The internet calls women fans 'fake nerds' — this artist is fighting back

From 'Snake Girl' to a self-destructive air conditioner, Toronto-based artist Maya Ben David has created an empowering comic universe.

From Snake Girl to a self-destructive air conditioner, Maya Ben David has created an empowering comic universe

L to R: Alejandra Monreal, Brandan Doty, Alvin Luong, Stephen Thomas, Maya Ben David, and Alexandr Nabokov. (Jamie McMillan)

For video performance artist Maya Ben David, Facebook was her radioactive spider. Her dramatis personae were formed and trained there amongst a growing network of fans and fellow posters. She performs there still daily. And the more likes and shares she collects, the more her superpowers seem to grow. But with great power — as the meme tells us — comes great responsibility. The enemy she's vowed to defeat is toxic and pervasive. She won't rest until the Fake Nerd is stopped.

The Toronto-based artist first encountered her foe on the imageboard 9GAG. Whenever a woman posts there about something she's interested in, reliably, there'll be a slew of lewd comments, some others hitting on her and then more accusing her of fishing for compliments. Invariably, the top comment will call her a "fake nerd." It's emblematic of the myriad ways misogyny gets expressed in online cultures, even where you're just fanning out about comic books and video games — maybe especially there.

"I'd been exposed to it for years," Ben David says. "When you're called a phoney over and over, you begin to feel like a phoney." So, in her artistic universe, she reversed the term: the people who speak disparagingly of women are the fake nerds. Like a good epic, she's imagined plot twists, reversals and other developments. One of her performance characters has tried to reclaim the identity. (Ben David herself is interviewing in the uniform of the fake nerd: a Flash t-shirt as made popular by The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon.) And then the definition grew. Maybe a fake nerd isn't just the people rotten to women online; maybe it's also the people — especially the artists — who steal from online communities they don't participate in.

Maya Ben David. (Jamie McMillan)

Whereas a generation of art-makers treated the internet like a new Gold Rush, the content of its colourful subcultures like resources to be extracted, sold and gawked at, Ben David is the consummate insider. She grew up sharing fan art, participating actively in multiple online communities, and now, she makes art about those cultures. She cares deeply about the creators and their work.

Each played by her, Ben David's video universe is peopled by a cast of improbable heroes and villains. Making absurd the trope "an unlikely hero arises," wherein Average Joe or Plain Jane are revealed to be, in fact, The Chosen One, her protagonists are genuinely unusual: an anthropomorphic airplane, a self-destructive air conditioner, a siren-like dragonling formed from one of those giveaway GoodLife Fitness gym bags. She elevates everyday objects — items expressly that are used — to superhero status. She wants to lend them their own narrative, and by envisioning a complex interior life for each, we're made to think more closely about our various relationships with things.

Air Canada Gal. (Maya Ben David)

In an early video, Ben David reimagines the air conditioner from The Brave Little Toaster who's angsty because he's trapped in a wall. When the other appliances make fun of him, he gets so upset that he overheats and breaks himself. It's like Greek tragedy. "I thought about how it might be if I performed it," Ben David says, "a women trapped in the wall." It's a metaphor she explores throughout her practice: women are treated like objects and so the objects become women.

At this past Nuit Blanche Toronto, she debuted a brand new character. Snake Girl enacted her revenge against Nazi physician Kurt Heissmeyer from inside a "hyperbolic time chamber." When, after a series of boss battles, she finally pinned Heissmeyer and the referee counted his "1,2,3," the 100-some crowd gathered outside the inflatable bubble earnestly cheered, "Snake Girl! Snake Girl! Snake Girl!"

Perhaps all superhero stories are really fantasies about bringing justice to an unjust world, but Ben David's heroes grapple explicitly their frustrations with power dynamics. The Fake Nerd, it turns out, is just another in a series of baddies. Her fight continues.

In "MBD: Origin Story," her best known character, Air Canada Gal — "a new superhero on the scene," as Ben David describes it — "is introduced to Spiderman — an older, more experienced crimefighter." He tries to turn her into his Mary Jane. But she will not be diminished. By the end, she eats him alive.

Find out more about Maya Ben David here.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.