Fangirls against fanboys

With "Twilight" ladies in one corner and comic-loving gents in the other, nerddom's battle of the sexes has begun

Published September 18, 2009 1:18PM (EDT)

I recently had to admit something to myself: I am, it turns out, a geek. I finally came to terms with it earlier this week, after drinks with female friends. We had been catching up and talking shop when someone mentioned "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." All of a sudden, we were all shouting over one another, recounting our favorite episodes and most loved and hated characters. One friend floated the idea that the show includes just about every kind of guy a girl geek could possibly be attracted to. It was, without a doubt, the most spirited conversation of the evening. Although I only started watching the series a few months ago(thanks, Hulu!), I went full-on fangirl -- and I'm ready to own it.

And it seems more and more ladies are coming to similar realizations. Of course, there have always been girl geeks involved in role-playing games and sci-fi, fantasy and anime fandom, but they've traditionally been a relatively small minority in those male-dominated realms. That is, until that other vampire franchise took hold. As Vaneta Rogers of nerd hub Newsarama reports, 40 percent of this year's Comic-Con attendees were female, due in large part to a crapload of new "Twilight" fans.

Now, you'd think nerdy boys would be happy to finally let some girls into the clubhouse. But the dudes at Comic-Con weren't so thrilled about it. On message boards and between panels, they complained that the ladies were ruining their convention. They even booed comic-geek icon Kevin Smith for making mention of "Twilight, causing Smith to crack, "That's what I love about a comic book convention. People will come to a convention, stand there in a Spock costume, look at someone in a Chewie costume, and say, 'Look at that f__in' geek. How dare you pass judgment on those 12-year-old girls who like vampires!"

 While there is certainly sexism inherent in some parts of geek culture, with its booth babes and jiggle physics, I think Smith's joke touches on something Rogers overlooks. "Twilight" fans aren't just more overwhelmingly female than most Comic-Con attendees, they're also, in large part, younger. (Hence the complaints about crowds of pubescent girls "screaming in high-pitched banshee yells.") The clash of nerd factions may have just as much to do with age as with sex.

In fact, I find Rogers' description of what went down at Comic-Con much less interesting than her larger discussion of the differences between male and female geeks. In an interview, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Louise Krasniewicz makes a thought-provoking distinction. "I think girl fans talk a lot about the emotional investment they have," she tells Rogers. "They love the characters, and when they become part of fan culture, they feel connected with the other women because of the emotions, so that's what they concentrate on." Guys, says Krasniewicz, tend to focus on stats, quotes and other details: "I've discovered at different comic book conventions that it's more about 'can you top this?' The men know what superhero did this and in what issue he did it. It's almost a competition game," Krasniewicz said. "With women, there doesn't tend be as much of a competition where they want to prove they know more. Their discussions are more likely to be about their emotional response to the characters. They want to talk about how the stories make them feel."

Krasniewicz's analysis resonates with me because it's something I've noticed in a subsection of geekdom that I know well -- music nerdery. Guys who are into music will invariably know an ancient album's release date or who influenced whom or who played which obscure instrument on what B-side. But I, and most of the female music fanatics I know, would much rather talk about the personalities involved and moods evoked.

Still, a quote from (who else?) "Buffy" creator Joss Whedon makes me wonder whether I (and Krasniewicz) could be essentializing. "There's not a difference," he tells Rogers, between male and female fans. "What? Female fans are more nurturing? People are crazy, and fans are the best kind of crazy. And I speak as one of them. And I've never seen a difference in the way the men and women respond to things." When I think of my boyfriend, who spent all day yesterday worrying about the characters in the "Buffy" universe and biding his time until he could get home and watch the next episode, I can see Whedon's point.

So, what do you think, Broadsheet nerds? Was the "Twilight" kerfuffle a battle of the sexes or the ages, or both? Is there a difference between fangirl and fanboy behavior? And will girl and guy geeks ever learn to put down their lightsabers and get along?

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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