First of all, read this. Be forewarned: It’s a harrowing account of emotional and sexual abuse. The author, Chloe Dykstra, an actress and cosplayer, describes the years she endured a toxic relationship with a man as he “grew from a mildly successful podcaster to a powerhouse CEO of his own company.” She doesn’t name this guy, but it’s Chris Hardwick, who made his name discussing geek franchises like The Walking Dead. Sure, you could say he’s also a standup comic, or a game show host, or just that weird kind of interstitial pseudo-celebrity with a knack for networking, but it is Nerdist Industries, the so-called “nerd media empire” he founded, that most clearly defines his role in Hollywood: He is a professional fanboy, hype man and fawning, nerdy hanger-on.
Dykstra’s allegations of Hardwick’s cruel and controlling behavior — she says he isolated her, dictated her schedule, coerced her into unwanted sex, yelled at her constantly, triggered her anorexia and had her blacklisted after she left him — has many of us wondering, again, if the misogynist streak in nerdom will ever go away.
On the primary level, of course, her story echoes every other recent testimony of a man using his status and connections to secure the obedience of a vulnerable younger woman. Each allegation is evidence that Hollywood’s specific power hierarchies and cult of personality are ideal preconditions for this exact abuse.
But there is no getting around the geek problem. From the dark days of Gamergate, to the dudes throwing tantrums about lady Ghostbusters and feminist Star Wars, to 4chan-inspired incel terrorism, nerds are itching for gender war.
The (Lack of) Sex Problem
The misogynist extremism of Alek Minassian, who carried out the deadly Toronto van attack, would be the logical endpoint of a widely repeated assumption: Nerds are socially maladjusted, therefore sexless, and hate women for withholding their bodies. That strikes me as too reductive and an insufficient answer to the Hardwick allegations. Yes, Hardwick allegedly met resistance to intercourse with lines like, “I just want to remind you, the reason my last relationship didn’t work out was because of the lack of sex.” But he also allegedly pressured Dykstra to become his employee, forbade her from speaking in public places or drinking (he’s been sober since 2003) and cut her off from male friends. She says he wanted her not just to be a sex doll but an extension of himself, his brand and his industry clout.
Nerd Culture vs. the Mainstream
The prevailing abuse narrative is that with a reputation as King Nerd to uphold, Hardwick had to ensure that Dykstra never overshadowed him; having an attractive woman by his side was fine, and a counterweight to the notion of nerds as non-masculine “betas,” so long as she didn’t step out of line. The same rule applies in the films, comics, games, shows and books that make up the geek canon. A wealth of sci-fi/adventure/fantasy produced between the late 1970s and early 1990s was patently “for boys,” and those boys became men who feel that pride of ownership threatened when a 21st-century reboot passes the Bechdel test. Female characters originally had minor sway in this multiverse, so why are they now the heroes?
This hostility to the “outsider” girls getting in the way of cool laser battles is neatly mirrored in the real world, where actresses are harassed and women’s enthusiasm for superheroes or dragons is viewed as illegitimate, if not a con. Nowhere is this paranoia more evident than in the idiotic schism over cosplay, an element of fandom that thrives on the style acumen of women such as Dykstra herself. That feminine cosplayers are dismissed as “artificial and sexualized,” walking eye candy for the convention scene, sets the stage for men like Hardwick to treat them as fuck objects.
Nerdom thinks it needs enemies, and back in 1982, a bully shoving you into a locker for reading The Lord of the Rings did the trick. But geek aesthetic has conquered the monoculture. Nerdy shit is for everybody these days, and loving it a heck of a lot does not a personality make.
Nor are men victimized for returning, over and over, to a handful of favorite fantasies. When Hardwick told Fortune, “I want Nerdist to be a safe space,” he didn’t mean safe for the women, people of color and LGBT individuals who often face discrimination from their fellow fans, but safe for the true nerds like me, because he still sees himself as an oppressed minority. He is not, yet men of his sort keep taking up arms against “social justice warriors” in order to retain the old mentality of living under siege. A nerdy woman threatens their stranglehold on the archive, as well as Hardwick’s flimsy pretext for success: being a dude who knows a fair amount of Doctor Who trivia.
On Being Wrong — and Keeping Women Silent
Apart from staying sexually and emotionally available regardless of time or circumstance, Dykstra explains, Hardwick also wanted her to be silent and submissive. That’s precisely what toxic geeks demand of the women who would dare to collect action figures, compete in video game tournaments or see the new Avengers on opening night: If you want to partake of this, fine, but don’t ask to see yourselves represented, don’t agitate for gender equality on panels or in creative jobs, and don’t draw attention by dressing up as one of the few femme fatales we allow to exist in our entertainment. You’re a guest here, so mind your manners and stop questioning our truth.
Unless these men give up their fetish for undisputed authority in all things, they will bring an urge to dominate into their supposed partnerships, too. A nerd’s greatest fear is finding out he’s wrong — that’s why he does whatever he must to prevent someone from correcting him.