Girl World, “Lady Nerds,” and The Politics and Choices of Writers

Debbie says:

Sorry for the slow posting around here; I’m healing from a significant injury and Laurie has an intense show schedule. But we haven’t forgotten you!

The inimitable Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown has a post at The Awl on “Lady Nerds and Utopias”, and a “meta” follow-up at her own blog, and I want to write about both. Let’s start with girl nerds:

When we see the word “nerd,” we don’t think of women. We almost can’t. All of that geeky energy, that willingness to dive totally into your own anti-social obsessions, is diametrically opposed to our idea of what girls are for. There’s science involved, for one thing. And for another, girls aren’t sorted into cool or uncool; they’re sorted into likable and unlikable. The idea that a girl might follow the lonesome path of the nerd—not trying to fit in, not trying to be accepted, not trying to do anything but fight on the Internet about which “Doctor Who” was better—just contradicts what we all know, which is that for men, life is a sales job, and for women, it’s customer service. And yet! The girl nerds, they exist! And they tell their own stories. Stories about escape, about what changes, what doesn’t, and what should.

Let’s pull one sentence out of there and look at it again:

For men, life is a sales job, and for women, it’s customer service.

Of course, it’s oversimplified. But it’s a clear and useful analogy. While sales jobs (at least good ones) pay more than customer service jobs, they’re still not the jobs most people want. Doyle is (among many other things) making it clear that neither pigeonhole is a good deal.

In the post, she goes on to talk about “worlds without women,” a common theme in fantastical novels, and also worlds where women rule, lumping both of these under the name of “Girl World.”

The fantasy of Girl World often feels like the feminist imagination taken to its most self-indulgent, hypocritical extremes. We stand for tolerance and egalitarianism, whereas the people who disagree with us are IGNORANT WIFE-BEATING MONSTERS. Women, if left on their own, would eliminate war, poverty, heartbreak and pets that are not cats. But, here’s a question for you: Why shouldn’t it look like this? What’s wrong with a wish-fulfillment fantasy that tells women they could do well with power and without oppression? What’s wrong with girls geeking out over the idea that they’re special?

Men have always told stories about female worlds too, from Hercules and Hippolyte to Queen of Outer Space to that one “Futurama” episode with Femputer, and these stories have usually ended with the women either voluntarily dismantling their society for boyfriends or being killed. The women who read these books want a break from reality like everybody else, and it’s no surprise that their fantasies look just as unfair and silly as men’s. Unfair, silly fantasies are one of the ways we’re all equal, it turns out. Speculative fiction is sociology’s dream journal; nerds want a place to belong; on the Enterprise, nobody cares if you’re into space travel. All women want from these stories is a place where nobody cares if they’re girls.

What’s important here is that Doyle can tell the difference between wish-fulfillment and worldbuilding; all she wants is for girls to get an equal share of nerdy wish fulfillment. In the world where men’s lives are sales jobs and women’s lives are customer service jobs, a woman’s wish fulfillment is all about weddings and marriages, clear skin and a perfect figure, smiling happy children, and a loving old age with a doting husband. Girl World expands that space, lets us dream about what Nicole Hollander’s cartoon character, Sylvia, once described as “no crime and lots of fat happy women.”


In the Girl World essay, Doyle mentions the skeletons in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s closet, and acknowledges that the Girl World works she cites have political problems. On her own blog, she goes into this in more detail (with footnotes!).

Racism in Gilman’s Herland. Major inclusiveness problems with Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin. (If you don’t know about these, there’s information at the link.) Bradley’s husband’s pedophilia and Bradley’s cover-up of the same. (I knew Bradley moderately well; I met her husband once or twice. It’s all true, or at least enough of it is true to make the point. As Doyle says, you can look it up online if you like, and if you don’t mind that victim’s names are revealed.)

And then she goes on to make two separate points as if they were one point:

One of the things that’s really important in this life, and in any form of political engagement, is to be aware that no-one is actually “one of ours.” Which is to say: The instinct you have to protect someone who seems to side with you, and to gloss over their crimes, is a bad one. Just because someone agrees with you on Wednesday, that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to say something abhorrent on Thursday or that they didn’t do something terrible on Monday that you just don’t know about yet.

Yes, this. And, at the same time, because she wrote the original essay, and talks about the value of the books, I know that she and I agree that the flaws and/or crimes don’t negate the good work. Ezra Pound was a Nazi … and a great poet. Mary Daly was the ultimate transphobic writer … and her work is otherwise sharp and insightful. Elizabeth Moon wrote a terrific novel with an autistic main character, and other books with importantly fine female characters. Balance scales don’t work in these situations: we can’t put the problems on one side and the valuable work on the other and see which way the weight tips. We have to be able to hold both … and each make our own decisions about what we will read, what we will buy, what we will see, based on what we know.

At the same time, the problems we know about do affect our reading of the work. And again, Doyle has an important take on that:

I actually find it really fascinating that the women who wrote these hugely influential Utopian or lady-powered fictions were in fact so super-duper-ultra-flawed; it says something, about how powerful your unease in this world has to be in order for you to want to create your own world, and about how assuming that you have the ability to define “perfection” or “the ideal” almost certainly means that you’re far from perfect or ideal, or at the very least will make your distance from it that much clearer.


One thought on “Girl World, “Lady Nerds,” and The Politics and Choices of Writers

  1. A little late on the “thank you” Debbie, but I really needed this info for something I’m writing now, and it appeared here at just the right time!

    I also can’t resist commenting that the “for men it’s sales, for women customer service” idea never resonated with me at any time in my life. For example, it’s taken me 40 years to “get” that when a male roommate complained to me about the mess in a common area his remark was aimed at me, the sole female roommate, suggesting it was my responsibility to clean it up. At the time, I simply agreed that, yep, it was indeed messy. Recently I told a woman friend about realizing how I was expected to respond she said as soon as she heard the remark she knew immediately that it was a call for me to take on the housewife role.

    I love the happy, fat women with cats idea of utopia. My current feline roommates don’t particularly expect me to clean up after them–sometimes they’ll cover up a coughed-up hairball with whatever’s on the floor nearby such as a slipper. But I don’t mind taking on the “mommy” role there. I knowingly took on that responsibility as part of the deal.

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