lamar’s “A Guide to The Avengers for the Extremely Confused.” It’s both informative and a hilarious example of effective satire, including this amazing gem:

The adventures of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Shaquille O’Neal are published by DC Comics, so they do not appear in The Avengers.

Similarly, other Marvel Comics characters like Wolverine and Spider-Man are not in The Avengers, even though they are Avengers in the comic books. (TWIST: Almost everybody in Marvel Comics is an Avenger at some point!) Finally, Tintin is not an Avenger; he is Belgian.

Happy assembling, Lemons. Let’s kick elitism’s butt.

2 thoughts on ““Girls” vs. “One Girl”: Moviefone, Tokenism, “The Avengers,” and the “Fake Geek Girl”

  1. Excellent post, easily one of the best responses I’ve read to this whole debacle, and raising a wide array of important issues. Thanks for writing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s