What Happened to The Mary Sue?

By Leah Zoller

[Post originally appeared on Leah’s blog, The Lobster Dance.]

The Mary Sue merger has me feeling a bit like Obi-Wan today. 

Let me explain.

The Mary Sue, popular geek website for geek women by geek women, merged withGeekosystem, a sister site from Abrams Media. The merger was a decision from the top, and it’s been handled unbelievably poorly by everyone involved. I had seen the notices that it was going to happen but didn’t have time to check things out until toranosukev from Nubui Kuduchi showed me this.

About What Exactly?

Regarding the merger, an announcement like the following would have been the best call:

 

Dear readers, we have been grateful for your support since 2011. We atThe Mary Sue are pleased to report that we are merging withGeekosystem. This merger was decided by our parent company, Abrams Media, and Geekosystem and its writers will be moving over to The Mary Sue. What does this mean? We’ll continue to bring you the same great content: A Guide to Geek Girl Culture. Although Geekosystem was not as explicitly about geek women as TMS is, we feel their writers’ commitment to reporting on women in geekdom and feminist geek issues will mesh well with ours. We are bringing on two male feminist writers [ed. one could hope], and we hope this will add to our reporting, especially on issues for allies who interact with geek women. Moreover, we hope to do more reporting on intersectionality, because we recognize that minority groups within the group of female-identified geeks do face different challenges. Finally, we will be adding more content on the STEM-side of geekdom because, in addition to being Geekosystem’s focus, we want to support and discuss women in STEM. TMS will continue to be a woman-driven website and a feminist safe-space.

This statement that I made up addresses the issues that they suspected fans would be worried about: the commitment to the mission, the additional content and writers, and that the merger was top-down.

What actually happened is, on June 13, The Mary Sue released the merger announcement, followed by the web redesign, followed by a Reddit AMA that afternoon. Both TMS editors and staff and the new Geekosystem writers were answering questions. Keep in mind that the Reddit users voicing concerns were doing so because The Mary Sue’s new About page, which states,

The Mary Sue sits at the nexus of pop culture and the uncharted universe. We love and live geek culture, comic book movies, genre television, space exploration, emerging technologies, the coolest video games, and the weirdest finds on the internet. We promote, watchdog, extoll, and celebrate women’s representation in all of these areas and work to make geekdom safe and open for women. [This line added in a week later according to TMS editor Jill Pantozzi]

We pride ourselves on being an inclusive community of people who not only love what they love but care about others who love it and have an intense passion for those who create it. Fan trends, social issues, geek fashion and art, innovative gadgets, and beyond: The Mary Sue is the heartbeat of geek culture. (The Mary Sue, 7/1/2014)


Compare this to the original intro page, “Why A Geek Site For Women”?

There are a few questions that been following me around ever since ever since we decided to do The Mary Sue, even before we knew it would be called The Mary Sue, and they come up again almost every time someone that I’m talking to comes up against the idea of a geek site specifically for women.

“Why a geek site specifically for women?”

Now, some of these people aren’t putting any particular slant on these words, they’re just genuinely interested in what the nerdy female has to say that needs a whole website to contain it.  But some of these people are concerned that the entire idea of a site just for girl geeks is counterproductive at best, and sexist pandering at worst.

The Mary Sue is here to say one thing, and one thing emphatically: skeptical geek women, we know where you are coming from.

We know the point at which you would be satisfied is to just be able to geek out with all geeks, of any gender, without feeling like your femininity is front and center for scrutiny.  To not feel like you have to work harder than guys to prove that you’re genuinely into geek culture. We want simple things, like to be able to visit a comic book store without feeling out of place.  To be able to buy a video game without getting the sense that the cashier thinks we’re buying it for someone else.

But mainly we just want to be able to pursue our hobbies with the other people who share them.  We want to play with the boys.

So there are two reasons why there should be more out there devoted specifically to the female geek.

Because even if we want to play with the boys, there is a value to having our own space.

