By Guest Contributor Christina Xu
A few weekends ago, I trekked out to Seattle for the first ever GeekGirlCon, a convention “dedicated to promoting awareness of and celebrating the contribution and involvement of women in all aspects of the sciences, science fiction, comics, gaming and related Geek culture”. Regina Buenaobra, a Filipina-America community manager at ArenaNet, had asked me to speak on a panel about race and gender in geek communities way back in May.
In her initial email to the panelists, she wrote:
The main reason I’ve sought to try and put together a panel like this is because the voices of POC should be heard in fandom circles, and there isn’t enough of this happening at larger nerd-oriented conventions. Since GeekGirlCon is a new convention, if they accept the submission, it has the potential to help set the tone of what kind of panels may appear at future incarnations at the convention.
Our panel was incredibly ambitious; we were promising to cover an impossibly enormous topic (race AND gender in ALL geek communities?) and, after Racialicious Editor-In-Chief Latoya Peterson canceled, we were left with an ironic lack of racial diversity among the panelists (though we were split between Filipina-American and Chinese-American). It took us a bit to get going, but by the end I was pretty pleased with the ground our panel had covered.
We touched on concepts like privilege, cultural appropriation, racial tourism, exoticism, intersectionality, and turning racism from an out-group attack into an in-group issue. It was a blast, though there were moments of tedium, a la Leigh Alexander’s article about being a person and not just a woman, and it was apparently pretty well-received. It was also, unfortunately, one of the few panels at the Con that had any women of color on stage, so extra props to Regina for having the foresight to organize something like this.
It’s no easy feat to put together a huge con, and GGC was extremely well-run. Staff seemed to be in all the right places, everything was orderly, and lines were manageable. As someone who’s been behind the curtains, this is nothing short of a miracle for a first time effort — the experience, professionalism, and passion that the organizers poured into the con was palpable. The vast majority of the attendees were very friendly, respectful, and intellectually curious; how else could you explain a line forming 10 minutes early for our panel about race & gender? Overall, I’m very glad that GGC exists and that this year’s success guarantees that will be many more to come. However, there were also a few frustrations I encountered over the weekend that could be ameliorated in the future.
1) Feminism didn’t stop with Betty Friedan
For the last few years, I’ve artfully dodged involvement in a number of “geek feminist” movements and events because of my severe allergic reaction to second-wave feminism. In my experience, a lot of the rhetoric and discussion at “women in tech” events was severely dated and favored an ill-fitting “pan-woman” unity over newer goals like a breakdown of the gender binary in general, or acknowledgement of intersectionality issues.
So, I was sad but unsurprised to discover that several of the panels I attended at GGC followed this pattern. At one panel about how we should be nicer to our fellow girl geeks, the six(!) white female panelists generalized wildly about gendered behavior (“A lot of men actually…” “Women tend to…”) and casually dropped the phrase “both genders” like there weren’t a number of transgendered individuals in the room. One panelist lamented that there were just so many definitions for feminism, can we all agree on one before we move forward? Another asserted that she had always advocated for a “Men’s Studies” department in college because she didn’t understand how men worked at all. The concept of privilege went unmentioned. I went to lunch.
Handing everyone a syllabus on modern feminism 101 might not work out, but GGC could make sure that panels — at least the ones purporting to be about feminism — are thoughtfully moderated. An even easier fix is to just bring more diverse voices to every table; that way, even if the discussion is still centered in personal-experience-as-general-reality, at least there will be a wider variety of general experiences to draw on and compare.
2) More diversity requires more nuance
I found myself wondering why there were so many women on stage who were talking about feminism when they clearly hadn’t read anything in the field since the 60s. The answer, I think, is that these were women are accustomed to being on panels about feminism at conventions for no other reason than their willingness to speak up and their gender. At a normal convention, this is incredibly admirable; in a space where even saying the “F” word out loud is controversial, there’s a lot you can accomplish just by sharing your experience as a woman and providing a space where these conversations are accepted.
At GeekGirlCon, however, some of these conversations come of feeling like Charlie Brown kicking a football that’s already been removed; the universal support for basic ideas like “Yes, women should be here and should not be harassed” renders them a little lackluster as takeaways. If the goal is for GGC to be a space for girl geeks to strategize for other conventions, this standardization of the party line could be useful. Otherwise, the discussions could really stand to be a little more detailed.
Go ahead and take for granted that both the audience and the panelists primarily identify as female, and will be speaking about things from a female perspective. If the panel description no longer says anything meaningful, one could probably be asking more interesting or specific questions. Instead of inviting the usual suspects who do girl power panels at other conventions, GGC should try to coax out new speakers who don’t have the same preconceived battle lines. I also want to give a shoutout to the Geeky Intersections panel, which did a great job of taking the conversation to the next level.
3) Think Outside the Panel
In 2008, I co-founded ROFLCon, a gathering that attempted to cross a fan convention with an academic conference, and we arrived at something totally bizarre and unique by accident: the resulting mix forced our attendees to break their habits and try new things, and to participate in the group experiment that any new con is. We surprised people into being actively engaged attendees.
For their part, GGC attendees seemed very happy with the format overall. However, a change in pace could help both organizers and attendees think more critically about why and how they come together. One mentioned that, for all the talk about the need for professional geek women to connect, it would have been nice to have a mixer aimed at doing just that. Likewise, if one of the goals of the merchandise hall is to highlight the work of marginalized content creators, why not curate that content into a show?
I hope that the organizers will take more time next year to write down all of their goals for the con, big and small, and figure out what kind of events and activities best further them. Whenever possible, figure out how to turn a panel into something more engaging.
4) Who, exactly, is a geek?
For a long time, the word “geek” implied a group of people who were rejected by the mainstream for their interest in weird subcultures. But in an age when superstar rapper Nicki Minaj name-checks Street Fighter characters and streetwear brands team up with comic-book companies like Marvel and DC, who exactly is the geek referred to in GeekGirlCon? To be a geek, do you have to prefer filk over bounce? Is it a self-identification?
I ask these questions because I’m legitimately curious; if fandom is the uniting factor, then the increasingly diverse audiences for all of our favorite geek media (video games, sci-fi, comics, etc.) should be offered a place at conventions like GGC. If, in fact, geekdom here is actually defined by a set of social norms and practices (or the lack thereof) that just happens to coincide with fandom, then geek communities need to have some serious internal conversations and own up to that.
In general, it all boils down to one thing: the obviously talented GGC organizers focusing their efforts and being more explicit and proactive with their curation. Is it a place for geeky women to meet each other and support female content creators? Does it seek to replicate a normal geek convention in all except the gender ratio? What type of geek is the real intended audience?
To end on a positive note, easily my favorite part of the convention was watching its youngest attendees, the actual little girls happily dressed up as their favorite characters. One four-year-old explained to me that she was “Princess Leia … from the FOURTH Star Wars” and confided that she was still really scared of stormtroopers. Another little girl, pictured above, pushed a cardboard cutout of Doctor Who‘s Amy Pond over in an apparent bid to become the series’ next companion. Watching these kids, I hoped that they were growing up in a world where it gets ever easier to be a geek girl, and where events like GGC are commonplace.