Unless you've been under a rock the last couple of years, you've seen a fair amount of media coverage surrounding sexism in geekdom (or "nerd culture" – you chose the term you're most comfortable with). On this site, we've previously reported on the Cosplay ≠ Consent movement, organized in response to inappropriate interactions with cosplayers at conventions, some rising to the level of sexual assault. This week, The Doubleclicks released a video in response to the backlash against "fake gamer/geek girls," called "Nothing to Prove." These examples of the kind of grassroots, DIY, You-Can't-Take-The-Geek-Away-From-Me activism envelop my heart in a warm cloud of happy and give me hope for the future.
And then I read this, which references this account of what happened during and after the Women Who Kick Ass panel in Hall H of Comic-Con this year. And I'm now seeing more red than a 28 Days Later zombie. I can't even see livid from here.
For the uninitiated, Hall H is the massive presentation hall at the San Diego Convention Center, Comic-Con's venue. The AV Club's Todd VanDerWerff described it, alternatively and memorably, as "a hamster habitat for humans" and the "ultimate movie church.” It is the locus of the blockbuster, much-anticipated movie trailers that are premiered in front of star-studded panels; it is where a fair amount of swooning and Comic-Con-magic happens. This year, Hall H was the venue for the HUGE announcement of the forthcoming Superman vs. Batman movie and where Bryan Cranston, on the Breaking Bad panel, revealed (to geekdom's extreme delight) that he'd been walking the convention floor in Heisenberg cosplay. In other words, Hall H is the hottest ticket around because there are no tickets and entry is only guaranteed to the average convention-goer if they camp out insanely early. Some might say it's the quintessential Comic-Con experience, as the truly dedicated are rewarded with delightful surprises.
My first and only excursion to Comic-Con was in 2005. I went with a potential paramour (who later turned into a romantic partner) I had met in Washington, DC and who flew out to California to experience the grandeur and the spectacle of Comic-Con (and presumably me, too). I went thinking it would be a massive gathering of comic nerds. There was very little of that; by 2005, it already resembled the pop-culture-palooza it's come to signify. My entry into Hall H was significantly less taxing than what this year's participants had to endure. We had to wait a mere hour or two to get seats to hear Kevin Smith morph a yo mamma joke into a dead mamma joke with signature comedic aplomb.
For me, Comic-Con certainly had its moments. Like when my paramour bought me a hardcover copy of Alan Moore's From Hell, signed by artist Eddie Campbell, complete with a Victorian doodle by Campbell's hand (and thus cementing my devotion to said paramour). Or when we stayed to watch a sparsely-attended free screening of a hilarious Spanish black comedy called El crimen ferpecto, only to discover Bruce Campbell was introducing the film. We had tried to get into Campbell's panel earlier in the day and failed. We shimmered with delight as he called our small audience to arms (to cameras?), encouraging us all to make our own movies, and to just make them – low/no-budgets be damned.
Magic moments aside, the overwhelming crush of people, the long lines, the jostling, and the lack of focus on comic books themselves left me saying, "Never again," to Comic-Con. I come from a zine/punk/DIY background, and the overwhelming, uber-corporate nature of the spectacle rubbed me the wrong way. (Side note: I found the Comic-Con experience I was looking for three years later at APE (the Alternative Press Expo) in San Francisco. APE is an event that is put on by Comic-Con International, but couldn't be further from the San Diego shitshow. But I digress…)
Back to the red hot center of my ire.
This year's “Women Who Kick Ass” panel, hosted by Entertainment Weekly, was made up of an impressive and swoon-worthy group of female actors known for characters who are the absolute embodiment of "Women Who Kick Ass." The participants make up a dizzying list of FUCK YEAH females:
Katee Sackhoff (Lt./Capt. Kara "Starbuck" Thrace from Battlestar Galactica);
Tatiana Maslany (the protagonist thrice-over in the new sci-fi series Orphan Black);
Danai Gurira (Walker-slasher extraordinaire Michonne from The Walking Dead);
Maggie Q (the title role in the TV series Nikita); and
motherfucking Michelle Rodriguez (who most recently reprised her role as Letty Ortiz in the latest installment of the Fast & Furious franchise (#6 for those keeping count), but is most beloved as Rain from multiple Resident Evils and as badass military mamma-jammas dealing with alien shit in Avatar and Battle of Los Angeles. Oh, and then there's the small matter of lending her voice to obscure video games like Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Halo 2.)
