Girls Who Run the World at London ComicCon 2018

Geek culture has a rocky history with women. But now, women are rocking geek culture. Historically, women have faced invisibility (not the superpowered kind), exclusion, active hostility, violence, and sexualisation.

This is across video games (the communities surrounding video games), films, TV, and comic books – from sci-fi, superhero and fantasy genres. Geek culture does not ‘cause’ gender inequality. However, it does facilitate and shut down particular attitudes.

The stories we tell teach us who is important – and who is not. And now, women are taking charge of their own stories.

MCM London Comic Con

Orange is the New Black stars Tiffany Doggett (Taryn Manning) and Flaca Gonzalez (Jackie Cruz) spoke about the importance of centering women’s stories, particularly untold stories. The hit Netflix series focuses on a women’s prison, and the actors admitted that they have learned a lot about the conditions faced by incarcerated women during the filming process. There is also space to unpick gendered issues around race and class. “If you don’t see it, create it”, Jackie added, speaking of her extracurricular endeavours with music production.

Then, there were the wrestlers.

EVE  is a self-described “ground-breaking feminist-punk-rock wrestling promotion”: a pro wrestling group for women. ComicCon hosted a debut screening of Empowered, a documentary by Lea Winchcombe showcasing Rhia O’Reilly and Candy Floss. Unashamedly feminist and political, the documentary considers the challenges of being a female wrestler (stereotypes, naysayers and balancing home life), with the buzz of parading around the ring being “glamourous and outrageous”.

On being a role model for her daughter and others, EVE founder Emily Read laughed, “I am the hero, I am the strong one”.  They have opened up wrestling classes for women which build their confidence and self-esteem (irrespective of being novice, casual, professional or old hat). “Women have a place, women have a voice, and women kick ass!” she concluded. The author of this article may very well have shed a tear.

On a less physically exerting note, geek writer/actor/creator Felicia Day happily spoke about her work and creative projects alongside motherhood and her hair. Many members of the audience seemed to share with Felicia the same heartfelt and almost tangible importance of having a female role model within the industry to look up to. Felicia humbly acknowledged the praise and assured us that female representation in geek culture is changing. This was a repeated message at this year’s ComicCon – and a very believable one.

Photo Credit: GoGCast 156: Interview with Patricia Summersett and Victoria Atkin | Girls on Games

Voice actors from Pokemon, South Park (yes, April Stewart confirmed that Wendy is very well received by female fans) and Assassin’s Creed participated in discussions about their gender (of course, only as one element of the colorful spectrum of conversations).

Victoria Atkin and Patricia Summersett of the Assassin’s Creed games spoke about how “challenging” things can be in the industry – particularly to find female characters that aren’t one of the two common tropes of  “sexualised” or “butch”, but “somewhere in the middle”. They discussed wanting to be role models for women in a world where there can be little representation, with a standard gender ratio which appears to “almost compensate for having a female lead”. (Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy and Justice League, I’m looking at you – the good old ‘one woman in a group of four or five men’ trick).

Victoria and Patricia positively, and somewhat bravely considering how women can be treated for speaking up, critiqued their industry to a somewhat male-heavy press audience. These women want to be, and indeed, they are, changemakers – whilst acknowledging the hopeful message that, already, “It is changing”.

Away from the interview room in Comic Village, there was a whole host of women proudly showcasing their own work. This included everything from personal stories about one’s cat (and other pets), adventure tales, tea and romance, magic, fairies and fantasy, space and Japan. Worth a special mention in this mix was the interweaving of gender, sexuality, and race in the creations. Sexuality we may consider another time.

Olivia Duchess showcased a stall solely dedicated to beautiful, tender artwork of Black girls and women. Having been drawing since 2015, Olivia explained that “When I was growing up, I didn’t anyone who looked like me… I didn’t see a lot of Black characters,” (Susie Carmichael from Rugrats got a special mention). She continued, with a modest shrug, “I’m trying to be the change I want to see”, as though unaware of her brilliance.