Until advertisers, producers (of, say, The Big Bang Theory), and the larger society cease to assume that if you’re into sci-fi or videogames then you’re universally male; until the Big Two of American comics figure out that the way to get women to read comic books is not to pander to the demographic, but simply to make consistently good comics; until videogame makers finally figure out exactly why booth babes are flagrantly, shockingly sexist… the voice of the female geek needs to be heard.

And not just in a weekly column on a larger site, or whenever specifically gendered news comes up, or with the occasional list of Hollywood’s Hottest Geeky Women.  (Those lists are very flattering, but they’re not for geek women.  They’re for straight geek guys.)  Geek women don’t just exist when we’re reacting to things that we find offensive, or when the more famous of us are featured in an article.  We’ve been here the whole time, watching stop-motion Lego videos, waiting for trailers, hoping for Comic Con news, picking up comics on Wednesday nights, and pressing A or X to continue.

And also, because of this: [comic]

I have never met a geek girl who was even halfway interested in almost anything Cosmopolitan had to say.  We were too busy reading Cicadaand Popular Science when we were the age that Teen Magazine wanted our attention.  I’ve rarely seen a “women’s” site that seemed to report on much that I was half-way interested in.  The only celebrity gossip I care about is who’s on what project next, the only fashion I’m interested is where to get Batman shirts that allow for boobs.  It took me months to realize that Eat, Pray, Love wasn’t actually Eat, Prey, Love (“That’s sounds sort of interesting in a mantis-y kind of way,” I thought).

In fact, the only thing “women’s” sites and magazines make me feel regularly is the distinct impression that I’m not in their demographic.  Even though I’m a woman.  Not coincidentally, this is frequently how I feel whenever a game advertisement or comic book cover assumes that I am male.  Even though I am a gamer/reader.

Ideally, The Mary Sue will become an exception to the above comic: a women’s site for women who don’t feel accepted in the mainstream’s idea of what women want (obligatory).

So come one, come all, girls who are geek, guys who are geek, and everything above, below, and in between. We’re going to discuss movies, and comics, and science, and the internet. We’re going to talk about geek girls, and we’re going to let geek girls talk. We’re going to call it like we see it, and we’re going to have fun.

Strike 1: the redesign of the website, technical issues aside, downplays the original mission of The Mary Sue.

Glen Tickle and the AMA Debacle: Are We Feminist or Not?

On the AMA, Susanna Polo and Jill Pantozzi, the head editors of TMS, kept dodging the issue of the About Page, saying that The Mary Sue was feminist but didn’t only report about feminist/women’s issues, and that they would continue to offer a mix of articles about women geeks and other geeky things. It started out fairly normal:

Hi,

I was wondering if the Mary Sue is deliberately changing its mission away from being a woman focused space? the Change of the tag line from “A Guide To Girl Geek Culture” to “Let Your Geek Flag Fly” seems to represent a shift from a explicitly woman/girl/female identified space to one that is more broadly focused (while still trying to make sure it is inclusive as per your video message). I’m wondering if that was an intentional and how you think that will affect the community that has been built at Mary Sue over the past few years the the types of conversations that tend to happen in the comment sections? Was this a discussion that happened in the planning phase and what steps (if any) will you be taking to ensure that it remains a safe space for your readers?

(Ottergeek)

 

At first, the staff response was good:

A LOT of folks have been asking this, or questions like this, so let me try to answer all of them in one go. YES we are still a site dedicated to feminism and other issues of diversity and representation within geek culture. To us, behind the scenes, that continued focus was both never in question and so obvious that we forgot that it might worry many folks if we didn’t address it directly as something that will not be changing. Our merger in a nutshell: same site, more subjects to cover, more people. We are still feminist, and talking about geek culture and its issues with diversity and representation are still a core focus of the site, hence the phrase “inclusivity.” After all, intersectionality is an important part of feminism, and we hope to find ourselves talking about race, sexuality, disability, gender identity as well. (Susana Polo)

Seems reasonable enough, but then why remove the tag line–even if for “consistency with the other sites” and change the About page? Many people asked about this point.

