Women and Geek Culture or Why the Fridge Has to Go

I grew up reading Green Lantern. Much like Doctor Who, there have been multiple Green Lanterns in the lifetime of the comic, and you always have your favorite (The 10th and Hal Jordan.) Yet, Hal wasn’t my first. That honor goes to Kyle Rayner.

I could go into the backstory as to why Kyle got the ring, and who his predecessors were, and why Hal came back; but none of that really matters. All that you need to know going in was that when he took the mantle of GL, he was the only one and he loved it. Kyle was young, reckless, and took his role with little seriousness.

That was until this happened…


…yeah, that’s his girlfriend.

Long story short, she thought Kyle should take things more seriously; but he wasn’t the listening type. Unfortunately, one of his villains (aptly named Major Force) was, and decided to kill and stuff her into above fridge. The ensuing guilt propelled Kyle into being the hero that he was destined to be…

…and it also was the first instance of “fridge-ing”

Congrats, Geek Culture! We helped create a terrible narrative trope!

Unfortunately, things haven’t really gotten that much better as the years of have gone by. Female characters in comic books, games, and television have been mishandled, mischaracterized, and all together misused since then. For every Orange is the New Black, there are multiple shows, games, and comics that just do everything wrong.

Examples, you ask? Okay.

Game-wise, the two most recent offenders are Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and Watch_Dogs; which both use “fridge-ing,” as a narrative technique to motivate their respective heroes.


In MGS: Ground Zeroes, Big Boss/Snake is required to rescue former associates Paz (a female officer) and Chico (a young male soldier) from a government run facility. By the end of the game you have rescued them both, but it’s found out that Paz has had a bomb placed inside of her. So, in one of the most gruesome moments put to gaming, the male characters dig into her abdomen, un-anesthetized, and rip the bomb out.


It’s gross, over the top, and not the worst part.

After the bomb is removed and she comes to, she relates that she has a second bomb placed inside of her as well; and so she jumps out of the helicopter to save the rest, exploding mid-air. It is not revealed unless you go through some of the side content where the other bomb was hidden…

…her vagina.

Within the audio logs you find, you discover that Skullface (the villain) had not only his men rape Paz, but he had Chico rape her as well, and THEN placed the bomb into her. The audio logs are long, uncomfortable, and disgusting. There’s no narrative or gameplay value to their existence in the game outside of shock value and as a means to motivate the player character to revenge in the upcoming sequel.

Though not as graphic, Watch_Dogs is just as bad.

Watch Dogs

In the game, there are two main female characters, Clara (a hacker who befriends the player avatar) and Nicole (the player’s sister.) Suffice it to say, both ladies have little to no story arc simply because they exist only to continue to push the main character forward.

Nicole’s only contribution to the plot is to be captured, held hostage, and kidnapped multiple times over and over again to bring the player character to action. At multiple points in the game, the player has to hand hold her through an action filled situation, because she is unable to defend herself on ANY level.

Ironically, her subplot ends with her leaving her ENTIRE LIFE behind in Chicago, taking her son with her; as the player character realizes that her continued existence within the gamespace (Chicago) would only result in her getting kidnapped, killed, etc. over and over and over again.

(Did I mention that she had a daughter that the main character got killed because she was in a car with him when he was attacked by thugs? Yeah, that too)

Clara might be the bigger problem. She is introduced as a competent rival hacker, but soon afterward she just becomes an objectified character model walking around the hideout of the player. Unfortunately, this is not out of the ordinary for most video games. Because of her lack of development and any story arc to speak of, she becomes less a character and more a piece of set dressing.

(Oh yeah, there’s also the fact that her model is actually based off a well known porn actress too…which has very little to do with the argument above, but it sure doesn’t necessarily help matters either.)

The icing on this terrible cake is that she ends up being “fridged” as well by the end of the game. It is revealed that she had a hand in some of the events leading up to the game, which tangentially led to the death of the Aiden’s (the player’s character) niece. While visiting the grave of the girl, she is gunned down as the player is trying to rush forward to save her in real time gameplay.

This, of course, is followed up by the player having to listen to a 2 minute long voicemail she left, just before she died; apologizing for her involvement and wishing to “just disappear…”

…which in turn motivates Aiden into the final act of the game.

It’s all very frustrating, to say the least.

Yet, much like you see in other forms of media, there is a silver lining, a ray of hope that shows things are changing; if only ever so slowly.

