Whew. I know I promised to post this yesterday, but as you can see it got a bit…epic. Bear with me gang, I’ll get to the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel, but first a little context:
Having devoted an entire chapter of my dissertation to the “Twilight ruined Comic-Con” protests that occurred in 2009, I have spent a good deal of time thinking about SDCC as a gendered space, analyzing how gendered tensions are manifested in that space, and considering how the popular press reinforces a (false) conception of comic-con as an inherently masculine space. In this chapter, and in various conference presentations I’ve since given on “Twihate” generally, I spend some time analyzing the implications of an illustrated sidebar from a July 25, 2008 Entertainment Weekly article that attempted to humorously outline SDCC’s consistent “Faces in the Crowd.”
The majority of the “usual suspects” here are (perhaps unsurprisingly) men, from the “Campers,” who “arrive at the convention ballrooms each morning, burrow in, and remain in their seats all day as panel after panel parades in front of them,” to the “Family Man,” an aging fan who hasn’t yet realized that “fandom isn’t genetic.” Female SDCC attendees, meanwhile, can apparently be divided into two camps: “Princess Nakeds” (defined as a “young woman wearing nothing more than skillfully placed electrical tape”) and “Dr. Girlfriends” (defined as “friends/lover/wives of the Con faithful who have no interest in the convention but attend solely to show their support”).
Admittedly, all of the SDCC attendee archetypes outlined above perpetuate crude stereotypes about fans generally, and mock male and female fans equally. What makes these two “fangirl” representations especially problematic for me is not the fact that they trade in old pathologies, but that they offer no real point of identification for most female SDCC attendees. The “Princess Nakeds” are constructed as sexualized spectacles rather than fans, offering themselves up for the implied male gaze of SDCC attendees. As discussed at length in the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel, many fangirls choose to cosplay in sexually explicit garb and claim that choice as empowering, but the fact that the “Princess Naked” is here constructed as a separate category from the “LARPer” is telling. Even if we assume that the term “Princess Naked” is a reference to the disproportionate number of “Slave Leias” that tend to populate events like SDCC (as the accompanying caricature would suggest), the description divorces the archetype from cosplay and LARPing traditions and makes it difficult to read this (by definition, sexualized) display as a form of fan production. Wearing her costume of “strategically placed electrical tape” (what character is this supposed to be?!?), the “Princess Naked” under this definition isn’t attempting to embody a specific character, she is simply offering herself up as a sexualized object for the fanboy gaze. She is, in the parlance of the panel in question, simply “pandering.”
The “Dr. Girlfriend” archetype is, in some sense, far more troubling to me than the implicit alignment of the “Princess Naked” with the sexually objectified “booth babe.” As I’m sure you’re all well aware, “Dr. Girlfriend” is a reference to a character on the cult Cartoon Network Adult Swim series The Venture Bros. (2003-present). Costumed in the retro style of Jacqueline Kennedy, and voiced by the male co-writer of the show, Doc Hammer, the clash between her hyperfeminine aesthetic and decidedly masculine aural presence has made Dr. Girlfriend one of the show’s most popular characters, and a favorite character for fangirls to cosplay.
Entertainment Weekly’s description of “Dr. Girlfriends” as unwilling attendees, tagging along after their boyfriends or husbands (the presumed “real” attendee), coupled with a caricature of a horrified-looking woman being forced to carry poster tubes and bags of merchandise, goes beyond simply failing to represent female fans. The characterization of the “Dr. Girlfriend” subtly implies that no woman could possibly enjoy an experience at SDCC…unless, of course, she’s a “Princess Naked” exhibitionist. Ultimately, both the “Princess Naked” and the “Dr. Girlfriend” archetypes are rooted in a binary view of female sexuality, the former hypersexualized and the latter heteronormatively coupled. In both cases, importantly, female attendees are constructed through and defined by their male cohort’s gaze and companionship. They are safely contained.
The “Oh, you Sexy Geek!” panel at SDCC 2011 this past Thursday was designed to take on the “Princess Naked” effect, and speak back to the accusations of “pandering” the so-called “fake fangirls” who wear these sexualized costumes (or post geek-themed pinups online, etc.) endure. The panelists ranged from notable female geekerati bloggers and video parodists, to former Buffy big bads and reality television stars. The lone academic presence on the panel was Jennifer Stuller, author of the recent book Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology. At one point, Stuller joked that she was assured she wouldn’t be the only “humorless feminist” on the panel, but in general my issue wasn’t the lack of second wave feminism (I don’t expect/assume everyone to embody those values, or constantly parrot them if they do), or even the problematic/third-wave feminist definition of “empowerment” through beauty culture that seemed to hang over the panel. No, my main issue was that this devolved into a postfeminist panel, in which feminism was invoked and then discarded as no longer necessary (or too “old fashioned,” or some form of buzzkillery we need to “get over”). I don’t think that was the intention, but the rhetoric pointed towards those values more often than not. In fannish terms, it all got a bit…Mary Sue.
