Fangirls and Gamer Girls

Fangirl is now in the dictionary. So’s shipping, but we’ll discuss that another day. Most of you have probably read by now that Merriam-Webster recently added a bunch of words to the dictionary, as they do every year, and fangirl is one of them. (In case you were curious, fanboy was entered in 2008. Et-hem.) To their credit, the definitions of fangirl and fanboy are identical, except for gender. But are the implications the same IRL? Of course not.

A lot of us struggle with the word fangirl. It can be tossed around to make us feel diminutive, or condescended to, or dismissed, or all three simultaneously. But frankly, so can fanboy, and I for one will admit to having used the word fanboy in a less than admirable fashion. Mostly when shit talking  XBox/Halo fanboys, which I will forever stand by. I digress.

I’ve never had a conscious problem with other people calling me fangirl, or with calling myself one. I love my fandoms, and I love talking loudly about them. But I do know there’s sometimes an underlying tone when I call myself a fangirl – it’s with a dash of shame, a little too much defensiveness, just enough I’m calling myself this so you can’t throw it in my face. I’ll use it with a headshake if I’ve fallen down a Tumblr hole of David Tennant gifs and I’m ever-so-slightly ashamed of myself. I’ll also use it with pride in reference to my ever-growing geeky t-shirt collection. Sometimes it doesn’t carry any inherent weight one way or the other and it’s just something I toss out. Strangely, I have a very different interaction with the phrase gamer girl. That title’s a point of pride. (Obviously, I don’t speak for every gamer who happens to not be a man. Just my opinions, not a blanket statement, blah blah blah.)  For me, being a gamer girl means I’m taking control of this thing that is typically male and calling it my own, while the word fangirl tends to bring up ideas of teenage obsession and Teen Bop posters hanging in your room. My internalized fangirl shame has whispered that being a gamer girl is empowering, but that being a fangirl means I have to prove that I’m no longer 13.

But we all know that’s nonsense. And for the record, more power to those 13 year old fangirls with posters plastering their rooms – someday they’ll start awesome geeky stuff that we’ll all love. Besides, I was that girl, with Star Wars posters as far as the eye could see, and just because I’m now nearly 29 doesn’t mean I love it any less or any differently. (Full disclosure on my Star Wars fangirl status: George Lucas did a number on it with his revisions and re-releases, but it’s certainly not the fault of my classic old posters or the Han Solo action figure that’s on my desk as we speak.) There are all kinds of fans, boys and girls, and yes some of them are on the superficial side. And sometimes, those “kinds of fans” can make us all just a little uncomfortable.  But so what? As long as no one’s getting hurt or stalked or whatnot, it’s impossible to be a fan “wrong,” and expressing the way you love a thing differently than someone else doesn’t mean you love it any less, or any more for that matter.  It’s just another one of those internal hierarchies that we put upon ourselves to try to draw lines within fandoms and mimic or control the judgement we all get from the “outside world.” It’s nonsense, and those far more eloquent than I have argued why. See: the best possible essay I’ve read about this from Katrina over at Verity! Podcast. I do think it’s interesting to note that, more often than not, we all have a moment when we stop and declare to the world – screw you! Yes I’m a fangirl and that doesn’t mean I’m stupid or childish or single-minded about my fandoms! So there. Harrumph. It’s empowering, and from my little corner of the internet I see a lot of intelligent, geeky women reclaiming and defending fangirls against the masses, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.

The larger issue here is that six year delay I threw out in a parenthetical up at the top. Fanboy went in the dictionary in 2008. Fangirl in 2014. Same definition, ignoring the cultural stereotypes of fanboys versus fangirls, but a six year gap. Women have been geeks for much longer than that, and while there certainly has been an influx of us talking loudly about our interests on the internets these last few years, we’ve been here a long time and the fact that fangirl went in so much later than fanboy is just a sign of how much farther we have to go.

Where it all started

Sometime around my 16th year, my best friend started hosting LAN parties. Ten, fifteen, twenty people all in his family’s basement with their computers and their games. I had no idea what that world was and hadn’t owned a console or a shooter in my whole, short life, but I was itching to get in on the action. I already loved the idea of gaming, even if I hadn’t had a lot of opportunity to actually play.  It was all the Mountain Dew and explosions and snacks and late nights a gal could ask for. I had to be there.

Just one problem – my family computer was all we had, one of those old, colorful iMacs, and it wasn’t going to any LANs anytime soon. I still went, oggled over Unreal Tournament, and tried to sneak onto computers when their owners fell asleep or needed a break.

Flash ahead to my first year in college. I had my own laptop, and more free time than I knew what to do with. UT2k3 and I became the best of friends. I was hooked – I loved sniping, and sneaking, and headshots, and learning the ins and outs of maps.  I played for hours and hours. Christmas break, I was back in my hometown, plugged in for our first college era LAN, and I got shooting.

Did I mention I never used a mouse? I had no idea that shooting using a touchpad was weird. It was just how I did it. At the start of the night I got some curious looks for not unpacking a mouse – I shrugged and carried on. And with every headshot, some of the older guys got more and more agitated. I was an 18 year old girl. The last time they saw  me, I didn’t even have my own computer. Now I was holding my own, capturing flags, helping my team and even getting some kills. The good guys were impressed  – minorly annoyed, sure, but they thought it was pretty badass and I loved that I didn’t even know I was doing something worth noticing in the grand, gaming scheme of things.

But, some of the guys were pissed. I’m from a bizarrely nice hometown – few of them said anything nasty to me, and it could have been way worse – but they were challenged by a girl, and they weren’t all happy about it.

The years that followed saw me as the only girl in a game shop looking for Magic cards. The only girl in our, admittedly small, Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The only girl in an arcade on my lunch breaks from Radio Shack, with a young prick of an attendant assuring me I wasn’t a real gamer and that there was no way I could beat him in Soul Calibur. (I challenged him to a game. I won.) My adulthood has seen exes who rolled their eyes at my love of Doctor Who, got annoyed when I would raise my voice and demand that Han Solo shot first, and grumble when I wanted to watch Next Gen – yes, again.  I’ve been called a fake geek at parties because I can’t possibly like wearing red lipstick and Kratos at the same time. I’d be lying if I said it never got to me. All of my fellow lady geeks know better. But I never stopped loving the things that I love, and over the last few years I’ve been increasingly unapologetic. I love my nerdy little life.

My story isn’t all that unique, but it is my story. I am a woman, I am a geek, and this is where I’ll talk about it.