Gender, Power and Violence in Fandom

by | May 29, 2014
filed under Pop Culture

cartoon of Wonder Woman making all the male superheroes also wear underwear with no pants. saying "If I don't get pants, nobody gets pants."

Image by Theamat on DeviantART

Like many of you, I have been reading the numerous responses to the Isla Vista shootings and the extreme misogynistic statements made by shooter Elliot Rodger on his YouTube channel.

When I read Anne Theriault’s and Felicia Day’s blog posts in particular, I felt my thoughts unify like they haven’t been able to in recent months. There are so, so many important conversations going on right now regarding the treatment of women, particularly within the geek community. As a group, we’ve dealt with the impact of everything from “fake geek girls” to the lack of female representation in movies to sexual harassment of women at conventions.

Sometimes I struggle to put into concise words my feelings on these topics, or they feel like a rehash of what other, more prominent bloggers have said. For small-time bloggers and geek girls everywhere, I wanted to voice my opinion on the issues surrounding these horrific and disturbing events, and how they echo in our own lives as women, and especially as women in the male-dominated world of geek culture.

Next month will be the one-year anniversary of this blog’s [Shoes and Starships’] launch. I left my previous website for several reasons, but a big reason was a lack of respect from one of the male writers. As the only woman writing for the site, I felt that I needed all of my proverbial partners in crime to have my back. Especially since I felt that the day would come when, like Felicia Day stated, negative comments directed at me would start.

I’m no Felicia Day: every time she posts something or even makes a fashion or beauty choice, she gets raked over the coals (I am thinking of her recent decision to cut her hair short – the male backlash was absurd and obscene). However, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t directly experienced misogyny in my life or that I can’t relate on some level. For the better part of a year, I allowed someone I thought was my partner in crime to treat me very badly on a personal, friendship level. Having re-examined both more recent and past interactions with this guy, I realize the inherent misogyny present throughout our friendship. But misogyny is not inherent within a person – it is learned, taught, and absorbed through cultural experience.

Two disclaimers: first of all, I obviously know that not all men or geek men are like this. But if each of my geek girl friends has a few stories to tell and prominent geek women like Felicia Day have scores of comments to show, then it is obviously a widespread problem. Second, I have personally never been subject to outright physical violence at the hands of men. I have never been raped, abused or assaulted, nor have I been publicly humiliated on the internet (very thankfully).

However, just because something “big” hasn’t happened to me doesn’t mean that small incidents have not occurred, especially in my convention-going life. And isn’t it sad that I have to feel lucky and grateful that those awful things haven’t been part of my experience? That as women, we should be grateful if we make it 30 years on this planet without being a victim of male-on-female crime?

Like nearly every female fan out there, I have anecdotes about guys who’ve catcalled me while walking exhibit floors, guys who think that my wanting a photo with them in their well-done costume is an invitation to grab my ass, or simply just feelings of intimidation by leering guys. I am usually surrounded by male friends and occasionally my husband at conventions, and I have often been grateful for their mere presence next to me, in case someone does try to bother me. I’m not a tiny person – I’m 5’10” and I’m sure I could inflict damage if I have to. No one WANTS to think about that, but women HAVE to. There is simply no other way of putting it. You have to be vigilant, as a woman, walking down a dark street, hanging out at a bar, or even waiting in line for an autograph.

I recall the first time I met the lovely Gates McFadden, who portrayed Dr. Beverly Crusher on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” It was a small convention, she was sitting at a table with a volunteer, and after a nice chat and an autograph, I asked if I could take a photo with her. She said she was not taking photos with anyone, and I am sure I looked very sad, as she had been one of my childhood idols and it was my first time seeing her in person. She apologized and said something along the lines of “my no-photo policy is not for you.” I didn’t get what she meant at first, but then I did: she didn’t want to get groped by scary dudes! Suddenly I didn’t feel sad – as a fellow woman, I understood where she was coming from.

I smile to think about meeting Avery Brooks at his autograph table at another convention, coming up to shake his hand with my husband and four additional friends behind me, all guys. Avery asked, “Are these your bodyguards?” in that melodic voice of his and we all laughed, but you know what? They kind of are my bodyguards. Our geek culture is rife with powerful men. Powerful women are far more rare..

When was the last time you saw a panel discussion on male characters deriving and maintaining power? Yep, never. We celebrate Buffy, Scully, Starbuck, Ripley, Katniss and Janeway for standing out in a sea of damsels and sexed-up sidekicks, but no one ever had to wonder if Batman possessed agency (a.k.a. the ability to determine his own path). Batman’s chest hair isn’t poking out to drive the ladies wild, and he puts more armor on when going into a tough situation. He has a utility belt, not magic bracelets. His dark past is seen as fuel to fight for justice, not as a sign of emotional weakness and a sore spot open to hurt and manipulation.

Male geeks see characters like Batman, Iron Man (genius millionaire playboy philanthropist), Green Lantern, Wolverine, Thor, etc. as role models and heroes from a young age. But along with all the great qualities these heroes have, there is also the question of the function and appearance of the women surrounding them. If guys are repeatedly shown the stereotypes of the virgin, the slut, and the shrew, what are they being taught?

