Fantasia 2017, Day 18, Part 1: Geek Girls
Sunday, July 30, was going to be a big day. I had four movies I hoped to see, some of them scheduled so tightly I wasn’t sure I could get to all of them in time despite the convenient proximity of the Fantasia theatres one to another. Still, I at least knew I’d start my day in the D.B. Clarke Theatre, where I would see Geek Girls, a documentary by Gina Hara.
The film’s narrated by Hara herself, a Montrealer of Hungarian birth. We see her reflecting in voiceover on her status as a self-identified geek, and hear interviews with a number of women in geekish fields who talk about their lives and their experiences as women in geek spaces and geek communities. The interviews aren’t presented as give-and-take conversations, Hara instead absenting herself from the film and allowing her interviewees’ words to shape the piece. We hear from a scientist, a game designer, from cosplayers and bloggers and manga makers, from gamers professional and otherwise. Hara’s film becomes about her own search for a place, and for an understanding of what it means to be a geek. We’re told that there’s no word for “geek” in Hungarian, but even in North America, what does it mean for her as a woman to be a geek?
Hara avoids any journalistic reliance on facts and figures, making her film much more of a personal memoir. This is a series of discussions and reflections, not infodumps; even Hara’s interviewees are each introduced, cleverly, with the camera showing a physical sign with their name on it rather than by using subtitles. The interviews are edited so that the film progresses through a rough series of themes, examining the issues of women in geek-related fields. Overall the focus here is on the sense of community among women (especially); that is, the film’s more about the value of fandom rather than an investigation of what pulls one in to being a fan.
Hara also avoids presenting a definition of “geek.” I note this because in my 40s I’m old enough that the word always has, to me, a pejorative sting; Hara and all the women in the film are younger than I am and evidently untroubled by the term. At any rate, what intrigued me was that the film assumes, or appears to assume, a linkage between geekishness and community. Hara doesn’t imply that one must be part of a community to be a geek, but she is deeply interested in the way by which geek communities form and by which they encourage others to geekiness — the ways someone can be supported in their passions by a wider community.
In that context, it’s worth noting that the movie considers issues of inclusion beyond gender; for example, it includes a number of women of colour among the interviewees. And there’s much discussion of moving beyond mere representation to real proportionality. That’s clearly important, especially in a world where, as one interviewee suggests, everyone’s becoming a geek in some way. Certainly it harmonises with the film’s interest in communities and networks, and in the ways one’s pursuits are supported within a wider context.
In fact the breadth of interests among the interviewees themselves suggests an expansive idea of geekness. Hara covers a lot of ground, interviewing creators in various fields as well as bloggers who write about geekdom in general. It strikes me that she speaks to people engaged in both geek endeavours coded as feminine — cosplayers, in particular — and some (arguably) coded as masculine, including a scientist and a professional gamer. If the latter are women in stereotypically male-identified fields, who each have to cope with being one of the few women in their particular environment, then it’s clear that women in other geek areas have issues as well; how cosplayers, for example, face harassment, sexualisation, and the misconception that they dress up for the sake of male attention.
In general, then, the film explores the ramifications of gender and gender roles on the geek experience. Inevitably, there are intense discussions of the experience of gendered harassment these women have faced. The interviewees here are all remarkably open, but it’s heartbreaking to hear Hara mention that it was difficult to get people to commit to being interviewed for the film due to fears of harassment. There’s some thoughtful discussion here of how abuse becomes almost a rite of passage; pro gamer Stephanie Harvey is particularly precise in discussing the insults she gets in gaming, and how it’s different in kind and degree from the trash-talk doled out to her male peers. Equally, the film makes clear the pressure on women not to talk about these things. That is, one understands that simply speaking out, here and elsewhere, has a clear importance; that having people discuss these things in a film like this is to whatever degree significant in itself.
And it’s interesting to hear as well how some of the women found they were able to overcome the attacks. A cosplayer, for example, talks about how surprised she was at not being hurt when her weight was mocked online. This is not something one should have to learn about themselves, especially in that way. But hearing her recount her discovery of her own self-reliance makes for a powerful moment in the film.
More generally, the women here speak about exploding the idea that femininity is bad, while at the same time embracing the idea of geekiness as a kind of rebellion. The overall impression, then, is both of people finding themselves as individuals while doing so within the broader context of a community, as both ‘geek’ and ‘girl.’ The success of the film, I think, is in the way that it shows these women balancing the complementary identities and complementary aspects of these identities. And therefore in giving Hara’s own personal story a sense of closure.
After the film, a panel took place with director Gina Hara and several of the women interviewed in the film: professional gamer Stephanie Harvey, blogger Mariko McDonald AKA Gamerwife, Rebecca Cohen-Palacios of Pixelles, and cosplayer Élisabeth Fallen. Hara was asked first about her biggest challenge in making the film; she said it was convincing people to be in the film — including convincing herself to appear on screen. (As always in post-screening question-and-answer sessions, what follows comes from my handwritten notes; here I want to emphasise the unreliability, as there was a lot of discussion, and a lot of material from the different speakers.)
