I’ve generally refrained from commenting on the #gamergate controversy and issues surrounding nerd or gamer culture. Partly this is because I have never been a nerd or a gamer. I suppose my status as a Whovian, my love for Firefly, and my interest in cosplay may place me on the outskirts of those communities, nut I’ve never felt connected enough to claim membership. But I do want to weigh in for a moment.
I’ve noticed that many adolescent and young adult men in nerd/gamer culture seem to feel slighted by failure in romance. Sometimes they don’t ask girls out as a result of crippling social anxiety, and sometimes they ask and end up laughed at or made fun of. Either way, they end up feeling that they have been given the short end of the deal or denied something to which they were entitled. Recently, MIT professor Scott Aaronson used his painful adolescent and young adult experience with women to argue against the idea that nerdy males have privilege. Laurie Penny responded in New Statesman, pointing out that obtaining love can feel just as hopeless for nerdy girls.
And so I thought I’d chime in, because I know what it feels like to see a relationship and a significant other as completely unobtainable. I know what it is like to feel unwanted, unattractive, and alone. I know what it is like to feel unhappy with my physical appearance and to wonder if any man would ever want me. It hurt—it hurt a lot. And like Laurie, I’m female.
In our culture, men are expected to be the first ones to make the move, and I’ve sometimes seen them complain about how hard this is. I find that they rarely think about how hard it might be to be the one waiting on someone else to make a move. I get that asking and facing rejection is hard, but it’s not like waiting around to be asked is easy. We don’t get to pick who asks us out, or when, and like most women I’ve spent my share of time wishing with my entire being that a guy I was interested in would make a move or show some interest.
It is becoming more accepted for women to make the first move today, and I see that as a positive change—but I didn’t grow up in mainstream American society. I grew up in conservative Christian homeschool circles where courtship was the norm and prospective suitors were expected to approach my father with their interest. I grew up in a culture where I literally could not ask a guy out. And so I waited. And waited and waited. And wondered—would any young man even be interested? What if no one did? What would I do? I felt completely and totally helpless.
I wasn’t conventionally attractive. I was a bit chubby, and at the time I didn’t carry my extra weight very well. On top of that, I wore sack dresses to preserve my “modesty” and I didn’t wear makeup or trim my facial hair (I saw these as vanities). I wore my hair in two thick braids, and I had glasses. I knew I wasn’t like the pretty girls. I also knew I wasn’t good at smalltalk, and I couldn’t flirt to safe my life. My hobbies—as a teen, mind you—included playing with dollhouses and making doll clothes. I knew I was different from other girls, especially the ones I sometimes saw hanging out at the mall (I didn’t have time to “hang out” with friends—I had too many younger siblings to care for). I tried to appear confident, but inside I was shaking like jello.
I understand that being expected to be the one to make the first move—the one to ask—is hard, but there is no way it is harder than being the one who is expected to wait to be asked.
What happened to me, you ask? My parents valued education, and so they sent me to college as a dowry for my future husband. Because I wanted a chance to “let my light shine” I chose a state college, and left home with my parents’ support. Even as I attended college, living in dorms, I did not see making the first move as tenable. And besides, I still believed in courtship.
While in college, I met a young man. We really hit it off, and enjoyed conversing on a wide range of subjects. We had the same circle of friends, and often at breakfast or supper together as a group, or hung out together in our residence hall. This young man, Sean, was very definitely part of a nerd or gamer culture, the sort who set up LAN parties and spent hours arguing about the dimensions of imperial star destroyers on internet forums. Sean had never had a girlfriend, and his social skills still needed some polishing.
As regular readers know, Sean and I have been married for over half a decade now. How did that happen? Did Sean get up the courage to ask me out? No, actually. Did I throw caution to the wind and ask him out? Nope. Instead, our friends despaired of us seeing what was right in front of our eyes, and took us aside and told us something had to give. Without their intervention, I’m not sure we would be together today. I certainly wouldn’t have asked him out, and I don’t think he would have asked me either.
And my ideas about courtship—what about those? Well, after our friends gave us a push I told Sean that he needed to talk to my dad and arranged for that to happen. My dad gave the go ahead (for a variety of reasons), and Sean and I began a relationship. My father later came to disapprove and ordered us to break up, and at that point Sean and I went rogue. But that’s another story for another day.
When I hear nerdy or gamer men complain about being romantically frustrated, I can’t help but think of my own teen years. I viewed the teenage guys around me as foreign beings beyond understanding, and lived for the day one of them might show an interest. That day seemed so distant—so impossible. I felt unattractive and unwanted. I spiraled into self-loathing and wondered whether any guy would ever want to be with me. It was an extremely unpleasant chapter of my life.
Both men and women struggle with dating and romance. Those who are shy, or nerdy, or not conventionally attractive may struggle more than others, but that goes for girls as well as guys.