Sunday, July 3, 2016

Freaks, Geeks, and Feminism

About the time I was getting really vocal about the whole need to update modern American society with some coming-of-age rituals that mattered for those of us raised by Sesame Street and Star Wars, Iron john and Fire in the Belly were vaulting onto the stage, completely taking up the conversation about rituals and the powers of ancient rites and how they mattered and were needed again. I felt stymied, and a coworker steered me to Camille Paglia, whose essays seemed more to be saying that she was a better man than men were, and that wasn’t the message I wanted at all. Feeling as though no one was listening, I stopped talking about coming of age rituals and set about faking that I was a grown up.
Still reeling from the internalized pressure of the Enjoli commercial view of adult womanhood and ideal femininity, I was adrift in a society that seemed to be wanting to make me conform to the man code, all while denying that I was, in fact, a woman. Given that I wasn’t very certain what being a woman meant, only that I knew that I didn’t want to be like my mother or her sister, that I wanted an academic reality and not a life defined by how many children lived in my home or what sort of things I purchased, I felt out of touch with men and women alike: I was a nerd, and a social sciences nerd at that; we are rare. To be a woman social science nerd is to achieve a status shared by unicorns, leftover mashed potatoes, and other things that I have heard of but never seen.
I went from library science to computer science, and my love of analyzing how people interacted with and retrieved stored information continued to set me out at the fringed: I wasn’t a programmer, not because I couldn’t code (I could, often better and more efficiently than my co-workers who were almost always men), but because I was one of the few who “got it” when it came to being able to think of the user at all. And get it, I did: I became known as a usability expert, a guru of deciphering and restoring spaghetti code, the Nancy Drew (never the Sherlock, we might point out) of figuring out where the bug is and how to extract or repair it without wrecking everything else in the program. But still, the voiceless young adult wanted the ceremony that said “You have arrived. You are one of us. You belong.”
The information world is a fickle, judgemental, capricious and ultimately masculine one. If you need an example, watch the date in the opening sequences of the movie Social Network.  The whole movie does a pretty good job of showing how Mark Zuckerberg made a fortune out of a juvenile and cruel information-based character assassination of a woman who told him she didn’t want to date him anymore, but watching those few frames is example enough of how entitled privilege behaves when it feels threatened and has access to anonymity -- there are no consequences for Mark Zuckerberg’s bad, callous, mean spirited behavior. In fact, he’s a multibillionaire because of it.
But these men know little of people and less of friendship, companionship, actual community involvement beyond the screen. We need to increase the emotional literacy of us all, but especially of the geeks among us. For all that we like to believe they are logical and cold, they are not. Far from the Spock exterior they espouse, they are hurt, adrift, lost and wanting, deeply ashamed and frequently feeling alone in a hostile world, defenseless beyond hiding in the shadows. We in the feminist movement need to make a special effort to reach out to the socially awkward, men and women alike, and to the increasingly toxic profession that is more separate from the dominant culture now than ever before.

The world is no longer run by the “C students” Harry Truman told us about; now it is run by the C++ students, and they aren’t talking to the rest of us. We need to do better to include them, to make the rest of us real to them, to make them feel connected to people in the age of information. We need to invite them to the brick and mortar tables, away from the screens and the sharp hashtags and tag codes. We need to come together and make space for our feelings for all of us, even the geeks. Star Wars rituals, Wil Wheaton, whatever. Let’s include Gen X again.