Oct 10 2016 2:30pm

Ladies Get in Formation at New York Comic Con

What did the ladies have to look forward to at New York Comic Con? 

Something striking happened at this year's New York Comic Con—and no, I'm not talking about the approximately ten million Harley Quinn cosplayers I saw streaming in and out of the Javits Center. But it does involve tough women: there were a number of panels focusing on the pluses, perils and politics of being a woman who plays or works in geek culture. 

Blastr's Fangrrls Presents: Women in Geek Media—The Saga Continues

Cher Martinetti, managing editor of Fangrrl, a subsidiary of pop culture website Blastr, gathered writers Connie Willis, C.A. Higgins, Sarah Kuhn and Black Girl Nerds founder Jamie Broadnax to discuss their own experiences as ladygeeks. The discussion started with the panelists touching on their work being accepted in spite of their gender. Kuhn, who wrote Heroine Complex, a snarky, fun urban fantasy starring an Asian-American superheroine, started out writing for the gaming website IGN. As one of only two women at IGN, Kuhn shared that she “felt like I had to constantly justify my existence” in an industry dominated by men. But Kuhn is also heartened by how much has changed—not only are there female-driven nerd culture sites like The Mary Sue, but also the chief editors of  the wildly popular are women.  

SEE ALSO: Most Hardcore Geek Heroines in Romance Novels

Science fiction superstar Connie Willis revealed that when she was awarded an NEA endowment at the beginning of her career, a man approached her at an event to ask—with sincere disdain—whom she had slept with to get the grant. As she recounted, Willis, without missing a beat, dryly replied: “It's tricky, you don't know who exactly is giving it out, so you have to sleep with everyone.” The man was not amused. 

Blastr Panel Source: Regina Small

It didn't take long for the discussion to turn from IRL trolls to online trolls—specifically the ones lurking on social media. While Jamie Broadnax, who livetweets essentially every geeky show on television (Mr. Robot, Penny Dreadful, Game of Thrones,  etc.), may not get the same volume of hate dished out by GamerGate trolls, she still faces a lot of blowback as a black woman who is vocal on Twitter. While Broadnax is used to being a target of bitter criticism and trolling, she encourages other female fans and creators to realize “the mute button is your friend, the block button is your friend.” 

And though online trolls have started movements within the SF/F geek community — like the Sad Puppies' plot to game the Hugo Awards on behalf of white, mostly male authors — both Kuhn and Willis pointed out that the campaign largely failed. The Puppy picks were mostly ignored and they couldn't stop authors like N.K. Jemisin from winning a much deserved award. The panel consensus was that nerd communities have turned a corner, especially in the last five years.

Even in terms of representation of women and particularly women of color, there's more reason to hope. We have a new iteration of Iron Man as a young black woman, though Broadnax points out that she'd love to see more superheroes and superheroines that are originally conceived as people of color. 

Martinetti ended the panel with a call to female artists and writers: “If you don't see something you like, create it.”

Moving Beyond the Strong Female Character

This panel, moderated by Sam Maggs of The Mary Sue, included a host of women from the comics and geek writing industry: Jen Bartel, Amy Chu, Jody Houser and Jill Pantozzi. Taking a more laser-focused approach, the discussion centered primarily around the representation of women in nerd media. 

There was one clear watchword: diversity. While the strength embodied in a heroine like Buffy Summers was a breath of fresh air back in 1997 and a major cultural benchmark, the panelists agreed that the greatest way to represent women now is to illustrate the different ways they can be strong. We need both the overtly ass-kicking Jessica Jones and the softer approach of Supergirl. The diversity of heroines — in appearance, race, sexuality and personality—is vital. Being “strong” isn't enough — to truly represent women, these heroines must be multidimensional and interesting, beyond their ability to defeat the villains plaguing them.

You Fight Like a Girl! And Other Awesome Ideas Involving Women in Pop Culture

Much like “Strong Female Character” panel above, diversity in representation was a huge point in this discussion. 

One of the panelists, actress and choreographer Tami Stronach (best known for her role as the Childlike Empress in The Neverending Story), set the tone when she noted that “fighting like a girl” can mean many things. It can mean fighting with brawn, with intelligence, with fortitude. Her own character in The Neverending Story wasn't a fighter, but drew strength from orchestrating events. Stronach tied this back to how creators can foster better representations of women: “The first step of changing reality is imagining reality can change and we can do that by creating stories with worlds and characters we want to see.” She pointed out that, on Stranger Things, Eleven's emotional intelligence is just as powerful as her telepathic ability.

