The other day we reported about Return of Kings’ limp boycott of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, an attempt to combat the movie’s supposed feminist and SJW propaganda. (This is unrelated to #BoycottStarWarsVII, another call to boycott Star Wars because it promotes “white genocide.”) Return of Kings similarly called for a boycott of Mad Max: Fury Road, also calling it a work of feminist propaganda.
It’s dumb, sure, but this is the latest in a pattern of hysterical male geek behavior. Recent years have seen a number of incidents in which male geeks have treated geekdom as a toxic battleground, lashing out at the perceived threat of women, people of color, and progressive politics. Think of GamerGate and gaming, Sad Puppies and the Hugo Awards/science fiction literature, the idea of the “fake geek girl,” the general derision of SJWs.
In Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, Max says, “War does funny things to men.”
In the ideological battlegrounds of geekdom, this war for geek-purity has shown that many men are really just insecure boys.
When I wrote about the #BoycottStarWarsVII campaign last year, I mentioned that “the ethnic, cultural, religious, or gendered ‘other’ is a threat to white male hegemony and homogeneity.” I didn’t get into it much deeper in that piece, but I’ve always noticed this ugly sense of gatekeeping in geekdom. By that I mean people acting geekier than thou or passing judgement on who’s a real geek and who’s a poseur/fake geek, as if there’s only a few set ways to be authentic when it comes to geek culture. I’ve been guilty of that behavior multiple times in the past, but you know what I eventually realized? It’s a sign of immaturity and selfishness, and it’s just plain stupid. Why not share the stuff you love, or at least appreciate another person’s enthusiasm for it? Because here’s the thing: that movie, that book, that comic, that game you love isn’t yours alone.
For insecure male geeks, these outside groups (i.e., women, people of color, newcomers to a medium or genre, etc.) are invaders storming the walls looking to pollute the wells of familiar geekdom with their alien influence. Oooh, scary! They’ll bring new perspectives, new ideas, new conversations, and new modes of engagement with them. And if these scary noobs enjoy these works so much that they’re driven to create their own work, that means they’ll add new characters and new stories and new contexts for the discussion of geekdom. What this means is that geekdom gets to evolve and reflect the actual multitude of experiences of the 21st century.
Yet you have these calls for boycotts, you have online harassment, you have violent threats, you have efforts to silence or marginalize different voices, you have these immediate calls to discount a point of view without hearing it out and considering its potential merits. There’s no self-reflection, there’s just self-preservation. There can be no conversation beyond the prevailing conversation. The echo chamber must be maintained. The “No Girls Allowed” sign must stay by the ladder to the treehouse.
Boys will be boys.
My friend Michael Carlisle had a great metacultural read on Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens following the film’s release, one shared by Damien Walter at The Independent. As a villain, Kylo Ren embodies all the worst male geek tendencies. Heck, Kylo Ren’s main adversaries are a woman and a person of color–it’s a little too perfect, so much so that it had to be just a little bit intentional.
Since The Force Awakens is, as AA Dowd said, essentially like watching Star Wars nerds in a Star Wars movie, Kylo Ren is the worst kind of Star Wars nerd. This is the sort of guy who’d overreact and make claims about white genocide, or spend an evening harassing SJWs on Twitter. All Kylo Ren’s missing is an ill-fitting fedora. (Was discussing this with fellow Flixist writer Matt Liparota, and truly MRAs ruin everything, even stylish headwear.) Walter writes, “Kylo Ren impotently thrashing a computer with his big red sword is the perfect portrait of Gamergate.” He adds, “If Kylo Ren’s buddies in the First Order have a manifesto, don’t be surprised if point one is ‘actually it’s about ethics in galactic domination’.”
