A fangirl by any other name …

So, there have been a lot of controversies in the geek/nerd/whatever-we’re-calling-it-these-days sphere, over what seems to be the most popular topic in most areas lately: sexism. It seems that some T-shirt company made a set of shirts that read as follows:

Shirt 1 – “I like fangirls like I like my coffee. I HATE coffee”.
Shirt 2 – “I like fanboys like I like my coffee. I HATE coffee”.

Cue angry denunciations of the first shirt, mostly for being sexist and discouraging women from being geeks and tying it all back to the old “fake geek girl controversy”. The company responded to the comments with a post on their Facebook page, saying this:

So, we’ve apparently received some bad word on our fan girl shirt, with accusations of sexism being thrown at us from a certain few bloggers…

…who have completely ignored our other variant shirt on display or didn’t even bother to ask our take on it.

Apparently it’s only sexism if it is insulting to one gender. Woo double standards. …

Anyways, the fangirl/fanboy shirts can best be explained like this: fangirls/boys =/= fans. Fans are people who like and genuinely respect a fandom, and it’s creators. Fangirls/boys are like those who have an unhealthy obsession who make us all collectively cringe in pain at what they do to the things we love.

No one should ever defend these kinds of people. Seriously, they make the rest of us look bad.

Before I get into the blog posts, if you read the comments one of the objections to this is that while they have a fanboy shirt, fanboy does mean what the sort of obsessive fan that they talk about here, but fangirl just means any girl who is a fan, and so it’s a problem. Well, let’s make sure that it does, shall we:

From dictionary.reference.com (note that the entry I’m using here is one that combines fanboy and fangirl into one entry):

a person obsessed with an element of video or electronic culture, such as a game, sci-fi movie, comic or animé, music, etc; a person obsessed with any other single subject or hobby

From Oxford American English:

• informal • derogatory An obsessive female fan (usually of movies, comic books, or science fiction).

And from Oxford World English:

A female fan, especially one who is obsessive about comics, film, music, or science fiction

Only the last definition even hints at it applying to all female fans, and still makes it clear that in general it’s meant to apply to obsessive ones. And before anyone uses that to support the claim of a difference between the terms “fanboy” and “fangirl”, here’s the Oxford World English definition of fanboy:

A male fan, especially one who is obsessive about comics, music, film, or science fiction.

So, no, if the fangirl T-shirt is a problem, then so is the fanboy T-shirt, at least in terms of terminology. They mean the same thing.

Now, some have commented that they aren’t really taking exception with the sexism, but with the shirt implying things about how people ought to be fans. The problem is that the terms fanboy/fangirl are usually given to people who … try to tell people how to be fans of a work. Most commonly, what made the terms derogatory is that it refers to people who jump into any conversation about a work and rant about what people should like about a work, insisting that it’s the best thing ever and no one should ever find any flaws or problems with it and that no one should ever, God forbid, not like the work. That’s just inconceivable for the stereotypical fanboy/fangirl. These are the people who give the hobby a bad name. not those who are saying that that sort of obsession isn’t a good thing. So those complaining that this is telling people how to be fans of a genre or work should be the ones who hate fanboys/fangirls the most.

But, aside from that, the sexism really is the big complaint here, and the comments on the Facebook page that it seems that trying to apply a criticism to women seem to be valid. Aside from most of the comments on that page, we have this article from Rebecca Pahle. She starts off in the title talking about “Fake Geek Crap”, which is odd since no one has or does claim that fanboys/fangirls are fake geeks. They can be legitimate geeks. They’re just bad ones. To make that accusation is like saying that alcoholics are fake drinkers; yes, they are still drinkers, and are just too much so. The same can be said for fanboys/fangirls; they’re still fans, but take it too far.

Now, she does manage to stay somewhat focused on telling fans how to like a work, but she does link it to sexism directly here:

…that rightfully got a lot of people ticked off because of the way it perpetuates the toxic “there’s only one right way to be a fan of something” attitude that’s long infected geek culture and often manifests specifically in a way that’s intended to push girls out of geek spaces.

This would seem to imply that there’s an implication here that’s worse for women, and note that her update to the shirt to a more accurate version replaces “hate” with “scared of” which is a common complaint aimed at supposedly sexist geeks who don’t want women to get into the hobby because they’re scared of them. But at least she does say multiple times that it’s about not telling fans how to like a work, which is better than the original post by Greg Rucka, whose title starts by linking it to gatekeeping of women in geek culture and spends most of the post talking about the trials of his daughter and ends with this:

And some asshole thinks selling a shirt that, essentially, says, GURLS STAY OUT is funny. He’s talking to my wife. He’s talking to my daughter. He’s talking to my friends. He’s talking to my fans. He’s talking to some of the best writers in the industry, some of the most gifted artists, some of the most talented creators in the arts.

GURLS STAY OUT. Heh heh heh.

Since Pahle references Rucka’s article to claim that the creators of the T-shirt ignored the main issue of telling people how to be fans, one would assume she’d, well, read the article. And anyone who read that article would certainly forgive them for thinking that the main issue was sexism, not “telling people how to be fans”. In that sense, it almost sounds like “moving the goalposts” is in play here: once the “fanboy” T-shirt was “revealed”, sexism wasn’t as easy a case anymore, so it switches to the real issue being about telling people how to be fans. Again, this wouldn’t be an issue if Pahle hadn’t referenced Rucka’s post, which is clearly more about sexism than about telling people how to be fans.

The facts of the matter are this:

It isn’t sexist to use the term “fangirl” to describe an overly obsessive female fan, particularly one who is annoyingly vocal about that obsession in a way that implies that if you don’t like what she likes, then there’s something wrong with you or you aren’t really a fan or you don’t know what you’re talking about. It is less sexist to do that than to try to lump all of those fans — male and female — into the term “fanboy” which, as anyone who knows anything about feminism knows, normalizes the male and so is incredibly sexist. While it many be debatable, a good case can be made that overly obsessive fans of any gender are a problem for the geek community, precisely because they end up telling people how to enjoy the works or the genres that they refer to, and that is indeed bad for the community (the objections on that point are valid, as far as they go). In the Facebook quote, could the creators of the T-shirt be doing that (some earlier comment/version of the post might have made reference to hetalia shippers and something else, but it’s not there now)? Maybe, and for that they’d deserve criticism. The shirts, however, don’t actually say things like that , and so to harp on that would be nothing more than a distraction from the issues around the shirts, which started the mess in the first place.

There’s nothing wrong with the shirts, as far as I can see. And if people disagree then they can … post comments here (no swearing, please) telling me why I’m wrong.

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