Oh, You Sexy Geek! Panel
This was my first panel of the day. I had been nervous about getting in since George R.R. Martin was sitting on the panel afterwards, and I had badges to pick up first plus a few exclusives I wanted to snag in the Exhibit Hall. I decided to get in line rather than rush for the exclusives, which ended up still being available after the panel had ended, and got myself a seat up front by the dais. I have to admit that listening to the chatter among the audience before the panel was almost as enlightening as the panel itself. But more on that later…
Katrina Hill of ActionFlickChick.com hosted the panel with a great set of guests. Although some reports I’ve seen around the internet about the nature of the panel and the dialogue have been less than favorable, I thought the discussion was thoughtful and insightful, and proved that women can come from many unique points of view yet all project self-confidence while still respecting the rights of others to see things differently. It wasn’t until Chris Gore of G4TV, the only male member of the panel, walked into the room forty minutes late that I saw any amount of disrespect shown; instead of talking about the complicated issues of our notions of what’s sexy, he simply reduced each woman at the table to a sex object.
The panel opened with a show of hands for everyone who considered herself (or himself) to be a geek, and of course pretty much everybody raised their hand. (If you’re at Comic-Con and you didn’t raise your hand, that’s called denial.) Bonnie Burton then asked for a show of hands for people who liked to bite the heads off chickens, which brought most hands down. The term “geek” originated in reference to a person in a sideshow act who did such things, but I think most of us in attendance opted for the conventional modern definition of geek. Finally, when Jennifer Stuller suggested polling the audience for those who felt sexy, the show of hands thinned out considerably from the opening question.
It didn’t take long for the panel to get to Slave Leia, probably because she epitomizes the debates and disputes within the fandom that this panel had been created to discuss. Of course, you can’t bring up Slave Leia and not discuss the practicality of some costumes, such as the Starfire costume that Jill Pantozzi pointed out. Katrina also brought into the discussion a recent photo she had received of a seven-year-old dressed as Slave Leia, and asked where was the line? Bonnie and Adrianne were definitely the most vocal of the panelists, but they both, with the help of the Katrina’s moderating, encouraged others to speak.
As the conversation shifted from Slave Leia to cosplay in general, the panelists shared a variety of perspectives:
Katrina Hill noted that some view Slave Leia as empowering.
Bonnie Burton emphasized that Princess Leia killed Jabba the Hutt; but she also interjected some humor by noting that Jabba costumes, unlike the Slave Leia costumes, come with fans.
Adrianne Curry pointed out that lots of cosplayers want to be looked at, and joked that she’s saving a Chewbacca costume for when she’s older; at Comic-Con, she planned on cosplaying an Imperial crew member and Aeon Flux.
Clare Grant mentioned that she was cosplayer as a Nightsister later that day.
Jennifer Stuller commented that she loves the Bride costume, which has more clothes.
After about twenty minutes, the panel had identified two targets of discussion – First, what defines sexy? And second, who defines sexy? Of course, those two questions are interrelated, and the answers often reflect and relate to each other, as well.
On the matter of qualifying sexiness, for example, Adrianne declared “sexy is how you feel” and whipped off her wig, talking for a good portion of panel in her skull cap to prove her point. Kiala Kazabee pointed out, on the other hand, that society as a whole often has unrealistic expectations of sexy, and that we all need to work to change that.
Bonnie defined sexiness as self-confidence, as opposed to the amount of skin shown, and offered the opinion that those criticizing Slave Leia cosplay are often projecting their own lack-of-confidence issues. Of course, not everyone is going to agree with her, but Bonnie is well-regarded for her book Girls Against Girls: Why We Are Mean to Each Other and How We Can Change, which offers an honest look at how girls treat each other unfairly. Clare Kramer agreed that criticism of cosplay such as Slave Leia is often females criticizing other females. And while Bonnie lofted the grenade into the discussion, she also aptly deflected the energy in the best possible direction by reminding everyone that what we should really be arguing about as fans is “Who shot first?” (Not that there is any question on this matter – it was Han, right?)
Jennifer rightfully pointed out some of the complexities underlying the discussion. There’s certainly a lot of truth to the notion, for example, that our own personal perceptions of sexy are shaped by our experiences and by the entertainment we consume, so defining sexy isn’t just a personal decision. Likewise, Jennifer emphasized that we should be able to talk about images of women in the media and not automatically equate criticism of sexualized appearance to girl-on-girl hate. Seeing as this panel was billed as one of the great Comic-Con catfights before the doors had even opened at the convention center, I think she was spot on. Men want to see girl-on-girl drama – to some men that is sexy – and I think this panel went a long way to proving that differing opinions don’t degenerate into the clichéd bare-breasted brawls.
