Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Geek Feminist Revolution

Kameron Hurley

Tor Books



Welcome to the Revolution

There’s a revolution going on. We’re seeing some of the loudest and most violent of its battles inside a seemingly strange place: fan and creator communities of science fiction and fantasy media. These are battles fought in the comments sections of personal and professional websites, on subreddits like /r/fantasy, and, increasingly, in popular news outlets ranging from NPR to the New York Times. The fandoms that have arisen around science fiction and fantasy novels, games, and other media, once confined to fan-run magazines—online and off—and old LiveJournal communities and listservs, have gone mainstream. Journalists on the outside like to call this the “Age of the Geek.” Inside geek circles, what geekiness is, and how it’s defined, is becoming an even more hotly contested issue. Mainstream coverage of these growing pains has focused primarily on predominantly white, male geeks suffering a keen sense of nostalgia for the days when they were the assumed default audience for pulp novels and video games.

Yet women have always been geeks. They have been gamers and writers, comic book readers and passionate fans, from Conan the Barbarian to Star Trek. So why the new backlash? Because the numbers of women in these spaces have indeed grown in the last decade. Women have gone from making up 25 to 30 percent of gaming audiences just ten years ago to over 50 percent of video game players, and 40 to 50 percent of creators. Forty percent of science fiction authors are female, as are 60 percent of readers of speculative genres. Their voices, their presence, cannot be denied or explained away with talks of tokenism and exceptionalism. Women are here.

Women like me.

Human beings are, if nothing else, dedicated to upholding their narrative of the way the world is supposed to be, whether or not that world ever truly existed. If you’re wondering why there’s been an explosive backlash against women in geek and popular culture, this is the reason: the status quo and mainstream ideas about how the world works must be maintained by those who benefit most from it, and to do that, voices that speak of actual reality, or a different future, must be silenced.

That means me. And probably you. And a lot of the people you know. It means silencing at least half of the world.

I have been fighting this narrative for a long time, because it is not limited to popular culture. Popular culture is simply a microcosm of our wider culture, and we live in a culture that doesn’t like to uplift female voices without a fight. The fight takes its toll. I am imperfect, and I am tired, and now that I’m in my midthirties I’ve been able to see the cycles of rage and erasure happen time and time again, and yes, it gets frustrating.

As opportunities for women in geek spaces have risen, so too has the backlash. Anita Sarkeesian’s popular Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video education series about problematic depictions of women in video games raised nearly $160,000 on Kickstarter and simultaneously made her one of the largest targets of abuse on the internet—no small feat considering how vast the rage of the online beast can be. A single forum post by a spurned ex-boyfriend triggered an internet deluge of threats against game creator Zoe Quinn, which rapidly organized itself under the Gamergate hashtag, an online mob ostensibly about “ethics in gaming journalism” that primarily targeted women for harassment. Riding on the coattails of Gamergate came SadPuppyGate, an organized backlash against the increasing number of women and “literary” books showing up on popular science fiction and fantasy awards ballots, in particular the prestigious Hugo Awards. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, women made up nearly 40 percent of the nominees on the Hugo Awards ballot. But by aligning themselves with the Gamergate movement to stuff ballot boxes with a slate of pre-approved candidates, a small group of mostly white, male, conservative writers (calling themselves the Sad Puppies) was able to vote nearly all of their nominees onto the Hugo Award ballot for the 2014 nomination period. Due to the gaming of the vote, women nominees dropped to 20 percent of the overall total, the lowest number since 2009. The slate of nominees included nine works associated with a small press founded by a far-right extremist who doesn’t believe women should have the right to vote, and another from a press called (unironically) the Patriarchy Press. The slate was summarily dismissed by the final voters, and not a single slated work except Guardians of the Galaxy (which was the only work likely to have made the ballot without the slate) was awarded a trophy, and every other slated work finished dead last under “No Award.”

The hate campaigns don’t work. The slates don’t work. Yet these targeted campaigns of hate and abuse have served their purpose in another way: they have driven some women of all races, men of color, and queer, trans, and other nonbinary people away from online spaces and discouraged them from writing in speculative fiction genres.

But not all of us. Not all of us. Because telling someone to be quiet on the internet to avoid abuse and harassment is like telling women that the best way to avoid being raped is not to go outside, and there are many more of us who won’t be silenced, because fuck that.

What the organized haters never anticipated was that their abuse would also inspire its own resistance. I was raised on stories of a grandmother who lived in Nazi-occupied France. My great-grandfather was part of the resistance. I studied resistance movements in Southern Africa as part of my master’s degree. When somebody pushes back, I know how to push harder. I have a lot of perspective on what real state terror looks like, and online abuse still pales in comparison.