Equality is not the first concept that comes to mind; men expect the heroes in their stories to hold the power. If or when power is denied, it simply isn’t acceptable and must be changed. If Superman loses his powers to a Kryptonite-wielding temptress, it is assumed he will get it back. If Pepper Potts is kidnapped and injected with an evil toxin, it is assumed that Iron Man will come to her rescue. Mary Jane might be in danger of falling to her death, but Spiderman will get out of an impossible situation in time to catch her.

All of these instances involve men holding the power, and expressing this power usually by punching, stabbing, and slamming. Why, of course they do! They’re men! Violence is expected. Violence has been on my mind not just because of the shooting, but also because of the Hannibal finale. I felt the Hannibal finale was violent for the sake of violence and shock value, not for the sake of the plot, whereas up until now the violence has been very specific and plot-driven I am sure devoted Fannibals will take issue with my stance on the finale. Thankfully, I am ok with having an unpopular opinion – I strongly disliked The Dark Knight Rises for its displays of cruelty and violence, but that doesn’t mean Batman is no longer my favorite superhero!

But I don’t have to condone or enjoy violence for its own sake. I’m not saying we should ban violent images – I enjoy my action movies! I love me some John McClane! Run, Ethan Hunt, run! But women need a voice in the conversation beyond that of the girlfriend, whore or sidekick, and need to be part of the plot for more reasons than “looks hot in a bikini.” Women need to see that, and men need to see it too. When I had my 28th birthday party, the theme was “Super 28” (there is always a theme at my birthday parties). I wanted to dress like a female superhero, and my only qualification was that her costume include actual pants. This is apparently a really tall order.

Donna Troy

Image via Wikipedia

With a little help, I landed on Donna Troy, a distant relation of Wonder Woman’s. Holy crap, she wears pants! Or at least black spandex leggings, which is as close as you’ll get in comics. I came away from my search irritated that I had a difficult time finding a costume that didn’t require me to get a Brazilian. It wasn’t born out of body insecurity; it is just not my preference to leave that little to the imagination.

Unlike nearly every female superhero, ever. If those are my options, I might as well just wear my bikini (so boring!). And we wonder why some male geeks want women to be pliable creatures, affirming their life choices by agreeing with them at all times or existing for their visual, sexualized pleasure. If you dare to defy these stereotypes, you are automatically a total bitch who can’t take a joke, needs to lighten up, shouldn’t be upset because any male attention is good attention, or are being dramatic.

Even Felicia Day mentioned in her blog post that as a result of her championing the #YesAllWomen hashtag, she knows she’ll get numerous unfollows and trolls bloating the comments by insisting that feminism = hating men. Laurie Penny made the same remark in her piece on the subject, just days after being on the receiving end of rape threats.

Elliot Rodger viewed the act of belonging to a sorority as a reason to inflict pain and death, and told the women of the world that they would now see him as the “true alpha male,” someone they should want to be with sexually, and that his violence was retribution for their rejection of him. He also belonged to a forum of “PickUp Artists,” or PUA, whose purpose is to get women to sleep with them. He obviously only viewed women as sexual objects, not as people with unique thoughts and opinions worthy of actual conversation. Because women hadn’t fallen at his feet, he saw fit to load up on weaponry obtained through our country’s flawed and broken gun rights policies, and go on a killing spree.

I could go on to name all the other young men who thought it was ok to do the same over the past few years, I could express how my husband’s best friend lost one of his closest college brothers at Virginia Tech, or how devastated our group would be if such a loss happened to us.

But I won’t repeat the names of the offenders, or cheapen the loss of the innocent by trotting them out as statistics. What we need is change, and not just on a legal and political level. Until men are taught differently, misogyny will still run rampant, and everyday, ladies will continue to feel all the emotions that come with large and small acts of physical and emotional violence.

It is often hard to feel effective against the tide of a prominent trend in our culture, but our fandom is a great place to start. Call out or ban the trolls, point out the rudeness of catcallers who make you or your friends uncomfortable, and don’t let male acquaintances or coworkers get away with pushing their entitled feelings of dominance upon you.

I would like to conclude this post by saying how many nice, respectful geek guys I’ve met at conventions. Obviously, the function of this post is to discuss the negative side of things, but my positive experiences have definitely outweighed the negative. Thank you, anonymous guy at SDCC who offered me a cookie when I cried after meeting Chris Carter, and mad props to the cool dudes I’ve had Battlestar Galactica debates with, and love to my fellow Trekkies who make Star Trek: Las Vegas all kinds of fun. Most importantly, thanks to my loving and supportive husband, my wonderful guy friends,  and my super cool brother who is always in my corner. They are all shining examples for geek guys everywhere, and some of them are now dads or soon-to-be dads to little girls. Those are some lucky little ladies, and hopefully by the time they are old enough to hit the convention floor with their own group of friends, blog posts like this will seem hopelessly outdated and we’ll all just be fans.

by Amy Imhoff. Original version posted at Shoes and Starships. Re-posted with permission.


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