Share Culture Makers Movement Silicon Valley Sexism China Consumer Technology Girls and Women
Naomi Wu is a beautiful, self-designed "cyborg" living in a cyber-punk city across the world. Her 360 vlogs of makerspaces, labs and 3-D printing studios rack up millions of views, and tens of thousands of people follow her on social media where she shares updates on her DIY projects.
Wu is a tech designer who creates experimental (and attractive!) products for women—including LED-lit skirts, 3D printed cases for tampons, and bikini tops—while also building hardware and piloting drones. But because she turned her engineering focus inward, electing to have plastic surgery and change her body's structure, many men in Silicon Valley are convinced she's not really a human.
Maker CEO Dale Dougherty has harassed Wu online for weeks, alleging that she's only a model who serves as the face of engineering projects completed by a team of men. An anonymous blogger, meanwhile, wrote a "debunking" post that has since been disproven.
But here's the thing: Wu is an actual person, as Newsweek confirmed when she agreed to be interviewed. And she says she's feeling the financial effects of the tech-bro smears.
"Everyone says it has a real MRA/Red Pill feel to it," Wu says. Men's rights activists, or MRAs, have co-opted the term "red pill" from the Matrix series (a trilogy of films created by the progressive, transgender siblings the Wachowskis) and currently use it to mean "waking up" to a "reality" where feminism is harmful. "The person writing [posts about me] is angry, angry at women. I can only guess it was a him."
Wu says she's pretty sure she knows who the anonymous blogger is, even if she refused to share the person's identity. But based on further comments, it's clear she believes it to be an American man.
She says that Western men visiting China often feel entitled to the attention of local women. When she declines romantic or sexual advances from American ex-pats, Wu says they often respond with rage. She adds that American misogyny is not welcome in China, and that the men who attack her online are "bringing [their views] to China where we are very much still struggling with the basics of equality, and validating some pretty ugly behavior."
Despite being attacked by sexists in America, Wu remains a good-natured creator with high hopes for women in tech. Her focus isn't always on bozos like Doughtery, but she says his attitude is indicative of the way Western tech companies treat people like Wu in China.
"There is no 'secret,' no catch," Wu insists, describing her work. "I have middle-school level shop/DIY skills, but I live in the most ideal hardware fabrication ecosystem in the world for these kinds of projects. I build everything myself."
What Dougherty and the other sexist Americans writing about Wu don't understand is that Wu's home of Shenzhen, China, has allowed feminity to exist at the intersection of technology and art. The city is almost 35 years old—"one of the youngest cities in China," Wu explains—and it can have a "cyber punk" quality (think Los Angeles in Blade Runner or Neo Tokyo in Akira). So while Wu might wear tiny outfits that accentuate her large synthetic breasts, dressing outlandishly isn't that unusual in a city like hers. "I know it can seem a bit odd by Western standards," she explains on her Patreon page, "but it's not disrespectful or frowned upon here."
Shenzhen is populated mostly by transplants, and they have helped cultivated the city's upstart, anything-goes attitude and a lightning-fast start-up culture. "Everyone is young and hungry, and tech is the tool they're using," Wu says. "Almost everyone here is trying to get rich," then, after a pause, adds, "which seems shallow in English. So maybe... prosperous."
That doesn't sound all that different from a town like San Francisco, the American hub for technology start-ups. But a key difference is the way each city treats women. For whatever reason, American tech companies have a systemic problem with inclusivity, which has led to a culture of unbearable workplace harassment that drives women to drop out of the industry.
Wu knows that quieter, conservative, "more professional" women are still forced to work on the fringe and keep their heads down. But she sees herself as defending women of all body types in the maker/DIY/tech world.
"Tons of other women do far better work, and I do everything I can to amplify their signal and use the visibility I have benefit the community," Wu says. "Everyone has a part to play and if mine is jumping up and down and saying- 'Hey everyone, look at what this awesome lady over here made!', I'm totally OK with that. I'm flamboyant, but I'm also on message and a team player."
She often appears at conferences. But scrolling through Wu's Twitter feed illustrates how most American booking agents assume she's a cosplayer or model. And they refer her to as such, rather than calling her an engineer, designer, maker, or DIY creator.
Wu says she got into basic coding as a young woman because it was a fast way to make cash. "I'm not a rockstar coder or anything, but I am good at cleaning up after rockstars coders, writing documentation and such," she says. "Someone who just quietly cleaned up at night without injecting their own preferences into the project turned out to be pretty popular."
Her first big international break was her lit-up skirt, which went viral on Reddit and put her under a spotlight. Wu says she "quite fancied" the idea that Americans were noticing "a random Chinese girl from a city most Westerners can't even find on a map." But she says it was "foolish vanity" that motivated her to share her work online.
Being attacked from all sides by male engineers has made Wu hesitant to demonstrate pride. But it hasn't deterred her from working toward her dream. She wants to spread the maker mindset in Szechuan and fan the flames of a local tech culture that's unique to China.
For innovators like Wu, the future isn't necessarily in coding, app development or artificial intelligence. Instead, it's in the construction of hardware, wearable tech and tangible projects. She calls Shenzhen "the Silicon Valley of hardware," adding on her Patreon page that "chances are the phone or computer you are reading this on was made here—maybe even by a girl I grew up with."
You can support Naomi Wu via Patreon....Read more