Sexist Con: Geek Gatekeeping and the Convention

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.

 

Sexist Oppression is her Kryptonite

A Review of Faith Erin Hicks’ The Adventures of Superhero Girl (Dark Horse Books, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Image of Superhero Girl courtesy of http://www.adventuresofsuperherogirl.com/archive/

Image of Superhero Girl courtesy of http://www.adventuresofsuperherogirl.com/archive/

The life of Faith Erin Hicks’s comic book superheroine Superhero Girl is marked by identity crises, many of which are inspired by a figure who has become her arch nemesis… and the arch nemesis of many women in fan communities, the man who thinks of women in fandoms as “fake geek girls”. The term ”fake geek girl” is one used by conservative males in the genre fan community to try to alienate women from fandoms. These are the same type of males who will approach women at cons and quiz them about their knowledge of fandoms in an attempt to “prove” they don’t belong there. It is another element of con sexism and “geek gatekeeping”.

Superhero Girl encounters geek gatekeeping when searching for an arch nemesis. She is approached by a man who quizzes her about various aspects of the superhero genre that he believes are canonical: asking if she can fly, asking for her origin story, telling her that she needs to have a tragic catalyst for her desire to become a superhero. When he discovers that “all” she can do is leap over tall buildings, lift heavy objects, and shoot rays from her eyes, he tells her “then you’re not a real superhero”. He tells her the rules she should be using to live her life like “Rule one: You gotta have a tragedy in your past that made you want to become a superhero. Two: you need a uniform complete with logo, although spandex is optional. And finally, of course, a villainous archnemesis.” He concludes by telling her “If you don’t follow the rules, you’re just some nobody in a mask.” Her arch nemesis excludes her from the very job that she is doing on a regular basis, superheroing, even though he, himself is not a superhero. She is subjected to geek gatekeeping from her own profession. Faith Erin Hicks is able to illustrate the pervasiveness of geek gatekeeping by abstracting it onto a superhero who similarly faces the existential crisis that many female fans have when subjected to alienating techniques by male fans who want to cast women as an inescapable Other.

With its blend of wit and play with the genre, Faith Erin Hicks’ The Adventures of Superhero Girl is a definite classic. Superhero Girl is a hero who can be just as empowered giving a homeless person spare change as from fighting a giant space monster… and just as disempowered by forgetting to put on her mask, leaving her cape at home, and having to deal with her arrogant corporate superhero brother Kevin as she is by supervillains who manage to put the whammy on her. Plus, she has to deal with those awkward moments of running into ninjas at the grocery store or when she is applying for jobs. But, her superheroic activities are so practiced and proficient that she has most criminals trained so that all she needs to do is tell them to “put it back” when they rob banks to defeat them.

Hicks’ Superhero Girl is not powerful because of her superpowers (of which she has many), but rather in her ability to be fundamentally human and to play with the superhero genre overall.

You can find out more about the work of Faith Erin Hicks at http://faitherinhicks.com/personal.html

You can discover more about Superhero Girl at http://www.adventuresofsuperherogirl.com/ .