Gatekeepers of the Galaxy
“F*ck you for buying chibi xenomorphs,” read the Reddit notification that blared across my phone’s lock screen. For those of you who don’t speak geek, a chibi is a style of collectible figurine characterized by a large head, squat body, and broad legs, and a xenomorph is the titular monster of the Alien series.
I was bewildered at first, mistaking it for a trending topic. Then I realized that it was a comment on an old post in which I’d shared photos of my extensive collection of figurines and memorabilia related to the Alien franchise.
Normally I don’t engage random rude comments, but today I was feeling feisty, so I told him his opinion of my collection didn’t matter and went on with my life. Or, I tried to. Over the next 20 minutes, the commenter unleashed an increasingly sexist and rapey tirade, blowing up my phone with notifications until I finally muted them. The basis of his at-times incoherent ranting was that my possession of the chibi xenomorph figurines in said collection suggested that I was not a true fan, especially not as a “girl.” And I should listen to him because he’s the “world’s leading xenomorph expert.” (Snort.) And something-something my puss something-something. Honestly, I quit reading at that point.
I was initially a little hot in the face at the random insults, but my anger was quickly replaced by intrigue. I’d finally had the fabled encounter with a particular breed of Redditor I’d been warned about: the fedora-wearing, ultra-sexist, entitled geek who can’t stand that women on the internet don’t conform to their views. Not only that, he was a gatekeeper.
Gatekeeping refers to the practice of ranking fans of a book, movie, game, or franchise as either “true” or not. Gatekeepers think of themselves as bearing the correct opinion of pop culture and insist that others memorize a vast amount of trivia (even if they themselves don’t do so) in order to prove their fandom.
What gatekeeping reveals in its perpetrators is the ultimate attitude of entitlement.
Usually, these completely arbitrary assessments fall along gender lines, with male geeks “cred-checking” female geek con attendees or asserting that females don’t know a lot about the things of which they’re fans. “Girls” can’t be true fans, because “girls” don’t really like video games. “Girls” aren’t really into Marvel. “Girls” can’t understand the cultural significance of Ghostbusters. (Tellingly, males of this persuasion almost exclusively refer to members of the opposite gender as either “females” or “girls,” even if the female in question is three times their age, as I suspect was the case in my scenario. They infantilize women and consider their opinions to be childish and uninformed.)
What gatekeeping reveals in its perpetrators is the ultimate attitude of entitlement. Whether it’s assuming that everyone intelligent thinks the way you do, outright insisting that anyone with different opinions is stupid, or casting your dislike of a film as “just bad filmmaking,” it’s incredibly entitled to assert that only your perspective is valid and earns you the coveted “fan” identity — one in which others are expected to bask in your knowledge and expertise, admire your dedication, and emulate your worship (and exorbitant merchandise spending) of the franchise at hand.
The question is, why is the fan identity coveted? Perhaps, in the case of my grade-school Reddit bully, he felt like he needed to justify his interest in nerdy stuff by overcompensating, and so convinced himself that he was the world’s leading expert on the topic at hand. It’s true that geeks have historically been a favorite punching bag of mainstream society, even as “geeky” movies and TV shows soar high in the ratings, make millions of dollars, and enjoy a generally wide audience. That’s salt in the wound for these beleaguered geeks, who have their lunch money stolen out of their Marvel backpacks by bullies and used to purchase tickets to Avengers. How dare the “normies” enjoy superheroes and wizards? Ergo, they must be fake fans.
By the same token, these gatekeepers assume those dastardly “girls” who decline to sleep with them are obviously just trying to gain attention by pretending to like geeky things. The ultimate tease, in their mind, is a “female” pretending to have shared interests and then refusing to put out. I guess friendship just isn’t appealing to these guys, who sometimes identify as, or at are at least sympathetic to, incels — short for “involuntary celibate”—who believe that they aren’t having sex because women are too shallow, superficial, or empowered by feminism to be attracted to geeky, ugly men.
Whether it’s criticizing female-led reboots of geek staples or alleged “SJW”-ification of beloved geek franchises or asserting that “females” have no valid opinions on geek culture or fandoms, incels and gatekeepers have a lot in common.
The two identities intersect at the point where geek culture is considered an exclusive club for those who like to have a pity party for themselves. These people, despite clinging to the coveted fan identity, actually consider being a geek shameful and seem to only find it empowering as long as they can hold it over others’ heads. Because their attachment to the fandom is what makes them feel unique and special, they demand narrow, ultra-specific criteria to define what makes someone a fan so that they can shame others for not being “true fans” and keep that special feeling for themselves. It’s a shame — because geek culture can indeed be very empowering without the need to bully or ostracize.
Years ago, I was actively involved in a Dungeons and Dragons group while also working on an ethnography of Warhammer 40,000 players. I spent a lot of time in comics and games shops and, ever the anthropologist, was reflecting on my interactions with the self-described geeks as well as what I observed while people watching.
