Beauty Work, Geeky Work

As a woman who profoundly hates the geek identity options open to her*, I’m always interested to hear someone talk intelligently about the problem of female objectification in geek culture. Yesterday I came across a fantastic article on Geek Feminism that does precisely that.

I recommend you go read the article; it’s subtle and nuanced and very, very smart. Stoker ties the “slave Leia cosplay” phenomenon to the beauty work required of women in modern American culture, and points out that it gets rewarded in rather concrete ways. Positioning yourself as the geek babe can be a pretty good idea for you, as an individual, because that’s how you get your metaphorical cookies. It’s the same reason I wear makeup to job interviews and important meetings, even though I’m fully aware of what it means. Compliance with beauty norms has very real rewards, whether you’re hoping to get a promotion or just feel included at a con.

Of course, if you think back to the flap over whether Miss USA could really be a geek, playing the beauty game really doesn’t help you in the long run. You can’t win, ladies! That’s how you know it’s sexism!

What Stoker’s article got me thinking about, though, is why.

To be Miss USA – or Olivia Munn, or Team Unicorn – requires an enormous amount of work meeting the expectations of others. You have to police how you look, how you act, what you wear, how you talk to people, to meet a constantly changing set of standards. And what’s the romantic myth** of geekdom? We’re outsiders. We don’t conform. We suffer for our weird passions.

Doing beauty work challenges the origin story, so to speak of geekdom. You’re not an outsider; you’re an insider. You’re not a rebel; you’re a conformist. Your passions aren’t weird; they’re mainstream. If you can bring yourself to do beauty work – and worse, succeed at it – then you can’t possibly be one of us, because you clearly don’t believe what we believe.

The truly funny thing is that I think many geeks are completely oblivious to the enormous work they do to participate in geek culture, a la Goffman. The myth of geekdom is a naturalistic one. We do not perform mainstream culture, therefore we do not perform. We are simply ourselves.

This is, of course, a magnificent self-delusion. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s one that’s going to change anytime soon.

* But who also can’t opt out entirely, what with the loving (and working with!) many things that geek culture loves to claim.

** This myth irritates the crap out of me, especially when it’s the source of so freaking many boring stories.

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