Interview: Anthropologist Marie-Pierre Renaud on “Fake” Geek Girls

I follow on Facebook and a few weeks ago, something caught my eye: an article about a study on the “fake geek girl” debate by Marie-Pierre Renaud. Renaud is a graduate student of sociocultural anthropology at Laval University in Quebec and is one of the founders of the fabulous blog The Geek Anthropologist.

For anyone not familiar with the issue, it really flared up online in 2012 after two key articles: one by Tara Tiger Brown at Forbes telling supposedly attention-seeking “fake geek girls” to “please go away”. A couple months later. Joe Peacock wrote an article for CNN called “Booth babes need not apply”, in which he took issue with: “pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention.”

The debate spiralled out from there, leading to a couple of different memes including the “Idiot Geek Girl” meme. It touched a nerve with a lot of female geeks (like me), who felt we were having our “geek cred” policed unfairly based on gender and appearance.

So as soon as I read Renaud’s article I knew I wanted to connect with her, as a fellow female Canadian Trek fan engaging with these issues. I was thrilled she agreed to take the time to do an interview for Trekkie Feminist.

In the intro to her research, Renaud says she was surprised that she kept encountering an assumption that women were historically rare in geek culture.

“In the rants against ‘fake geek girls’, a lot of the arguments that were invoked was that there didn’t used to be so many women in geek culture, and now that it’s becoming more popular, there are a lot more women. A lot of people who responded to the rants…wouldn’t really contest this idea that it was new for women to be involved in geek culture,” Renaud explained to me.

She said overall there isn’t really research or hard data to support that argument.

“The fact that there are more women who are visible doesn’t mean there are more women than the past…we don’t have a census of geek culture. ‘Geek culture’ keep changing…it’s not something you can clearly define,” she said.

Renaud got into geek culture at a young age by watching Star Trek: TNG with her dad, and her experience with the Trek fandom reinforced her feeling that the idea that women weren’t involved wasn’t necessarily correct.

“I would always be thinking back to documentaries like Trekkies I and II and documentaries about Firefly fans and fans of other franchises, and my experience would always be, well, there are women out there.”

“I titled the foreword to the series, ‘As Always, it Started with Star Trek’ because as a Trekkie, I know, like a lot of Star Trek fans, that one of the reasons the show was saved from cancellation in the 1960s was that Bjo Trimble started this campaign – with her husband – and she’s remembered as the woman who saved Star Trek,” Renaud explained.

“We have to ask ourselves were women really absent? Were we ignoring them? Were we making them more invisible? And if they were really present in less numbers than men, then why was that the case? We can’t just assume if there weren’t women there, they were not interested.”

That led to the creation of the Geek Girl Survey, which aimed to explore these questions and get at the heart of the different choices geek girls make about participating in geek culture and the factors that influence them.

To bring in the analysis of the “fake geek girl” debate, Renaud analyzed a sampling of the major rants against “fake geek girls” and several rebuttals. In the comments on these articles and on her work, she noted:

“The one thing that kept coming up was, ‘Why does this matter? Who cares if there are fake geek girls in geek culture?’…To me, the issue is that there’s a debate on this. To me, the issue is there’s discrimination against women, on factors that are closely linked to their gender and physical appearance.”

Renaud says male geeks experience some policing as well: “If somebody is too muscular, people will go, ‘That’s not a geek; that’s a jock.’ or if somebody is smartly dressed someone might say, ‘That’s not a geek; that’s a hipster.’…but it’s not as common and it’s not as aggressive. And there are more criteria. It’s a more complex form of discrimination. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, you’re a guy – you’re fake.'”

“When you’re a girl it’s like de facto that you have to prove you’re really a geek.”

She said she’s not surprised by the issue, though, noting that when women get more involved in almost any kind of male-dominated profession or area, “there is always this kind of resistance. It’s just history repeating itself.”

Fake Geek Girl meme with caption "Who are you to say she's not?"

I was curious about if Renaud feels things are different in Canada and if she herself had ever felt like her geek cred was called into question based on her gender.

“If you look at Canada and Quebec, I try to find examples of it and there are, but…I’ve never heard anything so dramatic. I’m not saying everything’s perfect here but the situation’s a lot quieter,” she said. 

“I’ve never had such aggressive attitudes towards me as what I read about. The worst thing that happens to me is that people assume the man next to me is the geeky person.”

Of course I couldn’t finish off without asking Renaud who her favourite Star Trek characters are. 

“My favourite Star Trek character is Jean-Luc Picard. My favourite woman character, well, I really like Kira Nerys. I thought she really kicked ass.”

If you’re interested in these issues, I highly recommend checking out Renaud’s posts at The Geek Anthropologist. Part 3 of The (Fake) Geek Girl Project just went up today.

She also started a list of the Female Pioneers of Geekdom at her blog to challenge the idea that women in geek culture is a new thing.

And Renaud encourages both aspiring social science students and experienced anthropologists who are interested in geek culture to get in touch about joining their online community. Check out for more information on how you can contribute.

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