Is there a reason you haven’t said “feminism” or “feminist” in all the new articles about the site’s “exclusivity?”

A LOT of posters are worried, and I think that had you added just a few mentions of it a lot of people would have been alieviated. This is especially true at a time when a lot of the current fanbase is feeling left out, alienated and, in some cases, angry. (CalumSyers)

 

If you start a conversation about gender in a context where everyone already explicitly agrees that feminism is a given, you get to talk about the issue at hand.

If you try to have the same conversation anywhere where that’s not outright stated, you will spend 95% of your time and energy fending off the “Why do you hate men????” bullshit.

It’s that simple. (AubryLeigh)

This goes on for a while, with commenters asking why the copy about geek girls was cut and questioning if the new TMS would continue to cover those issues. Inclusiveis not the same is intersectional feminism.

At some point, Glen Tickle, formerly of Geekosystem and now Managing Editor, decided that these reasonable questions that the new About page had sparked were all about his status as a straight white cisman, and he and the other Geekosystemeditors made it seem like the commenters were all radical SJWs trolling the thread. If you’ve read the thread, there’s no way to interpret the comments as ad hominem attacks or as even “social-justice”-flavored.

When readers called him out on the tweets and comments, he and theGeekosystem editors got even more defensive. TMS editors’ wishwashyness didn’t help.

Here’s where his comments started to get strange on the AMA:

A lot of these questions seem to be coming from a place of fear that the Geekosystem team is moving in to stamp out feminism on TheMarySue. It’s simply not true.

Promoting women in geek culture, science, space, technology, and elsewhere was already a big part of Geekosystem. So to keep with the rule that all top-level have to have a question:

Did you read Geekosystem before the merge?

We’re not scary monsters.

Glen Tickle Senior Editor, Not a Monster (emphasis mine)

 

People are voicing genuine concerns due to Glen’s responses and changes in the mission statement. We aren’t taking shots at you [Victoria]. We may not even know anything about you or your website. We are only responding to the messages that have been presented on the new site and the AMA. – fakegeekgirl

 

Did you know that last month 55% of TheMarySue readers were male? (glentickle 

Meanwhile, on Twitter,

 

 

To recap: TMS will continue to be a place for geek women’s voices to be heard without being silenced by men, you know, except for our managing editor who is going to blame the concerns of readers on his privilege, then mock them in a stunning rendition of the exact reason why The Mary Sue was created. 

Like other TMS fans, I don’t know the people at Geekosystem because a lot of us didn’t follow them for a reason: it wasn’t a dedicated feminist space. We had The Mary Sue for that.  

I think Redditor malprintemps put it best:  

Like, can women not have anything? Can we not have one space that is for us? No one is saying we don’t want men on staff, no one is saying we don’t want men in the audience, all we want is one place that clearly belongs to us. We had that in TMS, and it was the one place is the whole male-dominated internet that felt that way, and now it’s “all-inclusive,” at the expense of having a space focused on women. It’s a major loss.  

Statement from the Editors

Finally, TMS Editor Jill Pantozzi responded on TMS and explained some of the shady things that Abrams Media should have just been upfront about. Yet, regarding the feminist issue, she completely backtracks from her statement about The Mary Suestill being feminist:

Folks have been saying over and over we’ve stripped the words “feminism” or “feminist” from the website. This is completely untrue.Those words never appeared in any permanent place on the website. Readers knew we were a site with feminist ideals because of the years of content we put out to that effect. We covered news from our feminist perspectives but not every piece on the site felt the need to touch on feminism. It’s always been our position that female geeks are just as interested in sarlacc pit toilet decals as they are in the debate over a lack of new female characters in Star Wars: Episode VII. However, our old “About Us” description listed “women,” “geek women,” and “geek girls” specifically and our site tagline read “A Guide to Geek Girl Culture.” The tagline is no longer there per orders from above and the “About Us” was altered on merger day to a paragraph I personally wrote intending to meld our two worlds together. After all, it was also my job to welcome a whole other community into our fold. I did not purposefully leave out the words “feminism” or “women,” but I did specifically choose the word “inclusive” because it felt right. Inclusive is just that, covering from all perspectives, which is what The Mary Sue has always stood for.