The “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel was, in a word, disappointing. I appreciate its presence, and credit it for setting out some ambitious conversational goals, but the bulk of the panel was weighed down with play-nice platitudes (“Who are we to judge a girl who chooses to cosplay in a skimpy outfit?”/“Everyone should feel sexy!”) and (genuinely) witty commentary at the expense of any real debate. Many have already railed against the girl-power brand of “feminism” being touted at the panel, and apparently Bonnie Burton was openly accused of being a “bad feminist” by several disgruntled attendees. I don’t agree with the accusation, and I definitely don’t agree with the tactic. Better to discuss the feminisms that have always circulated around girl geek culture than to begin internally creating the same sort of hierarchies that girl geek culture has battled for decades.
Many have also justifiably expressed their disgust for Chris Gore’s “contributions” to the panel. I’m hoping to cajole Luke Pebler into guest blogging something about the G4ification of geek culture/comic-con down the line, so I’ll save a few choice words on the appearance of Chris Gore midway through the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel for that comment thread. If you’re looking to see what got everyone so riled up, Jennifer de Guzman and Feminist Fatale have recaps of the panel and Gore’s presence up that you should check out. Suffice it to say that rolling into a panel that purports to empower female fans, and smarmily opening with “I would stick my penis in every single one of these ladies” is, at worst, Exhibit A of why some women continue to feel objectified and marginalized within geek culture. At best, it was a severely lame to pander to the fanboys in the room. Funny, how that sort of pandering never seems to get the same sort of scrutiny that this did:
The “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel was at capacity, so if/when it makes a return to SDCC in 2012, here’s what I’d be interested to see/hear:
- A more focused conversation, to avoid getting mired in generalities. Focus on one “pandering” controversy, or one costume, and really dig in. Take a position and argue it, propose change, something to make this a bit more concrete and constructive.
- Encourage a richer twitter backchannel…clearly there were many in the audience who felt strongly about these issues. Announce the hashtag up front!
- Less about sexy costumes, more about the politics of DIY vs. BIY (buy-it-yourself) costuming at the con (sexy or otherwise…I’m still waiting for some badass woman to actually weld her own gold bikini).
- More from Bonnie Burton on crafting as a fan practice. Taking a glance at her twitter feed, many a fanboy are out there seem amped to make Chewbacca finger puppets and AT-AT planters. I think most would assume that crafting falls squarely into the realm of “women’s work,” so the success of her Star Wars Craft book with fanboys and fangirls alike could open up a nice gender neutral space in this discussion.
- More from Katrina Hill on gender/genre bias (or presumptions surrounding gender and genre). I am a complete gore hound, horror buff, so hearing the Action Chick’s thoughts on, say, the animosity directed towards Twilight’s presence at SDCC would have been fascinating, especially considering all the complaints that Twihards only attend SDCC to ogle and sexually objectify the male stars.
- Get another academic on the panel. This is in no way a dig at Stuller, who made some great interjections about the need for media literacy and outreach (hear hear!), but it would be useful to also have someone who is studying the gendered mainstreaming of fan/geek culture, fanboy/fangirl identities, or the evolution of SDCC as a space on the panel. Better yet, get someone doing work on postfeminism in the media to contextualize some of these debates.
- More from the nerdybird, author of the blog “Has Boobs, Reads Comics,” as so much of the conversation seemed to hinge on a Jessica Rabbit “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn this way” defensive strategy. Or, get a comic book creator/artist on the panel (or someone designing and drawing these costumes we’re discussing). At the top of my personal wish list would be Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. I’d love to hear them talk about their commentary on female superhero costuming via the character of Starlight in The Boys.
- More panelist diversity in general would have made for a richer conversation. Hell, bring in someone who has been working as a booth babe at SDCC for the past few years. We need only look to the EA “Sin to Win” controversy to see how this panel’s topic is part of a much larger marketing culture at work. Or, bring in a girl geek who has attended the con for over a decade to anecdotally discuss how the culture around it has changed. I’d like to hear their stories, and they are absolutely part of this debate.
- Actually dress up as buildings for the next panel (…I guess you had to be there for that one). As encouragement, check out this killer array of Tardis dresses!
I could go on, but I won’t, and before I close I want to be clear- I’ve got nothing against any of these women. I avidly read many of their blogs and their twitter feeds, and despite the fact that my “humorless feminist” hackles were raised repeatedly over the course of the panel, the questions of identity and authenticity that the panel consistently poked at are exceedingly complex and difficult to navigate. Authenticity debates within subculture, and studies of subculture, are nothing new. The gendering of “authenticity” and authority in those spheres also has a long history that is difficult to cram into a single panel.
Was I disappointed that it was Seth Green (interjecting from the audience), and not one of the panelists, who finally unleashed an impressively articulate tirade about what’s been gained and lost in the mainstreaming of geek culture, and the importance of being good fan culture ambassadors (“You can’t be pandering if you’re sincere”)? Absolutely. Was it depressing that no one on the panel seemed to be able to muster up an example of an empowered/empowering female character to cosplay that wasn’t at least a decade old (see: Wonder Woman, Buffy)? Terribly. But I completely respect these women for getting up on stage and having the conversation (or even for acknowledging that these conversations need to occur more frequently in spaces like SDCC). As far as criticisms of the panel go, I have plenty, but I’m less interested in hating and more in participating in an ongoing dialogue about these issues.
As for my version of sexy cosplay solidarity…
So, if you were at the panel (or on the panel), I’d really like to hear your thoughts on what you were expecting, what you walked away with, and what you’d like to see future panels along these lines tackle. Debates about sexy cosplay, the feminisms of girl geek culture, etc. are also welcome, obviously.