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Women in Comics: A Roundtable about the ‘Geek Girl’ Phenomenon

While the mainstream superhero comics audience remains predominantly male, it shouldn’t be news to anyone reading this blog that women like comics, too. They write them, read them, draw them, blog about them and show up in healthy numbers at comic book conventions. Recently, however, there was some interesting backlash against the idea of “geek girls” — namely the perception that there is an insincere or pandering element to some women identifying themselves as geeks or comic book fans, particularly when they happen to be attractive actresses or comics bloggers who prominently identify that they are ladies.

We decided to assemble several of the most prominent women in comics media to talk about the “geek girl” phenomenon, how things have changed (or not) over the last couple decades, and the way women in comics are regarded by the mainstream media, superhero comics, and other female fans. ComicsAlliance Editor-in-Chief Laura Hudson teamed up with Blair Butler, the host of G4′s Fresh Ink, Heidi MacDonald, the editor of The Beat, and Jill Pantozzi, a contributor to sites including Newsarama and Publishers Weekly to discuss.Laura: What we’re here to talk about is the “geek girl” phenomenon, which — I don’t know if that seems strange at all to you, the idea of women liking geek stuff as a “phenomenon.”

Jill: It’s never been a phenomenon from my perspective but I can see how others perceive it that way. Because it’s brand new to some people.

Heidi: Well as the old timer of the group I come at it from a different perspective. Women have obviously ALWAYS been into this kind of material. But it was so much less socially accepted in the pre-internet.

Jill: I think because more women are being more vocal about it these days, people are starting to take notice in the general public. And I think that’s a big segment of the women that are “coming out of the closet,” if you want to use that term. They always liked this stuff, they just feel more comfortable sharing it now because others are too. It’s sort of a chain reaction.

Heidi: I think women are more vocal because they have access to the same media as the male fans. Or they are perceived as more vocal.

Blair: I keep coming back to the internet. That old chestnut.

Jill: Yeah, the internet was the catalyst. I didn’t know many girls in high school who liked the same things I did. But who knows? They may have and just didn’t feel comfortable sharing it. And maybe the anonymity of the internet helps with that comfort in some way too.

Laura: Did any of you ever feel less socially accepted because you were a woman into comics? Like, did you get negative reactions from peers or authority figures in a way that you think related to being a woman?

Jill: Not with comics for me but with other “geeky” things. Liking Star Trek was a big one for me. I got made fun of for that one in school. And it was also weird for me to get that kind of negative feedback. My mom loved Star Trek! It wasn’t an abnormal thing for me, my whole family got into it.

Heidi: I have always been into geeky things, from my first breath, from Tolkien to D&D to comics to wrestling. All of them, except maybe Tolkien, were “male branded” and I ALWAYS ALWAYS stood out in the pack. And Star Trek is absolutely a huge one! That is where the whole American fanfic, slash movement got started! I think there are a series of milestones that made it more acceptable, where women and girls were more comfortable. Star Wars was a huge one, too.

Blair: I think I may have grown up in a bit of a bubble — I was socially awkward, but never because of comics — in fact I think I actually made a few friends in high school (male and female) because they worked at a local comics shop. My neighbors were huge Trekkies, too. So, amazingly, I grew up in a SAFE geek space.

Jill: I remember one time walking into a new comic shop and being treated almost with kid gloves because the workers didn’t know I knew anything about comics because I was a woman. When I started naming all the titles I needed they looked surprised.

Heidi: I was always kind of accepted for who I was, but I would get static from guys when I tried to say I knew as much about it as they did!

Laura: Because they felt “emasculated” somehow by being bested by a girl or because they didn’t believe it was possible for a girl to know more about comics?

Jill: Yeah Heidi, that’s a big thing too. It’s cool for me to like comics but as soon as I start schooling someone else on it they start to change their tone.

Heidi: I think it was just a macho thing. It is never fun to be beaten by a girl. And men have their territories they don’t want invaded, and UNTIL NOW, the geek space was a HUUUUUUGE part of that.

Laura: To me, there are two different kinds of accepting. There’s the one where you can go into a geek space — a comic shop, a convention, wherever — and just feel at home and relaxed. And then there’s also the whole fetish quality it can take on sometimes where people are waaay into it because you’re a lady. And that really highlights the fact that you’re different, rather than making you feel like a normal part of something.