The interplay of gender and race was also witnessed in other ways – for example, Letitia Wright (Princess Shuri from Black Panther), discussed the importance of  Black female presence in her film, not least the range of “strong female characters”. She agreed with an audience member, “The women were an amazing entity”, before going on to talk about the value of a “Disney Princess with cornrows”.

There was a woman so overwhelmed with emotion at meeting the badass Black Panther science princess, Letitia Wright, that she was trembling with joy. After a quick photo, she took my hand intently, asking: “Do you understand? Do you understand what this means for Black people?”

Her face was full of magic and the power of visibility. I don’t know how one heart held so much in a moment.

This theme was repeated by IvyDoomKitty in her panel on mental health with Janina Scarlett. She spoke about how she had never thought the representation of women was important in geek culture until she saw it. Before then, she was satisfied with the norm of the male superhero. Then she saw DC’s Wonder Woman: an unfurling, a stirring. A hunger revealed. As Dr. Scarlett said, in her discussion about seeing oneself in these stories, “equality sends a very powerful message that everyone is equal and everyone matters”.

I felt it too, this ComicCon. A sense of … something, resonating, muscular and powerful, yet somehow delicate and bright. The kind of visceral sensation that glows in your belly and makes you grab a stranger’s hand and ask them:

Do you understand?

ComicCon, I think you did understand. You gave women – all kinds of women – space, made us central and elevated our power.

Superwomen are here to stay. See you next year!

Understanding Geek Culture and Nostalgia

Geek Culture

London Comic Con 2017 was a place of wonder, hype, and secret previews. Not least, a place for hands-on grappling with games and technology.

There were some very long queues (welcome to Britain!) for those waiting to play on the new Wonder Woman (2017) video game. Virtual reality headsets – namely, the PlayStation®VR – had to be pre-booked in advance. One could pose with a sword from Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

A huge section showed a live competition for the World of Warcraft card game HearthStone (complete with commentators and audience seating). That is not to dismiss other big-name titles such as the Tekken 7 fighting game, and Agents of Mayhem based on the violent Saint’s Row series.

In spite of this, there was also a very distinct trend away from these temptations. Comic Con provided a range of old-school arcade machines, playing the likes of PacMan, Sega’s Bubble Bobble, and old-school dance mats. Given the range of new offerings on show, why were so many people opting for the joy of the stick rather than the slickness of the headset?

One clear option is a sense of mastery and competence. It is clear that people will be better at old-school games that they have played for years, compared to new games with which they have yet to come to grips. But that cannot explain everything. Comic Con, whilst definitely a place for showing off one’s talents, was primarily a place of community and sharing.

Indeed, the arcade games were most often played in pairs, or with an “I can’t believe you have never played this!”. There were heated discussions about when, where and how people once played these games, what their high score was, and of course, a wider discussion about “the classics”. The physicality of the old technology appeared to ripple out a sense of genuine, unfettered and childlike delight.

Clay Routledge and colleagues argue that nostalgia – far from being a whimsical trip into the past (or indeed, a psychiatric disorder as it was once considered) – has an important psychological function. Namely, nostalgia helps to give our lives meaning, and also to enhance a sense of social connectedness. Often, nostalgia relates to something important or personally significant, and it can help buffer us against anxiety, loneliness, and threats. This latter point has been called “terror management”.

Arguably the world is a difficult and threatening place. News and social media make it easier to connect with others, but it has never been quicker to learn about the perils and injustices of the world. Communities, particularly in developed countries, have changed: traveling is becoming a norm, facilitated by long-distance communication methods and a more transitory job market. Long-distance relationships are more common, within families and within romantic partnerships. Whilst there has been debate about the extent to which these things help or hinder connectedness, it is clear that many of us are unsure of where we stand in relation to each other.

