Sunday, October 12, 2014

TedX Sarasota Recap: I'm better with the written word.

A few months ago I was invited to speak at TedX Sarasota, and that invitation finally came to fruition this past Monday. Unfortunately, the main thing it taught me is that while I can memorize lines for a play and rock it on stage in that respect, while I can give a presentation using notes to keep me on track, while I can be part of or even run panels about the things I love at conventions, I am probably not meant to stand up and give memorized speeches.

Perhaps it was the fact that my speech evolved so much from its inception, and was still evolving up until just a couple of weeks before the event. And I'm sure it didn't help that I came down with bronchitis not two days before I had to give said speech. But in the end it was comprised of too many 'uh's' and 'um's' and a lot of repetition that I thought I'd worked out of it when writing and rehearsing it. So while I'm not sure I'll be sharing the video all that much, I wanted to share what the speech was supposed to be. I'm even going to include copies of my slides (please note that because of the nature of TedX, none of these were used or are being used outside of the parameters of fair use).

Self-Definition: Geeky and Proud!

"Hi everyone. My name is Tara, and I'm a geek.

Now, I'm not insulting myself - the definition of being a geek has evolved a lot in recent years. These days, a geek is simply someone who has a lot of passion for their interests and activities. You can be any kind of geek - math, literature, music, video games, Star Wars, Harry Potter, even business - because your geekdom is determined by the fact that, as I said, you have a lot of passion for your interests.

Personally, I'm a sci-fi and fantasy geek. I go to genre conventions and co-founded one of these in 2012. I cosplay as my favorite characters, along with some amazing friends I've met along the way. I read sci-fi and fantasy novels and comic books, and watch and review television shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Arrow. These are the things that I 'geek out' about because I'm passionate about them.

So today, I'm going to talk about three things - the evolution of geek culture from being a thing for outcasts to being part of the mainstream; one part of geekdom that is lagging behind the rest; and what embracing and encouraging this part can do not just for those of us who participate in geek culture, but for interpersonal relationships and even society as a whole.

In the past, geeks were not cool. Years ago (let's say twenty, or so), if you were called a geek, or thought of as a geek, you were likely an outcast and probably even bullied, simply for having interests that weren't 'mainstream'. I know that when I was in high school, I would hide my Star Wars Extended Universe novels inside notebooks when I read them in study halls, because God forbid anyone see me reading something so geeky!

But nowadays, so many of those interests are mainstream - or are becoming so. Star Wars is probably the earliest example of something 'geeky' becoming popular; more recently, huge strides have been made in terms of things that were once considered geeky becoming mainstream, especially with television. For example, Game of Thrones is the most pirated television show right now, and The Walking Dead is the most watched show on cable television.

There has also been an explosion in geek-themed websites, blogs, podcasts, subreddits, and fandom communities. I have friends who podcast about general geek culture and have tens of thousands of listeners; even people I know who podcast about one specific part of geekdom have thousands of listeners. Meanwhile, conventions small and large are springing up all over the world, and attendance to these events is consistently growing.

And there are plenty of 'famous geeks' who have contributed to the mainstreaming of geek culture. They are featured in media both as characters - the television show Community being one of the better examples of this - and as themselves. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Anthony Bourdain, Bill Nye, and John Green come to mind. Additionally, some of the richest and most famous people in the world are geeks and nerds - who doesn't know at least one of these names: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg? And from the sci-fi and fantasy sect of geek culture, you have household names like Patrick Stewart, Ian McEllen, and Daniel Radcliffe, who became famous by playing famous characters, as well as George Takei and Wil Wheaton, who both parlayed roles on Star Trek into their own places in pop culture.

Geekdom has obviously gained its footing in mainstream culture, both in the media and in everyday life. It's cool to be a geek!

But wait a moment. There's something missing here. What do all of the people who I just mentioned have in common? They're all men.

What's up with that? Are there no female geeks? Well, I'm here, so that can't be true. But what about famous female geeks? If I mentioned Ashley Eckstein, Felicia Day, or Tina Fey, and told you that thse women are the most famous female geeks from the past few years, would you automatically think of them the way you'd think of Bill Gates or Patrick Stewart?