Take a game like Transistor.

As fellow Promethean Stewart wrote,

Transistor is a beautiful story about a woman whose voice (literally) was taken from her. It’s about her lover. It’s about a city that they both love deeply, but isn’t what it used to be. It’s about change, and remembering the way things were without ever being able to go back.”

Most importantly, it not only stars a female (Red) as a lead, but it gives her a complete, well written, and genuine story arc. She is not used, she is not thrown around by events in the game space, she is the one CREATING those events. In other words, she is a fully realized character.

Red has more of a voice without having one, has more of a message without saying a word, than any of the previously mentioned examples above….

…Cue Dramatic Irony

Joss Whedon, known for his work on Buffy, Angel, The Avengers, and much more said in an interview once,

“When people say to me, ‘Why are you so good at writing at women?’ I say, ‘Why isn’t everybody?’ Obviously there are differences between men and women – that’s what makes it all fun. But we’re all people.”

It’s a pretty straightforward sentiment, but one that geek culture is now just starting to embrace, albeit slowly. Hopefully as we all continue to move forward, and as the medium continues to mature, we’ll see more games like Transistor, Gone Home, or Mirror’s Edge.

Geek culture has to come to terms with the fact that sexism and misogyny are deeply ingrained, and figure out what we can do to excise that cancer from our favorite hobbies. I’d like to believe that we are all better than this…

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Kamala Khan: Phil Coulson 2014

The two biggest publishing houses in comics, Marvel and DC, have been under a lot of scrutiny in the past few years for how their titles portray women, people of color, and LGBT characters, as well as how many creators they employ who are women, people of color, or LGBT. It started a sort of Race to Diversity in some readers’ eyes, and many thought that “good storytelling” was being compromised for the sake of “unnecessary” or “arbitrary” diversity.

It hasn’t been easy for either Marvel or DC to make and keep the changes that would bring their comics into the year 2014 as far as demographics are concerned – but Marvel seems to be doing a much better job. In many ways I think that’s because Marvel excels at telling stories about how super-heroes affect non-powered humans. The more your stories are about the “average person” the more you’re able to invest in discussing what “average” actually means.

Last month saw the release of Ms. Marvel #1. “Ms. Marvel” was the former super-hero name of Carol Danvers, a lesser-known Avenger known now as “Captain Marvel.” (Trivia: Captain Marvel was previously a DC title featuring the character now known as Shazam until Marvel recently re-acquired the rights.) But in the past year, Carol Danvers has been to deep-space and back with the rest of the extended Avengers team in the Infinity storyline (which is well worth the read, if you haven’t gotten around to it yet).

Anyway, part of including the stories of non-powered humans is telling the stories of fictional fans of the super-hero teams. The Avengers, being the most well-known group, naturally attract a lot of fans. The kind of fans that write fan-fics and blog about their favorite heroes. The kind of fans who act out pretend super-battles in their house while their family roles their eyes. The kind of fans who collect vintage trading cards of with their favorite heroes on them.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) was the film that pushed the super-hero movie genre fully into the mainstream of entertainment as the third highest grossing film of all time. One of the most memorable scenes in that entire film was the fanboyish fawning that Phil Coulson does over his hero, Captain America. He asks him to sign his vintage collectible cards. Fans took to Phil Coulson right away. Marvel’s newest sensation. He was one of us, a non-powered hero that was prone to hero-worship himself — awkwardly embarrassing himself on a quinjet full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and superhumans when he tried to explain to Steve Rogers that there were collectible cards with his face on them.

Back to 2014, a new face of comic super-fandom has arrived: Kamala Khan, the star of Ms. Marvel #1.

Kamala is a quirky, nerdy, teenage Avengers superfan. She wears a sweatshirt with Carol Danvers’ trademark lightning-strike logo, she writes fan-fiction comics, and she even talks to an imaginary Carol about how much she’d like to be her! She’s also Muslim, a very under-represented demographic in pop culture.

The dramatic conclusion to Kamala’s fan fiction…

Well, for anyone who loved Coulson before his debut in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show, you might have a new fictional best friend. What most of us loved about Coulson was that he was charming in his awkward hero worship, but he was also competent, dangerous, and loyal. Kamala, in this first issue of Ms. Marvel is shown to be awkward, charming, and loyal, and the teaser at the end of the issue indicates she’s going to be competent and dangerous – like any good hero should be. The difference between Coulson and Khan is that where Coulson is a middle-aged white man, Khan is a teenaged, brown-skinned, Muslim girl.