Jill: Yeah, I agree Laura. When you start getting put on a pedestal things get strange. Because most people don’t want that, they just want to hang with everyone and talk comics. I think for some men, women liking comics is such a foreign concept they can’t help themselves. They’ve been waiting to find one, perhaps all their lives. And when they do, they overcompensate.

Heidi: But there will always be a boy/girl dynamic at play which supercedes the geek dynamic. That is just part of life. Let me ask you guys this. Have you ever been in the legendary hostile comics shop?

Jill: I have not, no. Thank god too because I’d probably get arrested if I was treated the way I’ve heard some of my friends get treated in the “hostile comic shops.”

Laura: I have been in shops where they were kind of snooty, but that was because they were snooty and not because I was a girl.

Blair: I haven’t either. However there was one store where the guy behind the counter was a bit of an a-hole — but then a guy walked in — and got the same treatment. I thought, “Oh, I get it — he’s just an a-hole.” In general.

Laura: Have you, Heidi?

Heidi: I have only ever been in one and it was a while ago. They were playing D&D in the back and when I walked in it was like I’d just entered the Yankees locker room or something. I walked in and walked right out. But i was younger too. Nowadays I would probably just give them sass back. I have run up against some real a-holes. but I’ve always been very secure in my nerd knowledge.

Jill: And that, unfortunately, is why a lot of women never get into comics. Because of that intimidating feeling.

Laura: Here’s a question. Because of the attention that you get from being a woman into comics, I’ve had a number of people suggest to me that it can help you in terms of your career in comics media; that it is an advantage. Do you feel it’s worked that way for you?

Blair: Well… *ahem*… Yes.

Jill: I’d have to say yes too. It’s like being a female sportscaster.

Heidi: I know that being the only girl for so long I got a lot of attention, to be honest, but I ALSO know that everyone accepted me as being smart and talented, even if I found out years later that they had a huge crush on me, which often was the case.

Jill: When I was interning at a television station in college, I was approached to get into their sports office because I was a woman. Sadly, I had no interest in sports and didn’t want to fake it just to get ahead. At least in this field, I know what I’m talking about and don’t feel like I’m being given special treatment all the time *just* because I’m a woman.

Blair: When they were looking for someone to cover comics for Attack of the Show, they auditioned a few folks. And — if memory serves — they were all gentlemen, and nothing was clicking. I was working behind the scenes as a writer on X-Play at the time, and one of the AOTS producers knew me because we all used to carpool to the comics shop on Wednesday. And he said they should give me a try because I was rather passionate/nerdy/all about comics. In retrospect, I’ll be the first to admit that being a lady probably got me in the door, as there were other male comics fans in that carpool car. But I did the audition — and got the gig.

Heidi: Yeah, that is a GREAT origin story!

Blair: It helped that I had also done a Comedy Central stand up show so I could sort of claim some tenuous “on-cam experience.” But really, I was so worried that I would be awful — and so humbled that they gave me the chance.

Heidi: Yeah but why SHOULDN’T you have been an choice? You had the perfect credentials.

Laura: It’s interesting to me that they weren’t specifically looking for a female host, because on the opposite end of the spectrum I think you also see the random hot girl that gets put in front of a camera to read off cue cards about geek things. Or the actresses who go on talk shows and always seem to mention how much they love comics. What was Chrissy Dinh talking about the other day? How Atom Freeman from ComiCenter was working at Top Cow and tried to get her on board with “a short video every week where a ‘hot girl‘ (not important if she knew the material) recapped what happened in the Top Cow Universe that week… The title of the segment would be called ‘Hot Girl on Top Cow.’”

Blair: You know what’s sort of interesting? Because I cover comics and Mixed Martial Arts for the network, during the first year of covering each, when I’d meet someone at a Con or for a field interview or whatever there was always a handful of folks who’d go “do you really read comics?” And after I just talk to them, there’s a moment where they say, “Oh wow, you really know what you’re talking about!” Like “poof” — I have pulled a lady rabbit in a Green Lantern shirt out of a hat! But with comics that hasn’t happened in YEARS now.

Heidi: How are you accepted in the MMA world? Because that is the total jock world! But there seem to be a lot of MMA fighters who are comics readers.