Technology also makes it easier to access the things for which we have nostalgia. Videos, pictures, images, online communities and even online shopping have put the wonders of our past within easy reach of our fingertips. As noted in our previous article London Comic Con demonstrated the importance of one’s personal history in geek culture, with many people linking their costume choices back to childhood or adolescence. Is it really a surprise that games are no different?

There is an important place for the new stuff – the shiny, groundbreaking stuff which bursts through boundaries like an over-powdered firework. However, there is also a crucial place for the older, more familiar stuff.

The next time someone criticises you for being nostalgic, remember to tell them that it’s not just “living in the past”. Nostalgia serves an important psychological function. It’s part of your wellbeing and sense of connectedness, not simply a throwback to immaturity.

So feel free to get back on PacMan when you finish this article – and PacMan with pride. See how smug you feel when you get that new high score.

London Comic Con: Cosplay, Creativity and Healing

What is in a costume? Apparently, your inner self. Social Work Helper spent time at Comic Con 2017 asking people about their character costumes (“cosplay”), and what it means to them.

The first interviewee was a homemade character called Puppet. “By hiding myself, I can be more of myself”, she explained, gesturing to her bright and fur-clad head mask. “I’ve wanted a fur suit since I can remember.. In real life, I’m quite shy”. The flamboyant and impressive costume was this person’s way of making herself known and expressing her true self. Her friend played the Pokemon Sylveon, because “I’ve loved Pokemon since I was a child – it’s cute!”.

Finally, there was the woman who had created her own character (or “OC”) based on a girl with special powers from the Black Plague era. Like her creator, this character was misunderstood by others and sometimes dealt with her difficulties through self-injury. This character, this cosplay, was a way by which a young woman creatively dealt with their own demons.

Finally, there was the woman who had created her own character (or “OC”) based on a girl with special powers from the Black Plague era. Like her creator, this character was misunderstood by others and sometimes dealt with her difficulties through self-injury. This character, this cosplay, was a way by which a young woman creatively dealt with their own demons.

A trio of Star Trek crew also had a deeper meaning to their costumes. They spoke of the Star Trek universe being “hopeful”, and a representation of a utopian society towards which humanity can strive. Some modern technology has, arguably, been inspired by the show (such as mobile phones), and given the Star Trek crew’s habituation to technology, “The mundane can be fantastic!”. They argued that Star Trek also teaches us that although difficulties and challenges are inevitable, we can get through them.

The trio spoke of the show being inclusive of gender and race, and trailblazing with its inclusion of Nichelle Nicholls – a black woman as a crew member who reportedly inspired the likes of Whoopi Goldberg. Indeed, Nichelle later went on to support diverse recruiting for NASA. A woman dressed as a Vulcan (an alien race which cannot understand emotions) went on to say that she has a diagnosis of autism. From Star Trek, she learned from half-Vulcan Spock that “just because I’m different, doesn’t mean I’m not important too. Everyone is different, everyone is unique”.

From Star Trek to Star Wars, the man who played Rey from the new Star Wars franchise had some insightful comments about his choice of female character. He suggested that cosplayers are respected if they play with gender and that he had received a lot of positivity – “It makes people happy! With gender play, the only limit is your imagination”. He also spoke of his pleasure that there is “Finally a lead female” in the Star Wars franchise, a character who is “confident, humorous and strong” (although Princess Leia has a solid presence in the Star Wars film, she was not the leading character).

There was a range of other cross-gendering characters, from the woman who created a home-made version of Marvel’s Dr. Strange – which had taken six months to hand-stamp and create – to the slow-moving and frankly chilling female Pyramid Head (a horror video game character).

Let us not forget the animals of ComicCon, for example, Catz of the eponymous musical. Most of the weekend, they were found lounging on the floor (or on each other). As we talked, occasionally one would lazy stalk around before curling back up at the foot of another.

