The cool gamer girlfriend.
We all know what she's supposed to look like, how she's supposed to act. We've seen her meet-cute in the movies, on TV shows.
There's a room full of gamers: all men, a collection of stereotypes. Nothing like the actual make-up of people who play videogames, but not far off from the make-up of people who feel comfortable showing up to public gaming events and tournaments. They're mostly white, all wearing black T-shirts with sarcastic messages or corporate gaming logos printed on them, all sharing a bucket of orange cheese balls and trading quips about whatever interchangeable competitive game they're all playing. Street Fighter? Call of Duty? Some invented murder simulator created solely for the purpose of a one-note joke in the film or TV show? Probably that last one. Can't get the rights to Call of Duty, way too expensive.
In the background, there's That One Girl. Maybe she works at the gaming store and she's re-stocking the shelves. Or maybe she's hidden behind a screen somewhere, kicking ass from afar, planning to reveal her gender identity at the last moment. She's not "conventionally attractive," of course -- she's white, and skinny, and has perfect skin, but she's got glasses or a set of headgear or some other visually distracting but theoretically removable "flaw". She's never lumpy or acne-riddled. She's not too short; she's not too tall. Her boobs are a C cup at minimum, and her clothes fit her perfectly. Tight jeans and a T-shirt. Maybe a flannel or a monochromatic hoodie. If she took it all off and wore a Princess Leia bikini, she'd look ready to pose in a glossy magazine, but she doesn't realize that. (In case it wasn't clear, this racist, sexist, sizeist and ableist construction of beauty is NOT OKAY.)
Then there is the moment -- the moment that we've all seen a thousand times before. She beats all the guys, and then at the last moment, it's revealed that she was a woman all along (the Samus Aran method). Or maybe, they know she's a girl all along, but she still beats all of them while being super hot the entire time (the Lara Croft method). She's still white. And thin. And beautiful. And now, they're all seeing how great she is as though for the first time.
Of course, she doesn't actually beat our hero at any videogame -- he still wins. Or maybe there's a tie, but it's still obvious he could beat her if it came down to it. And they're still friends. Or maybe something more ... ?
Kristen Bell's actually managed to play a variant on this part twice (the episode of Veronica Mars where she does an "undercover" stint at a gaming arcade while wearing a schoolgirl outfit, and the film Fanboys). There are other examples, such as the final reveal of the last episode of Pure Pwnage, in which 'young pro' Chris is revealed to be Kris (a girl), or the entirety of the film Noobz, the poster of which tells you pretty much everything you need to know.
Can you tell from my sarcastic tone that I hate this stereotype? I think the main reason I hate it is because it's impossible to ever achieve it, and yet, for many years in middle school and high school, I thought it was possible. When I looked at the media that I could relate to, there weren't any "nerd girls" who looked anything like me or my friends. I could relate to the male characters, who were unlucky in love (I couldn't get a date, either) and who were smart but had terrible fashion sense (also me). But these nerdy guys always seemed to end up with a cute popular girl by the end of the movie, even when borderline stalking and/or sexual assault were involved in the "romancing" (e.g. Can't Hardly Wait, Sixteen Candles, Revenge of the Nerds). There were very few movies that featured an unattractive nerd girl ending up with a popular guy. And by "very few," I mean "zero," because I really can't think of any.
Characteristics of my friends growing up (and also me, for most of these): acne-riddled, disabled (mentally and/or physically), lumpy-bodied and/or pre-pubescent, braces-wearing, unfashionable, and largely ignored by the general populace ... ESPECIALLY by our crushes. In fact, I got along so poorly with even my "friends" that I barely counted them as such. I was so socially anxious that I could barely even hang on to conversations with other kids; in high school, I ate lunch alone every single day in a narrow hallway behind the theatre department's tech building room. Trying to keep up with conversations in a crowded lunch room was just too hard for me. Making friends was also extremely hard. Plus I had a crush on a cool guy who didn't like me in That Way, and sometimes he walked by that hallway from time to time. In this scenario, I was definitely the creepy stalker who couldn't get a clue. So, that was all great.
Anyway, I didn't really have any context for what a romance starring me could possibly look like. But I did know some other guys who played videogames, like I did. I was willing to settle for being treated like absolute garbage by these guys, because I really, really wanted other people to like me. Most of all, I wanted to be seen as the "cool girl" who could fit in with them. The thing about being "one of the guys," though, is that although your male friends may still see you as a sex object, and might even use you accordingly, they still believe that their personal movie will end with them dating a popular hot girl. And, sometimes, they were even right. That hurt. A lot.
I try to describe these experiences to people now, and they don't believe me, because by college I had lost the braces and my acne cleared up and I figured out how to use a hair dryer and eyeliner. I also stopped wearing the humongous gray fleece men's coat that I spent all of middle school and high school living in, because I was ashamed of my own body and existence. I cleaned up pretty well, is my point. But for most of my life, I was not doing well. I was doing very poorly. And I didn't understand how to fix any of it until I was about 20. (Mostly because I went to a social anxiety group class that changed my life when I was 19, but that's another story.)
