By Derek Newman-Stille
The topic of geek gatekeeping has been discussed a lot recently, and I have previously discussed it in my post “My Cane is Not a Costume” https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/04/07/my-cane-is-not-a-costume-convention-exclusions-and-ways-to-think-about-oppression-at-cons/ , but I wanted to talk a bit about how the structures of fan conventions can sometimes add to the specific incidents of sexism that are perpetuated by fans.
Much as I did in my post “My Cane is Not a Costume”, I am not going to refer to the specific Convention that I am using as the case study for this experience because I believe that many of these issues can apply to numerous genre conventions and that we should look at geek gatekeeping as a whole, rather than direct attention at one specific con.
When I refer to “structures at fan convention”, I am referring to the overall planned events and actions of those representing the con. These set the tone by which fans react to others at the convention.
As in previous years at this convention, and as others have mentioned about fan conventions in general, there were the typical issues of sexual oppression. Women were leered at by men, propositioned by men, and quizzed by men about their knowledge about particular fandoms, creating an atmosphere of discomfort for women and issues that women had to deal with that men did not. Male fans showed a sense of entitlement to stare at, touch, and proposition women.
One of the structural issues I observed in microcosm was a “professional interviewer” on a panel for a television series that featured a post-apocalyptic world. The questions were divided along gender lines to reify ideas that women and men occupy different skills sets and try to suggest that women’s concerns are largely domestic. Male actors wee asked about their acting experience, about whether they are good with weapons and whether they shoot them in their lives off screen. Female actors were asked about romantic relationships in the show and about whether their characters are going to be having babies. Women were further asked about how emotionally harrowing it was to be on set all day and to deal with the charged emotional nature of the show. Despite the fact that one of the women questioned played a character who was an excellent sword-wielder, she was told by the interviewer “obviously you don’t use a weapon in real life”, inferring that it is more likely for a male actor to be interested in weapons use outside of the show than it is for a woman to do so. This dichotomous questioning first of all relegates women and men to different worlds and assumes that they cannot cross interests or experiences. Secondly, the types of questions asked of the actresses were focused on an assumed domesticity, vulnerability, and emotional nature, whereas the male actors were asked about questions of skill.
These types of questions shape a dichotomous view of gender that casts women in a peripheral role, even when they are, themselves, the people that fans are coming to see. When fans see this occurring at the official level, it reinforces the types of gender divisions and alienating of women that occurs at the fan level.
A strong example of geek gatekeeping being structurally created can be seen in the Cosplay shows, where identity is on display for all of those who are watching people perform in the costumes of their chosen characters. For this particular Cosplay show, an announcer was chosen who has reinforced the characterizing of women as sexual objects. Whenever women were on stage with little clothing, the announcer would leer at them and say in a sexual voice “I love my job.” This was not a singular event, but rather occurred every time a women was on stage with a costume that revealed her body shape. He at times would comically chase women across the stage as though stalking them… at least he and much of the audience seemed to consider it comical. But what concerns me is that this is not comical, and expressing laughter at his behavious entrenches the notion of considering women as sexual objects as a taken-for-granted norm and something to be laughed at, which is why fans assume that leering at women is both acceptable and comical and why several fans expressed the notion that “if they dress like that, I should have the right to stare”, “those costumes are distracting”, and “she could have taken more off than that”.
The announcer created a place where these characteristics are considered normative and not problematic. At times he also said things like “she had a nice bum”, “I love my job. All the pretty girls”, and “I am an old man and I get to be a creepy old man.” His entitlement to view women as sexual objects abstracts to the overall culture of viewing women as sexual objects and not as fans themselves.
Although I have only referred to a few select events, I hope to point to overall issues whereby fan conventions create or at least to reinforce a cultural environment of gendered oppression. Fan conventions are not solely responsible for geek gatekeeping or the oppression of women, but it is important for us as fans, as geeks, to be looking at the way that certain sexisms are reinforced and given cultural value.