Following the recent controversies surrounding the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin Texas, a new conversation has begun about representation and inclusion in the film community. A number of film bloggers, mostly female, have stepped forward to discuss situations in which they were minimized, diminished, or even threatened while attempting to participate in film events. While I could not hope to match the eloquence of their discussion, and I haven't had their experiences, I'd like to speak about the topic of cultural gatekeeping and how it affects the inclusion of minorities and under-represented groups within any given social community.
Rites of Passage
I come from a generation of geeks who often had negative social experiences just for being in love with these pop culture experiences. Kids who carried comic books in their school bags were commonly taunted and bullied. Being obsessed with geek culture was far less acceptable than being into sports or cars. In those rough years, kids often banded together to watch movies, play games, trade books and comics, and protect one another from the general scorn our peers heaped on us for not being "cool."
Those formative experiences created a generation of middle aged, (mostly) white, pop culture enthusiasts with an axe to grind with the society that mocked them as children. Many of us moved on to careers in tech, a few found success in creative fields, but none of us forgot those ubiquitous jocks and how they made us feel.
So in this modern age when anyone with a phone can visit wikipedia and instantly learn the kind of random geek esoteric knowledge that we literally fought for years to absorb and support, there's a sense of outrage that being a geek has suddenly become "easy." Add to this that the culture has shifted, kids are growing up in a world where reading comics and playing games are just as acceptable as being in a highschool band or playing sports, and we can see an entire generation that will never know what it's like to be publicly ridiculed for knowing the Green Lantern oath, or what SHIELD stands for, or what a TARDIS is.
So the old signifiers that geeks from my generation once used to identify one another, our shared experiences of conflict and humiliation, have virtually evaporated. Shouldn't we be rejoicing that much of what made our youth so difficult is gone? Doesn't that mean that the Geeks actually won the war?
Unfortunately what it means is that the original "Geeks" had a life experience that will never be repeated. They not only represent the fandoms that they so dearly love, but are now the keepers of a legacy that is entirely outdated. Like every generation, they've been replaced and supplanted by everyone who just joined the geek party. And those newcomers might not be made to feel as welcome as they could.
Gatekeeping to maintain relevance
If you walk into a conversation about film in a space like Fantastic Fest and attempt to participate, you are likely to meet incredible friction. Unless the social circle you are joining goes out of its way to make newcomers feel welcome, you are likely to hear statements similar to: "You haven't seen [X movie]?? Don't talk to me until you go home and watch it." Generally whatever film or book or comic is being discussed is somewhat esoteric, and probably not generally known to a non-geek populace. The statement being made here is: "Unless you have passed through this hurdle, you cannot participate in our conversation."
The problem with this approach is that there are millions of movies, shows, anime, comics, books, albums and paintings for a single person to experience in their lifetime. Someone with a full time job would not have enough hours in the day to consume everyone of them in order to "catch up" and be accepted by the geek inner sanctum. So does not having seen a specific movie or read a specific comic negate the validity of a newcomer's opinion? The objective answer is, no, ignorance of a specific work of art does not negate the validity of a human being's aesthetic. In fact, primitive artists (those not educated or intiated into the formal training many artists undergo) are often responsible for beautiful works of art. "Primitive geeks" are likewise capable of holding a conversation about what they like and do not like, and their opinions are no less valid for not having identical aesthetic experiences to their peers.
To whit, even within subsets of geek culture there are internal gatekeepers. I once heard one film geek tell another that their opinion of a film was invalid because they had only ever seen it at home on DVD, rather than projected on a big screen in a theater. While I can understand that having a specific theatrical experience has a unique beauty, having seen the film in another context is its own unique aesthetic experience and no less valid. That's like telling someone that they cannot have an informed opinion of a painting unless they've seen the canvas in person. While the original intent of the painter was that their work be viewed on that canvas, millions of people around the world will only experience that work as a photo in a book or an image on the internet. Those "inauthentic" experiences are no less valid than the "authentic" viewing of the art on its native canvas, though they may not represent the artist's intent.
The exclusion problem
So if we have a culture mired with thousands of social gatekeepers, who gets "let in"? Often, the gatekeepers themselves will be most likely to accpt individuals who they feel are non-threatening. Those who look and act like them, those who have similar childhoods, people who come from similar socio-economic scenarios, and those who share philosophical or religious values are most likely to be accepted without hesitation. The result is a community of "insiders" and a lack of diversity. One glimpse at a comic convention floor from fifteen years ago would confirm the idea that most comics enthusiasts were young white men ages 18 to 30. This creates a vital "chicken or the egg" scenario where we must ask the question, "are most comics enthusiasts young white men because those are the only people interested in comics, or are they the only group that will allow each other entry into the conversation about comics?"
Listening to the tales of women from the film community, it seems like there is a problem with women and minorities being barred from entry into the community by those same social "gatekeepers" we discussed before. Their differences in gender or race or sexual orientation have made them threatening to the the film community at large, and so their access to the public discourse about film has been blocked or minimized.
The nasty side effect of these behaviors is that it makes the space physically unsafe. Several years ago when female game creators and reviewers came to prominence online there was an incredible backlash from the mostly white male gaming community popularly known as "gamergate." In order to silence or block those women from a public discussion about games, men published personal information about them online, threatened them and their families with bodily harm, harrassed and trolled them on social media, and took every possible measure (many of which were outright illegal) to silence them.
In the film community here in Austin we are learning that some women have had decades of negative experiences being sexually harassed and assaulted. Many of them who spoke up were silenced, and many more never bothered to publicize those experiences at the time for fear of being barred from the film community by the powerful social gatekeepers of the day. There is a direct correlation between the degree to which a given group is excluded and the amount of personal danger they experience when participating in that community.
Gates and walls must come down
The problem with being a lifelong gatekeeper is that you will eventually find yourself overrun. In the 1960s social and political gatekeepers attempted to intimidate and deter African Americans from using the same public services and facilities as caucasians. Civil rights protests led to political movements and laws eventually arose that outlawed such practices.
Much like the zombies swarmed over the walls in "World War Z" the collective efforts of marginalized groups will eventually allow them to scale the walls and gain entrance to restricted social spaces. "Gatekeeping" eventually becomes irrelevant, and often is retrospectively seen as an abhorrent behavior. In another 10 or 15 years the actions of those men who threatened and shamed women in "gamergate" will be an infamous stain on the gaming community, just as the actions of those people who threw rocks at African American students attending white schools in the 1960s are an infamous stain on our national conscience.
Just as the valiant efforts of civil rights activists did not abolish racism, direct efforts to create inclusion in geek spaces will not obliterate those gatekeepers or their exclusive practices. In both instances the only way to change the culture is by constant active inclusion. Spaces must be created in which the previously excluded groups are welcomed with open arms and treated with respect and equality. The standards for "inclusion" and "exclusion" within the community must be challenged regularly in order for them to change.
The "old guard" of geeks from the 1970s and 80s are not likely to accept these changes easily, or to participate in inclusive spaces quickly. Remember that their special role as gatekeepers in the world of geek culture is challenged by the inclusion of members who are "new" or "different." Opposition is likely to arise, as it does in other parts of society, in the form of active and passive resistence.
Despite the challenges I have no doubts that these changes are absolutely vital. Without full inclusion of marginalized groups, geek-centric events like film festivals, game conferences and comic conventions will continue to be a source of danger for women and other minority groups. The ultimate result will be growing dispassion towards those events and spaces. Social gatekeepers will find themselves manning the gates of an empty castle.