On the matter of girls against girls, I think the way the ladies on this panel conducted themselves admirably also illustrates another important point about disagreements within geekdom. Sometimes, unfortunately, women who criticize other women are doing so out of jealousy, spite, or other mean-spirited emotions. But we must also always keep in mind that there are women who truly hold no animosity for their sisters (in fact quite the opposite), and who feel so strongly about raising the position of all women within society, that they can only see cosplaying in skimpy attire as an activity that degrades the status of women across the board. Other women, of course, disagree; it’s a basic ideological difference of opinion – whether to prioritize preserving individual expression of femininity or a broader societal protection of women as an oppressed sex. People will exist at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. As a longtime participant in geek culture and a woman, I think it’s fair to call out the spiteful animosity that drives some women to critique cosplayers for their choice of attire, in situations when that’s all it is. Women need to do a better job of learning to discuss these issues without making them personal, or taking them personally. (And that’s something I’ve learned how to do working in a man’s world.)
So then Katrina posed another controversial question: what if a woman uses her sexuality to break into the business? Bonnie summed it up best when she joked that there’s no such thing as writing “sexy” – words are words and ability is ability, and she identified Gail Simone and the recent achievements of Womanthology as examples where gender and not sexuality have assisted women in succeeding. Probably the person best able to address this topic was Jill, who has been criticized for pandering to fanboys because of the name of her blog, “Has Boobs, Reads Comics.” Clare Kramer rightfully pointed out that the title comes from an honest place, and therefore doesn’t deserve to be questioned.
About this time Chris Gore arrived. Perhaps he was trying to interject some sarcastic wit into the panel, but if so I feel it was entirely misplaced. Luckily, Seth Green stepped up and proved there are geek guys out there in the world that love geek girls in every shape and size.
Seth Green: Willow is sexy. Mystique is sexy. Everyone has their own definition of sexy.
This was the first of three panels I saw Seth crash at Comic-Con. Without a doubt his enthusiasm on this topic spun the panel back in the right direction. To sum up his impassioned, if somewhat lengthy, plea to the audience: if someone is authentic, it’s not pandering. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that we’re all fans and that we should rethink why we’re so divisive at times, to the point of being dismissive or resentful of newbies to our fandoms, instead of welcoming them with open arms to something we love so much. I blogged about this previously in connection with the Miss USA controversy, and I really think people need to think long and hard about why it is that they are so quick to immediately question a women’s authenticity because she wears a sexy costume or is attractive. Sure, some women may don a Slave Leia or Leeloo costume and have no idea what happened to that character, but it’s entirely unfair to assume her intentions are insincere just because she is beautiful.
Anyone who cosplays will tell you that the costume doesn’t make the character, but rather it’s what the character does while wearing the costume that matters. In my mind, this same standard should be applied to what the individual does while wearing the costume. The trouble is, someone inevitably has to pipe up and bellow the “pandering” call, and then people begin to assume that it must be true.
Some attendees at this panel have reported their perceptions that there was animosity on the panel or that certain individuals got railroaded. To be fair, Bonnie and Adrianne had a lot to say, but as I saw it there was a good amount of dialogue. Sitting in the audience prior to the panel, listening to discussions among the crowd and then observing the reactions of some audience members during it, I think for some their expectations of where the panel would go in its content and who would represent a particular side weren’t realized. From where I was sitting, a majority of the room was engaged and positive about the discussion.
Jennifer used Seth’s appearance to steer the conversation back toward the influence of the media. She specifically noted his participation in a Girl Scout PSA Watch What You Watch, which encourages young women to think about what they hear and see from the media. This strikes right at the core of the “who” defines sexy question. It’s important to encourage young women (and men) to create a vision of sexy that they own and understand, not one that is thrust upon them – either by the TMZ-era media or by feminists who insist on telling them that the Slave Leia costume can’t be empowering. Women should be free to decide for themselves. One way Jennifer suggested for young women to work within the media was through the site reelgrrls.org; I’d like to add to that the efforts of the The Geena Davis Institute. Both groups are attempting to change the media from within, and perhaps the message is that we geek girls might try to do the same thing as well.