Blair: With the MMA folks — for the most part — as soon as people get to talk to me, it’s all good. Lots of MMA guys who dig comics. There’s a guy whose ring name is “Batman,” bless his heart.

Heidi: I think one thing we haven’t mentioned which was another huge step for getting women out of the closet was cosplay and the manga/anime movement.

Laura: Do you think those things may have helped get women involved in comics culture that hadn’t been involved before? Because I wonder if the visibility of the phenomenon now is making more girls interested in comics.

Jill: I can’t speak much to the manga/anime part but as far as cosplay, it’s just a fun bonus for me. I’m not sure if that aspect of the culture got certain women to feel more comfortable. It’s a community in and of itself. Because I feel like a person would have to have some interest in the characters already to find cosplay appealing. Even if it’s just liking Rogue from the old X-Men animated series or something, you know?

Laura: I’m thinking in terms of women just seeing more other women involved in comics culture, more women being visible. Because that’s what I didn’t have in this world when I first got involved — the sense that it was something women did, that it was For Me.

Jill: Ahh I see. Yeah, the cosplay community is definitely interesting. Even though I cosplay, I’m not in the heart of it but it’s definitely something that people want to be a part of.

Heidi: I think the manga/anime/cosplay world gave women their OWN space where they could be safe and build community.

Blair: I remember being at Star Wars Celebration in Tokyo — and several Storm Troopers were women. There was even a mother-daughter duo dressed as a Jawa and a Tusken Raider. It was sort of a nice departure from the army of Chun-Li or Sailor Moon outfits I’ve seen (which I know is a generalization). And Heidi, I think you and Laura both highlighted that amazing Thor costume that Ming Doyle.

Laura: The community of women involved in cosplay is extremely interesting to me, in terms of how it is regarded by the mainstream, by the men who like comics, and how it regards itself.

Jill: How people who cosplay regard it is totally different from how the mainstream and men who like comics but DON’T cosplay see it. The mainstream takes jabs at cosplay a lot while a large segment of comic reading guys just objectify the wearer instead of showing the respect for them making the costume.

Heidi: Well, the whole Goth Lolita movement is a term paper in itself. Because although it is sexy it is not aimed at men.

Laura: Maybe cosplay could be a good metaphor for women in comics generally? How the mainstream kind of pokes at it like some kind of strange animal, some fans totally objectify and fetishize it, but within itself it is its own thing. And it has nothing to do with the way that it’s perceived and everything to do with the fact that these women just love it.

Jill: Very good point Laura, I agree. And thats the whole thing. If you strip away everything else, all it is is women reading comics because they love them.

Heidi: Yeah, agreed. And it is NOT like the Slave Leia thing which is DEFINITELY done for men and that kind of attention.

Jill: I’d have to disagree with you on part of that, Heidi. I don’t think ALL Slave Leias do it for men or for the attention it garners. Bonnie Burton recently wrote a column about this exact thing.. Some women identify with Slave Leia because she choked Jabba to death! Others like Senator Leia.

Heidi: That is cool. But I think there is also a frontier. Like with the Adrienne Curry and… oh who was that pin-up girl who dressed as Slave Leia? I forget. It is more “borderline.”

Laura: I’m not sure if you’ve ever had this experience, but I’ve had people straight up tell me that I have only achieved success or gotten attention in the comics world because I am a woman.

Blair: Thankfully, no one has done that to my face.

Laura: Is the internet one’s face?

Blair: Touché, Hudson.

Jill: I’ve gotten the same, Laura, but what I always say is, I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today if I didn’t have the talent to back up my “womanhood.”

Laura: And it’s weird, because it’s not like it doesn’t help sometimes in terms of certain things, like Blair said before, getting your foot in the door. Probably I have more Twitter followers because of it. It didn’t make me successful. I worked for it. But I have complicated feelings about the fact that it may have been a positive factor.

Jill: Right. You’d have preferred if it was ONLY about your abilities.

Laura: And then there’s the intra-female comics community interactions, and the backlash that can happen there between women.

Jill: Which I experienced recently…

Blair: Yes, you did.

Laura: Yeah, that thing with the girl saying she wanted to punch you in your boob? It was because she felt you identified as a woman first and not a comics fan first, I think, because you called your website “Has Boobs Reads Comics.”