The panel were then asked about their biggest surprises as geek girls. Fallen talked about the gothic lolita community she was now a part of, and how supportive they were. McDonald spoke about a geek girl brunch that she hosted, and how strangers would be fascinated by it. Cohen-Palacios spoke of the self-empowerment she found came out of empowering others. Harvey talked about her personal journey, how she became a full-time geek and how she came to accept it.
The moderator asked how they had found things had changed, and Hara said she found change was in the process of going on. People were becoming more aware of what it was to be a geek and a woman. Harvey spoke about the change she had seen in the gaming world and the perception of women gamers. Cohen-Palacios spoke about identities coming out of the shadows, how it was easier to be oneself and how optimistic she was about the future. Fallen spoke about seeing broader representation of women in media and more women protagonists.
Asked about being more comfortable with feminine things, McDonald spoke about how she likes to play with gendered ideas, and cosplays as a male character; in the past she had been afraid of being accused of being feminine. Harvey said she’d been spending more time lately with women herself, discussing clothes and makeup.
Hara was asked what the plans were for the movie, and she said it would be playing in selected theatres and festivals over the fall, before coming to the internet next year on “one of the platforms you all know.” Asked about her observation of the lack of a word for ‘geek’ in her native language, Hara spoke about feeling outcast, among other things as an immigrant, and how she tries to translate that to how other people feel outcast. Asked why she didn’t speak to more people in Japan (a location for the film, where Hara does speak to some Japanese women), Hara said she’d found it difficult to get interview subjects there; she found North American subjects through social media and friends of friends. In answer to another conversation, she said that while she didn’t look for someone in Hungary, when she was last there a year ago she saw someone walking on the street in costume; she followed and had a nice conversation. So the culture is changing around the world, she said, but while she’d looked in to including stories from many countries, there was only so much that could fit into the film.
A questioner in the audience noted that there were lots of men in the audience, and asked if the panel had anything to say to them. McDonald said simply don’t be jerks and to call out your friends when they’re jerks. Cohen-Palacios suggested listening more. Fallen said not to take it personally that more cultural creations were focussing on women, as white dudes with guns were still going to exist in fiction. Harvey advised looking at one’s actions, and added that the same was true for women who were often encouraged by society to be misogynist instead of lifting others up.
Hara was asked about the lack of statistics in her film, and she said she’d wanted to avoid the objectivity of stats, and had decided not to make a more journalistic film. A question about whether the panel had encountered microaggressions from other women led Harvey to speak at length about her experiences with harassment from women, and how she herself had to learn how to accept other successful women — after having unconsciously trained herself be the ‘best woman’ in her field, she had to learn it was not a zero-sum game, and that it was better to accept other people’s success, and generally to switch from the mindset of ‘I want to be her’ to ‘I want to work with her.’ McDonald spoke about the social conditioning one has to work on getting over, whether that meant being competitive with women, being afraid of being a tomboy, or whatever else; all the stuff that exists to keep women quiet and that women internalise. She also spoke about the way in which the lack of a certain group in an industry may have little to do with a lack of qualified people from that group, and more to do with a lack of opportunity or connections — a question of who’s in the rolodex and who isn’t. Fallen noted that if someone’s better or smarter than her, she uses it as motivation.
In answer to a question about the annual Montreal Harajuku walk, when cosplayers walked in costume as a group in public, and the harassment they faced, Fallen talked about the precautions they tried to take such as having organizers spread out through the walking group. She said that the public sees cosplayers as objects, whether it comes to taking photographs or stalking them, and that some of the participants in the walk have been assaulted. Still they hope the walk will grow, and ideally some streets will be blocked off during the walk.
Hara was asked why she didn’t include any footage from the San Diego Comic-Con, and she said that it turned out to be impossible with the travel and funding. She did manage to make it to five conventions, and spoke about hoping to make it to Seattle’s Geek Girl Con. A question about inspiration led the panelists to talk about how much they enjoy their fields. Harvey said that’s why she speaks out for women in gaming. Cohen-Palacios said she found the work of organising can be tiring, but energising for people when someone actually does it. Fallen talked about how organic events can make people feel less alone, and commented on the importance of trans representation in her community. McDonald spoke about her favourite comment left on her blog, from a friend recently who shut down a misogynist based on something McDonald said; McDonald said she was pleased to have helped someone, however slightly.
Asked for final words, Hara reflected on what she’d learned about how people see themselves. She said it had changed her life to meet other self-identified geek women, and to feel part of a community.
With the panel discussion concluded I left the theater in a hurry; the next movie I hoped to see was about to start upstairs. I had most of a packed day still ahead of me, and with three fiction films following the documentary, I had no idea where it’d take me. But at least it had started well.
(See all my 2017 Fantasia reviews here.)
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. You can buy his first collection of essays, looking at some fantasy novels of the twenty-first century, here. His second collection, looking at some fantasy from the twentieth century, is here. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.