Our Panelists’ Favorite Empowering Heroines
Bonnie: Wonder Woman, Buffy
Adrianne: Aeon Flux
Clare Grant: Sailor Moon
Jill: Buffy, Xena, Leeloo
Kiala: Dr. Temperence Brennan
Jennifer: Sidney Bristow, Ellen Ripley, Modesty Blaise
Years of cultural shift had to be summarized and discussed in the course of one hour. I saw this panel as a start of a discussion, one that will continue over the next few years as geekdom moves toward the mainstream and new people discover what many of us geeks have known all along – that scifi and fantasy are really cool. Before the panel even started I overheard a discussion in which a European gaming couple, who had come in to ensure a spot to see George R.R. Martin on the next panel, asked the young ladies beside them what this panel was about. It’s worth noting, and Adrianne actually brought this up briefly, that Europeans view sexuality quite differently than Americans, and as the couple listened to an explanation of the panel it was apparent that they perceived it as much ado about nothing. But when the one young lady noted that “a girl will claim she’s nerdy because she’s seen Star Wars once,” the European woman simply asked, “are we that elitist?”
I bring this up because I think that an exclusionary attitude is relevant to the second panel from that day that I wanted to talk about. To me, costumes and the message they send to ladies are insignificant when compared to how women are portrayed as characters in scifi and fantasy stories.
What Women Want in their Female Sci-Fi Heroes Panel hosted by Her Universe
Ashley Eckstein was a relative noob when she burst onto the Comic-Con scene last year with a line of women’s Star Wars clothes. And a few years before that, she didn’t even really have valid claim to geekdom based on how some fans, like the ones I overheard, see it. When she was cast in the role of Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice in The Clone Wars, she was thrust into an uber-intense fandom, some of whom hated the notion that her character existed. Not only that, but she was working for a show intended for a young male target audience. Despite being attractive and newly inducted into geekdom, though, Ashley has been a force to be reckoned with and is making positive inroads for female fans of Star Wars and now several SyFy shows as well.
Always positive and upbeat, Ashley has met obstacles within the fandom head on. Realizing that it was difficult to express her geekiness because there was essentially no existing female-specific Star Wars apparel, she created Her Universe to the delight of female fans. Ashley also has used her position as an actress on a Star Wars show to speak up for women and girls who feel they haven’t always been treated fairly by the male voices in the Star Wars fandom and the geek community. She even went so far as to challenge the impracticality of her own character’s gravity-defying tube top, which was eventually changed to reflect the active, heroic role Ahsoka plays in TCW.
In her interactions with the fans, Ashley Eckstein also heard a message loud and clear: in talking about female characters in scifi, female fans often express that they would write those characters differently.
Anyone who has followed my blog knows that this topic is near and dear to my heart. As a long-time Star Wars fan, I’ve been addressing the downward spiral of the Expanded Universe as the books – which eight to ten years ago were known for such great female characters as Padmé Amidala, Leia Solo, Mara Jade, Jaina Solo, Tenel Ka, and Tahiri Veila – shove female characters to the margins (and even stuff a few of them into refrigerators) to the point that female fans are walking away in droves. And this isn’t just a Star Wars EU problem – the lack of equivalent portrayal exists across the genre. The role of the media had already come up in the Sexy Geek panel, and the undermining of women by fictional media can’t be ignored just because it’s made up.
The panelists included Chris Sanagustin (Warehouse 13), Bryan Q. Miller (Smallville), Betsy Mitchell (Del Rey editor-in-chief), Gail Simone (DC comics writer, including Wonder Woman and Batgirl), Melinda Hsu Taylor (Medium, Lost), Dave Filoni (The Clone Wars) and a surprise panelist Alison Scagliotti (Claudia on Warehouse 13). Ashley Eckstein opened her panel by posing a tailored question to each panelist based on her previous discussions with them.
First she asked Chris if there was a difference in developing male and female characters. Chris replied that we invite characters into our home and that they need to be relatable and accessible, and need to have some complexity to their portrayals. Bryan reiterated the importance of the accessibility of characters, and further explained what relatable might involve by using the example of Starbuck from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, who has the flaw that she drinks but is defined by much more than that. He also used Batgirl’s enthusiasm as a flaw that had positive and negative ramifications on her character. So in other words, not all flaws are bad.
Betsy spoke next, and considering that she is the editor-in-chief of the publishing house that produces the Star Wars books I was very interested in what she had to say. Betsy defined this as the Golden Age of scifi, with more women reading the genre than ever. (I’m pretty certain this is not the case for Star Wars books, which makes it all the more disappointing that Del Rey has dropped that ball.) She also noted that women editors are bringing in more women writers. While I think this is a critical step in creating diversity in scifi, I’ve also written specifically about how the female editors and writers for Star Wars haven’t borne this theory out. Later at the convention I had the opportunity to talk to Betsy privately at the Del Rey booth, and I chose to do so specifically because I understand how corporations sometimes don’t always see the trees in the forest. I thought it was important that she heard directly from a female fan that many of the things discussed at the Her Universe panel weren’t happening in the Star Wars books. The female characters aren’t relatable, they aren’t accessible, and most importantly women are in fact being undermined by the storylines given to the female characters. I’m glad opportunities like Comic-Con exist to give fans the chance to provide honest, face-to-face feedback.
