This post is not about video games.
It is also not a review of Fanboys. (Well, here’s my one-sentence review: Star Wars fans will appreciate it, and it certainly has its moments, but it’s clearly got Apatow’s dirty, homophobic-racist-misogynist fingerprints all over it.)
What this post is about: Zoe.
Zoe is the female “fanboy” from the movie, and she is played by the awesome Kristin Bell. She is also, in many ways, me: a female geek trying to fit in with the guys. In the movie, she bails the four main fanboys out of jail, then joins them on their journey to Skywalker Ranch. Later, it is revealed that she has harbored a crush on one of the guys (Windows), and she eventually admits as much, but only after Windows professes his love for her first. Aside from being yet another “schlubby guy gets the hot girl” story (thanks, Apatow), the romance subplot rang a bit too true for me: in one scene, Windows complains about his nervousness around women, and Zoe points out that he’s just fine around her. And then he makes a pivotal mistake by responding along the lines of, “But you’re not REALLY a girl–you’re one of the guys!” To which Zoe understandably storms off.
The “you’re not really a girl” line is one most female geeks are all too familiar with, whether they’ve heard it jokingly or straight (and Windows uses it in all seriousness). I used to find it funny, but after hearing it so much, it’s gotten quite stale, and it’s based on moronic and outdated stereotypes about how women can’t be nerds. YES, women and girls can enjoy video games, Star Wars, and/or D&D. We even use the internet. Get over it.
Moreover, that line can be deeply hurtful, as evidenced by Zoe’s reaction. It’s denying an integral part of her identity. She’s a nerd, but she’s also a woman. Women have to work very hard just to meet minimum expectations, and that one sentence completely undermines all that work, telling her she is not working hard enough or is inherently inadequate.
Furthermore, the other part of that devastating line, the “you’re one of the guys!” part, is a blatant lie. Zoe ISN’T treated as “one of the guys.” First of all, she endures endless sexual harassment from Hutch. This is passed off as some kind of silly thing he does; Zoe just rolls her eyes. She expositions that this is something he has been doing since they were in SIXTH GRADE. Considering these characters have been out of high school for some time, that is almost ten years, people. Secondly, no one thinks to take her on the road trip in the first place. Maybe she was left out for plot convenience, but no one even says anything like, “Hey, we should get Zoe before we take off and make all our dreams come true”? If she were really one of the guys, her name should have at least come up! But that’s the thing, isn’t it? A woman can never really be “one of the guys”–only an honorary one.
Now, it is painfully obvious when nerdy guys try to write cool female characters. Most of the time they are good at video games, will gleefully engage in nerd-arguments over comic book trivia, are jaw-droppingly hot, and are inexplicably head-over-heels for the protagonist (who stands in for the author and presumably the audience). Not to mention Zoe is the name uncreative people give to characters they want to seem offbeat and cool–I would know, half of my female characters from stories I wrote in middle school were named Zoe.
And yet I identified with this character so strongly… except for one thing that really bothered me: she repeatedly insults or teases her friends by calling them “girls” or “ladies” (and uses “gay” as a pejorative at one point). She IS a woman; why would she feel that her identity should be insulting?
A feeling that is probably familiar to many female geeks, especially if they don’t have geeky girlfriends, is of not identifying with other women. They may say things like, “Girls have way too much drama, I only hang out with guys!” (Sadly, I was there once. And honestly, people, guys have just as much drama as girls do.) This kind of person may try to fit in with the guys and show that she’s different from those other women by using “girls” as an insult. But that person would also take the “you’re not really a girl” line as a compliment, so clearly Zoe is not like that. It doesn’t fit with her character.
We have so few nerdy female characters to begin with, and they are almost always written by men. They come so close to being characters that speak to my experiences as a female geek, but there is always something off, and it always turns out that their only purpose is to be dream girlfriends for the presumed male audience (which, by the way: what is Zoe’s goal in life, other than to work at a comic book store and hook up with Windows? Unlike with Hutch and Eric, we never find out). What I want to see is female nerds telling their own stories about wild roadtrips to midnight game releases or wacky LARP hijinks. A girl can’t be entertained on The Guild alone!