A few moments of obvious gatekeeping stand out:
Once, while attending a sci-fi/fantasy convention, a friend and I went to visit another friend who was performing in a maid cafe based on a Japanese restaurant style in which sexy women serve tea and cookies to patrons. While this was an admittedly tamer version — and was a performance, not an actual café — it still featured my friend and several other apron-frocked girls with long pigtails speaking in girly voices while catering to guests and generally being cute.
“It was awful [in there],” a young, heavy-set man with a clumpy beard and acne said to my friend and me as we left. “Those girls are supposed to be nines and 10s, and they had nothing but ones and twos, maybe a couple of threes.”
Again, this was a performance, not an actual maid café, and here this guy was asserting that the geek girls volunteering for it didn’t meet his qualifications to do so.
Another time, about a year since I had been playing with my Dungeons and Dragons group, I was nominated to be Dungeon Master (DM), the person who develops the story and leads the gameplay. As someone with a firm grasp on the rules, an extensive collection of playbooks, and a great sense of imagination and storytelling, I was the clear choice. I was thrilled that the group would promote me. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed. One player, though he’d always been nice to me and the other players until then, suddenly started being surly and disruptive, muttering under his breath and nitpicking my choices at every turn. At one point, I was sitting on the couch and he came up behind me and belched, food particles and all, directly into my hair. I was horrified and had to go wash my hair immediately. When my friend confronted him, his excuse was that he didn’t like having “a girl as DM.”
Later, we found out he identified as an incel, which wasn’t completely surprising, given how he had ignored the larger group’s assessment of my qualifications and felt emasculated that a “girl” was leading the game.
Lastly, it wasn’t unusual for women to be excluded from regular D&D gameplay at gaming stores. We were forced to join special games in which the male players didn’t use their special cards, characters, or figurines, or we were asked to play games separately. Women were regularly quizzed on the franchise at hand — to correctly answer these quizzes would require knowing truly trivial knowledge, from minute details of a character’s backstory to specific aspects of a weapon that was rarely discussed. Many of these details were derived from fan fiction or novelizations rather than the source material — in other words, material that even many avid fans wouldn’t necessarily read.
These sorts of gatekeeping tactics helped establish the shop was as a male-only area — where women were treated as intruders who had to “pay the toll” to participate, or else be excluded and bullied.
Women have always had to battle for a place in geek fandom. Even when they do “prove their cred,” they’re mocked for it, either as “ones and twos,” “not true fans,” or “just trying to impress boys.” (And yet, they’re also not willing to sleep with the boys.) The message from this gatekeeping segment of the geek community is clear: Women’s opinions aren’t valid, while the gatekeepers have not only the correct opinion, but are in fact “world’s leading experts” on the material.
Incels work to justify violence against women, while gatekeepers are attempting to remove us from the stage of public opinion.
Thankfully, many members of the geek community are actively working against both gatekeeping and inceldom. Despite the inevitable complaints about a female lead in Star Wars or that the “Chads” and “Stacys” are going to Marvel movies, geekdom has become broader in its scope and more inclusive in its messaging. Truth be told, science fiction and fantasy, the core pillars of geekdom, have traditionally made a space for characters who were outside the mainstream, who represented their underprivileged, minority real-world counterparts.
Alarmingly, the so-called alt-right is using geekdom to further its agenda. In this movement, gatekeeping is a means of legitimizing the views of (predominantly white) males while excluding everyone else. In an era when geek culture is increasingly mainstream, even holding up a mirror to Western society’s passions and problems, it’s even more dangerous to claim that POC and women have no valid place in it. Incels work to justify violence against women, while gatekeepers are attempting to remove us from the stage of public opinion. We must not remain complacent with these fringe elements, because gatekeeping isn’t limited to them, nor are attitudes of entitlement toward one’s opinion and female bodies limited to incels.
With each major “geek” release, whether DC or Marvel, Terminator or Alien (both female-led in their original installments, I would note), anime or Disney, we’ve seen that people are increasingly offended by the presence of POC or women. “True fans” of The Little Mermaid want a white girl with red hair in the role, racists claim. “True fans” of Star Wars want more white men to save the galaxy, sexists claim. “True fans” of Men in Black don’t want a black woman as the hero, bigots claim. Those “true fans” are racists, sexists, and bigots — and shouldn’t be allowed to claim what “true” fandom looks like for the rest of us.
What the general public wants might be up for debate, but gatekeeping relies upon individual opinions stemming from a place of insecurity. White straight men feel underrepresented, despite having been overrepresented in most pop culture over the past few centuries. The geeks among them feel that geek culture is their home, and they don’t want “intruders” such as “fake geek girls” or “SJWs.” While their opinions aren’t always enough to sway casting directors or producers’ drive to be more diverse and inclusive, sometimes they are. Either way, they represent an insidious segment of our population: those who want to use geek culture as a means of suppressing minority voices. That’s the true goal of gatekeeping, and something we should all be concerned about.