I have always liked nerd things. I have always been into comics and dragons and Star Trek. I’ve always loved video games. I’ve purchased and read copies of Inquest magazine. My older sister Aimee was always cool. She was cool and popular, and in high school she went into the hills and drank and she smoked weed and did normal, cool popular high school stuff. I was into nerd things. My sister was not.
The CW is a network which has, since 2012, based a plurality of its programming around television adaptations of comic books and fantasy horror novels. Here, this’ll be fun, I’ll run down the shows they have right now:
- The 100 — Sci-fi drama based on a book
- Arrow — Adaptation of a comic book
- Beauty and the Beast — Fantasy drama, loosely based on the CBS fantasy drama
- Containment — Adaptation of a very slightly sci-fi Belgian show
- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — Original scripted comedy!
- DC’s Legends of Tomorrow — Spin-off of two shows adapted from comic books, plus lots of other comic book stuff freshly adapted
- The Flash —Adaptation of a comic book
- iZombie — Adaptation of a comic book
- Jane the Virgin — Adaptation of a Telenovella
- Masters of Illusion — Show about stage magicians
- The Originals — Spin-off of an adaption of a fantasy/horror novel
- Penn & Teller: Fool Us — Show about stage magicians
- Reign — Historical fiction about Mary, Queen of Scots
- Supernatural — Long running fantasy/horror drama
- The Vampire Diaries — Adaptation of a fantasy/horror book series
- Whose Line is it Anyway — Revived version of American adaptation of a British show
That’s sixteen shows. Of those, eight are adaptations of comics, TV shows or novels with monsters in them. Supernatural might as well be. Beyond those, you have adaptations of successful projects, unscripted shows about magicians, and the delightful outliers of historical fiction and a musical comedy (which is actually really good, and has interesting, complex characters).
So half the shows on a given network are based on nerd/fandom type properties. And this isn’t the sci-fi channel. This is a channel that, based on the rest of its adaptation-heavy slate, is prone to playing it safe. So how did shows about vampires and Barry Allen become playing it safe?
When they learned to produce and market the shows in a way that appealed to women.
It was my mom was the one who kicked off a lot of those nerdy fascinations. She’s the one who read the Wrinkle in Time books with me, who would let me stay up an hour past bed time because we wanted to see what happened next in a Narnia novel. My mom and I watched Star Trek together every Sunday, and my mom was the one who read a few of the Forgotten Realms novels when I was only eight or nine. My mom is an incredibly talented engineer, but she was never exactly a nerd. She didn’t need to be.
This has been building gradually for years. Fantasy romance has been a successful genre in the racks at the grocery stores for years. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer took the setting and lore of sci-fi and fantasy, and then deployed them in service of stories about characters and relationships. The Lord of the Rings told an epic story on a human (or hobbit) scale, and it didn’t hurt that they remembered to have a few of the male cast members have sexy bedroom eyes on the regular.
The current boom in nerd media is almost entirely because women are on board. We’ve managed to find a huge audience that is excited by, and ready to get invested in, these traditionally nerdy subjects. So where were they? We can see, quite clearly, that women are not biologically averse to elves and space ships, so why have these genres been so overwhelmingly male this entire time?
Before we move forward, some concessions: Yes, obviously some of them were right there. They were going to comic cons and sci-fi cons, they were role playing as an elf druid in The Red Dragon Inn chatroom on AOL. There have always been women interested in genre fiction and TV, but far, far fewer than there are today. There’s also the reality that writing and publishing were, like most industries, a boys club, so most of the media produced was by men, and largely for men.
But that’s not all of it. The fact is that the communities and spaces created by fans of sci-fi, fantasy, et al. have generally* ranged from somewhat unwelcoming to outright hostile toward women. The reality is that these “fringe” interests have always had a significant number of potential fans — women — who distanced themselves from these communities. To quote my friend Vicki, “Not because the guys were nerdy, but because they were assholes.”
(Another aside, which should be unnecessary, but just in case: of course not every nerdy guy, or sci-fi fan, was an asshole. Of course not all of us said ugly, thoughtless, hurtful things. Of course, many of us would be horrified to think that we’d made another person feel unsafe. It doesn’t matter. We didn’t address the problem. We let those who would make others feel leered at, or made fun of, or objectified stay. We didn’t treat them like the pariahs they should have been. We failed.)
It’s no surprise then that genre media becomes more mainstream at the same time that it becomes more palatable to women. In this way, the misogynists sowed the seeds that led to the current traumatic upheaval in nerd culture. It’s not unusual to hear cries of outrage to the effect that these people, these women, these SJWs are coming, and they’re taking our things, and they’re changing them and messing them up. But they’re not taking them, the artists and creators and multinational corporations who actually produce this media are actively trying to engage and entice these “usurpers”, but only because the nerds in charge had been doing such a profoundly shitty job. The point of these books and movies and video games is to find an audience that will enjoy them and support them financially. If the previous target market is actively alienating potential customers, it’s not exactly a surprise when they stop being the target market.
And even more importantly, the artists, creators, and media companies, they’re not wrong. The huge success of previously marginal genres right now isn’t a fluke. The assertion that it was nerds that made this stuff popular, and now it’s being watered down or adulterated to better appeal to mass audiences is backwards. The subset of nerds who made roughly half the population feel uncomfortable and unwanted kept this stuff marginal, and it is by ignoring them and appealing to that other 50% that superheroes and robots and knights have been able to flourish.
There wouldn’t be Game of Thrones, or the Captain America: Civil War, or a new Star Trek series, or The Flash, there wouldn’t be any of these if women didn’t like them. When you get these self-appointed gatekeepers grousing that women are taking over Star Wars and ruining it by… being characters I guess — you have people who are not only self centered, sad, misogynistic, privileged buffoons, you also have people who fundamentally misunderstand the economics of the media with which they define themselves. Women aren’t taking Star Wars away from you, Star Wars only exists in the first place because women want it.
My sister was never a nerd, but she’s seen The Lord of the Rings movies dozens of times each. She used to fall asleep every night to a different Harry Potter movie. She watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my mom starting with season 1, and she’s hugely invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. My sister hasn’t suddenly become a nerd, and she’s not taking anything away from nerds. It turns out those things never belonged to nerds in the first place.
*I was exceptionally lucky (and largely unaware of it) while growing up to have found communities of nerds who were inclusive and friendly, and which had gender ratios approaching 1:1. Even then, any time I ventured outside my immediate friend group, I witnessed some pretty heinous shit.