The New Nerd: It’s Not Just for Boys

Part two of a three part series exploring the “nerd” identity

Photo by Adam Ernesto Fuentes


Quick, what is a flux capacitor? You D&D? Well if really you do, then what class do you play as? Oh you probably like that because it is cutesy, right?

These are questions nerds aren’t typically asked on a consistent basis about the things they enjoy. That is, of course, if you are a male.

For some reason people, especially male nerds, think that nerds and geeks come in only one gender. Because of this, women in nerd-dom are treated like second class citizens who are constantly having to defend their identity against male nerds.

The quotes in the beginning of this story are not hypothetical. Christy Black, 36, assistant head coach at Nerdstrong Gym in North Hollywood, Calif. was at a party when a strange man decided to randomly test her nerd credentials. She explains:

“I once was at a party at WonderCon. Somebody had the flux capacitor (from Back to the Future fame) on their phone and decided to test me. They were like, ‘What is this?’ and my brain just froze for a second. I know what the flux capacitor is. I grew up watching the movies. And then he goes, ‘Ah you’re not a real nerd, you don’t know what the flux capacitor is. Even if I didn’t know what the flux capacitor was, I am a die hard She-Hulk fan.”

Photo of Christy Black. Courtesy of NerdStrong

Black is not someone who should have to prove herself as a nerd. She grew up in a household that allowed everyone to choose a superhero to identify with as their patron. She chose She-Hulk as it debuted the same year she was born, and also because she is an all around bad ass. Black’s father is a comic book nerd and used to read fantasy stories like The Hobbit to Black and her sisters on the roof of their house.

Black has also been attending various cons since her early 20s. She has been playing PC games since she was a child and enjoys bonding with loved ones over games like the Borderlands series. Not to mention, that she is an assistant head coach at a gym called NerdStrong for crying out loud.

Yet she finds herself having to prove who she is because of her gender. Despite all of the unnecessary hassles from male nerds, Black takes her experiences as a woman in the nerd community in stride.

“To be honest, I subscribe to the philosophy that it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to prove myself to anybody because I am who I am.”

While the surprise nerd pop quiz was unique to Black, the situation of having to validate her nerd identity to the opposite sex is unfortunately not. Black’s coworker, Kimberly Hughes, has also caught her fair share of grief from guys who think they have a right to decide who is and is not a “nerd.” Hughes is a trainer and co-owner at NerdStrong Gym. She shared her experiences as a nerd/fitness hybrid in the first part of this series. But because she is a woman, she’s also had her fair share of situations where she has found herself on the defensive end of some random nerd guy’s ego.

Hughes enjoys cosplaying as her favorite heroes and frequents cons dressed as Wonder Woman. But she says that women are viewed as getting into cosplay for a different reason than men. “ I do feel as a woman, I get judged a little bit more. Especially as cosplay becomes more popular, people are assuming that every cosplayer wants to be a model or an actress. And that this is the reason why we dress up, that we want attention. It’s like, no not all of us. I have a career that has nothing to do with cosplay,” said Hughes.

Hughes said when she mentions she’s a gamer who enjoys Dungeons and Dragons, that’s when she really gets hammered. “That is when they will be like, ‘Oh yea?! Well what class do you play in D&D?’ Well what if I’m DMing?” said Hughes.

“ I hate that I have to prove my nerd cred, but people are generally really cool once they realize you are who you say you are.”

Yet, even if Black and Hughes are able to handle the sometimes instantaneous attack of their “nerdiness,” it calls to question why women in general should have to prove their level of commitment to the nerd community to almost complete strangers, simply because they are female. Men somehow have the idea that nerdom is a kingdom like Asgard, and that they are Heimdall, the gatekeeper, who must follow the strict orders of “no girls allowed.”

Hughes said she believes it is because this culture was a place that was dominated by men for so long, and age old gender roles are something that die hard. “I think women were always really interested in it. I mean even if you look back to the beginning of comic books being published, they had the romance comics and things like this that were acceptable for girls to buy.”

Hughes added that even then, separate factions of the same idea were created and designated as acceptable for girls to enjoy, rather than creating a single, non-biased, and inclusive atmosphere for both sexes.

“Girls buying the action comics and things like that wasn’t what was expected of then,” Hughes said. “So now we’re breaking those barriers of gender stereotyping and women are finally allowed to be free to like D&D and video games and comic books.”

