How to fix the toxicity between nerd culture and women
Last year saw Nerdist founder and Talking Dead host Chris Hardwick facing allegations of abuse from his ex-girlfriend Chloe Dykstra after she wrote a Medium post detailing troubling experiences with an anonymous abuser. Although Hardwick wasn’t named in the essay, people online nonetheless donned their detective caps and connected the dots to pinpoint who the abuser described in her post could be.
Dykstra alleges Hardwick inflicted a number sexual and emotional abuses upon her before apparently sabotaging her career. “Because of my leaving him for someone else, he made calls to several companies I received regular work from to get me fired by threatening to never work with them. He succeeded. I was blacklisted . . . he steamrolled my career.”
In a statement, Hardwick revealed he “was heartbroken to read Chloe’s post” and denied the allegations, while suggesting the relationship was troubled. “Our three-year relationship was not perfect – we were ultimately not a good match and argued, even shouted at each other – but I loved her, and did my best to uplift and support her as a partner and companion in any way and at no time did I sexually assault her.”
In the statement, Hardwick went on to allege Dykstra cheated on Hardwick and continued asking him to “get back together” and “build a life” with him – something he rejected because she was “unfaithful”. He concluded, “As a husband, a son, and future father, I do not condone any kind of mistreatment of women.”
Nerdist has scrubbed Hardwick’s name from its website pending further investigation of the allegations, released a statement offering support for rape and abuse survivors, and made clear it doesn’t “tolerate discrimination, harassment, and other forms of abuse.” Likewise, AMC has also made the decision to pull Talking Dead from its schedules while the team “assess the situation”.
However, this isn’t the first time the nerd community has been hit by similar accusations involving the mistreatment of women. Regardless of whether anyone actually does “condone” such behavior towards women – which would be an odd thing for any man to publicly declare – doesn’t change the fact that women are continuously mistreated within nerd culture.
Last summer, a variety of sexual assault and harassment allegations were brought to light involving Texas-based theater chain Alamo Drafthouse. At the heart of them were a set of allegations five women made against former Drafthouse associate and Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles.
Former Drafthouse employee Jill Lewis recounted a number of troubling accusations where she suggested, “It’s never a good sign if Harry grabs you. All of us had heard so many stories about how you don’t get within arm’s distance of him.”
Lewis also suggested his behaviour was something everyone knew about but nobody dealt with. “Everybody knew that was Harry’s behaviour. And he got away with it. All the time. But nothing ever happened to him. He was one of the untouchables.”
Around the same time, accusations of Fantastic Fest harboring an unsafe and toxic environment for women were also raised along with sexual assault accusations and Cinefamily board member Shadie Elnashai and founder Hadrian Belove were hit with a set of troubling sexual assault, harassment, and battery accusations.
A former volunteer coordinator even suggested Belove told her she “needed to be hiring cute young girls that he would want to fuck.” At every level, the response has been the same – remove the offending men, create a new code of conduct to prohibit such behaviour, and publicly reaffirm all the usual “zero tolerance” policies that look great on paper but that are apparently too difficult for some powerful men to adhere to.
However, the issue is arguably more deeply rooted and insidious than some new overhauled code of conduct can properly contain. At conventions across the country and beyond, sexual harassment has long been a problem for female cosplayers at such events.
In a survey conducted by Bitch Media regarding the harassment women may have received at San Diego Comic-Con in 2014, various respondents complained that they were more likely to be photographed against their wishes at conventions, with some detailing they received comments of sexual nature there too.
As Bitch Media quantified about its findings, “If thirteen percent of San Diego Comic-Con attendees have unwanted comments of a sexual nature made about them this week, that would be around 17,000 people. And if eight percent of SDCC attendees are groped, assaulted, or raped, that’s over 10,000 attendees suffering harassment.”
That same year, the group Geeks for CONsent gathered signatures on an online petition supporting a formal anti-harassment policy at Comic-Con. As the New York Post detailed, the behavior the group was rallying against was on broad display on the convention floor:
Scantily clad women were still used as decoration for some presentations, and costumed women were described as ‘vaguely slutty’ by panel moderator Craig Ferguson. When Dwayne Johnson (Rampage) made a surprise appearance to promote Hercules, ten women in belly-baring outfits stood silently in front of the stage for no apparent reason.
Such toxic behavior has also been highlighted recently courtesy of alt-right Star Wars fans who delivered such an onslaught of harassment against Star Wars: The Last Jedi actor Kelly Marie Tran, she may have been forced to delete her social media.
As IndieWire stated, while “it’s unclear if she wiped her Instagram account . . . because of vocal ‘fans’ determined to mock her looks, ethnicity, talent, and whatever else they wanted to take aim at in a space where she would assuredly see it, it’s easy to draw some conclusions here.” Daisy Ridley (Murder on the Orient Experience) similarly quit Instagram after being besieged by negative comments herself.
In its takedown of the culture surrounding the online persecution of Tran, The Daily Beast speculated that the toxicity of some quarters of nerd culture and the Star Wars fandom in particular have made such behavior and outcomes fairly predictable. “In fact, given the racism, misogyny, and general toxicity that’s built up around the franchise, it’s impressive that Tran was able to last this long.
“Like so many other assholes, bigoted Star Wars fans have recently become emboldened, emerging from the chrysalises of racist Reddit threads as ubiquitous, bullshit-spouting butterflies. They’ve spread their social media wings, starting Twitter campaigns and harassment initiatives in the hopes of ensuring that white men’s voices are finally heard.”
One could argue that what all of these allegations and outcomes have in common is that they pivot around the idea of women as a controllable fantasy – an element to be willfully objectified and easily harassed and abused. They pivot around allegations suggesting a certain type of man who delights in accruing and abusing their power to belittle women and treat them as playthings rather than people.
Nerd culture keeps coming up against these same allegations and issues time and again, suggesting there’s something rotten and festering within the community that no code of conduct or zero tolerance policies have the might to contain or fix. We’re not sure what the answer is, but diminishing the power of people proven to be toxic is at least one active step in the right direction.