Growing up, I was definitely a nerd, but mostly about books; I was a super-skinny, pale girl with a red-headed fro that my mom had no idea how to tame. I loved school and found myself reading on the bus to and from school (I didn’t have a ton of friends, so it was easier that way). When I got home, I tuned into Power Rangers and then the old-school Batman with Adam West. I was actually Batgirl for Halloween two years in a row — I loved that she was a librarian and a super badass.
But mostly, I was still your normal, TGIF-watching (Boy Meets World is still the best show ever), Full House-loving 90s girl. As I grew up, my body filled out (certain parts WAY more than others) and I figured out how to tame my curls (turns out LOTS of conditioning and mousse). All of a sudden, and seemingly overnight, I was “cute.” Some people may have even said “hot” — I was 5’6”, a size 2, giant boobs and an outward confidence that I still have no idea how I pulled off. I started putting aside some of my nerdier enjoyments – stopped watching Star Trek and Babylon 5 with my mom, put away a lot of my favorite I Love Lucy memorabilia (black and white was like the ultimate in “NERD!”), and stopped talking about my adoration of Wonder Woman. I stopped reading as much in public and definitely didn’t talk about my books – being smart was so dorky!
And ultimately, by doing so, I can now see, I was putting aside so much female empowerment! When I would read books about Queen Elizabeth, memoirs by Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, and fantasy stories about Morgana Le Fay and Guinevere, I often walked away feeling like women could do anything. When I watched Star Trek DS9 and Babylon 5, I saw a future world in which women were absolutely equal to men (it rarely even came up as a question), and even worlds in which women were the more powerful species, worlds in which they worshipped femininity but also worlds in which the most powerful warriors were female. I actually refused to watch Buffy when it originally aired on TV (I know, gasp, shame on me), because it seemed too “nerdy” and I just didn’t have room for anyone to question my status in the high school caste system (I mean, I was already the weird theater chick, I could take NO more hits to my street cred).
And while I know what followed, my years of depression and struggles with anorexia and bulimia are very complicated subjects and have a great deal to do with genetics and body chemistry and a million other factors, I have begun to wonder whether it would have been the same for me had I not cut off so much of what, in retrospect, was some of the most pro-female, progressive and accepting influences I had access to. And why did I do so? To try to be cool? To avoid the label of “nerd,” a label I now openly accept with pride? But back then it was just too much for a girl like me.
I look at the current cultural landscape and I’m amazed by what we’re experiencing, especially in “Nerd Culture.” I look at shows, like the ones that are part of The CW’s Arrowverse, and we’ve got gorgeous, feminine, brilliant ass-kicking women all over the place! Legends of Tomorrow’s Sara Lance, the Assassin who commands a time ship, constantly stands up against the worst evils in all of time and space and ever-so flawlessly directs the most delightful group of misfits on television today. Then there’s Supergirl — which is not only a testament to the power of sisters, Kara and Alex Danvers. Alex is a pretty, intelligent doctor who works for a top-secret military organization and defends the world against dangerous aliens while protecting the friendly ones. Her younger, adopted sister, Kara, is struggling with her sense of self, seeing as she just so happens to be a beautiful alien from Krypton, also known as Supergirl, who saves the world. In other shows we have gorgeous, genius scientists like Caitlin in The Flash and Felicity in Arrow, each are both the brains and hearts of their respective teams.
Outside of the Arrowverse, we’ve got movies from Disney like Tangled (in which she is most assuredly NOT a damsel). We have Frozen – the story of two sisters’ love being so much more than romance. Even a show like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has its own very empowering message – it’s okay to be a mess, it’s okay to admit you’re not always okay, and it’s not a weakness to seek help. (Last season’s “My Diagnosis” was one of the most relatable songs I’ve ever heard in my life; I sing it almost daily, remembering the days I thought just knowing “what was wrong with me” was the beginning of the end of the problem- LOL!)
And then there is this world of social media we’re living in, a world that enables the women of these shows to empower other women, not as their character on stage or on-screen, but as the individual woman they are. They remind us they are like us, flawed and sometimes broken and beautifully human.
Patti Murin, who currently stars as Anna in Frozen on Broadway, has discussed her battles with depression and anxiety, as well as her struggles as an actress who constantly feels like giving up. She has even discussed the VERY personal period surrounding a miscarriage – a story I shared with a friend of mine who went through the same thing and hadn’t been able to tell anyone except her husband. She had been so depressed and felt so alone, but she found great comfort in the words of Anna (her personal spirit animal).
Caity Lotz, the amazing badass star of Legends of Tomorrow, called out body-shamers this week in a post that was so powerful it had me in tears. The piece ended with the hashtag #bodypositive, which it turns out was linked to millions of body positive pics on Instagram; it reminded me of the years I used to spend looking at “thinspiration” photos of women, wishing my body would look like theirs. Those pictures encouraged me to do whatever I could to get there, no matter how dangerous or (frankly) idiotic they were. Seeing a trend of millions of people sharing pictures and stories that ultimately tell women “you’re beautiful, you’re enough” is just so powerful to me.
Of course, amidst all of the disturbing stories we heard as part of the #MeToo movement, we had Melissa Benoist’s (Supergirl) and Emily Bett Rickards’ (Felicity Smoak on Arrow) responses to allegations of sexual misconduct against EP Andrew Kreisberg. Each woman called for change within this culture, but also, as Emily so succinctly said, “To the women who found the strength to speak up . . . You are heroines.” (I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the men of these shows who also spoke out on behalf of the women who made the allegations, on behalf of women everywhere who have experienced the same abuse — Stephen Amell even made a video that was strong and supportive and wonderful, not just for those in this particular case, but in any situation: “If anyone ever feels anything less than 100 percent safe, or anyone feels as though they aren’t allowed to express themselves and be the person that they are, than they should come to whomever they’re supposed to go to, and I’ll stand right beside them, right behind them,” he said. “I’ll speak on their behalf if need be.”)
I know there are books out there that address this issue. I actually have The Geek Feminist Revolution, a series of essays on the topic, in my to-be-read book stack. But as I have been reflecting a lot on my struggles in the past and the times when things seemed to become clearer, easier, happier even, I can’t help but notice a very interesting correlation between when I reveled in these fandoms and these powerful stories about women, fictional or otherwise, and my stronger mental health. Perhaps it’s that I’m simply following the things I love most, denying myself nothing just because it seems nerdy and weird. But perhaps it’s because these things — these women, these shows, these books, these Broadway shows — are actually changing the world and making me feel like it’s okay to let my super geek flag fly.