Next in the line of panelists was Gail, and I was really excited to hear her perspective. First she noted that in the past seven years she had attended conventions the ratio of women to men was getting closer to equivalent. She also remarked that bloggers and podcasters were giving the fans a better voice to affect change in the genre. Gail noted that comics remain slow to admit they have a female audience, which I think the DC reboot’s lack of female heroines highlights.
Gail Simone on female characters: They shouldn’t be male characters with boobs and long hair.
Melinda talked about scifi and fantasy as genres where being different was celebrated. As a girl, it served as a means for her to escape to different realities in a homogeneous community where she didn’t feel she fit in. She started writing Star Trek fanfiction and things progressed from there. Some of the female characters that have made an impression on her were Starbuck (BSG), Sabek (Wrath of Khan), Eowyn (Lord of the Rings) and Ripley (Alien).
Being a huge fan of The Clone Wars, which has done a great job of taking an era in Star Wars that was originally created with lots of male characters and balancing it out, I expected Dave Filoni would have some good insights to share. He talked about his approach to writing characters not including deliberate ways of crafting male and female characters differently, but rather focusing on each character’s relatable traits, such as Ahsoka being a youth in training as something boys could relate to, as well. Although he might not think about gender differences consciously most of the time, I picked up on one thing he said that I think is key for all storytellers – and it’s so integral to how he creates that I don’t think Dave sees it as a technique. When the nickname for Ahsoka had first been brought up by George Lucas, Dave hadn’t been sure how that was going to go over. So he started calling his (female) assistant “Snips” to see how she’d react, then incorporated some of that into Ahsoka’s reactions in the show. For animators this is very relevant because they have to “act” for the characters; it’s also a very effective tool for prose writers and comics creators because they still have to create a portrayal for the reader that is relatable. In other words, by doing your research into how people act and react in the real world, you’ll ensure that the female character won’t just act like a man with boobs.
Dave also mentioned a scene from Return of the King that made an impression on him.
Witch King: Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!
Eowyn: “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”
This is the scene where Eowyn triumphs, and for many young men and women it was the first time they ever saw a truly strong, empowered female character, so I’m glad he brought it up. Just like men, women can relate to wanting to be trained as a Jedi or to be a great warrior. So in other words, he’s taken the artificially imposed boxes off characters and just lets them be.
Allison concluded the opening portion of the panel by talking about some of her experiences in the entertainment industry. She didn’t pull any punches, calling it sexist and remarking that she’s been denied parts because of her bra size. For Allison, a good female character should be smart, strong, and skillful, while also having vulnerabilities and flaws that make them relatable without turning them into “useless hot girl” roles.
During the Q&A portion, a man who identified himself as a scifi writer asked a very insightful question, noting that it sounded like Gail was saying that creators need to expressly design their female characters differently while Dave was saying the opposite. In their answers, Gail and Dave agreed that they really were getting to the same core idea, just expressing it in alternative ways. Gail reemphasized that, for example, a woman character can like the same things men like – but she can’t just be interchangeable with any male character, except with a different exterior. The key is fully rounded, not flat, characters who have a deep background – and doing that ensures that female characters will stand on their own, not just be supporting players to men. Similarly, Dave noted that the key is creating challenges for the character and seeing how they overcome them. There may be times when being male or female might make a difference to how the character acts, but most of the time the key is creating solid, well-developed characters and the rest will take care of itself.
I want to end my recap with a comment of Gail’s in response to another great question. She was asked how we can find the line between empowerment and exploitation. Gail responded that if a character chooses to use her own sexuality to her benefit, that’s empowerment, but if instead it’s forced upon her by others, that’s exploitation. To me, Gail’s answer has a lot of resonance to the Sexy Geek discussion, too, and I agree with her perspective. Just like characters in stories, if cosplayers want to feel pride and strength in their own sexiness, then more power to them.
To all the panelists on both panels I would like to express my gratitude as a fan for their time and insight. To the hosts, Katrina Hill and Ashley Eckstein, I offer my respect for their hard work and endeavors on behalf of female geeks everywhere. Well done.
A graduate of Duke University, Tricia is a registered Professional Engineer who designs transportation systems as a consultant. In her free time, she shows horses and maintains a website for Star Wars EU fans that creates a safe place for women and men to discuss literature and all things pertaining to geek culture. She is currently writing her first full-length original novel, a space opera based around the heroic journey of a young woman who finds herself in the middle of a deadly terrorist attack by an invading alien force. For information on the book, please check out TriciaBarr.com.