The “Saddest Booth Babe”
[UPDATE: as Zsófia Rutkai was kind enough to point out in the comments below, it was she who was in the picture, not (as previously reported and stated here) Piroska Szurmai-Palotai. The following has been edited to reflect this correction.]
So, a writer for ZD Net, in an “impressionistic” piece on MacWorld, talks at one point about the “Saddest Booth Babe In the World”. The writer has modified her piece — though there’s no note to that effect — but most of the original description is still there:
She sat on a stool in between two large monitors across the aisle from us. The pretty brunette was in one of those big corner booths that paid a few bucks for that sorta-prime real estate you know is a gamble for whoever forked over the money to sell wignuts or widgets or iPhone cases or other sundry USB landfill.
Her shoulders were hunched and her hands sat limply in her lap beneath breasts that were packaged air-tight in a tight, branded t-shirt.
She stared at the floor. Unlike her counterparts, she never smiled. Sad booth babe was sad.
“Booth babe”, for them what don’t know, is a term commonly used for women employed by vendors at usually male-heavy tech or fandom conferences, often as a visual draw. The “Saddest Booth Babe”, however, was actually a developer for NeoPlay Entertainment, and by some accounts possibly the lead or only one. Not bad for a woman in an incredibly male-dominated field.
Ms. Blue, in her addendum, insists that she was using a more general reading of “booth babe”, and that she didn’t mean it as an insult. In this, she misses the point; her more expansive definition is still a woman who “want[s] to be sexy in tech”, and there’s no indication even in the covertly-revised article that Ms. Rutkai wanted to be anything but a competent developer selling her products. Ms. Blue was the one to sexualize her — spending half a graf on the appearance of her breasts — and to find fault with her for not being “approachable”, if only for the moment Ms. Blue happened to be passing.
Besides which, the phrase “booth babe” has such a well-established usage that to claim one doesn’t actually mean that comes off with all the believability of a Republican politician who is shocked — shocked — that people see the phrase “states’ rights” as race-baiting.
But actually I’m not here to castigate Violet Blue. Like many people, I heard this story first from Daring Fireball, but it seems from Ms. Blue’s reactions that others have been meaner about it, calling her a “misogynistic pig”, and the like. That is, in its way, just as inaccurate as dismissing Ms. Rutkai as “the Saddest Booth Babe”.
Did Violet Blue say something sexist? yes. I don’t really believe her backpedalling, but even if her addendum is exactly what she originally meant it’s still highly problematic as it regards women in tech fields. But…
Is Violet Blue sexist? almost certainly not. Here is the key that is often overlooked in many discussions of racial, sexual, or otherwise problematic language or actions: it’s possible to say something sexist without being sexist. It’s quite possible to express no particular animus against women as a group, and yet act in a way to reinforce discriminatory patterns. Which brings us to…
Is the tech culture sexist? unquestionably. The idea that computers — especially in their development — are “toys for boys” is so thoroughly ingrained that even an otherwise broad-minded writer like Ms. Blue sees a woman on the vendor floor of a tech convention and reads her as primarily there as a marketing draw. And, when called on it, she puts the blame on the woman for not being “approachable”. It doesn’t make her a bad person; this is just how everyone is taught to think by default, and it takes a conscious effort to override that received cultural narrative.
Now, I’m not saying I’m perfect in this regard; I’ve got as much of an invisible backpack as anyone in my position. But sometimes an example is so glaring, so clear-cut, that I can’t pass up the opportunity to say “this is what I’m talking about”.
These attitudes are like ticks; they feed on us and spread disease, but it’s no moral failing to pick up a few. It’s just a fact of life if you walk through the woods. But when, for once, we catch the tick feeding, we can’t just burn it and injure the host, or smother it and let it fester. We need to grasp it carefully by the head and give it a good, hard pull.
And remember: it’s hard to see a tick on your own scalp.