Michelle Rodriguez Made Me Cry at Comic-Con

I'm not sure why I was so surprised to hear frank discussions about sexism at San Diego Comic-Con, but I really, really was.
Publish date:
July 26, 2013
sexism, fandom, nerdery, comic-con, hall h, sdcc

A few days before I went to my first San Diego Comic-Con, a friend of mine told me I wasn't ready for it.

"What do you mean?" I asked. "Or do you think I'm only going for the hot guys?" He'd never said anything like that to me before, and I was both hurt and suddenly, blisteringly furious with him.

"No, see, that," he said. "Just the fact that you're getting defensive tells me you're not ready." If someone was being a dick to me for being a "Fake Geek Girl" at Comic-Con, he told me, the onus was on me to just ignore it.

I suspected that he was being kind of a dick at that moment, too. "Whatever," I said, still seething, and we dropped it.

He apologized later, and we hugged it out. But even though he took back what he said, that conversation stayed with me all weekend. I thought of it again on Saturday morning as I waited in line for the biggest panel at the whole convention.

If you're unfamiliar with SDCC procedure, the deal is that once you make it into a room where a panel is being held, you can stay there for the whole day. People had been camping out for hours to see the huge Saturday night presentations, which included surprise clips from upcoming Marvel and Fox movies. My friend El and I, for example, had dragged our asses out of bed at three in the morning to stand shivering in the San Diego half-light for hours, both of us droopy and cranky.

We weren't talking much, since it was before dawn and we both wanted to fling ourselves into the Marina, but the dudes behind us in line were chatty as could be.

It started out with normal stuff, the kind of dumb inside jokes that nerds spout back and forth to each other to make themselves giggle. I didn't recognize any of it, but I doubt they'd recognize any of lines from "Teen Wolf" El and I would mumble at each other once we woke up a little more.

After an hour or so, though, it became clear that the kind of shit they were talking about was the sort of gross Internet humor that makes me want to break a ruler in half. The second or third time I heard the phrase, "…totally raped…" I glanced over at El.

She looked at me, mouth tightening, and put her headphones on. I swallowed and did the same thing. It was maybe 6 AM at that point.

I don't know if you've ever stood in one of these stupid lines that people create to entertain themselves, but there's a sort of camaraderie that emerges among the crowd. You're all in it together, tucked into each other's sides to try to block the wind coming off the water, bleary-eyed and slow and somehow, dimly, still excited. It's why I used to go to book release parties all the time as a kid -- the warmth of the esprit de nerd corps is incredibly addictive.

On the flip side, though, after hours of being within three feet of dudes making increasingly offensive comments -- largely about women, black people, and developmentally disabled people, if I remember correctly -- I felt like I was going to have a fucking meltdown. I wanted to turn around and tell them to knock it off, but honestly, I was too chicken.

That part of me that I've spent years developing within my relative comfort zone -- the part that resists the urge to "Smile, girl," to be nice to everybody as my default, to avoid making anyone uncomfortable -- had fled, replaced by the burning, fervent desire to get to the front of the damn line and away from these guys.

I'm not sure why I felt like they were the ones with the power in this situation; it was just so clear that they couldn't fathom why anyone would object to what they were saying. So, maybe erroneously, I felt like any fuss I'd raise wouldn't make a difference. For the first time in a long time, I wished I weren't wearing such a short skirt.

But I didn't say anything, and no one else said anything, and those dudes stayed happily in a comfort zone where they weren't being held responsible for their actions.

So it goes.

You can imagine my general emotional state, then, when we finally made it into Hall H and settled in for the long haul to 7 PM, when the Marvel studio panel was scheduled. I was excited, sure, but also feeling prickly, like all my blood was too close to the surface of my skin. I wanted to hit someone, and the feeling didn't recede as the panels began.

Somewhere around 1, I leaned over to El. "Sure are a lot of white dudes at this thing, huh?" I joked. Half-joked. OK, I wasn't really joking: every fucking panel had maybe one woman or one person of color on it. Sometimes, rarely, both.

She smirked at me and showed me her phone, where she'd been Tweeting with the hashtag #HallHwhitedudecount. The last panel, she'd recorded, had had 4 out of 5.

"I noticed," she said.

I realize that the overwhelming lack of non-white guys in cinema is not a surprise to anyone. But it almost started to feel like a parody, sitting there, listening to an enthusiastic young white dude talk about the billions of dollars poured into his project starring this strong-jawed white dude, this older wizened white dude, and this white actress (playing, usually, someone's mother or nurse). I wasn't even mad anymore, just apathetic. These dudes onstage weren't selling themselves to me; they didn't even care what I thought. Here we were, in the biggest room at Comic-Con, and I only felt disgust.