[Do yourself an absolute favor and read Kristal Bailey's liveblog of the discussion – it's no substitute for being there, but fans will lap it up.]
The geek bona fides of these women were absolute and impeccable. Facilitated by moderator Sarah Vilkomerson, the actors on the panel shared the kind of juicy backstage intrigue and realtalk politics that geeks usually salivate all over themselves to hear.
That is, unless, it's about sexism.
Unless it has even a whiff of feminism.
Then, it's GAME OVER. SHUT IT DOWN. NO MOAR. ETC. ETC.
According to more than one reporter, the Hall H brohive was not receptive to such a frank discussion of how it can suck to be a woman in Hollywood. Todd VanDerWerff chronicled the devolution of some members of the crowd into knuckle-dragging troglodytes that ruined the chances of those hoping to get pictures after the talk with their favorite actors:
The final question — from a young woman about what aspects the perfect kick-ass woman would have — turns into a digression about the many roles that women play in real life and the few that they are asked to play onscreen. It’s all fascinating stuff, with Sackhoff talking about wanting to see someone as kind and strong as her mother onscreen, and Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira talking about the effectiveness of female political protestors in her native Zimbabwe, the sort of story that would almost never appear in a Hollywood film — but the longer it goes on, the more restless the crowd gets. When Rodriguez grabs the microphone again to follow up on a point made by another panelist, for the first time, the audience ripples with something close to jeering anger. When the panel finally ends and the five women on it proceed off to the side for photographs, something done at the end of most Hall H panels, someone shouts something from the audience, to a mixture of supportive laughs and horrified gasps, and the women quickly leave the stage. (I was not sitting close enough to hear what was said, but I confirmed with several people sitting in the immediate vicinity that it was a young man shouting “Women who talk too much!” after the loudspeaker asked attendees to voice their appreciation for the participants in the “Women Who Kick Ass” panel.)
What the holy fuck, geekiverse?
I am not naïve enough to think that nerd culture is immune to the same systems of oppression that are perpetuated in our larger society. That is not my issue with this. My issue is that the women on this panel who, by definition portrayed strong female characters, who more than held their own on-screen with their male co-stars, were silenced for speaking their truths. What really gets my goat is that an entitled herd of douchebros, who would almost certainly give their left nuts for a chance to STEP ONE FOOT on the sets of Battlestar Galactica or The Walking Dead, co-opted the forum for their own narrow-ass perspective of what's "appropriate" for Comic-Con, and in doing so, RUINED others' experiences.
But what to do about it? This is, of course, an ongoing dialogue we in queer/feminist/POC circles engage in on the regular. Whether to participate in spaces that merely rankle our ethics (on one end of the spectrum) or that could be physically dangerous (on the other), is a tough and individualized call. If we are rabid fans and consumers of pop culture and media, we have to negotiate our love of problematic things in a way that makes sense for us, while remaining true to ourselves. I'm not going to tell anyone what they should do in response to experiencing racism or sexism or homophobia.
But I am going to address the fanboys who think that geekdom is their domain (as well as those fangirls who support that kind of backward thinking).
You've got another thing coming, sons.
You've heard, "We're here, we're queer, get used to it"? Get used to THAT on the con floors and add women and feminists and POC and transfolx and the differently-abled and all the intersections and cross-identifications that you can possibly imagine (and some you can't) from all of those communities. Imagine that, and then multiply it. Exponentially.
Nerd culture does not belong to you. Nerd culture belongs to all of us. There are more of us discovering it all the time. There are more of us realizing there are others like us (cosplayers, gaymers, geekgirls, however we identify in our rainbow of identities). More and more we're discovering there are others with whom we can identify and relate, and who don't subscribe to your particular forms of ignorance and narrow-mindedness. We're creating content that we love, in which we can finally see ourselves, when we grow tired of consuming content in which we're invisible or in which we're stereotypes.
So enjoy your numerical superiority while it lasts, boys, because your days are fucking numbered.
I fully realize that my rant will do little to substantively change sexism (or racism or homophobia or transphobia or ableism) by convention-goers. My “pen” may not be as mighty as Michonne’s katana, but I’m adding my words to a chorus of voices that seek to reclaim spaces that, IMHO, were never the exclusive domain of white, hetero nerdboys to begin with. Maybe it’s not much, but it’s something and the ladies on that panel deserved better. They should know that they've got mad love from legions of us. I'm sorry we weren't there to shout down the idiots.
Maybe next time, Comic-Con.
We can do better.