Hughes isn’t wrong. According to a 2013 poll conducted by the ESRB, 48 percent of the gaming demographic is made up of women. Women are also seeing new heroes in comics begin to emerge with them in mind. Women are no longer being written as just hapless damsels in need of rescue.

In Marvel comics, Thor is no longer the wielder of the almighty hammer, as his old flame Jane Foster has taken the mantle as the worthy one. And Spider-man’s Gwen Stacey is not a tragic footnote in Peter Parker’s life. She has been brought back as a strong, smart, ass kicking heroine with a sense of humor and charm that rivals old web head himself.

However, while it is true that women are now to free consume the same amazing nerd pop culture that guys do, the fine print still says women are going to get crap from men when they do. The gender divide is still alive, ladies. The Death Star’s shields are still up.

Paola Garavito, 19, knows this trap all too well. She has been a hardcore gamer and all around nerd for as long as she can remember, playing games like Halo with her father since she was a little girl. She watches anime and has a cat named Smaug. She grew up playing games like The Sims, Skyrim, and Mario Party with her sister. She breathes nerd, but suffers the ignorance of men who think they know why women like nerd things.

“One of my worst experiences was when I went to Frank and Sons. My fiancée Jose wanted to get me a Bulbasaur [plushie]. I like plants. He is like an alive little fucking flower thing. Of course I’m going to like him. And then the guy was like, ‘That’s pretty basic. You don’t want to go with Mew? That’s a pretty color.’ I was like excuse me? Go fuck yourself!”

It’s not just vendors, either. Garavito catches shade from people she knows as well. She recounts a time when she was participating in a Super Smash Bros. tournament that her fiancée and his friends were having.

“His two little loser friends — who by the way do nothing with their lives — decided to have a Smash Bros. Brawl tournament. I was like, ‘Cool, I get Pikachu.’ Then they were like, ‘Wow, that is so basic. Is it because he is cute?’ I was like , ‘Oh fuck no!”

According to Garavito, their obvious patronizing only encouraged her to prove them wrong. “So we’re playing and I get the smash ball. Apparently to them, it is hard to control. But it is pretty easy to use, you just have to use both joy sticks guys. It’s pretty basic. They were like, ‘What the fuck?’ Before they knew it, the screen said K.O. and I had won.”

However, this male nerd machismo has become so prevalent that some women are even hesitant to openly embrace their nerdiness when in the company of strangers. Karina Garavito, 23, said that she has not faced the same flack that her sister Paola has, but only because she has made a conscious effort to avoid those kinds of situations.

“I’ve never experienced anything like the things my sister has, but that is because I don’t put that side of me out there,” said Karina.

The only time she ever reveals that side of herself is only within an environment where she knows that the people around won’t judge her for being female.

“I have to have been around them for a while and be able to tell that they are not assholes. That they’re going to treat me like a human being, and not treat me differently because I have a vagina.”

These women may have different hobbies that they enjoy, but the crap they have to face for those hobbies is the same. They all enjoy things nerds bond over, yet face a full on pop-quiz or patronizing comments every time they tell a guy about it.

The reasons vary depending on who you ask. Hughes said that it’s probably because men have inhabited this space longer than women. The Garavito sisters think it’s due to men in the media marginalizing them, giving other nerds who are male a platform to continue perpetuating this idea.

“It’s so sad that I look at these games and only see parts of myself reflected in the male characters. And then I look at female characters and realize they aren’t anything like me,” said Karina.

Paola chimes in, “Or, its either she’s [the female character’s] a cold hearted bitch who is willing to fuck the world, or she is uptight and prim and proper. I’m like go fuck yourself! There is never an in between.”

Whether it is men having been here longer, or women lacking a voice that represents them accurately, the fact remains that women are not treated fairly in the nerd community. They are chastised for not knowing every little detail about an intellectual property, or are ridiculed for not being good at every single kind of game.

The standards we as males expect for the other sex of being masters of all nerd knowledge and skills are unattainable, and are not even expected of ourselves or other male nerds.

Men, it’s time we stop playing gatekeepers to a culture that was never a “boys only” club in the first place. Ms. Pacman was around about as long as Mr. Pacman. Samus Aran was wrecking aliens long before Master Chief was even in spartan diapers. Without Lara Croft raiding tombs, Nathan Drake would have stayed uncharted in the gaming landscape. At ease, boys, it’s time to accept that women have as much a right to hold that video game controller as you do.