The villains in both The Force Awakens and Fury Road embody aspects of toxic masculinity, and it’s telling that MRAs would be against both films. If Kylo Ren is a frustrated neckbeard, Immortan Joe is this patriarchal force of control and subjugation. He controls access to water and doles it out only when he sees fits, playing a kind of gatekeeper. Women are either for pleasure/breeding (his sexual slaves) or used as a tool to maintain power (the milk mothers, Furiosa), but they’re never equals. And all he wants is to breed a healthy, pure boy to inherit the ugly world he maintains. Hegemony and homogeneity, all shiny and chrome.
But remember, it’s feminist/SJW propaganda to say that a petulant Space Nazi and a ruthless post-apocalyptic dictator are villains and that the ideological motivations for their actions are poisonous.
The thing is, there are models for better male geekdom in each of these films. Walter’s piece in The Independent is all about trying to find a better kind of geek masculinity in 2016, one that’s less like Kylo Ren (or Emo Kylo Ren) or his PUA and MRA ilk. Poe and Finn seem like good guys, so maybe that’s a potential place to start the conversation of a healthier male geekdom. Angie Han at /Film had a great piece about heroic masculinity in Mad Max: Fury Road, and how Max and Nux embody better ways for men to be. Again, another place to start that conversation.
This isn’t to say that you can’t disagree with a feminist read or SJW interpretation of something you enjoy. I don’t agree with Anita Sarkeesian’s read of Mad Max: Fury Road, for instance, in which she says the movie glorifies violence and engages in the type of objectification it’s trying to critique. Violence is the only viable mode of discourse in Fury Road, and as in many great action movies, there winds up being a disjunction between the violence being aesthetically and viscerally awesome and the violence also having emotional stakes and tragic consequences. (The “heroic bloodshed” genre is called that for a reason.)
Similarly, I think a disjunction necessarily has to exist with regard to Immortan Joe’s sexual slaves. Since they are on the one hand objectified while also asserting they are not things, the film plays with this tension of images and how they’re interpreted, and how competing and even paradoxical interpretations can exist simultaneously in the same image. Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) = We are not things.
While I disagree with Sarkeesian in this regard, that doesn’t mean I want her to stop engaging with culture. It’s the opposite, in fact. She’s got insight, she’s got opinions, and she should keep engaging with culture and the way culture manifests ideologies the way she does. Everyone should, and we should have this ongoing cultural conversation with as many voices as possible. And just because I don’t agree doesn’t mean an opinion has no merit or value. Sarkeesian made me rethink some of my assessments of Fury Road and realize what else might be going on visually, and also made me think about how violence functions as rhetoric and discourse in different kinds of action movies.
The point is that rather than trying to shutdown discussion or threatening someone because of matter of taste or opinion, we should get into discussions. Male geeks shouldn’t be so frightened of new ideas, and we shouldn’t be so insecure about our opinions changing or being malleable either. The other person is not a thing.
It’s part of being an adult.
I’ve been re-reading Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher for a project I’m working on, and it’s got some good models for all kinds of geekdom. It’s such a 90s comic but also forward-thinking in so many ways. One of the most striking aspects of Preacher is how it deals with the changing gender roles of the decade. You’ve got Tulip O’Hare, who’s one of the best badass women in comics breaking down old paradigms about how a lady ought to act.
“So you’re a girl,” Tulip’s dad says to her as a newborn. “That needn’t be so bad.” In other words, she’s not getting hemmed in as a damsel in distress–Tulip is her own woman, and she’ll bury a bullet in your face if you question that, and she’d probably be into Neko Case’s song “Man.” Jesse Custer also learns more about what it means to be a man, and that you (male or female) can make your own way and define yourself.
Maybe the biggest takeaway of Preacher is that the pre-existing roles the world has assigned to you don’t have to be the way they are. Ideological orthodoxy is a kind of inbreeding, and if you keep that sort of insularity going long enough, you wind up like the Habsburgs. There’s a better way to be.
So c’mon, fellas. I know a lot of you male geeks are better than this insecure MRA bullshit. Remember what Jesse’s daddy told him about being a man: “You judge a person by what’s in ’em, not how they look. An’ you do the right thing. You gotta be one of the good guys, son, ’cause there’s way too many of the bad.”