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I love going to science fiction/fantasy conventions. It's one of the biggest drains on my wallet throughout the year and I regret nothing. I love talking about SF/F media and literature with other people who love it the way I do.
When I first started attending the WisCon Feminist Science Fiction Convention, it was the only women-centric SF/F I'd heard of. Over the years, I got wind of others and friends encouraged me to attend two in particular: Sirens, an academic conference and retreat on women in fantasy literature, and GeekGirlCon, a convention celebrating women in media, science, and technology. When I found out that these cons took place on consecutive weekends in cities just four hours apart, I knew it was time for a lady geek excursion.
Avoiding the Rocks
I started my female-centric con experience with the Sirens conference, which takes place at the Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, WA. It's a 40-minute drive from Portland, OR through the Columbia River Gorge. Driving along roads that cut through forests laden with turning leaves and close-clinging clouds that occasionally parted to reveal stunning waterfalls is the perfect way to get into the retreat mindset. By the time we crossed the Bridge of the Gods I knew I was heading to the perfect setting for a weekend of discussing fantasy literature.
Sirens is a very small conference with a narrow focus and only about a hundred women in attendance this year. This intimacy, combined with it being a conference and not a convention, gives Sirens a different vibe than most cons I've attended. There's an emphasis on group discussions (not just panels), meals together, and individual keynotes each day. The narrow focus on academic discussions of women and fantasy literature gets even more specific in the keynotes and sessions that take on the yearly themes: warriors, faeries, monsters, retelling, and, in 2013, reunion.
Another thing affecting the vibe: a nearly complete lack of men. There were only three or four attending, so the conference space was almost exclusively women. (There may have been trans* or non-binary people whose gender I did not know, as well.) This might not seem unusual for a con that boldly announces the high presence of girl cooties up front. And if you're familiar with academic conferences that focus on women's issues, this won't surprise you. It might if, like me, you're from the world of SF conventions where even the most girl-cootie-filled among them (WisCon, for example) can still attract a decent number of guys.
Each of these elements contributes to the idea of Sirens as a "Safe Space" for women. Over and over conference organizers and attendees emphasized that point, and there is obvious pride in Sirens being the type of gathering where people can disagree yet still sit down to dinner together. Still, there are varying ideas of what makes a space safe.
As a woman of color, I don’t always find spaces created by white women or white feminists to be safe. Same with geeky or fandom spaces. Navigating the con scene means quickly assessing if a space is actually safe for me regardless of the label on the tin. It’s not often that someone sets out to make me uncomfortable or unwelcome at a con. Instead, I’ll encounter an unwitting microagression. Or, a person with no concept of their privilege, let alone how to check it, says or does something upsetting. That wasn't my experience here.
I ended up pleasantly surprised at the depth of the attendees' knowledge and interest in fantasy literature that goes beyond the white/white-washed epic tomes so often held up as great examples of the genre. Everyone I met was eager to understand different points of view and experiences of the world beyond their own. Nowhere was this clearer to me than in the Q&A sessions after the guest of honor keynotes by Alaya Dawn Johnson and Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Both women of color gave deeply personal speeches full of intersectional ideas and the understanding and solidarity they received back from the room impressed and bolstered me. This is the kind of space I feel safe in.
Meanwhile, At New York Comic Con
That same weekend my friends back home went to New York Comic Con. Each time I hopped on Twitter or Facebook to see how things were going, I discovered some new instance of harassment. It made me glad I was on the other side of the country.
There had been concerns prior to the con that one or more groups of dudes looking to entertain their fellow dudebros on YouTube might come to NYCC for the express purpose of harassing women there. Between the self-styled Referees of Cosplay who intended to call out women “too fat” to dress up as their favorite characters, the guys kissing women without permission so they could film their reaction, and the horrid SiriusFM-affiliated Man Banter dudes engaging in both sexist and racist harassment, the weekend was chock full of fail.
The good aspects of the con didn't always balance out the fail for some people, especially women targeted for harassment. The swift action of the NYCC organizers to address the harassment is praise-worthy; it just doesn't address the underlying problem. Even though Mike Babchik is banned, there are plenty of other men ready to take his place. And these men feel that New York Comic Con is an appropriate venue for their activities.
Thinking about why that might be, and the contrast between my friends' NYCC experience and my Sirens experience got me thinking about the kind of conventions I attend and why. I only go to NYCC because I live in NYC, and even then only if I get a free press pass. I used to wish I could go to San Diego Comic-Con, but I prioritize my budget toward attending WisCon, World Fantasy, ReaderCon, or DragonCon. I stopped going WorldCon regularly several years ago. I would rather clean toilets than attend either PAX.
All of these cons cater to what I love -- though the focus, vibe, and general purpose differ -- and are ostensibly safe spaces to be a giant geek. Yet I do not feel that my geek self is welcome or wanted at SDCC, NYCC, PAX, or WorldCon.