Blair: #Boobgate

Jill: Haha, ahh yes, the ol’ boob punch scandal.

Heidi: One more old timer observation — I think what we are doing here is FANTASTIC. Because we all do our own thing and we are SECURE IN DOING IT. None of us feels that there can be only one girl, and if I get put out to pasture Jill or Laura is going to take my place. The woman who wanted to punch Jill’s lady parts was INSECURE.

Jill: Yeah, I think that’s definitely a big part of it Heidi. We know what we’re doing and are happy doing it the way we are doing it. We don’t worry about what other people think. We are secure.

Heidi: And that is a HUGE difference.

Jill: The basis of her whole point was that as women, we shouldn’t use our gender to make it seem like we are something special. Which if she knew me at all or actually read my work, she’d know is not what I’m all about.

Laura: It’s interesting because that phrase — Has Boobs, Reads Comics — could just as easily read as a BOO YEAH sort of thing. Like, “what of it?”

Jill: Exactly, Laura. And a lot of people miss that because they don’t look any deeper than their original perception. And they don’t know me to know my humor tastes either. But some people simply look at my blog title and think I’m waving my chest at them saying “LOOK AT ME!!!”

Laura: Yeah, there’s that resentment from women against women that they perceive as being that girl — the Hot Girl on Top Cow. The one who’s only doing it for attention, the one who helps invalidate them in the eyes of others. Who perpetuates the fetish.

Blair: …I still…I…wow…I am kind of glad I never heard of that Top Cow thing….

Jill: Right, and I can totally understand how that could be someone’s knee jerk reaction.

Heidi: Because in the Man’s World of James Brown, there is the Hot Girl du Jour and you’re either it or you’re sh*t. Whereas the women’s geek space that exists now is just that — a space. Not a jousting arena.

Jill: Sometimes it feels like a jousting arena.

Blair: Here’s one thing, though — I think more women are embracing genre — look at True Blood, Game of Thrones, Twilight, even comics. I don’t think the knee-jerk reaction when someone says “I like geeky stuff” should always be to call Shenanigans. Because somewhere there’s a girl watching who does love that stuff and sees it becoming so socially acceptable that she’s able to let her geek flag fly.

Heidi: Exactly.

Blair: Rosario Dawson exists. And she legitimately loves comics. For Rizzle.

Jill: And that’s why I love putting myself out there.. So other women feel more comfortable talking about what they like and expressing themselves that way.

Laura: I think there can be a defensiveness — there’s that aspect of comics culture generally where you REALLY need establish your cred. I think women are more often challenged that way, and sometimes they end up challenging other women even harder if they perceive them as being “posers.” Maybe it’s even a subconscious hazing thing.

Heidi: There will always be hierarchies and Queen Bees. And homecoming queens. You know I was home schooled so I didn’t get any of the high school drama everyone else went through and I have to say it left me very confident in myself and my abilities. And I’ve discovered that the more allies and friends I have the better off I am. But other people want to have a more challenging “entrance exam” which is based on gender.

Blair: I think, too, that even as we see the comics readership shrinking, I know more women than ever getting into comics for the first time.

Laura: And yet I still so often feel that mainstream comics considers us so little.

Blair: It’s books like Y the Last Man or Fun Home or even Runaways that get them through the door… not so much Cape and Cowl fare.

Jill: Which I always find interesting. A lot of people assume that girls won’t like the cape and cowl books. That was my main attraction to comics. The other stuff came later.

Heidi: We could all dance naked around a campfire hugging and singing about how much we love comics and the mainstream would pretend it didn’t happen.

Laura: Like I even wish more of the way mainstream books are written and drawn — not even that they should specifically target women, but if they were just made to be more neutral and consider women to be a significant part of the audience.

Jill: Yeah, I’ve definitely heard the art as one of the big deterrents of ladies I know trying superhero books.

Heidi: I suspect the number of books from the big two that were put together specifically targeting the female audience in the last 10 years can be counted on only a few hands. To the people who makes those books Jill is an outlier. An extreme outlier. Look at Paul Levitz’s recent comments about girls reading superheroes.

