Geek culture has a problem. More than one, really, but the biggest has to be its awful treatment of women and the toxic masculinity which accompanies that treatment. The most recent allegations of sexual assault have put this in the spotlight once again. So what are we going to do about it?
Many years ago, I was introduced to a website called Ain’t It Cool News. It was founded by a guy called Harry Knowles who I swear was the embodiment of every film geek stereotype. He was fat, ginger, had a weird but impressive neckbeard, had an extensive knowledge of superheroes, and he fucking LOVED movies. AICN was an ugly bastard of a website (and still is), but it got some fantastic scoops and exclusives, back before that sort of thing was an everyday occurrence (this was pre-Twitter). Harry built himself quite the following and managed to make himself somewhat influential in the world of film, film criticism and publicity. He was just a normal(?) guy, who had made it thanks to his dedication and passion. AICN was my go-to any time there was even a hint of some cool film coming up. It was a boys club, but I’m a boy, so it’s all good, right?
Except it went beyond that. Some of the articles were pretty vile. Harry’s “edgy yet jocular” style was, in retrospect, creepy and misogynist. His review of Blade 2 is truly gross. It reads like an unpopular kid trying to get in with the jock crowd by aping what he thinks the jocks all talk about. Worse, it also reads like a failed attempt to impress “the ladies” by going on and on about oral sex, as if to say “Check it out, I know all about this stuff. Want me to show you?” probably followed by a joke about how he is just kidding, just kidding… unless, y’know? It’s barely forgivable from an awkward teenager. At the age of 31 it’s sleazy as hell. Or, worse, his review of Heroes in 2006, practically detailing his masturbation fantasy regarding a then 17-year-old. This is on a site which was supposed to be dedicated to a love of film, geek film in particular, and instead we get a 35-year-old guy telling the world how brilliant it is that a TV show features someone who he can wank over.
I stopped regularly visiting AICN many years ago now. My news sources increased and I found better places, with better writers, from which to get my dose of film news. I hadn’t thought about AICN for years. Until today.
Now Harry Knowles has been accused of sexual assault in 1999 and 2000. Former Alamo Drafthouse employee, Jasmine Baker, has claimed that Knowles rubbed up against her and put his hand under her shirt without her consent. it is alleged that Knowles simply giggled when confronted about his behaviour at the time. The allegations have been denied by Knowles. This isn’t the first time claims of unacceptable behaviour have been levelled against someone with influence in the film critic scene. In 2016 Devin Faraci, then editor-in-chief of Birth.Movies.Death, was accused of harassing and groping several women, prompting his eventual resignation. Certainly, Faraci seems to be a far less popular figure than Knowles but, to my mind at least, he still falls into the category of a “geek with influence”. Both Knowles and Faraci have been linked with the Alamo Drafthouse in a professional capacity.
The Alamo Drafthouse is something of a darling of the arthouse cinema circuit, with their zero-tolerance policies for texting and talking during films, their love of cult cinema and their apparent feminism through events like their women-only screening of Wonder Woman. While that is certainly admirable, it has the unfortunate side-effect of shielding those associated with the Alamo Drafthouse from criticism or accusations of misogyny. How could anyone linked with such a great organisation be a bad guy? Surely not. Not them. No way.
And so it goes in other facets of geek culture. Comic Con (as well as other Cons) has had an issue with harassment for years and has only recently started to address it. Joss Wheadon has been accused of multiple infidelities (but, I want to be clear, nothing non-consensual). I’m sure plenty of people can cite examples of guys behaving in a sleazy or otherwise inappropriate manner at a Con only to have their concerns dismissed because “he’s just kidding around” or “he doesn’t mean anything by it”. Perpetrators are shielded by their associations. It has happened in tabletop and LARP groups “Oh, but Person X has known him for years, he wouldn’t hang around someone like that”, it has happened in comic shops “He is always really nice to girls who come in to the shop and has tonnes of female friends, he wouldn’t do that” and it absolutely happens online “Oh, but he always posts about White Ribbon and defended the reboot of Ghost Busters, how could you accuse him of that?”. Geeks are supposed to be the outcasts, we are harmless and weak, so why would we do anything to hold power over someone else? Surely it can’t be true!
I can’t answer the why, I’m no psychologist. I can, however, say that harassment, assault and rape have happened and will continue to happen within geek culture. Until we stop objectifying women, it will happen. Until we stop with the ideas of the “friendzone” and “fake geek girls”, it will happen. Until we stop excusing abusers, it will happen. Until we bite the bullet and abandon those things which are problematic, it will happen. Humans are inherently fallible. The people you look up to are, one assumes, human. Sometimes their failings are minor and we can get past them. Sometimes, however, their failings are a lot bigger, which is where we have to make a choice. Do we chose to stick with it or to let it go.
And that’s the hard part. Taking something you love, looking at it objectively, realising it has a rotten core, and throwing it away. It’s not an easy thing, particularly for a culture in which the things you love and obsess over become a part of your being. Geeks identify themselves by their fandoms so abandoning one can feel like abandoning part of yourself. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe we need to abandon the parts of ourselves which harbour and encourage ugliness. Maybe part of the cure is simply amputation.