Here’s my post for the BlogHer ’10 Community Keynote. I’m still backstage listening to the other great readings! What a rush to read for over 2000 amazing, writerly, geeky women! I’m all like OMG Double Rainbow It’s So Intense!
What Is Geek?
Today I was washing the flowered handkerchiefs my sister made me . When the hankies got wet in the sink I could feel all kinds of slimy mucus on there. I thought, what makes mucus do that? What’s going on, chemically? Is there a scale of measurement to describe snot’s ability to dry up and re-slime? Must look up viscosity!
Later that day I spent hours reading about soil science. That led me to giant government web sites, maps, explanations of whether the soil in my area was firm enough for tanks to cross, or soft enough for mass burials in pits. I absorbed the beautiful jargon of the taxonomy of soil.
Then I had this weird flash, like time travel, where I was mentally telling all this to this girl Susan I knew in middle school. I could see her very kind but skeptical smile. This imaginary Middle School Susan sighed and said I was SUCH a geek. She said I was “like a boy”.
Another moment popped into my head. At BlogHer 05, when Mena Trott from SixApart stood up and started babbling about knitting blogs. I kind of freaked out.
I was like, OMG, CNN is here! I thought you were going to represent, and be my computer programming coder rock star and instead….you’re talking about knitting! How embarrassing! We were finally getting noticed as women doing stuff on the web not just as blog writers but as deeply technical women and now… knitting?!!!
I tried to suspend my judgement, persuading myself, “Well, women DO knitting and, women talking to each other on the Internet is inherently good, so, I guess it’s good they find each other there and talk about what they like, which is this trivial, stereotypical, embarrassing, girly thing, it might as well be talking about Barbies and painting our nails.”
I could see Mena knew she was being misunderstood and that the media was going to mangle her message. As I thought about this over the years, I understood the dynamic of what was happening. I’m so sorry for my ignorance and my misogyny. I was SO WRONG.
Now I know that knitting a sock is this AMAZING thing — like building a suspension bridge, a feat of engineering, and is like code in that it is … code…. but made out of physical stuff…. Textile geeks have patterns that are code that convey technical information. They reverse engineer and re-invent marvellous things, knitting coral reefs and digestive systems and enormous protein molecules along with socks and sweaters. Now I’m a knitting groupie. I signed up on Ravelry just to swoon over the textile rock stars.
As I washed my snotty handkerchiefs I thought about boys in middle school. While my being a geek made me “like a boy”, being a geek, for boys, meant they were called girly or gay. Being weird meant that gender norms could be used against us. For geeks who were boys and then men, I think this influenced and still influences a defiant need to define geek as male. Geek macho insists on hetronormativity, defines girls as a thing apart, claiming geekiness for manhood.
I’m not a knitter. But I do have SOME skill with string. I can play cat’s cradle and make string figures. Like hand-clapping games and jumprope rhymes, string figures are passed from girl to girl over the years.
It strikes me we could learn something crucial, as geeky feminists, from the pattern of how young girls pass on this knowledge, and how that is presented as gendered knowledge – as something “girls know how to do”.
Single crochet is just making a loop with your fingers and thumb, tying the same sliding knot over and over. It teaches the skill of maintaining tension on a strand. It’s a useful skill to make a weak cord into a stronger, thicker one.
It’s what you pay attention to.
It’s a stance towards knowledge and doing.
It’s about communicating knowledge and process.
I learned everything I knew about string from other little girls. Though I didn’t realize it, that was my introduction into geek sisterhood. Teach your geekiness, and pass it on. It’s what girls know how to do.
(posted originally on Dreamwidth – this is the edited version to fit it in under 4 minutes)