Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist

Do a bunch of old advertisements explain why the Internet can be so hostile to women?

Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

We’ve reached peak Gamergate by now: Analysis of the venomous hydra/hashtag fizzes everywhere, from Deadspin to The New Yorker to the front page of the New York Times. I won’t try to unravel the details here, but the movement is largely understood as a defensive lashing out against the growing inclusivity of video game culture. For all its soapboxing about journalistic ethics, it mostly seeks to intimidate women and define games as meaningless, apolitical toys (rather than art with a message that can be espoused or challenged).

I think of the peculiar entitled, rageful sexism that expresses itself in Gamergate as “Cheeto-breath bigotry,” because I can’t help conjuring up some dude on his basement couch in his underwear eating Cheetos when I read about the harassment women like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn have faced and continue to face. Cheeto guy wants everything to stay the same, though it is changing. He doesn’t want his pastime to grow up.

But it’s worth asking how we got to that basement in the first place. From World War II through the early ’80s, a lot of the world’s pioneering computer scientists—Grace Hopper, Alice Burks, Margaret Fox—were women. And as an episode of Planet Money pointed out this week, for many years, the number of ladies studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men doing the same. If the beginnings of the Internet and digital culture had female fingerprints all over them, how and why did the Web become a man’s man’s world?  

According to the Planet Money hosts, something strange happened in 1984. The percentage of women in computer science, which had been climbing at a comparable rate to the percentages of women in law, medicine, and the physical sciences, suddenly flatlined. And then it fell off a cliff.

Personal computers had begun to appear in American households “in significant numbers.” (Apple unveiled its version in 1977, and the more vastly popular IBM model came out in 1981. Between 1980 and 1985, the number of personal machines in the world leapt from 1 million to more than 30 million.) And the introduction of computers as a consumer good meant that people would have to figure out how to market them.

The strategy that emerged was to sell computers exclusively to men. Early devices were good for word processing and a few elementary programs like Space Invaders, Pong, and Zork. The violent, adventure-story themes of the primordial video game led advertisers to craft a narrative in which digital culture existed for the fellows—specifically, for smart, high-strung fellows called geeks. The novelist Julie Smith described the geek as “a bright young man turned inward, poorly socialized … who thought of that secret, dreamy place his computer took him to as cyberspace—somewhere exciting, a place more real than his own life, a land he could conquer.”

In short, the culture of computers represented a place for disaffected young men to exercise power.

Furthermore, as NPR’s Steve Henn observes, the ’80s saw the release of dork-canon movies like Weird Science, Revenge of the Nerds, and War Games. “The plot summaries are almost interchangeable,” Henn writes. “Awkward geek boy genius uses tech savvy to triumph over adversity and win the girl.” The message sank in: By the ’90s, studies showed that parents were far more likely to purchase computers for their sons than for their daughters. The few female students who did pursue coding classes in college reported feeling isolated, unsupported, unprepared.  

And so on—you can see where this is going. Over time, thanks to a bunch of gendered advertisements, the “boys-only” narrative consolidated its grip on the popular imagination. Now it’s planted itself in the basement, and it’s fighting for its life.