And then, out came Michelle Rodriguez.

I'd seen Entertainment Weekly's "Women Who Kick Ass" panel on the schedule, but honestly hadn't thought much of it. This seems kind of weird in retrospect -- normally, a panel starring Katee Sackhoff, Maggie Q, Tatiana Maslany, Danai Gurira, and Michelle Rodriguez would've sent me into fits. After an entire morning full of dudes jizzing themselves over their own projects, though, I didn't know what to expect.

At first, the moderator -- a sweet-voiced writer from EW -- asked them typical, if interesting, questions. "What's your favorite stunts?" "Your most challenging costumes?" "Do you have trouble leaving your character behind?" That kind of thing.

Then, she half-turned to look at them. "What's the most egregious example of sexism you've seen on set?"

"Some actor dude once said chicks couldn't drive cars," Michelle scoffed. "I was like, 'Move over.'"

The audience laughed a little. Sexism! Girls can drive cars. Silly sexist actor boys. No one in the audience was like them.

"One time a crew member started hitting on me when I was tied to a bed for a scene," Tatiana Maslany offered. "I was young. I was just starting out. I couldn't get away."

Less laughter now from the audience.

"Once a guy on set kinda beat the shit out of me during a fight scene," Katee Sackhoff said. "He said he thought I could 'take it.'"

No laughter now. Lots of squirming. The guy beside me was checking Twitter.

"He's lucky I wasn't there," Michelle said. "That kind of thing makes my blood boil."


Onstage, though, it was like a fucking dam had broken. Michelle lectured us all, at length, on how 80% of the content written for women is by guys, and how they don't know shit. "Dudes, I love dudes," I remember her saying, "But they don't know how to write for women." Maggie Q talked about how, as an Asian-American actress, everyone expects her to be quiet and demure and also know how to do kung-fu in heels. Danai Gurira actually used the phrase "white male privilege." In a room full of 6,000 Marvel fanboys! Male privilege.

I kept screaming, entirely spontaneously, like the sound was being ripped out of me. I couldn't help it. I think I cried a little. I felt like I was in church.

They kept going. Someone asked what kind of roles they'd like to play. Michelle wanted more action. Katee wanted to play "an everyday hero, like her mom, who never did anything particularly extraordinary except teach for 30 years and raise a daughter who didn't take any shit." Tatiana wanted to see more queer characters represented onscreen. Danai talked about the women in Africa who'd recently won a Nobel Peace Prize, and whose story would likely never see a Hollywood screen.

"Hollywood needs to learn," she said, smiling, "That a woman of color is just as capable of carrying a sci-fi movie as Tom Cruise."

Tom Cruise had been on a panel three hours ago. I don't think she was being hypothetical.

I could have sat there for hours listening to them. And the thing was, it wasn't like they weren't saying anything I hadn't heard before, even from actresses in interviews. But I was part of a captive audience full of guys who were now probably feeling a shred of the same kind of discomfort that women experience every day of their lives. And God, God, it felt good. Putting that panel smack between two huge studio presentations felt, as El put it, "Like the greatest troll job Comic-Con has ever done." For a minute, I felt that esprit de corps again, or at least the potential for it.

Later, I learned that though my area had been respectful, if varying degrees of attentive, the whole audience had not been. Reports surfaced of people getting salty and shouting obscenities, particularly as the panel ran a little long. One guy in particular allegedly screamed, "Women who talk too much," as a response to an invitation for applause.

Because five women, talking to us and each other for an hour about real issues they face as professionals, is "talking too much." Because for a certain kind of man, a woman's ideal response to sexism is always to "just ignore it." Because nobody likes to feel uncomfortable in a space where they've been assured they can get away with just about anything.

In that moment, though, I didn't know any of that. As the moderator started wrapping things up, apologizing for having to leave "right as things were getting good," Michelle leaned forward to her mic again.

"We gotta start writing," she said again. She meant women. "Writing, and directing, and producing the kind of content we want to see. Because otherwise, nothing's gonna change."

A few minutes after they left, I was still vibrating with excitement. A dude was back onstage, and I dragged my focus back to him. "I wanted to make another Planet of the Apes," he was saying, "Because I felt it was vital to tell the story from the ape's perspective."

Apparently, there are enough roles in Hollywood sci-fi for CGI chimpanzees. When it comes to women, though, I get the feeling we'll be fighting every step of the way.

Kate is on Twitter: @katchatters