Geek versus Girl

(Crossposted at Hahví.net)

There have been several fascinating essays posted recently by female science fiction and fantasy writers reflecting on their experience as girls and the disadvantage they felt from an early age. There’s a nice summary of these posts along with further reflections at a blog called Culturally Disoriented (hat tip to Kate Elliott for the link). The post is titled “I Never Wanted To Be A Boy.”

And you know what? I never wanted to be a boy, either.

Reading these reflections, I have finally — I’m fifty-one years old — begun to realize that I must have grown up blithely ignorant of the true nature of the world. Apparently I was living in my own geek bubble because, growing up in the seventies, I don’t remember feeling put-down or denied because I was a girl. I’m thinking specifically of those treacherous years between the age of ten and the hallelujah-thank-you-God salvation that was college at seventeen. As you may surmise from that statement, this wasn’t a great time for me — you will never catch me reminiscing fondly about high school — but my issues had to do with geeky things, not with the fact of my gender.

Like most of us who are into things SF-nal, I grew up reading adventure books, science fiction and fantasy among them, and I suppose that the protagonists were most often male, but I can’t remember that it bothered me. I used my favorite stories as a jumping-off point for my own imagined adventures. It was nothing for me to put myself into the plot, creating a female character I could happily inhabit, who had as much agency as anyone.

My ability to deny being denied probably has a couple of sources. First, I had no brothers, so even if my parents had been inclined to deal in boy privilege, they had no chance to do it. As it was, I don’t think they were inclined.

Mine was an odd, geeky, rather unsociable family. We did lots of fun and amazing things, but for the most part we kept to ourselves, which may be a second reason I wasn’t conscious of boy privilege — I wasn’t in close touch with more “traditional” families. And of course this was the northshore of Oahu in the 1970s. Caucasian families who had moved there from California were not expected to be conventional.

Mostly though, I have to credit my parents for my blissful ignorance. As I passed through my preteen and teen years, my ambitions ranged from being a primatologist in Africa (thank you, Jane Goodall, my hero!), to attending the Air Force Academy, to being an aerospace engineer, to being a field biologist. (The writer-thing didn’t occur to me until I was almost out of college.) I think my poor mother never knew quite what to make of her geeky, intellectual, overachieving daughter, but she never discouraged me from my interests. My dad actively encouraged me in many things. He was the one who put me on the back of a motorcycle at a tender age, took me camping and fishing, and let me take scuba lessons when I was thirteen.

If I was denied things because I was a girl, I frankly didn’t notice.

I even remember asking my dad once if things would have been different if he’d had sons, and he denied it, assuring me it didn’t make any difference to him.

So I grew up an athlete, swimming, hiking, snorkeling, taking on surfing for a brief time, and even running track one year—but I wasn’t reacting against traditional “girl stuff,” because I liked that too. I experimented with makeup. I wore dresses and high heels to school. These were the days when “Aloha Friday” was still observed in Hawaii, and I wore a mu`u mu`u to school. I even went to “charm school.” Seriously. Me. (What? You can’t tell?) I felt kind of weird about it, but I didn’t mind it. I was hoping it would help turn me into a competent woman. Even then, I could see how that could be valuable. Being a girl was not a problem for me.

Being a geek — different story.

I lived on the outskirts of a small plantation town. There was nothing wrong with the people there. They were nice. I never got in fights and I wasn’t harassed, but like so many quirky teens, I never fit in either. And the school wasn’t exactly a challenging intellectual environment. A large portion of the students had English as a second language, and at the time we had the lowest, or nearly the lowest academic rating in the state.

So it wasn’t my girl-self that was denied in my teenage years, it was my geek-self. I was a social misfit and yes, I had issues, but if I’d been a skinny, introverted, intellectual boy trapped behind glasses, interested in science, with my nose always in a weird novel, with a family that basically kept to itself — I don’t think my youth would have felt a whole lot different, or more satisfying.

So, to all the young geeks and misfits of any gender who are trapped in schools where they don’t fit in, there really is a lot to look forward to. Keep working on it. Keep working on yourself. There’s no need to be conventional. Find the people you fit with. Write your own story.

Hepen the Watcher by Linda NagataLinda Nagata is the Locus and Nebula award winning author of The Bohr Maker, Vast, and Memory, all available at Book View Cafe. Her latest (unconventional) book Hepen the Watcher, is the second in a gritty, fast-paced mythic fantasy series featuring the antihero demon, Smoke.

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Geek versus Girl — 6 Comments

  1. One of my many, many hobbies is perusing the biographies or autobiographies of women writers. And I can report that every single one of those women says that she didn’t “fit in” in childhood and youth. Somewhere, sometime, there is a person or persons who fit in and are at home in their social milieu. It is =nobody= that you have ever heard of or met; you could poll your entire circle of acquaintance and learn that 100% of them felt left out in childhood. The ‘in group’ or social center or whatever is a mythical Cockaigne, never visited by mortals. And the further conclusion we may draw is that WE ARE NORMAL. =Everybody= feels this way. It is the human condition.

