I’m a geek, and I believe interests shouldn’t be gendered

By Clara How, Aug 20, 2020

A decade or two ago, handing a boy a superhero action figure, and a girl a Barbie doll wouldn’t be questioned. To switch the two around would be thought of as odd. Video games and comic books? Boys’ games. 

This pigeon-holing of interests by gender has since been evolving. While it may not be as unusual for girls and women to be reading comic books today, it was a lot rarer in the past. It never bothered Felicia Low-Jimenez ⁠— as a child, she read and played with what she loved, which were all things stereotypically ‘geeky’. Her diet of science fiction, comic books, and video games led her to her current career path of being the publisher at a comics book company called Difference Engine. 

Along the way, she encountered doubts about her expertise and credibility as a science fiction and fantasy expert. When she married a man who shared her interests, her ‘geek cred’ was compared to his. It no longer bothers her, because Felicia has a bigger picture in mind. She wants to create diverse stories and give space to new voices. She doesn’t believe that stories  that readers love should be coloured by the gender they identify with.

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As a fiction buyer for Books Kinokuniya for many years, the genres I was best at (and were one of my favourites) were science fiction and fantasy. One day, a colleague from the retail floor called me to say that a customer was asking for a recommendation in this genre, and wanted an “expert”. 

I went out from the back office to speak to him, but after a few minutes, the gentleman asked for a male colleague instead because to him, I “didn’t get it.” We obliged, but eventually he left with Dune by Frank Herbert, which was a title that I had recommended too. 

I have to first qualify by saying that I don’t necessarily believe that I have been held back in this industry because I am a woman. But there have definitely been situations where I wish that I hadn’t been addressed the way I was, and wish that I had spoken up when it did happen. Only after these gendered assumptions were made about me did I realise that they should not have happened. 

Today, I’m the publisher at Difference Engine, a local comic book publishing company, which is part of a larger organisation called Potato Productions. As a publisher, I oversee operations and strategy, and manage the team. Part of what I want to do is to tell a diverse range of stories, and to give children and adults as many choices as possible. 

I want them to be able to choose what they want to read, rather than it being chosen for them, or think any content is the “correct” thing they should be reading.

I knew I wanted to work with books since I was in secondary school. I loved stories: reading, movies, TV shows, video games, writing— anything that had to do with storytelling.  It’s cliché, but I genuinely believe stories can change lives. They changed mine!

I grew up on a staple of cartoons like M.A.S.K, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and ultimately, X-Men, which led to a lifelong love for comics. I had one classmate at my convent secondary school who also loved comics, and we would head to specialised comic stores at Orchard Road together to pick up weekly comics. 

I had a full set of Star Wars action figures, and eventually gravitated towards science fiction and fantasy books, Japanese anime and manga, reading everything that I could find in the library. I played a lot of video games, and would even dream of the Super Mario Brothers theme song! 

My family never said my interests were unsuitable, and never restricted or judged me for what I liked as a child. It never occurred to me that my interests and hobbies were not traditionally thought of as “for girls”, especially in the period I grew up in.

It was only when I started working in my early 20s that I realised people had gendered ideas about interests.

I saw this the most when I worked for Books Kinokuniya ⁠— not from my colleagues or bosses, but from customers and partners who we worked with. Besides the customer who asked for a male expert, there were instances where I would discuss comics or science fiction titles, and my opinion was not trusted. There were also male customers who asked me a question, then asked the same question to the male colleague seated next to me.

A few decades ago, the main target audience for comic books and video games were men and boys. Marketing was geared towards them. However, in the past few years, we can see a distinct change in marketing as organisations belatedly see the potential of including everyone instead of just a segment of society. This is fantastic, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The term ‘geek’ comes with context and history. In the past, the geek stereotype was male, and it wasn’t a flattering depiction. It wasn’t as cool then as it is now to be called a geek or a nerd, or to like video games and comic books. People would make fun of geeks because of what they loved, and they were stereotyped as people who weren’t popular or attractive, and were socially awkward.

Because of this treatment, I believe long-time male geeks feel they have a sense of ownership over what they love. These worlds and stories mean a great deal to geeks, myself included. But when male geeks see new fans, whether they are female or otherwise, they see it as an invasion of their space. This may explain some of the pushback I encountered. I didn’t fit the mold, and didn’t have to “suffer for my love”.

Over the last decade, however, geek culture has become more mainstream, and has even become ‘cool’. Today, everyone is embracing their geeky side — glasses have even become a fashion accessory! It started with the rise of Silicon Valley, and big-name geeks such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates becoming successful entrepreneurs. Barack Obama is also a self-proclaimed geek. Television shows and movies, like the Marvel films, have made comic book characters extremely popular. 

Geeky characters have been given a makeover. Take Steve Urkel, a young, archetypal nerd in the 1980s sitcom Family Matters. He was presented as a lovable dork with outsize glasses, suspenders, braces, and spoke with a high pitched voice. Today, geeky youth in mainstream media take the form of the kids from Stranger Things, who unabashedly play Dungeons & Dragons and exchange comic books. Even perennial favourite Hermione Granger is a proud nerd. 

Instead of being a negative stereotype, being a geek is a form of personal identity. Previously, it was a term someone called you, and you had to adopt it in defiance. But more recently, at least in my opinion, it’s something that you can own and call yourself. In fact, it can be worn almost as a badge of pride.