After seeing the outpouring of emotional responses from you, we reconsidered the importance of specifically mentioning women on our “About Us” page, and determined that we agreed. It is important for us to specifically state we are a successful geek site whose success has come primarily from focusing on women in geek spaces. A week after the merger, we altered the “About Us” in an effort to let our regular readers know we still stand for what we’ve always stood for, and what is very important to you, and are still a destination for geeky women. We sincerely apologize for allowing you to feel like this was no longer the case. [emphasis mine]

 

No, we knew you were safe because of the tag line and because of the About page’s manifesto,

a women’s site for women who don’t feel accepted in the mainstream’s idea of what women want. So come one, come all, girls who are geek, guys who are geek, and everything above, below, and in between…. We’re going to talk about geek girls, and we’re going to let geek girls talk.

The new About page gets a throw-away line about extolling and watchdogging(really?) women’s issues.

What’s worse is Tickle’s attempt at an apology:

Hello, everyone. The merger has meant a lot of changes for everyone including the former staff of Geekosystem. We had our homeworld destroyed as part of this merger, and as much as we like working with The Mary Sue now, that loss is still hard for us. Geekosystem was a home I will never have again. It was and continues to be a very emotional ride. Geekosystem’s last day was particularly difficult for me personally for many reasons.

The day of the merger came, and by the time I got into the office that morning feedback had already started coming in. When anything changes on the Internet there’s a certain amount of backlash, but what I was surprised to find was much of it was aimed at the Geekosystem staff and me personally. It was frustrating at an already emotional time, and in that frustration I tweeted some tweets. Since then people have latched on to them as evidence that I’m some terrible misogynist. Please believe me when I say, I am not.

If two tweets would form the whole of someone’s opinion of me, I certainly wouldn’t pick those two. It wasn’t my best moment. I won’t say the tweets were taken out of context or that they were jokes. My account wasn’t hacked. I wasn’t drunk. They came from a place of depressed frustration and aren’t things I actually believe. I’m not proud of them.

As for my job as Managing Editor at The Mary Sue, my primary role is to manage the science and technology categories. None of the writers have ever, or will ever be told not to focus on women in geek culture, science, space, technology, or any other category by myself or any of the other editors of The Mary Sue. It was already a focus at Geekosystem and will continue to be a focus in the future.

Here’s a hint: if you’re changing jobs to work at a supposedly feminist site about geek women, maybe 1. don’t tweet sexist bullshit, 2. don’t mansplain to commenters, 3. don’t assume the initial criticism was about your status or that it was ad hominem. You chose to write rude comments in response to questions about the new About page. You and the new and old staff members chose to publicly tweet about how you were being “attacked” by scary feminists. You chose to retweet the tweets of others regarding this.  

In short, The Mary Sue merger has been an absolute train wreck. While the editors didn’t have control over the merger, the way they handled the About page, AMA, and their personal SNS has been slow and embarrassing, and now the managing editor is someone who can’t even follow the site’s own comment moderation policy?

The Mary Sue used to be the one large, professionally produced site for geek women. I follow a lot of small blogs (and am a small blog), and while we all write about the topics TMS covered, their articles were professional, consistently good, covered new and important topics about geek women, and had a large readership because of those reasons. If feminism–including a clear mission statement and having editors who can exercise a modicum of humanity–is suddenly bad for Abrams Media’s business, then we’ll take our business elsewhere.

Bonus tweet:

 

Guest contributor Leah Zoller writes The Lobster Dance, a blog about gender and Japan, and I’ll Make It Myself!, a blog about food, geekery, and gender. She has an MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan, where she spent an absurd amount of time stomping around Ann Arbor in the snow while listening to Escape Artists.

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