Eliminating Red Shirts: How Feminists Can Fight Abusive Behavior in Nerd Culture

Last month, cosplayer and geek show host Chloe Dykstra bravely posted a blog exposing the long-term abuse that she suffered at the hands of a former boyfriend and nerd industry all-star, adroitly smashing through his carefully cultivated image of harmless, white, male nerd-who-made-it. During their relationship, he seems to have taken direct advantage of the fact that she is a geek herself, exploiting her place in the nerd community—a community to which I proudly belong—to further his own toxic desires.

As with any large subculture, nerdom is sprawling, and its problems are endemic. Although racism and homophobia have reared their heads in a number of ugly incidents, the misogyny that runs within geek and fan communities has received particular attention in the past decade, from the mob harassment of #GamerGate to several female celebrities abruptly quitting social media in recent months. Women like me are pushing back by raising our voices to make sure that we are heard and that our place in nerd communities is known, but it’s an uphill battle. Long before #MeToo became an international phenomenon, campaigns such as Cosplay is Not Consent were working to further community-wide awareness of sexual harassment and violence, and the ways that we can all help prevent it through culture change.

While I read through Dykstra’s account, I swear I could feel my pulse tick up in anger. At the National Women’s Law Center, we fight against despicable behavior every single day in the pursuit of justice. You’d think that I’d be used to reading new, heinous accounts like this by now, especially after the year-plus we’ve lived through since the election of the current administration. But something about Dykstra’s account in particular touched a raw nerve. The realm of geek is my community—these are my people, and this is supposed to be our safe space.

Art by Karen Hallion

We have chosen to come together to gush over our respective nerdy interests, from video games to history to science fiction, and everything in between. Nerdom is where we run to escape the horrors of current events over which we have little to no control, where we’re supposed to be able to go when excluded anywhere else, where we should be accepted no matter our gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or other self-identifier. The kind of abuse that Dykstra suffered has no place in the community that I and others have worked to make—or in anyone’s community. The problem is that no group is immune from this kind of vile behavior, and we won’t be able to rid ourselves of it until we accept that and actively speak out against it.

One common thread to the identity of nerds worldwide is that they were often the victims of bullying to varying degrees as children. It would seem to make sense that a community of people who grew up feeling marginalized in some way would evolve to become more inclusive and welcoming, particularly of those who face multiple inequalities. Unfortunately, that is far from the case. I don’t care how badly Dykstra’s ex may or may not have been bullied as a child; there is nothing harmless about a person who requires their partner to regularly submit to their sexual whims and implicitly threatens some form of retaliation if they don’t. It should go without saying that this kind of behavior is unacceptable, but we all know that it is still far too common.

Art by Risa Rodil

More even than the billion-dollar comic book franchises that have become reliable watercooler touchpoints, the ubiquity of abuse reminds us how much geek culture is no different than the mainstream. As our new Senior Vice President of External Affairs, Mary-Frances Wain, recently said to me, “People in power abuse power, and those people are often men.” It’s long past time that people who have abused their power face the consequences of their actions, from Cosby to Weinstein and beyond. I find it heartening that Nerdist, the geek empire founded by the man most likely to be the unnamed ex in Dykstra’s essay, removed all references to him within hours of her essay’s posting, and that his talk show and upcoming appearances have been either suspended or canceled. Those actions alone, however, are not enough.

Culture is changed through thousands and thousands of micro-moments that build over months and years, by the sound of those individual voices speaking up against injustice and by other people raising them up. At the end of this blog, you probably expect me to tell you to take action by doing things like telling Congress to fix their sexual harassment problem, writing to your representatives to advocate for anti-harassment legislation, and supporting the NWLC’s Legal Network for Gender Equity. These are just some of the important actions you can take to help move along that change.

Even more than that, you need to keep your eyes and ears open. Watch for the normalization of bigoted or abusive behavior and do your best to snuff it out. Keep the survivors in mind, make room for them to speak, and lift up their words. Counteract toxic behavior in every part of your life, from your workplace to your favorite video game chat to your next comic con. Together, we are Wonder Woman striding through No Man’s Land, deflecting bullets and bombs when no one else has the courage to march forward. Together, we will resist the Empire’s attempts to silence the Resistance. Together, we will make sure that everyone can boldly go into the future, without fear and with an abundance of hope.