Their sun-bright makeup and costumes were painstakingly home-made, the former taking several hours and the latter taking months. “We get lost in their world, acting it out”, they told me, “We wanted something different”. They met online and at conventions, and one said “I’ve been a fan of Catz since I was little” They talked about how it was a “confidence boost”, particularly with a number of passers-by (understandably) taking pictures and admiring their presentation.

Their sun-bright makeup and costumes were painstakingly home-made, the former taking several hours and the latter taking months. “We get lost in their world, acting it out”, they told me, “We wanted something different”. They met online and at conventions, and one said “I’ve been a fan of Catz since I was little” They talked about how it was a “confidence boost”, particularly with a number of passers-by (understandably) taking pictures and admiring their presentation.

This small cross-section of interviews was only a hint of what the weekend had to offer. ComicCon hosted anime characters such as Naruto “He’s goofbally and prideful, he likes to help people – I relate to him”, and his sensei Kakashi “We’re similar – he has a dark past and changed as a person over the series”, Merrida of Disney’s Brave “Doesn’t need a prince, is fierce and independent”, the Dark Souls Elite Knight who had hand-forged his armour (“He’s a cool guy, something different to Snake [from video game Metal Gear Solid] and people keep coming up to me”). The cast of The Hunger Games spoke about the importance of a group costume, particularly in gaining people’s interest, and Lego Batman seemed to enjoy bringing smiles and laughter wherever he waddled.

What can we make of this? Clearly cosplay, for many people, is an important part of self-expression. A chance for people to be creative, confident and expressive; a chance for people to connect with their childhood; a chance to “be yourself” through not being yourself. It was a place where people could socialise in weird and wonderful ways, and actively invite the attention of strangers. For some, the experience of creating and becoming different characters was actually a way of dealing with their own stories – and everybody had a story to tell.

Indeed, if there’s any take-home message from our cosplayers this weekend, it’s that we all wear our masks. We all have our inner selves, the parts of us we don’t express. ComicCon simply gives us the opportunity to celebrate them.

How To Help Women Who Are Traumatized By Their Jobs

Women-in-technology

“Geek culture” is a broadly defined term: including professional cultures associated with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields as well as recreational ones like science fiction/fantasy fandom, comic books, anime, video games, and hobbies like hacker/maker culture for building hardware and software. However, women who work, study and/or play in any or all parts of geek culture face a unique set of issues.

Some therapists and counselors lack the personal and professional experiences necessary to fully understand the context of these women’s lives. Women who face intersecting oppressions such as being a woman of color, trans or genderqueer, disabled, non-neurotypical, or being either younger or older than most of their peers have an especially hard road to plow.

The Geek Feminism Wiki has been operating since 2008 as a resource for women and for feminist allies in geek communities, defined broadly. The wiki is a well-respected Web site that has been cited in mainstream media such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. In 2011, Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner — two regular contributors to the wiki at the time — founded the Ada Initiative, a non-profit organization that furthers the interests of the groups served by the wiki.

Alex Bayley, an Australian software developer and community organizer, has been one of the most active contributors to the wiki; she gave a talk on its history at the Open Source Bridge conference in 2014. Also in 2014, Bayley, wanting to make it easier to find a therapist who could understand their experiences, created a page on the Geek Feminism Wiki, “Resources for therapists”. The “Resources for therapists” page introduces mental health professionals to the background for some of the problems faced by geeky women, or women who work in geeky professions. Several other contributors to the Geek Feminism Wiki have worked on it since then, and I have improved it based on suggestions from a licensed professional counselor, Cat Pivetti (who does not necessarily endorse anything in the article). While the wiki article is a collaborative effort, the analysis in this article is my own and the other contributors to the wiki should not be taken as endorsing it.

Most people know that women are a minority in geek cultures and in technical professions, at least in North America, Australia, and much of Western Europe. In some particularly high-status parts of tech, they are a very small minority: some estimates put women’s representation around 10% in tech startups, and between 2-10% in open-source projects (which are often a launching pad for volunteers to transition into lucrative jobs). The numbers for women with one or more intersecting oppression are even lower.