If we take a moment to look back into comics history, Peter Parker was so important  in his time because the original Spider-Man comics tackled not only with street crime and super-villainy, but what it meant to be a contemporary teenager. The X-Men were trying to live the dual life of young Americans whose identities would make them outcasts – a very real feeling for many people, even today.

It represents a lot that Marvel’s newest, most relatable character is a Muslim teenage girl. I hope that Kamala will be for comic fans of all identities what Peter Parker was for previous generations of awkward teens – escapism with a dose of what’s real to them. Nobody has to imagine what it’s like to be a teenager, or even what it’s like to feel like you don’t quite fit in. We’ve all been there. For Kamala Khan, her religious identity and nerdy fandom set her on the fringes of her social scene; for others it might be sexual orientation, gender, age, or skin color. But seeing heroes with whom we can identify coping with “real” problems at the same time as they’re saving the world is the kind of cathartic pop art that, historically, brought comics into their own.

Everybody knows that feel. Well… Except for the boot thing I guess.

Ms. Marvel is in the rising tide of new characters and ideas that will make comics (my favorite pop culture art medium), and all the greatness that’s a part of them, available to people that aren’t white dudes and want to occasionally read a story about someone like them.

The Isolated Geek

Like a fuzzy mammalian beast emerging from it’s winter cave, the Promethean Playground writers have had our fill of holiday meals and down time, and having hibernated successfully, we’re eager to hit the ground running with a whole new set of profound thoughts  for 2014. Happy New Year!

As we go into a new year and I look forward to all the new geeky things that are coming down the pipeline, I’m sort of amused to think about how mainstream my cultural niches are becoming. Comic book movies now run with the big dogs in the summer blockbuster lineup and video games are now so popular that nearly everybody I run into considers themselves a gamer.

This really is the era of the geek. Despite the best efforts of insulting shows like Big Bang Theory, King of the Nerds, and Heroes of Cosplay to ridicule us wholesale, it remains pretty socially acceptable to be a devoted fan of sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, and video games.

Maybe I just know the right places to look now, but when I was younger, it was incredibly rare to find someone with whom I really shared interests, and I always felt the need to keep many of my favorite things relatively secret. As a result I had few true friendships, but those I did have were deep and long lasting.

In between the times I could be with my good friends, I often felt a little isolated. (Before I move on, I should say that this doesn’t mean I had a “bad” childhood or anything. I was never bullied, really, and occasional loneliness is a reality of many lives.) I can’t be the only one that felt this way, and I think it probably resulted in a lot of really good geek art.

What jumps immediately to mind is the work of Jeff Lemire. His writing (and art, for that matter) in The Underwater WelderLost DogsSweet Tooth, and, more recently, Animal Man shows a profound understanding of isolation that I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anywhere else.

It’s clearest in Underwater Welder, where the protagonist relives his past while walking through a deserted parody of his home town.

It’s hard to avoid the imagery in this book. The protagonist does his job (a welder for an offshore oil rig) while trapped in waterproof armor, surrounded by silent water, connected to the rest of the world only by a thin strand.

For a person whose greatest fear really is long-term isolation, Underwater Welder is an emotional, difficult book to read. But it’s beautiful all the same. In a feeling that definitely isn’t schadenfreude, reading a book like this gives a person the relief of knowing that someone out there knows what it’s like.

So in this way, I feel like Lemire and I might be the last of a fortunately dying breed: the isolated geek. (Apologies to Mr. Lemire for making so many assumptions about his life.) I haven’t experienced that kind of isolation in years. In fact, in the room I’m sitting in now I’m surrounded on one side by group of people younger than me happily trash talking as they play a Marvel vs. Capcom fighting game, on another side by a guy perfecting a deck of trading cards, and on another by a couple with a pair of 3DS’s dueling each other in Pokemon X/Y. None of them have the trepidation I would have had when I was a teenager about doing the things they love in public. It’s wonderful.

But before we hang up our hats, turn off the lights, and enjoy our new social station, it might be worth remembering that all of geekdom isn’t as welcoming as the coffee shop I happen to be in right now.

Without getting into the exhausting details, I just hope that when we play Limbo, when we read The Underwater Welder, when we experience geek art that emphasizes the painful reality of isolation, we make every effort to make sure no other geek has to feel that isolated.

