The toxic masculinity at the heart of nerd culture has been exposed—most noisily through Gamergate, but via plenty of other incidents as well. While sexism has been the most obvious motivator for these reactionaries, spillover into racism, homophobia, and transphobia are par for the course. At a fundamental level, this burst of nastiness is a reaction to the first real challenge to the privileged position of white men in nerd culture.
Things have degenerated into something of a civil war in nerd culture, and while it rages on, it is becoming abundantly clear that the good guys are going to win this one. I’m not so optimistic as to say that hatred and oppression will disappear, in nerd culture or anywhere else, but there is at least a growing consensus that those things are wrong, and deserving of criticism.
The doors are open, and white men no can longer dominate. But this change comes only after generations of being told that those stories are universal and vitally important. For years, white men never needed to share the stage, and the tales of others were pushed away. As we finally start to knock down the worldview that so deeply privileges one identity, it becomes imperative to reconstruct whiteness and masculinity as something new. Before, the construction of these identities was deeply rooted in claiming entitlement to a supreme position. Now, we need a construction which both rejects that entitlement and recognizes what enormous privilege remains.
Terrorist organizations, like the Ku Klux Klan, forced Reconstruction to end in the American South before its time, leading to an enormous and destructive backslide for civil rights. White men in nerd culture are now threatening or executing political violence for the same purposes. We need reconstruction to make sure they do not succeed. Comics, so long at the forefront of everything toxic about nerd masculinity and exclusivity, have taken up the call, and are finally white, male characters into new roles which fit in a diverse world. With any luck, these are not just changing stories, they’re going to be changing readers.
I want to emphatically state that this isn’t about how white boys will only read about white boys, and the world should cater to that. That’s simply not the case. This is about constructing whiteness and masculinity such that when white boys do read about white boys, they don’t see white boys who only read about white boys. In other words, my masculinity will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.
HAWKEYE: Oh, this list was always going to feature Hawkeye. Clint Barton, beloved of Tumblr and the star of the Hawkeye Initiative, which mocked comic covers by putting the Hawkguy in the poses of his female comrades. But interesting things are happening on the page with Clint Barton and privilege. Someone tell Jeremy Renner.
Clint’s story is almost perfectly set up for him to be reactionary. In parallel to the increasing presence of women in comics, Kate Bishop becomes Hawkeye. She’s not the only superhero to take the name of a white man without being one; Spider-man, Captain America, and Thor have all done so in recent years. But while Miles became Spidey involuntarily, and Steve Rogers chose Sam Wilson as his heir, Kate chose to become Hawkeye on her own—she steals Hawkeye’s bow from the Avengers mansion. A traditional male superhero loses his position to a wealthy, conventionally attractive young woman. Clint already had something of an inferiority complex both as an Avenger without super powers and as a man who grew up poor and on the margins of society. This could have pushed him into the deep resentment that characterizes nerd culture toxicity. He could have leaned on his privilege to push Kate off the team.
Instead, Clint and Kate become one of the great team-ups in the Marvel Universe, sharing the name Hawkeye no matter how confusing it might be. Despite their friendship, occasional flirtation, and Kate’s habit of crashing at Clint’s apartment, the Hawkeyes never establish a romantic or sexual relationship. That’s a setup which would surely attract reactionary scorn about the (ugh) friendzone, but that’s not Clint Barton.
TEDDY ALTMAN AND BILLY KAPLAN: Generations of nerd culture provided their presumed white/male readers not only with a power fantasy, but with a sexual fantasy as well, allowing readers to vicariously identify with the prowess of super-powered straight men. Teddy (Hulking) and Billy (Wiccan) tweak the narrative, as white, male teenagers who are completely in love with each other in the Young Avengers.
You’ve heard various right-wingers pronounce that same-sex marriage would doom traditional marriage. The argument is complete nonsense, unless your view of marriage requires gender roles and hierarchies. If two men were married, who would submit to whose authority? If women see that marriages work without rigorous enforcement of gender and gendered authority, the traditions that do require them would collapse.
That’s what Young Avengers does with these two. Romance and sexuality in comics are traditionally deeply patriarchal, with gender expression exaggerated to the point of comedy. Boys in love, such as these two, break those rules and force a re-examination of what all other relationships in comics should or have to look like.
The extra layer here is that Teddy and Billy, as nerdy teenage boys themselves, are otherwise easy for boys to identify with. They chatter about Game of Thrones, and in the plot, they take on traditional lead roles, as chosen ones with mysterious parentage. As such, they fulfill many of the patterns of white male heroes, while requiring that identity to expand.
PETER PARKER: At this point, there are about ten billion versions of Spider-man, but I’m only going to talk about the Peter Parker who shows up in Captain America and the Mighty Avengers. Unlike Barton, Altman, or Kaplan, Peter Parker is used to being the center of attention, but he finds himself in a supporting role in Mighty Avengers. When Steve Rogers passed his shield to Sam Wilson, the Avengers were supportive, but still in shock at their leader’s retirement. In the Mighty Avengers, Sam faces his first rift among the team, and Peter is the only white member of the Avengers to stand behind him.
This is faint praise—you don’t need much in the way of character to stand behind Captain America—but it still means that Peter is one of the first white superheroes to incorporate himself into a team not only led by a person of color, but whose membership is primarily comprised of people of color. He does it without any show of magnanimity, no cookies requested. He does it because it’s just what Avengers do.
Peter gets credit here only because of how rare this situation is—a white man who slides into a supporting role for the stories of people of color. For white boys, who constantly hear the message that white men fit naturally in the top spot, Peter challenges that narrative. White sidekicks are for white heroes. His stardom drives home the point—this is the weird, goony Spider-man you’re used to, and he’s as comfortable listening to Sam Wilson as he was to Steve Rogers.
In all three cases, you have white male heroes who push white male readers out of their traditional narratives. The white male supremacy of traditional nerd culture is laid bare as the fantasy that it always was. It’s enormously important that the stories of white men no longer stand alone in nerd culture and comics culture in particular, but it would have been easy to leave a parallel track where white male supremacy was unchallenged, accompanied by outsized influence based on the privilege given to those stories. Challenging and reconstructing whiteness and masculinity in the context of the stories of white men gives another push toward the future.