My guess is no. Being female and geeky still isn't as cool or mainstream as being male and geeky. While the 'cool factor' of geekdom has increased, the gender equality within it hasn't matched that pace - not by a long shot.

Why is that? Well, I think to really explore this question, we need to go back in time again. Self-definition - the process of understanding and defining who you are - is one of the most important parts of development that children and teens go through. And beginning at a fairly young age, children tend to form their self-definitions from three factors: education, marketing, and their peers.

Let's take a look at how, over the last few decades, those factors have shaped a culture in which it's cool to be a guy geek, but not a girl geek.

In education, girls weren't expected to do well in math and science - we were meant to be teachers, nurses, secretaries, or mothers. We were supposed to be quiet in class and not speak up, let alone speak out. Boys could still be smart even if they weren't strong, but girls? We were just supposed to be 'pretty'.

When it came to marketing, geek culture was marketed to boys. Superheroes weren't for girls, after all - we had toys like Barbie to teach us about domesticity and beauty. In books, movies, and games, girls were the prizes given to male heroes, and there was a serious lack of strong female characters until Leia in the late 70s/early 80s and Buffy and Xena in the 90s.

But despite all of that, women were and are interested in so many of the things that 'weren't meant for us'. There have always been women who self-defined as lovers of, say, Star Wars and/or Lord of the Rings, just as there have always been women who self-defined as lovers of math, medicine, computers. But when it wasn't mainstream, we hid those interests far more often than men did - and we continued to do so long after men felt comfortable opening up about their geeky passions. It's only recently that it has been more culturally acceptable for women to express interest in geeky things, and because of that it is only more recently that we have been more vocal about being geeky.

Which brings me to the third factor: our peers. At first - and for far too long - women were more often than not accused of being 'fake geek girls' when we expressed our love for, say, all things Game of Thrones/Song of Ice & Fire. Men who wear, say, a Captain America shirt, or who go to conventions and cosplay, are expected to do so, even praised for doing so, while women who wear geek-themed clothing or who cosplay are often interrogated regarding how much we know about those comics or characters. And although thankfully most conventions are taking a very harsh stance against sexual harassment, it still exists.

The ultimate result of these three factors is that geeky women have spent decades hiding who we are, and only in the last few years have more of us started to willingly self-define ourselves as geeks, and to feel comfortable being vocal about that. Thankfully, we are making progress. Comic and game convention attendance nowadays is about 55% male, 45% female; narrow that down to the under-30 age range and it's almost exactly 50/50. Nowadays there are more women over the age of 18 who play video and computer games than males under the age of 17 who do so. Geek women have been speaking out in support of each other, and men have begun speaking out in support of us as well.

Why is all of this important? Well, sci-fi and fantasy geekdom is only a part of geek culture. Science, technology, and business are only a few of the many areas in which geeking out has nothing to do with reading comic books or going to conventions or cosplaying. Geek culture is part of all culture, because everyone geeks out about something. Everyone self-defines as some kind of geek. If you think of the thing you are most passionate about, I would guess that most of you would say that you are a geek over at least that one thing.

It's not as if being a geek is an either/or proposition, after all - where either you're a geek, or you have a day job. Most geeks do work day jobs. We are project managers, bank tellers, graphic designers, waitresses...and we do these things so that we can afford to keep geeking out over our passions on our own time.

As gender equality has grown in the parts of geek culture that I love, so too is it growing in every other geekdom traditionally dominated by men. Female scientists, female entrepreneurs, female IT workers, and more, are coming out of the woodwork. They have decided to not hide their self-definitions as science geeks, business geeks, tech geeks.

And the more women learn that we no longer have to hide who we are, the more other women are inspired to continue learning that lesson. In the words of Marianne Williamson, 'as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.'

So if you are a geek - and I think that everyone is, in some way or another - I urge you to not marginalize yourself in regards to what you love.

And if you are a woman and a geek, I urge you to not hide your geekiness. Accept it, welcome it, nurture it, and share it with the world. All of your fellow geeks are waiting to see it." Pin It

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