"Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess." – Donna Haraway

“Feminist Heart Stickers” by Etsy user PixieandPixier

Whitney Hills has a Kotaku post titled “What It’s Like To Be A Woman Making Video Games.”

Someone posted it to my Facebook feed this morning. Be warned that the comments contained a lot of people being dismissive of her experiences.

There were a few things I’d love to discuss that I want to highlight from the piece.

At the end of the article, Hills writes,

“Most people have good hearts and really DON’T want to offend. But when men feel terrified of offending the women they work with, it only contributes to our sense of isolation and inequality. “

It immediately called to mind the experiences I wrote about in my post “A Cautionary Tale of Bro-havior and Benign Intent” I think this is the same problem that many feminists have started to approach by using humor. I was recently looking for feminist stickers or window decals on Etsy for my new office and came across the stickers pictured above. I particularly like the yellow one that says “Feminist killjoy.” Jokes about being a humorless feminist or a feminist intent on sucking all the fun out of the world seem to be one way of acknowledging that people can be…made uncomfortable by trying to moderate their behavior? That was really the best description I can come up with. This is my fundamental issue with people who talk about being “politically correct” as well. Those striving for “political correctness” seem to often be more concerned about not getting in trouble than by actually treating everyone with respect. I’d love to hear what people think about this. Is a good heart a good excuse? Should we be concerned that people are “terrified” of not offending and therefore expression may be constrained? Are we falling back into some trap of expectations of appropriate behavior if we put the feelings of the offenders above our own? Can discomfort be powerful? Or are we fooling ourselves to think that acting “PC” will translate to actual respect?

In addition to the issue above, I was really struck by the commenter who suggested that because she had never felt the same way, Hills’ experience and interpretation of her own experience was “ridiculous.” You see this argument a fair amount in talking about harassment or even isolation in tech or computing spaces. “I have never seen it, therefore it does not exist!” (one example). There are two lines along which I am thinking about this. One one hand, this woman is attempting to provide alternative viewpoints on the experience of women in the video game industry. Where this breaks down is in her declaration that Hills’ framing of the issue is ridiculous. Isn’t it possible to provide alternative views while acknowledging that not everyone may have the same experience? It reminds me of the young child, who thinks you cease to exist when they cannot see you. Hills could just as easily reply that she has not seen the kind of equity and easy camaraderie described by the commenter, therefore it is the commenter, not she, who is ridiculous. My temptation would be to reply that I am glad the commenter has never experienced this, but that just means that she is lucky, not that Hills is wrong. I mean, in both cases, we are talking about anecdotal evidence.

Except when we aren’t. Hills doesn’t invoke any statistical data but there is plenty out there to suggest that young women have the perception that if they enter computing fields, they will face isolation, discrimination, or harassment (http://www.aauw.org/research/why-so-few/ and http://www.girlscouts.org/research/publications/stem/generation_stem_what_girls_say.asp to get you started). And of course, there is also the issue of implicit bias where the person who has a good heart does not even realize they are reinforcing gender disparity*. No matter how often discrimination or isolation occurs (and the statistics bear out that this does happen a lot), so long as the dominant cultural narrative is that it happens, this has its own power. Earlier this week I was reading the chapter “Fashion and Gender” in Joanne Entwistle’s The Fashioned Body. On page 175 Entwistle is describing a new form of masculinity that emerged in the U.S. in the 1980s that was more image conscious at the same time that it was more caring. In response to media debates about whether this man “actually exists,” Entwistle reminds readers that there is never a 1:1 correlation between representation and reality and that “representations have their own reality” (175). At the time it struck me that this was also applicable to the questions of whether the brogrammer actually exists (much like a hipster, few if any will admit to being one). And I believe it applies here too. Do we need different strategies for addressing the representational narrative of disparity than the ones we use on “actual” instances of disparity?

So many questions come out of Hills’ Kotaku piece. I’d love to hear what others think. In the meantime I am going to order some “feminist killjoy” stickers so I can declare it loudly and proudly.

*I did it myself earlier this week on The Spiral Dance‘s Facebook page by assuming a programmer who wrote a letter defending her daughter was male. Even though she says twice that she is a woman. I will probably remain embarrassed about this for months, years, even a lifetime! But I left it up both as a mea culpa but also as a reminder to myself.

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