For me, I didn’t see a need to call myself a geek or a nerd, or try to get anyone to think of me as one. I just liked the things that I liked.

However, I do think identifying as a geek brings a sense of community with like-minded people. You can be a geek about anything: art, history, stationery or even cupcakes.

I began to be seen as a geek when my husband, Adan Jimenez, and I were in the public eye more often. Adan and I met at a mutual friend’s dinner party, and hit it off talking about comics. One memorable moment of our courtship is when he brought his entire collection of Green Lantern single issues for me to read while I was recovering from surgery. Today, we joke that our marriage must be strong, because we can play Overcooked together and share an Animal Crossing island and not murder each other!

Adan and I have been writing a children’s book series featuring a boy detective named Sherlock Sam, under the pseudonym of A.J. Low. What started as a story about a geeky boy detective, his robot Watson, and his friends has now become a series of 15 books that has been published in the United States, and has been translated into local languages in Indonesia, Turkey, South Korea and soon, Myanmar. When we were featured in media interviews, we were called a “geeky couple”, and the title stuck. We didn’t mind, because we’re geeks after all.

But what does bother me is people making the assumption he is somehow a part of my work as a comics book publisher.

When I started Difference Engine, people assumed Adan was involved in some way, even though he works in video games. The company has been around for two years, and he hasn’t appeared at any of our events except to occasionally help out, but people still think he’s involved.

I understand we often appear as a couple in public situations, but that’s because of our writing, not because of my work at Difference Engine. It is frustrating that some still make this assumption, because the direction I’ve taken Difference Engine is very different from the direction he would have taken if he had been running the company. Once, after an interview with an online publication, Adan was credited as a co-founder, and it took us multiple emails to the website before they finally amended the mistake.

This assumption tells me some people believe I would not have achieved what I have with the company without Adan’s knowledge and experience to back me up.

There are also the little things, like when people give me recommendations for a comic book or video game, I always get asked if Adan would like what was suggested. 

It continues to be difficult if someone questions my professional credentials, but I’ve also come to realise that practically, it doesn’t stop me or the work I want to do. I’ve accepted there are people who are still stuck with a particular mindset, but there are many others who are open and accepting, and they are who I want to work with. I have options that perhaps other women didn’t have a decade ago. On a personal front, it doesn’t matter if someone sees me as a geek or if I was “more geeky” than my husband.

Photo credit: Mindy Tan Photography for Epigram Books

Photo credit: Mindy Tan Photography for Epigram Books

My team at Difference Engine is mostly made up of women, but this wasn’t a conscious decision. On one hand, I was looking for the best people for the job, and wouldn’t have hired my team if they weren’t suitable.

On the other, I wanted to create roles in a comics publishing house for people who have been kept out of the industry by gatekeepers who have traditionally been men.

When I initially asked around for ideas of who I could hire, all the names that came up were familiar male names. But I wanted new, fresh names ⁠— the ideal candidate didn’t need to know when Jubilee first appeared in the X-Men. I wanted new faces who were willing to learn alongside me, and who I could learn from as well. I ended up with a small team that initially consisted of four women who have strong editorial and marketing backgrounds (something I greatly value), and we have recently hired a male designer. And, no, I didn’t hire him because he was a guy, I hired him because he’s an amazing designer!

With Sophia Susanto and Josephine Tan, my colleagues at Difference Engine.

With Sophia Susanto and Josephine Tan, my colleagues at Difference Engine.

COVID-19 has thrown us for a loop, but we have recently launched The Makers Club: Game On!, the first volume in a series featuring a friendship between two secondary school girls: artist Nadia and gamer girl Priya. We wanted to address topics that teenagers face in Asia, such as family expectations.

Through a lighthearted story with relatable characters, we hope kids will be inspired to explore STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) topics, and get creative in experimenting, coding and developing games in today’s digital world.

Since the book was launched, readers have shared that they appreciate that it features a diverse cast in familiar situations and settings. Plus, the fact that the two characters who build the game are girls is also inspiring for readers. 

The industry is changing. In a local context, it is heartening to see an increasing number of female illustrators (Anngee Neo, Soefara Jafney, Ng Xiao Yan, Kao Waiman and Rachel Pang, to name a few) who are going into comic books and sharing their work online. In an international context, a lot of content is still specifically for male adults. But overall, I would definitely say that there’s more diverse representation across the board, from featuring LGBTQIA+ characters to how women are written and presented. 

There were only a handful of female superhero characters in the past, but there are many, many more now—and headlining series or movies. There have also been massive changes in how these characters are drawn and illustrated, to reflect much more realistic and wide-ranging body types. Marvel Comics’ Squirrel Girl, for example, is not a tall, slim superhero. 

There are also more stories for children and teenagers, such as Smile by Raina Telgemeier, an autobiographical coming of age story, and other popular titles by Remy Lai and Svetlana Chmakova. When I worked at Books Kinokuniya, I would see more parents with girls picking comics from the kids section, and women of all ages browsing the Adult comics section. 

All these things have come together to result in this variety in content: female illustrators developing a following, a wider audience thanks to comics being more readily sold in major bookstores, and society gradually breaking free from gender stereotypes. 

For my team and I, we want to create space for diverse content and creators. We want to continue to push against what is expected.

Photos provided by Felicia Low-Jimenez. 

Writer’s Note:

My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I’ve shared about my love of stories and reading, how they became my career, and why we should read books by minority voices. 

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