Up front, two confessions:
1. I didn’t attend the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” Panel at Comic-Con. I didn’t even attend Comic-Con. Never have, in fact. But I have consumed a number of recaps of the panel (including a video excerpt, which I rely on pretty heavily here) and I do study fandom, so the terrain is relatively familiar
2. I’m deeply uncomfortable with feminism, because that word and the movement it describes have a lot of historical baggage of gender essentialism and insufficient attention to race, class, and sexuality (among other structures). But I do know a thing or two about gender and the media (enough that they’re letting me teach an upper division college course on it, at least).
Therefore, despite these two confessions, I’m wading in.
What’s readily apparent to me about the Sexy Geek panel is that it had at least two purposes or personalities, a fact which has tended to be glossed over in the discussion about it. It was, first, a discussion of whether it is “pandering” when women dress as sexed-up characters—this was its explicit goal. But it somehow also became a referendum on female fan costuming practices and female fandom itself—whether women are ever, or can ever be, “real” fans.
And in fact, much of the discourse around fandom tends to rely on the premise that women aren’t actually fans, but instead—as Suzanne Scott points out in the blog post that prompted me to look into this incident in the first place—”female attendees are constructed through and defined by their male cohort’s gaze and companionship.”
That is, as Scott parses out in her analysis of the July 25, 2008 sidebar in Entertainment Weekly cataloguing Comic-Con archetypes (which is available at her blog but not, sadly, in its original context on EW’s website), they’re either a “Princess Naked” trying to look sexy for men or a “Dr. Girlfriend” dutifully following their fanboyfriend. What do we learn from the vision of fandom put forth by this set of images? Well, off the top of my head:
1. Women are never really fans and don’t want to be there for their own sake.
2. Women are always heterosexual (and, according to the pictures, white).
3. Women’s behavior exists solely in relation to men (who are also always heterosexual and white).
These three factors, then, are why a panel about sexy costuming and pandering (apparently) turned into a discussion of female fandom more generally: sexiness = heterosexuality = women are there for men = women aren’t real fans.
Okay, then, what about the sexiness part of what the panel was supposed to be about? The idea of “pandering” suggests that women are insincere when they dress sexy. They aren’t actually fans and they don’t actually like the characters, but they wear the revealing costume in order to prey on the desires of “genuine” heterosexual male fans. This is, the argument goes, either for their employer—as with the so-called “booth babe”–or because they themselves like this sexualized male attention.
One response to this “it’s pandering and really for men” idea is to take a stance that often gets called (or gets to call itself) feminist—but is actually more specifically associated with second wave feminism—and deplore the exploitation of women for the male gaze. This is a point of view often derisively called the “humorless feminist,” which the lone scholar-like representative on the panel, Jennifer Stuller, author of Ink Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology joked about being when she was the only one to raise this sort of question.
However, though there is something to be said about resisting the idea that female sexuality exists only for male pleasure, this sort of thing is exactly why I’m not down with feminism. It constructs women as victims of men, who coerce them to bare themselves for the men’s gratification, rather than agents making decisions within cultural constraints.
Way to reinforce the idea that women are weak and men are strong, y’all.
Of course, as evidenced by Stuller’s complaint that she was the only feminist on the panel, this wasn’t the stance that the panel tended to take. Instead, the argument was that, in Scott’s words, “many fangirls choose to cosplay in sexually explicit garb and claim that choice as empowering.”
Alternately, the attitude can be described, as pointed out over at Feminist Fatale, as the contention that “women who were critical of sexy geek culture in any way were just jealous, had no confidence, and were projecting their issues with self-esteem onto the women who felt empowered by walking the Comic-Con floor in a Slave Leia costume.”
Or, there’s the point made by one of the panelists that “I like many characters. Some of them are less dressed than others. I can’t help that.” That is—though the panelist didn’t mean it this way—regardless of what fans decide to do with their costuming practices, they’re working with characters that already exist, and particularly female characters that tend to be scantily clad and unrealistically proportioned. (As I say in my Intro to Media Studies lecture on gaming, accompanied by a suitably cleavage-y photo, Lara Croft is so busty that Angelina Jolie, of all people, had to wear a padded bra, and this body type is not unique to video games.)
It is with these three pro-sexy-costuming positions that things get complicated. Feminists have, rightly, pointed out that the demand that women be sexy is offensive and should be resisted. As audience member Seth Green interjected when he took the mike, it’s no longer the case that women have to rely on their sexuality to get ahead, and there are different opportunities now, so we should be wary of reinforcing the idea that all women have to offer is sex.