I think the worst part about these movies is that nerd girls just don't exist in them at all. Or if they do, they're still so beautiful that it's not even remotely relatable. Worst than that, these fictional girls are also incredibly good at games, and in the exact right way: they're just good enough to be impressive and never slow anybody down, but they're not so good at games that they're a threat to anybody's masculine ego. They strike an impossible, perfect balance.
That's another thing I've never been able to achieve in real life, to this day. I used to date only gamers, and it never went well. It didn't matter if I wasn't good enough at games or if I was better at games -- either way, the results were disastrous. I constantly felt like I was walking a line between proving I wasn't some "fake geek girl," while also not stepping on anybody's delicate masculine pride.
I see a lot of "Nice Guys" online talking about how all they want is a gamer girlfriend. I see this in the character "Vivian James" created by 8chan, the perfect "cool girl" gamer who loves games and is really good at them, but not, like, TOO good at them. She's not a "fake geek girl," and she'll happily throw other women under the bus to get in good with all her guy friends ... all of whom want to sleep with her. And she's totally okay with that. She *likes* being objectified. She exists for their entertainment. And she NEVER uses the TV to play her games when THEY want to use the TV to play THEIR games. No, no, no, NEVER. She'll always sit back and just watch you, when it's YOUR turn.
A friend once told me that it didn't seem to her like men really wanted a gamer girlfriend, they just wanted a girl who was excited about watching her boyfriend play games. Unfortunately, I have to agree. The gamer guys who I've dated always wanted me to sit back and watch them play, but they also wanted me to be completely enraptured in their game. They wanted me to understand how well they were doing, and be turned on by it. If I wanted to play, too -- or worse, instead of them? Things got complicated. Sometimes the solution was a co-op split-screen game, or a fighting game, but then our skills would be directly compared.
And no one ever really wants to share the TV.
I used to think, back in my gray men's coat-wearing days, that being fetishized as a beautiful gamer girl was exactly what I wanted. I couldn't actually achieve it, of course, but that was the dream. Eventually, I did get a taste of what those experiences were like, in my early 20s. I dated a guy who told me I was a "unicorn," that the fact that I played Counter-Strike meant that I was a perfect woman, the one he'd been waiting for his whole life. He also ended up being the most abusive guy I ever dated. He didn't seem to see me as a human being; I was a "unicorn," right? That meant I should have been able to put up with anything from him, even the worst possible treatment.
I also realized that the deck was stacked against me in competitive gaming environments, too. I would walk into fighting games spaces and immediately be stared at; men would gather around my screen to watch me play, and they'd be disappointed when I didn't blow them away with absurd expertise. I wasn't allowed to be mediocre; I was supposed to be the Unicorn Gamer Girl who appeared out of nowhere to blow everybody away (and then blow everybody).
There is no narrative about a girl who shows up to play games and turns out to be kind of okay at them, and then she makes platonic friends who see her as a person, and then she goes home alone. My mediocrity became a huge disappointment for men that I didn't know in gaming spaces. It was a disappointment for me, too, and it still makes me extra-nervous. Every time I show up and play games in public somewhere, in some male-dominated space, there is some stupid part of me that wants to win beyond all my wildest dreams ... even though it's impossible, especially when people are staring at you. I do okay, sometimes. That's the most I've ever been able to hope to achieve: being okay at games, sometimes.
I want to be a person. Not a unicorn. And ideally, I want to stop seeing these fucking unicorns in all the media about nerds that I watch. It's a lie that we all need to stop believing in. I don't want to have to hold myself to some absurd exceptional standard, and I don't want other women to grow up with that either. It feels like shit.
Stop telling women to just show up at gaming tournaments and beat all the guys. I know you all do it, because people tell me that shit all the time -- and other women do it, too. Stop it. Especially when it comes to fighting games, where the only way to get good is to play against people a whole lot, and lose a whole lot, in public, so that you get better at playing in public circumstances. It's a long, slow climb -- not a sudden burst of performative victory. There is no reality where a woman can just show up and suddenly be great with no practice whatsoever. That's only how it works in the movies. In real life, she has to show up over and over and over again, and work really hard before finally getting even close to good, and she has to put up with a lot of bullshit comments about her being a woman every step of the way. All hard work. Thankless work. And for what? A hobby that's supposed to be fun?
She's not a unicorn. She's a human who worked a million times harder than you had to. That's a lot more special than the fantasy alternative version. Don't fall over yourself to tell her that, though, because she's not there to go on a date with you. Also, she's probably not as hot as Kristen Bell. Get over it. Leave her the fuck alone and let her play the damn game.