Friday, December 2, 2016

Geek Lust

Now that geekery has become mainstream, geeks, no longer united by the disdain of society in general, have separated themselves into a bewildering array of different camps, some of which now seem to derive as much enjoyment from antagonizing each other as they do from their chosen hobbies. One particularly vocal subset of geekdom has devoted itself to crusading against the depictions of women in speculative fiction (including interactive fiction, such as games and the like; and simply artwork). And one of the new targets has become "boob armor." While a precise definition of boob armor is more or less non-existent, in general it refers to any personal body armor, worn by women, which is specifically shaped around a woman's breasts individually; although some usages appear to also take issue with more or less any armor that is shaped around the bust. While for some commentators, armor that appears to place more of an emphasis on sex appeal than protection is the target, for others, the whole concept is offensive, and needs to be stamped out.

Have fun storming the castle, gang!

Not that I think that the common use of women in speculative fiction as sex objects is at all helpful. Don't get me started on the shopworn trope, typified by Red Sonja, of "the Sexy Swordmaiden;" I'm trying to avoid going off on rants. But I think that seeking to eliminate particular depictions of women in specific media are unproductive, because that's not where the issue lies.

Boob armor is a symptom of 1) a marketing strategy that uses depictions of unlikely (although perhaps delusional is a better word) versions of the female form to draw in an overwhelmingly male demographic by appealing to a desirable (and of course, out of reach) fantasy life; and 2) the idea that most, if not all, of a woman's appeal resides in two glands (and perhaps some underlying fat) that rest on the wall of her chest. After all, we are talking about the "Tits" in "Tits and Ass." It's no coincidence that no matter how otherwise naked you depict a woman, certain parts of those two areas must be, ahem, "left to the imagination," unless you want it rated NC-17.

1) Is easily dealt with. It simply takes better material on the market. Generally speaking only pornography relies exclusively on sexuality as a marketing tool. More mainstream games, books, art, movies and other media typically are selling something else. They haul out the sex when they're either doing it poorly, or aren't sure that they can break through the clutter to make a big enough splash. If we presume, for the moment, that an original video game with decent gameplay and an engaging storyline doesn't need to fall back on T&A to the same degree as a lower-grade game, if at all, then the easiest was to push most of the openly exploitative stuff out of the market is to create more original, user-friendly and engaging video games. Will it keep people desperate to break into the industry from trying to drum up sales with naked sexuality? I suspect, after a while, that it will. After all, buggy whips are difficult to come by these days.

2) Is more pernicious, as it is a broader social issue. The sexualization and objectification of women in geek culture is a symptom the sexualization and objectification of women in the broader culture. I understand the idea of wanting geeks to be ahead of the curve on this one, as they often are in technology, but I don't know that the society as a whole is taking its cues from geek culture

"Sex sells," we hear over and over again. Which is true. Sex, however, isn't the only thing that sells. But if you're otherwise peddling crap, it doesn't hurt to have it as a fallback position. And to me, that's a side effect of the vaguely puritanical society that we live in. I can create a television show aimed at second-graders and load it up with all sorts of "fantasy violence," but I have to avoid open sexuality. Of course the issue isn't simply limited to children's programming because our attitudes around sexuality isn't limited simply to children. While it's often said that men are "programmed" to want sex, it's just as easy to say that men are expected, if not socially obligated, to want sex. I still remember discussions with peers where I found myself needing to defend a disinterest in someone I was "supposed" to want to go to bed with. Couple this with a standard of feminine beauty that seems to rely almost entirely on a combination of unlikely genetics, photomanipulation and outright delusion, and you have a recipe for dysfunctional attitudes towards sexuality. And we haven't even started on the infamous stereotype of the geek's discomfort around women.

In the end, geeky discussions of the portrayals of women in speculative fiction are going to have to be folded into the mainstream discussion of the roles of women in media and the purposes of various media forms, given that this isn't a geek thing. It's unlikely that geekdom will ever shed its reputation for sexism. But it may be able to compartmentalize it.

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