Two professors are warning in a new book that TV shows like The Big Bang Theory are emblematic of a worrying trend they call “toxic geek masculinity.”
The new book Toxic Geek Masculinity in Media: Sexism, Trolling, and Identity Politics was written by Bridget Blodgett, a professor at the University of Maryland, and Anastasia Salter, who teaches classes on digital culture at the University of Central Florida.
Though computer geeks are often depicted as marginalized due to their social exclusion, Blodgett and Salter argue that the opposite is actually true, asserting that geeks are aligned “with a type of toxic straight white masculinity that is rooted deeply in current cultural struggles.”
“Geek masculinity, with its absence of hypermasculine qualities and apparent association with ‘un-masculine’ traits, is often cast in popular culture as a marginalized masculinity,” the professors note, but they make clear that they do not buy this interpretation.
“The dichotomy is false: geek masculinity is not marginalized,” they contend.
“It is instead an inevitable evolution of hegemonic masculinity in a culture where dominance and technical mastery are increasingly interwoven.”
Their book traces a number of TV shows and cultural struggles—including #Gamergate—to illustrate just how this toxic geek masculinity operates, citing The Big Bang Theory as but one example.
Referencing an episode called “The Contractual Obligation Implementation,” in which three geeky male scientists visit a local high school to tout STEM careers to teens, the professors claim that the storyline is actually an example of “empty feminism” because the plot does not address gender disparities in STEM fields.
“The characters are deeply lacking in self-awareness regarding their roles in a sexist workplace, and this same lack of understanding is constantly played for humor,” Blodgett and Salter write.
Later in the episode, the male scientists bring two female scientists with them to chat with the high-schoolers, but the professors insist that the feminist ethos of these female scientists is actually “undermined” because they wear makeup and dress “ultra-feminine.”
Ultimately, Blodgett and Salter worry that the “the episode’s message about women geeks ends with their reduction to objects for the masculine gaze.”
The book concludes by arguing that toxic geek masculinity is just an inevitable evolution of hegemonic masculinity more generally.
“Much like the break within the Democratic Party along racial lines in the 1948 election, more traditionally presenting geeks, white, middle-class, educated men are being pulled towards supporting the traditional power structure,” the professors write, asserting that this ultimately reflects an ongoing “cultural shift” whereby “geek masculinity has become part of hegemonic, white, male masculinity.”
Campus Reform reached out to Salter and Blodgett for comment for their new book, but neither responded in time for publication.