Let’s make it so every every one of our niches is as welcoming to others as this place is to us.

The hidden feminists of Pawnee, Indiana

Watching Parks & Recreation is kind of like going to a women’s college.

Unfortunately, most men (the exception, for now, being transmen) will never get to experience the absolutely kick-ass, convention-busting, powerful support of a women’s college.

Which means men have to work way harder to bust those conventions. (They’re usually about what women vs. men should do or should want to do or are allowed to do. A lot of stuff about ambition & sexual agency, ya know).

But, for you awesome guys out there, there’s an easier way to be a chill, assured feminist man than to read Jezebel and bell hooks and Feministing all the time.

And that way is to watch Parks & Recreation.

Are you familiar with the show? A brief explanation (yes, minor SPOILER ALERTS):

Amy Poehler’s main character, Leslie Knope, is the deputy director of the Parks & Recreation dept. of a small town in Indiana – and also the town’s first-ever city councilwoman (beginning in season 5). She eats waffles constantly & reads political biographies; she has photos of Madeleine Albright, Barbara Boxer, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton & more lining her walls. Her mustachioed boss (Ron Swanson) is a libertarian who works for local government. Her best friend is a nurse, her husband is a campaign strategist/accountant/financial adviser, and she only needs to sleep about 4 hours a night.

“Well what makes the show so like a women’s college?”

Well, first off, the main character is a woman, and she’s in a position of power.

But more importantly: it’s No Big Deal. It just seems natural and obvious because, duh, she’s extremely motivated and endearing and talented and brings a ton of energy to her work. So it’s only right that she can carry a show by herself and excel at her bitchin’ job.

So, the show has a strong female lead (who is a politician). That’s obviously media-paradigm-breaking feminism, but it’s the quieter, more subversive feminist elements that make this show shine.

I think that the real game-changers in the feminism of this show are the men.

Yep, the men.

Let’s start with Leslie’s assistant, Tom Haverford.

Tom (played by Aziz Ansari) is unapologetically metrosexual. He’s famous among the characters for his Bumble & Bumble hair care products, his cheese plates, his chenille throws, his cashmere sweaters, his fear of grass stains on his summer linens, and his sweet sweet mixed drinks.

And while he might be a critique of the extremes of consumer society…

… The characters on the show do not emasculate him. He may be annoying, but it’s because he’s a hyperconsumer, not because he’s a man who acts like a woman. And thereby an opportunity to mark traditionally feminine behaviors as annoying, embarrassing, and inferior to traditionally male behaviors is skipped.


And, honestly, I get the impression that if a character did try to make Tom feel inferior by using derogatory female insults… he probably wouldn’t care. He likes how he lives his life and the fact that lots of women enjoy it too wouldn’t ever make him consider rejecting it.

Proceed on to Jerry Gergich.

Jerry’s both a schlemiel and schlemazel on the show. But one of the show’s big paradoxes is that his wife and daughters are smokin’ hot. His wife is played by Christie Brinkley, actually.

When the show’s very fit, very enthusiastic, very positive Chris Traeger (played to the hilt by Rob Lowe) starts dating Jerry’s lithe blonde daughter Millicent (basically the cliché of the tempting young thing in need of protection from… well… temptation), he offers to keep Jerry apprised of their goings-on and to keep everything PG for a while.

Jerry, instead of being the blustering, protective father who is enraged by the idea of his daughter as a sexual being, firmly declines Chris’s offer.

“Millie’s a grown woman,” he says, and he trusts her to date whoever she wants and do whatever she wants. It’s really none of his business, he says.

Thank you, sir – can I have another?

Seriously, I wish more TV dads were like this. (And more real dads).

Jerry doesn’t for one second think that he has anything to do with his daughter’s sex life, nor that she should be expected to desire or do anything different from what Chris desires and does.

Right on, Señor Gergich. Right on.

Andy Dwyer:

Andy is a goofball, who may veer into the Doofy Husbands Trope, however something about his character makes me feel like he evades that cliché. My best guess why? His doofyness comes from not taking himself seriously; not from failing to perform basic tasks and incurring the eye-rolling of a much-put-upon wife.

He isn’t ashamed to be excited and enthusiastic about anything, and while it’s played up for comedic effect, it’s never scorned. (It’s also part of a great dichotomy when paired with his surly, cynical wife, April).