Laura: And even books like Marvel Divas where they’re ostensibly trying to target women, they address the solicit copy to “fellas” and drape cheesecake all over the cover. Why. Why would you do this.

Jill: It’s almost as if they’re trying to force women into liking that type of art rather than forcing men to like more traditional looking characters.

Laura: Like, I’m not even saying make books for me me me, especially if the market can’t sustain it. But seriously, just try not to actively offend me. Just pretend I matter, kind of.

Jill: That’s what a lot of people are saying, Laura. I mean, some do want the “me me me” thing but mostly we just want a little extra thought put into the books as far as females go.

Blair: I will says, that as a *lady*, if I see a book whose main selling points seems to be SUPER-LADY IN VERY SMALL BIKINI BOOBS BOOBS BOOBS!!! it’s not one I’m gonna pick up. Also, I know this is a sad drum to bang, but it’s real hard to fight crime WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE PANTS.

Heidi: Just before this I was talking to a researcher for a show on NPR, and I had to explain to him how Supergirl‘s editor had to make an editorial decree that we would not see her panties anymore. And the artist had to put shorts on her so it wouldn’t happen any more.

Laura: I remember talking to a comics writer once about how if he wanted the women in a comic to look like anything approaching a normal woman, he had to specify very clearly in the script that she had very small breasts.

Jill: So “very small” equals “normal” then?

Laura: “Very small” equals “still kind of large.”

Jill: Yikes.

Blair: *weeping*

Jill: Heidi, I tell people about that often actually and they are always shocked and a little bit disgusted.

Heidi: That is a very strong, ingrained institutional bias, not a one-off thing.

Laura: Yeah, and it’s also like — the next accusation out of the bag is why are women being such prudes when all superhero fans want is to have a fun, sexy time, as George Michael once said so eloquently on Arrested Development.

Heidi: And how men are drawn in sexy poses and exploited too, just like the women!

Blair: Yes. Oh, Namor, you carry the pants-less weight of the male-superhero community.

Jill: Most of the time the art doesnt bother me. I know it’s the nature of the beast. But there are times when I’m staring at Black Canary’s ass for absolutely no reason and I shake my head in dismay.

Laura: I don’t mind sexual content. I don’t mind pin-ups. I think there’s a place for that, but it’s every female character all the time with giant breasts, barely there costumes and provocative poses. I’d really rather have it separated out to some degree than infusing absolutely everything. If you want to have a superheroine swimsuit edition, do it! Please do it! Just don’t make every single comic the swimsuit edition.

Blair: They actually did that, back in the day. There was a Marvel Swimsuit edition. Does anyone remember that?

Laura: Do I ever!

Blair: They had a Marvel mag that was a parody of Time and Sports Illustrated. And people were taking erotic showers in the Savage Land.

Heidi: I have no problem with erotic showers in the Savage Land… They have their place!

Laura: I love how the men are here too, though! Punisher all in a skull Speedo. Hilarious!

Heidi: I actually feel these swimsuit special were pretty egalitarian in their exploitation.

Laura: Clamshell speedos: the true equality.

Blair: OMG. I was so right about Namor.

Blair: Good lord. The Sub-Mariner makes that Psylocke pin-up look like a nun.

Laura: Is there anything else you guys want to touch on before we close?

Heidi: Just that I hope that the nerd girls of today are giving props to the nerd foremothers. There have been women slaving away in the trenches at this since the dawn of fandom, but everyone wants to think that THEY invented geek girls. Seeing how the forerunners got marginalized is a cautionary tale… It can’t happen again!

Blair: RESPECT

Jill: Total respect. And I mention you all the time when people ask who I look up to, Heidi.

Laura: Oh also, fun fact — Did you guys know that Heidi gave me my first break?

Jill: I did not know that.

Laura: She was the first person to ever pay me to write about comics. I was working at the register in a comic book store at the time.

Blair: No way.

Heidi: Ha, I had no idea I was the first!

Blair: I mean, that’s how it works. “Pay it forward” is terrible cliche (and movie) but you know, it’s true. Everyone here has been so supportive. …And cue crazy flaming in the comments section.

Heidi: Like I said… I think the strong community that exists without cattiness is a testament to SECURITY, and that is what makes it better.

Jill: And the bigger, stronger community there is, the better is is for all of us and those who have yet to “come out” yet.

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