Here's another installment of Gender in Genre! The first post is here.
It's not that I wish to complain that femmes are, on the whole, a put upon or oppressed group. We get our fair share of sexism, certainly, but there's a lot of privilege that goes along with being femme.
Perhaps it's because of that privilege, and the fact that as nerds we've self-defined as different from the 'pretty people', that we have a femme problem in genre. As kids, a lot of us got picked on people who were prettier than us, and therefore, being pretty was the problem, right? And that would be one thing if it was equally distributed in genre - we have our share of the vain, smug men, admittedly, but the truth is, there are a lot more vain, insipid women. When you see this trope disproportionately applied to women, it becomes clear that this is not really about looking down on being vain, it's about hating on things that are traditionally feminine.
The message you get, reading a lot of genre literature, is very straightforward: if you are doing women's work, and if you are making an effort to present as feminine, you are a waste of time; you are boring; you are useless. You are baggage. (And that's the charitable version; think about all the beautiful-but-deadly female villains out there, from Snow White on down. There's an even better message: being pretty makes you evil.) Conversely, if you are a girl and you would like to be considered interesting, you must set yourself apart from all those other girls. You must be interested in boy things instead, because boy things are the only useful things.
I understand the urge to say "girls don't need to be restricted to girl things!" This is a wonderful thing to say. But it's possible to go too far, to say that only girls who eschew their gender are interesting. Which is what we're saying in genre, every time another author takes cheap shots at a traditionally feminine character.
Now, guess what that means to geek girls? You have to choose between being femme and being a protagonist. You need to apologize for liking feminine things. If someone says that you're girly you need to figure out what you did wrong and backpedal.
It means that if you're beautiful, it negates your interest as a person. Are you pretty? Congratulations, you're an object. A fake geek girl. An outsider. Go away.
You want to know why women tend to be underrepresented in fandom historically? Maybe it's partially because we told them that the very thing their value was being judged on in real life - their appearance - made them unwelcome in fandom. Shockingly, this ties right in with our standard cultural narratives about the objectification of women. Women must be pretty to be taken seriously, but if they're too pretty, they are trying to hard, probably not competent, just eye candy. (Or they are using their Feminine Wiles against you.)
Oh, and when pretty women are just objects in fandom? Suddenly harassment culture at cons makes a great deal more sense. I'm not saying that genre's disdain for femmes is singlehandedly responsible for harassment culture, but if we make anyone who presents as feminine into plot furniture in our work, are we really surprised when people objectify women in fandom?
And, on a personal level: we talk a lot about wanting to see 'people like us' in the media we consume. I'd really like to see people in the books I read who are allowed to be femme without being vapid and useless. I'd like to see girls be interesting, compelling characters without having to be Different From The Other Girls.
On behalf of the other girls, screw that.