What’s not as well-known are the reasons for this disparity. Often, people blame the leaky pipeline, saying that culture teaches young girls to be less interested in programming, or that K-12 teachers discourage them from pursuing science and math. These things are true, but don’t explain why women who make it past that point — who get as far as studying a STEM subject in college or grad school, or getting an entry-level job in a STEM field — continue to leave mid-career. And they do.

The reasons for this include widespread and systematic harassment of women in tech. As Julie Pagano wrote:

“People dealing with abuse stop being their best, stop working, and eventually fail. As an industry, we spend a lot of time trying to counteract attacks on our systems, but we often overlook abuses directed at the people who develop and maintain those systems.”

Many people outside tech are unaware of just how severe this harassment is. Gamergate, a coordinated attempt to harass women who develop and/or write about video games, has resulted in two women (Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian) being forced out of their homes by threats. Harassment ranges from death threats and rape threats — sometimes credible ones, often at such a high volume and pace that distinguishing credible from less credible threats becomes difficult — to all of the classic forms of workplace discrimination, to sexualized environments at technical conferences, to firings of women who speak up about any of these issues (such as Adria Richards”). Occasionally, this harassment includes outright physical and sexual assault, such as in the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre of female engineering students, numerous reports of rapes at technical conferences, and open-source developer Hans Reiser’s murder of his wife.

Another kind of assault is sustained by a large and varied collection of microaggressions. The tactics vary, but the end goal is the same: to challenge women’s presence and participation in technical professions and in geeky subcultures. Either women are being erased and othered when they’re right there in the room, or they are accused to their faces of being inauthentic: of being “fake geek girls” or of lacking a genuine interest in their work and only being there to make money or attract a man. When women are undermined and constantly made to question their own talents and motivation, that’s a form ofgaslighting. The net effect of these slights is, for many women, impostor syndrome — if they didn’t already feel like impostors, being constantly undermined by one’s peers in ways that are hard to recognize as sexism when it’s happening will make sure they do.

There is a feedback loop between these types of harassment and another, more subtle, undermining kind of assault on women. The more women feel like impostors, the more helpless they are likely to feel in the face of harassment. Likewise, being harassed in a community contributes to a feeling that one does not belong there, especially when bystanders aren’t helping. Lindsey Kuper wrote (regarding an online harassment incident she faced as a consequence of her participation in an open-source project, Rust):

…every time I point out something like this in a community I’m part of, whether it’s the Rust community or any other, there’s a part of me that insists on first checking to see how much social capital I have to spend there. How high up am I on the contributors list? Have I contributed to the next release yet? All right, I guess it’s okay for me to say something — as though it hurts the project to speak up about a community problem! And so I have a double-entry accounting system in my head for amount of code contributed and amount of abuse reported, and it’s terrible and broken that I feel that that’s necessary. The only qualification that any of us should need to be treated with humanity is that we are human.

I hope the potential traumatic effects of being constantly harassed and told you’re unwelcome in the field where you’re trying to earn a living, in a hobby that is supposed to be fun, or both, are clear. You might wonder, though, just why it’s so bad. What makes men (and a few women who enable them) harass, abuse, attack, and undermine women in tech? Some of us have noticed a few recurring themes.

Male entitlement and attention-seeking are part of it. Technology is a profession that, at least in US culture, is one of the last remaining routes to a middle-class life that can, at least in theory, be accessed just by getting the right education and training. It wasn’t always this way: initially, in the 1940s and ’50s, computing was a women’s job. As soon it became clear that it was a potentially lucrative job, women were systematically pushed out, as historian Nathan Ensmenger wrote an entire book about.

In the 1980s, there was a slight resurgence of women in the tech industry, but their numbers actually decreased again with the rise of the Internet and the concomitant economic growth that the industry experienced. Many men believe that the mere presence of women in their field lowers their salaries, and statistically, they’re not wrong: for example, in medicine, specialties tend to be higher paid the higher percentage is of men who work in them. The more economic benefit is at stake, the more vicious the harassment of women trying to take a little bit of what men feel entitled to becomes.