We should also be critical of the narrowness of the beauty ideal represented in mediated bodies. A very large percentage of the time, these are bodies people don’t tend to actually have. With roughly equal frequency, they’re quite fully displayed in garb that’s either skin-tight or skin-baring.
To argue that it’s a problem that women have to be sexy, then, is not to be “just jealous” of people who’re rocking the faux-metal bikini. It’s an important conversation that needs to be had.
However, the contention about empowerment does have some merit. It can be empowering to dress sexy if the intention is to seize control of your own body. If it’s not about someone else’s gratification (male gaze) or following someone else’s rules (humorless feminist forbidding), there’s agency to be had.
After all, it is, as I’ve noted in blogs about policing Lea Michele’s sexuality or the occasionally unfree nature of what gets to stand as freedom, equally offensive to demand that someone be sexy and to demand that they not be sexy.
The challenge lies in the fact that the same scantily-clad body has multiple meanings. What happens if you’re being proud of yourself but some sleazy boy informs you, as incredibly unprofessional panelist Chris Gore said to his co-panelists, that he’d like to put his penis into you?
What if you’re expressing self-ownership but some feminist tells you you’re delusional and antifeminist and playing to the male gaze?
What about if you actually like the character and know everything about her, but you get read as just another Princess Naked by male fans who may actually be less invested than you but get to count as real in a way you don’t?
Despite this variety of scenarios—and I didn’t even include all the scenarios that might arise if one was cosplaying in a not-revealing fashion or not costumed at all—there’s a fair amount of consistency in the solutions: take action, get in their face, and tell them off.
If women were to collectively tell people like Chris Gore to keep their penises to themselves (or put them into something else, the garbage disposal maybe?) and stop assuming that all female-bodied individuals are always flattered by that kind of sexualized attention, eventually they’d get the message.
It has to be everyone, or a general trend, though, because, as Stuller pointed out at her blog, a lone response could “reinforce the ‘humorless feminist’ label I had tried to joke about – and which was later suggested as the problem of anyone who didn’t get the joke via Gore’s Twitter feed, along with accusations of sexual repression.”
That is—and this is one thing feminism’s gotten right—wanting to look sexy doesn’t automatically mean that you’re interested in sexual attention from random men (or women) you encounter, and not wanting that attention doesn’t mean you don’t like sex. It just means you don’t want people you don’t know to act as if they have a right of access to your body.
The exact same response of getting in people’s face can be used toward actual humorless feminists, whose demands that people not dress sexy seek to take away ownership of female fans’ own bodies just as much as catcalls do.
Finally, a good throwdown of “look how extensive my knowledge about this realm is” can shut up the naysaying male fans who consider women at conventions to be accessories for men.
As Seth Green—who, as many have pointed out, was sort of the best thing about the panel—argued, the question is about authenticity and costuming, sexy or not, can’t be pandering if it’s sincere. The “girls” (his word, not mine, and I’m not totally thrilled about it) who enjoy these sort of cult fan objects have had to fight to participate and they’ve been considered definitionally inauthentic, but as long as they really love the object of fandom they should be allowed just like anyone.
Because, as Green asked, what does it get you to say that other people aren’t allowed to like it because they haven’t liked it as long as you have? Someone has got to push back on this hipsterization of fandom—”it was better before it was so mainstream” is an absurd argument, even more so when those same fans are completely invested in mainstream normativity on a number of levels: masculinity, heterosexuality, whiteness, notions of appropriate media consumption, etc.
With respect to this panel, then, it seems pretty clear that it needs a sequel, or maybe two. The question of what sexy costuming means in fan culture deserves more than it got. And the question of female fandom in general sort of deserves its own panel.
But even if there’s only one “Sexy Geek Redux,” it has to be different. My wishlist? For the love of god, can there be fewer postfeminist bloggers? Because, though it’s a valid position to have involved in the debate, they were totally overrepresented. I’d also want more academic representation. Someone who studies sexuality, maybe? And to have something other than a skeezy boy representing men. Seth Green seemed pretty interested in these questions; why not actually put him on the panel this time?
With Comic-Con rapidly becoming the go-to destination for promotion of damn near everything (Really, 24? And Glee?), the character of the convention is changing. And this is as good a time as any for the broad and amorphous subculture that circulates through its halls to really take a look at these issues.
So let’s try that next year.
I’m moving again next week and then it’s the first week of school. I do sincerely hope this won’t cause an interruption in the blogging, but it might.