Women Are Ambassadors
After San Diego Comic-Con I saw this quote, attributed to Hannibal's Bryan Fuller, popping up around Tumblr:
"What was really great about Comic-Con, it shows that the core demographic is young women... It’s all young ladies. Women love genre, they’re more open to genre in a strange way. ... Women are the ambassadors."
This is not new information. It's also not just anecdotal. When Networked Insights measured social media response and engagement around the media being discussed at SDCC in 2013, women made up the majority. Brett Schenker's compilation of statistics from Facebook show that 40% of the people who Like comic-related things are women. Facebook's Doctor Who fandom is mostly female, according to this data. Women make most tech buying decisions, download more movies and TV shows than men, and play more games on certain platforms.
In his book "Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture," Rob Salkowitz points out that "women today are the loudest and most compelling voices in fandom." Yet the average media, comic, or science fiction convention is generally dismissive of, if not hostile to, the non-cis, het male population.
I could bring up a mountain of examples, but here are three:
This crap is flying at women from all quarters: con attendees, con runners, con guests, con sponsors. It's not surprising that more conventions and conferences now exist to offer respite from the nastiness. Sirens is one approach, GeekGirlCon is another.
Re-Centering The Focus
GeekGirlCon, now in it's third year, is a more varied convention. It's similar in style and scope to media and comic cons, though throws the net wider than most by including science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) alongside literature, games, comics, TV, movies, and more. For such a young con I'm impressed with how ambitious GGC is in terms of providing a space for everything from tabletop gaming to professional networking, all with a focus on women.
That said, GeekGirlCon is a work in progress. The con's track record on intersectionality is muddy, starting with the first year. A friend of mine warned me off this con because she got a strong vibe that she is not the "right type of geek girl" due to being POC. That was more about the attendees than the con itself, though this year a swell of anger rose up when people learned that problematic career feminist Amanda Marcotte was invited to participate in programming. As I said, work in progress. After talking to members of the staff and geeks involved in the community around GGC, it seems the con is worth the work and is also important on a larger scale.
At the Changing Culture in Mainstream and Alternative Spaces panel, I and my fellow panelists talked about the value of cons that focus on sub-sections of the geek community, such as women or LGBT people, and whether it's better to create our own safer spaces or to try and make the mainstream conventions a better place for all geeks to be. Ben Williams, a founder of GaymerX/GaymerCon, spoke about how separating from a larger, less inviting culture has big benefits in helping people feel like they really belong.
However, Jo Jo Stiletto pointed out that even creating your own thing -- in her case, roller derby -- for your in-group doesn't mean that it won't grow and change into something that no longer feels right for you. Game designer Shoshana Kessock advocated for changing cons from the inside because she feels that if we completely withdraw, then the mainstream will only see geeks as the stereotypes we leave behind.
I can understand that point of view and I am often an advocate of changing instead of abandoning the cons I love. It can work; just look at how WisCon and ReaderCon have shifted in the past five years. However, there's a big difference between those cons and PAX or SDCC, entities that aren't as susceptible to big changes enacted by dedicated volunteers. I say the only way to force a change in that type of con is to starve them of their lifeblood: geek money and attention.
There Are A Lot Of Men Here
That's where cons like GeekGirlCon come in. Here you have all the same kinds of events and panels and activities as other cons but with women at the center of the conversation. In this environment women hopefully feel like their voices and experiences and way of geeking out are celebrated and appreciated. If you listened to the common wisdom about centering women, you'd think that this type of con would result in a low male turnout. Not as low as Sirens, of course. But guys wouldn't flock to this type of environment, would they?
Uh, yeah, they would.
There were far more men at GeekGirlCon than I expected and they participated at every level: on staff, on panels, and as attendees. And yet GGC people also spoke of the con as a Safe Space. Again, the idea of what is safe differs depending on what type of woman you are, yet I was pretty confident that there wouldn't be anyone there saying that they "want to buy an umbrella [that comes] with an Asian girl," no matter the gender. It's not about banning or even discouraging guys from coming to the con, it's about making it clear what is and is not valued that leads to a con women can feel safe attending.
So forget any ridiculousness you hear about how cons that cater to specific or marginalized groups are all about self-segregation. They're not -- not completely. Because if the con has all the elements geeks flock to cons for, it will attract all the geeks. And if these cons can attract geeks away from events that foster a hostile environment, then those other cons (and the media entities that support them) will either have to change or die.
There Are A Lot Of Women Here, Too
I'm torn on which option I want: Change or Die. The cons that represent the most problematic environments -- NYCC, SDCC, PAX -- aren't the kind that I like to attend, anyway. I much prefer cons that are for the people attending and not media companies and sponsors looking to sell and market to us. Cons where fans and creators can share panel space and where attendees are treated with respect and not like cattle to be herded. And, after my two-week women-centric con adventure, I'm more reluctant than ever to go to cons that center the 18-49 year old, white, heterosexual male, explicitly or not.
Neither Sirens nor GeekGirlCon are perfect events and could benefit from a little change themselves. And I want to be part of that change. Because making a con better for me and women like me means making cons that are better for everyone. Guess I'd better start saving up now.