For Andy, it would never occur to him to believe in or even absorb stereotypes.

He’s got the innocence of a child, but shows viewers how you can still be an adult… and somehow still have a child-like lack of jerkiness.

Plus, he takes a women’s studies class at the community college and LOVES it. And again, it’s really No Big Deal. It’s just an awesome class and he thinks his professor rocks and he’s just so excited about the cool women they’re studying because he is equally excited about everyone.

And finally, the cherry on top of our character cake: the ineffable Ron Swanson.

Nick Offerman’s mustachioed character is a complex and paradoxical man. He’s often viewed as a traditional Man’s Man – he’s a carpenter; lives in a cabin; consumes only steak, bacon, eggs, and whiskey; hates “feelings talk”; and is constantly annoyed by Leslie’s enthusiasm and verve for government work. (He’s “a staunch libertarian,” you see).

But his sometime distaste for Leslie’s political beliefs never crosses into a disrespect for her as a person.

He never suggests that she has less of a right to disagree with him because she’s a woman, and his “traditional” political ideas never bleed into support for traditional gender roles.

In one episode, Andy tells his women’s studies prof that Ron is a feminist role model for him. Ron notes, “I don’t really consider myself an anything -ist, but my life has been shaped by strong women.”

(While generally denials of being a feminist induce eye-rolling from me because “feminism” shouldn’t be a dirty word, this makes perfect sense in the context of Ron’s no-nonsense, secretive, allegiance-shirking, libertarian ways).

And, to seal the deal, he even starts dating sexy, powerful, no-nonsense Diane in season 5 – played by none other than Lucy Lawless, a.k.a. XENA, WARRIOR PRINCESS.

The choice to have Xena play the role of Ron’s significant other was no coincidence, I am sure. It’s an obvious nod to the fact that Ron respects, and indeed is only attracted to, strong and powerful women, and has absolutely no compunctions about it.

The ferocity of and power wielded by his two ex-wives (Tammy I, a brilliantly brutal IRS auditor, and Tammy II, a sexually ravenous and manipulative librarian) only underscores this fact. While it’s clear that they’re crazy b****es, they didn’t gain b**** status because they lost their ladylike politeness/demureness/goodness when they took on these traditionally masculine traits of ambition and power.

No one’s got a problem with them being so power-hungry. Rather, they’re b****es because they literally try to ruin Ron’s life and steal the gold he has buried around his property. Not an exclusively feminine trait.

I’ll throw a nod in here to Ben Wyatt, Leslie’s admirable husband, for while I think his character’s deep vein of geekiness is an untapped opportunity to make a commentary on female geek culture, he at the very least constantly shows that his wife’s ambition is pretty much the sexiest thing about her. His character’s political and career redemption is only achieved through her political and career achievements, and later he is the one who takes a step back from his career to support hers.

• • •

OK, so did you notice a lot of negative words in those feminist bios?

A lot of “isn’t” and “no big deal” or “don’t”?

Well, that’s kind of the point.

We could be watching a show that’s constantly, directly discussing feminism and women’s empowerment and undermining traditional gender roles…

But we’re not.

Instead, we’re watching a show that simply doesn’t have misogyny in it.

And what are you left with when you simply don’t include misogyny?

You’ve only got feminist ideas.

So you don’t have to make a big deal about it. It’s just there. It fills the vacuum left by douchey guys and sexist jokes and clichéd women’s storylines with a laid-back, authentic, subtly empowering story that just happens to be feminist.

And that brings me back to my point about P&R being like a women’s college.

Women’s colleges are not a place to foster hatred of men or put them down or constantly duke it out with misogynistic ideas. They’re simply places where misogyny is largely absent. (This does not mean that all men bring misogyny with them, but it’s a lot harder for it to sneak in when it props up no one within the student body).

And when it’s absent, it becomes natural to not second-guess yourself or other women, to not avoid taking on leadership roles, to not compare yourself to gender stereotypes.

That’s what Parks & Rec does. It doesn’t have to make a big deal of actively doing or saying feminist stuff. They just make a point to not do or say un-feminist stuff.

That’s what feminism actually is – the absence of misogyny.

(Rather than the presence of bra-burning, or whatever other stereotype is popular today).

So, thank you Parks & Rec. Thank you, Amy Poehler. Thank you, Ron and Jerry and Tom and Andy and Ben and Chris.

Keep up the good work, and stay cool.