This vitriolic backlash inspired and continues to inspire a generation of passionate fans and creators who refuse to be silenced.

I’m one of them.

One of many.

What are we risking by speaking up? Everything, certainly. But the far riskier business is not speaking up at all. The riskier future is the one where we all fear a madman incensed by something he read online plowing a car into our house more than we fear being hit by a random bus on the street. I am sane enough to note that the odds of the latter are still greater than the odds of the former.

The truth is that much of the hate directed at us is about fear of us. As both an essayist and a science fiction and fantasy novelist, I write about and for the future. I talk about the past to remind us that what we believe has always been true—that men and women are somehow static categories, or that men in power has always been the default, or that same-sex love affairs were always taboo—has not always been thus. Who we are, how we define ourselves, how we structure our societies has been vastly mutable over time. I talk about that because if we assume the world has always been one way, then change is not only scarier (“But what will happen if we change?!”), but appears to be impossible (“It’s never been done!”). The truth is change happens all the time. It’s happening all around us. As I write this, the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. If you’d told me twenty years ago that I’d see that before I was forty, I’d have laughed.

I would tell any woman writing in online spaces today that this is one of the best times to be a geeky woman creator on the internet. Because what the small, angry groups of detractors know, and what we are all waking up to understand, is that there is a revolution going on, and we’re winning it. The stakes are high—not just who gets to play, who gets to create, but who gets to speak. With comic book adaptations breaking the box office, it’s these narratives from the geek universe that are fueling and influencing our wider culture. It’s a revolution being fought at all levels of geekdom—from writers and creators to readers and fans.

I’ve been actively writing in feminist geek spaces for a decade. I have done this, and found success in it, despite online abuse, threats, and wailing for me to shut up and go home. In that decade I have become an award-winning author, one of the many building the narratives that will filter up through our culture to build the stories of the future. It has been my passion during this time to both understand and interrogate creators’ responsibilities to their audiences and to the wider culture. If the stories we tell become not just books, but comic books, television series, movies, and merchandising endeavors, then what we are doing right now could have a profound impact on future generations of storytelling, which influences the behavior of our entire society. We can choose to maintain the status quo. We can choose the safe path. Or we can choose to become part of building something better.

I choose building the better future.

At its heart, this collection is a guidebook for surviving not only the online world and the big media enterprises that use it as story fodder, but sexism in the wider world. It should inspire every reader, every fan, and every creator to participate in building that better future together.

To do that requires us to become better storytellers, adept at leveling up our skills and persisting in the storytelling industry, whether that’s as writers of novels, video games, film, television, or other online media.

In The Geek Feminist Revolution, I explore this revolution from every angle, starting with the creators who decide what stories are about, who gets to be a hero, and how to deal with backlash when we get representation wrong—or get called out for perpetuating the same tired stories. The first section of this collection, Level Up, includes essays about how to both improve craft and persist in the face of oftentimes overwhelming odds. The ability to persist is often a greater indicator of success in this field than raw talent.

Interrogating broken media is also key to teaching yourself how to make better stories. I’ve collected key pieces of media criticism and all things geek in the Geek section. As for the more personal essays—after all, if we can’t understand ourselves and our motivations, how can we understand others?—they’re in the Let’s Get Personal section.

The final section, Revolution, covers exactly that. These are the pieces that poke at the wider work, and our broken systems and processes, and pull back the curtain over the “normal” society that’s presented as such in media. They call for change. They call for revolution. They call for you, and everyone like you, everyone who always felt like they were out of place, like something was wrong, like the world was not built for them, to take a deeper look at what’s really broken (hint: it’s not you). Every geek feminist and aspiring geek feminist; every cultural revolutionary; every loud, angry, weepy, mad kid who wanted to be a hero but wasn’t sure where to start; everyone who dreamed they could build something better—this section is for you.

I was once asked what my endgame was, when it came to my writing career, and the answer came easily, without a thought: “I want to change the world.”

That’s what The Geek Feminist Revolution is ultimately meant to do—inspire the people who change the world. You may not believe this right now—but that includes you, too. Your voice is powerful. Your voice has meaning. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t work so hard to try to silence you.

Remember that.

I understand that this is a long game, a persistence game, being part of a cultural revolution. Sometimes I need to pick myself up and dust myself off and start again, too. I am not perfect. I am not always confident. I don’t always have the energy to face the day. But there are a whole lot more of us now, connected via online spaces, and all of us speaking out together are stronger than any one of us speaking out alone.

You’re not alone.

Persistence isn’t the end of the road, after all. Persistence is the game. The narrative that wins is the one that persists the longest, in the face of overwhelming odds.

This book is part of that narrative.

Copyright © 2016 by Kameron Hurley