Both comics writer Amy Chu and Heidi McDonald, editor-in-chief of echoed that value of multidimensionality. A plethora of representations of women doesn't just benefit a story – it also helps female creators from constantly being “othered” as a woman first and a writer or illustrator second. 

For her part, Chu has just come off a stint of writing Poison Ivy, whom she believes is best regarded as both smart (a Ph.D scientist) and sexy. Now working on the even-less-clothed Red Sonja, Chu emphasized that she cares more about the intellectual and emotional dimensions of her characters, rather than worrying that their costumes define them. 

SEE ALSO: Girl Power: Kick-Ass Heroines Coming into Their Own in Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance

Body Confidence and Positivity in Cosplay 

Speaking of costumes: any discussion of NYCC would be incomplete without talking about cosplay. A panel of noted cosplayers, led by “Ivy Doomkitty,” discussed how attending comic conventions and dressing up has improved their self-image. All of them cited the enthusiasm of fan communities and the emotional connection that's build through bonding over your favorite characters.

One of the panelists, the 6'8" David Baxter, talked about feeling uncomfortable with his height—until he started cosplaying as Gandalf and Dumbledore, and saw how kids reacted with delight. 

Both Robert Franseze and Bernadette Bentley touched on how their struggles with weight negatively affected their self-esteem — for Bentley, an actress and dancer, getting criticism about her weight is frustrating, but she finds that cosplaying as Xena made her feel confident and empowered. 

Ivy, who's Latina and plus size, initially worried that she might catch a ton of negativity for playing white characters with different body types, but she found that the good feedback far outweighed the bad. 

All of the panelists stressed that cosplaying is about you, about wanting to play a certain character, not about conforming to a certain body type or race/ethnicity or gender. It's about honoring a character or piece of media that you love, and sharing your creation with fellow fans.  

On the Show Floor

The magic and diversity of cosplay was evident most strongly as I wandered around the Javits in between panels. There's been a seismic shift in cosplay over the last few years, and it really hit me this year in particular. When I first started attending comic conventions, if women wanted to cosplay, the standard choices were usually: Sexy Slave Leia, Sexy Catwoman, Sexy Wonder Woman—are you seeing a pattern here? While I support all of the women who feel empowered by dressing up as a scantily clad Harley Quinn or Poison Ivy, this year I was most delighted by the sheer variety in cosplay choices. 

We had Sexy Harley, but we also had old-school Harley, with full-length jumpsuit and harlequin makeup. The floor was crowded with young women dressed as Rey from The Force Awakens, as the Schuyler sisters from Broadway's Hamilton, and more than a few Agent Carters—the most memorable one wore Peggy's iconic red fedora over her hijab. 

Seeing all of these women—of different ages, races and body types—showing their love for these characters felt revolutionary. And it drove home the major point of so many of the panels I attended: We don't need 500 copies of one heroine. We need lots of heroines. If we're going to represent them, they need to represent us.

*Photo Credits: Regina Small

H&H Editor Picks:

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Regina Small is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, NY. She's a fan of romance novels, bourbon, Ellen Ripley, dumplings and weird Twitter.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I didn't have the chance to see any panels this year (boo!), but I LOVED all the costumes I saw. A lot of Harley Quinns and a lot of Joyce Byers/Stranger Things cosplay! Thanks for this roundup. :)
2. wsl0612
I am very frustrated at the popularity of Harley Quinn, mostly because I feel her character is a terrible role model for women (particularly the Suicide Squad version).
But my #1 complaint with cosplay in general is that I wish men would be counseled to always wear a cup or some sort of "protection" when dressing in the skintight wear favored by Spidermen, Deadpools, etc. Ai-yi-yi!
3. ReginaSmall
@wslo612 Heidi McDonald (EIC at ComicsBeat) expressed a similar concern re: Harley being in an abusive relationship. But I think (and McDonald herself alluded to this, too) that it really is that Harley is just the new go-to "sexy" costume. I don't think she's really a "role model" for these women, any more than men who cosplay as the Joker – or any other psychotic supervillain – consider him to be a role model.

Agree with you about the...protective gear. :)
4. wsl0612
@ReginaSmall, yeah I agree HQ is the new go-to sexy costume, UGH! Why is our gender so hung up on the sexy costume? I really wish more women would dress up as stormtroopers or Groot.
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