  2. I had the same geeky type of upbringing as the almost only child (much older siblings) of a close-knit family with passionately in love parents. My dad called me “chief” and treated me however I wanted to be treated. Mom did occasionally tell him he was going to turn me into a tomboy, which may have kept him from sharing his love of baseball with me, and I know she despaired of me liking dolls (I preferred dinosaurs and aircraft carriers). Her attempt to saddle me with girly furniture (surprise! French Provincial!) failed utterly, and she eventually gave up and let me ride horses and live in blue jeans.

    Life with my family did not prepare me for the reality in many areas of society, though, that things are different if you’re a woman—from your paycheck, to how seriously people take you when you speak. I’ve commented on male colleagues with less experience making more money and been told “You make good money for a woman in this area.” I’ve had a boss tell me that he knew I was due for a raise and deserved a raise but he had to give the money to a man instead because he needed it to support his family. He was incredulous when I told him that I was the chief breadwinner in my household and that my husband made about half what I did. I’ve had a boss refer to me as a “red-headed sex kitten”, and suggest that I ought to wear my vivid blue workout cat suit to work. (For the record, I do not, in any way, qualify as a sex kitten; I conclude, therefore, that my poor boss was delusional.)

    I was stunned that I had to fight these battles. I thought my mom and sisters had fought them for me. Literally. My eldest sister was the first female reporter in a major western market to carry her own camera pack, something she did because the need for women to take camera men with them on assignment was the reason her boss gave for their substantially lower pay.

    Some of us never run into those glass walls (heck, some of us never get anywhere near the ceiling), and that’s great. But they’re still there, alas. Not so much in the book industry … although I did once lose a potential novel contract because the publisher already felt they had too many female writers. They’d have given me the contract if I’d agreed to work under a male pen name. I declined to acquiesce to their request. Perhaps that was foolish of me.

  3. I think the two experiences — being a misfit as a geek and running into walls because you’re a girl — are different, though they have some overlap. While I wasn’t geeky in the current sense of the word (not being all that tech and science oriented), I did have different passions and values from other adolescents and didn’t fit in well at all. Partly this was because my parents were journalists and intellectuals and Episcopalians (and my mother worked!) while we lived in a place with Bible Belt sensibilities where 50s values reigned, and probably still reign. That some of my values were feminist ones in a world devoted to keeping women in their place added to the misfit status, but I would have been out of step regardless.

    The desire to be a boy comes more from being told all the time that girls can’t do something. While I don’t think I ever wanted to be a boy, I did very much want to do things that were reserved for boys. I probably compounded my social misfit status by insisting I was going to do them, but I also got patted on the head and laughed at. When I said I planned to be a lawyer and another girl in my class said she was going to be a scientist, our high school history teacher said, “You’ll both just be housewives.” And we were, mind you, among the best students in the class. (That kept me in law school (damn the man). And I am not now, nor have I ever been a housewife.)

    I outgrew most of my social misfit stage by finding people like me after I left high school. Dealing with a world that wants to shunt women to the side was more complicated, but I dealt with it by doing things that were supposed to be only for men.

    There’s another issue that was raised by many of the blog posts on “I wanted to be a boy”: fear. (Ambling along the Aqueduct has a nice summary piece on these.) One of the reasons some women wanted to be boys is because they were being taught they had to be afraid, mostly of men. A lot of doors have been opened for women professionally and educationally over the past several decades, but far too many women are still limiting their lives because they’ve been taught to be afraid.

  4. Parental attitude seems to have a lot to do with it. My parents bought me barbies, sure, but they also bought me legos (back in the time when legos were gender-neutral *sigh*) and car sets. Neither of them implied that any of my activities – from ballet to Tae-Kwon-Do – were “wrong” because of my gender. I’m sure that made an immense difference.

    The other thing that helped was the fact that I had a great role model: my mother. She lives a life that seems (at least to me) pretty unencumbered by gender expectations. She earns more than my father. She’s the “smart” one. She goes off and has thrilling adventures in west Africa (well, now I know they aren’t “thrilling adventures” – they’re research trips). She loves her kids, but they aren’t the only important things in her life.

  5. Holy crap, can I identify with this. I noticed that I didn’t fit in growing up, and it bothered me a little, but not tremendously. By the time the trauma that was high school left me standing perched on the cusp of Real Life, I’d decided that trying to fit in was too much trouble. Now, half a hair from turning 50, I have in fact decided to write my own story. Not the story of my life–oh my god, I don’t want to kill my readers with boredom–but a story told the way I want to tell it. It’s a rock lit novel that also hits drugs, racism, classism, and yeah a bit about learning to embrace who you really are. Am I going to let anybody tell me a novel like that won’t have a readership? Ha ha!