Six Reasons New York Comic Con Killed It in Diversity This Year
The world of comics, sci-fi, gaming, and other nerdy things is not always inclusive for women and minorities. The Batman anniversary panel at this weekend's New York Comic Con, for example, had ten men and only one woman serving as panelists. The woman was specifically hired to draw for Batgirl, and the male writers spent a lot of time praising her ability to speak to the target demographic. But for the most part, NYCC was refreshingly aware of that fact; not only were there "Cosplay is Not Consent" signs everywhere you looked, but they held countless panels (really, it would be needlessly cumbersome for me to count them right now) about raising awareness and increasing diversity in geek media. And not only were there countless panels, but a booming audience for them; I was shut out of the Diversity in Comics panel and barely got into the Marry, Do, or Kill panel. As the Women of Color in Comics panelists put it (in a huge room that was nearly full), there is a demand, there is a voice for women and minorities that wants to be heard (Hint, hint, Marvel and DC).
Here's a summary of all the diversity panels we attended:
- The Mary Sue Presents: Fight What You Know
This panel was directed at writers, particularly writers who are part of a privileged class. In every type of media, there is a dearth of complex narratives about people who aren't part of the most privileged group: women, racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, people with disabilities, etc. This is not necessarily only the result of overt prejudice, but of the attitude that one should "write what you know." The panelists encouraged all writers to do research in order to write about characters who are different from them and who have had different experiences. One panelist, Wendy Wu, who was writing about a biracial character, reached out to her followers on Tumblr who were biracial and asked them to share their stories.
They also warned against representation for the sake of representation, because if the characters are not three-dimensional, then it's tokenism. "Don't do it just to do it because then it defeats the purpose," said writer/actress Amber Benson.
- Super Girls: Using Comics to Engage Female Students in the High School Classroom
This panel was primarily aimed at teachers, but it also spoke to the more generalized problem of girls' lack of exposure to comics at a young age. One of the panelists, a male teacher, assigned a graphic novel version of Fahrenheit 451 to his class. He reported that 60% of the girls in his class had never read a comic before, but 92% of them enjoyed it. As a matter of fact, all of the teachers on the panel who had used comics in their classroom reported equal levels of interest among boys and girls. But, they reasoned, superhero comics are the most mainstream. Those comics are written mostly by men, and for men. Most of the protagonists are male and most of the women are sexualized accessories, so why would young girls read them? This, in turn, reinforces the stereotype that women aren't interested in comics. Things are changing in some ways; women are writing more and more successful comics. But, according to the panelists, they are more often writing independent, offbeat comics than the mainstream superhero comics, partially because it's difficult for women to break into the big companies like Marvel or DC.
- "Marry, Do or Kill?" What Will it Take to Shatter Female Stereotypes in Comics?
This panel, given by Red Stylo Media, discussed several different female stereotypes in geek media. First, they discussed the potentially problematic nature of the idea of a "strong female character." The panelists claimed that it's counterproductive to "teach for the test," or to try to create a "strong" character at the expense of creating a realistic human character. Although tests like the Bechdel test are good guidelines, they're only guidelines, and ultimately the goal should be to write stories that are populated with three-dimensional characters of both genders. "There is no one right answer. Just like everyone looks different, everyone acts differently. There is no one way to write the personality of a strong female character."
Comics writer Dennis Calero joked, "True equality is universal mediocrity. When you can have a female character who's as crappy and lame as your average male character, then you've achieved progress."
They also discussed the infamous Woman in Refrigerator trope, which began in comics but is now used to talk about all pop culture. Moderator Enrica Jang asserted that killing a woman is not always "fridging," if you know her name and it's a part of her own story. The panelists argued that if you know her name and it's a part of her own story, then it doesn't count as fridging, it's simply a death. It only counts as "fridging" if her death serves no other purpose than to motivate another character and propel his journey rather than her own.
And finally, some advice for women on the internet: "Don't read the comments. Ever. You're better than that, so fuck them."
- Women of Color in Comics: Race, Gender and the Comic Book Medium
In this panel, women of color who work in the comics industry discussed both discrimination against women in comics and the intersection between racism and sexism. Panelist Alice Meichi Li gave her opinion on whether the "heroine's journey" is distinct from the "hero's journey": "People ask, 'What's the difference, can't a woman go on a hero's journey?' I wanted to say 'Yeah, of course they can,' because we all want to be a hero. But the way people treat you and your body change you on the inside, so the heroine's journey is completely different."
At one point, they discussed the fact that Storm from X-Men is one of the only prominent woman of color in mainstream comics: "There's a lot of misrepresentation of women in comics, but they're all white women. So we're not even in there to be misrepresented."
And in one of the most poignant moments of the panel, Iron Man artist Alitha Martinez described the discrimination she had experienced at various meetings and conferences: "Multiple times, I would come into a room and they would say, "Oh, we're not ready for you yet,' meaning the cleaning staff."
Martinez went on to say that, fair or not, it is women's responsibility to make a change and diversify comics. Women, and especially women of color, shouldn't shy away from aspiring to work for large companies like Marvel or DC: "If you keep telling your own stories, writing your own books, nothing is going to change. If you don't knock at the doors of Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, nothing is going to change. They will keep up the status quo."
- The Mary Sue Presents – All on the Table
This panel, which primarily discussed sexism in gaming, featured Brianna Wu, the latest woman in the gaming industry to be forced out of her home by rape and death threats. In her own words, she "drew the ire of 8 chan, people who were too extreme for 4chan." Oh, dear.
All of the panelists were asked why they would stay in the gaming industry, given the level of harassment that occurs. (Only 3% of programmers in the video games industry are women, and they cited an academic study which stated that women are verbally harassed three times more than men while playing video games.) Wu said, "I've thought about quitting a lot in the last three months. I don't know any woman in the games industry who hasn't. Why would we be here? But... it's the coolest job in the world." Panelist Fatima Villaneuva said that video games helped her get through depression when she was younger, because the interactive nature of the medium allowed her to be more immersed and "get lost in that world" more easily.
They also discussed the fact that, although it's sexist that many female characters in games are sexualized to the point of being dehumanized, that doesn't mean that strength should be equated with asexuality. Wu claimed that Tomb Raider was one of the most feminist games ever made: "People define 'strong woman' as being asexualized, and I completely reject that as a sex positive feminist. That version of Lara Croft is gorgeous, but she's still strong... It's as simple as portraying women as people. Is she a human being, does she have agency?"
- Moviepilot Presents Women in Geek Media – Super Girls on a Mission!
This panel began with the assertion that, between Gamergate, that Spider-Woman variant cover, the sexist DC shirts, and everything else that's happened in these awful few months, "we know that this is happening," where "this" is sexism and harassment in geek culture.
So they focused on how to turn the negative experiences into positive ones. Catrina Dennis of Moviepilot recalled an incident in which a 16-year-old girl wrote an article about Rob Zombie for their site that may have had some factual errors, and he responded by publicly calling her a "troublemaking cunt". Dennis responded to him, "That's a 16-year-old girl you're talking about, and she's one of your biggest fans. She might have made a mistake, but that's no reason to say something like that." She told the panel that it "does no good to start a flame war," and that it's "less about the insult and more about how you conquer it."
And finally, a fun quotation from professional cosplayer Jessie Pridemore, who described her experiences of being slut-shamed for costumes she's worn: "Having sex is healthy, slut is a stupid word!"