Especially in realms where money is not at stake (hobbies like science fiction and video games), some men seek to defend a more nebulous sort of value. Threatened masculinity plays a role, especially for men who identify as geeks/nerds and so are less likely to have traditional masculine hobbies or skills, such as ones involving physical power or skill, to use for shoring up their masculine identities. To protect their masculinity, they must ensure that the things they do like doing such as playing video games, writing open-source software, writing science fiction stories are coded as “male”, which can mean driving women out.

For angry young men who feel disenfranchised and marginalized in the larger world, and who confuse feminists with the forces with actual social power that disenfranchise them, attacking women who they see as threatening the one hobby they can escape into (the “threat”, of course, is simply the presence of women getting to enjoy it to) can be appealing.

Compounding factors that make it even harder for women to cope with these problems are high-pressure and/or unstructured working environments, public scrutiny arising from online activity that is necessary for building a career and doing a job, blurred or nonexistent boundaries between professional and social life, secondary trauma from carrying not only one’s own adverse experiences, but likely those of many friends, and pre-existing mental health issues.

Anecdotally, people who are on the autism spectrum and/or who have ADD/ADHD are more common in tech, perhaps because tech jobs can sometimes be more forgiving of social differences and of inconsistent working hours and performance. Both women being harassed, and harassers themselves, may be on the autism spectrum or have ADD/ADHD; so that complicates interactions. Also anecdotally, trans women who are openly trans, as well as non-binary-identified gender-non-conforming people, are a bit more common in tech than in the underlying population. In the case of intersecting mental health issues like these, a therapist should not work with members of these groups unless they have genuine knowledge or are willing to seek consultation with an expert.

Feminists in geek culture (largely women, a few male allies) have organized to resist the ongoing assaults against them. They have drafted anti-harassment policies for conferences, which many conferences have adopted. They have organized formal support groups, networks, and regularly scheduled events. They have adopted inside jokes and dark humor as a coping mechanism, which may seem strange or self-deprecating to those who aren’t in on the joke. They have formed support networks online, both public and closed ones.

As individuals, women in tech (and their friends) may cope by talking it out with anyone willing to listen — sometimes publicly on their blogs, sometimes with a friend in private; by self-soothing with displacement activities like puzzle games, knitting, or cat pictures; by self-medication or substance abuse; by filtering or muting triggering content on the Internet (which women in tech are generally adept with); by working at home if that is possible for them; by protecting their privacy online, or, ultimately, for some women, by changing careers. Often, these methods aren’t enough, and some of them can become needed to such an extent that they displace work or family responsibilities.

Collectively, as the editors of this wiki page, those of us who have sought out therapy or counseling have heard some unhelpful things from therapists. We know that we are smart and talented — at least, those of us who are women, or gender-non-conforming, or who are trans men who transitioned during our careers know (deep down) that if we weren’t, we would have given up on it long ago. But knowing that we’re smart doesn’t protect us from abuse.

Suggestions of avoidance aren’t helpful, since many of us are already using avoidance to cope. “Leave your job” is unhelpful: most of us don’t have the financial privilege to change careers, and in the early-21st-century economy, many of us would be likely to take a huge pay cut if we did opt for any other work outside of tech. “Don’t use the Internet” is no more helpful: many of us have to use it for our jobs, and it’s a source of much-needed social support for all of us. Likewise, suggesting that the Internet isn’t real goes against our lived experience, in which many of us find all of our employment and build and sustain genuine relationships using the Internet.

Dismissing our experience with “it’s not that bad”, with any form of blaming the victim, or with a suggestion that we ought to grow a thicker skin or be less PC just compounds the problems we experience. In seeking therapy, we hope that a therapist will validate our lived experiences. Likewise, a therapist should not attempt to jump straight into helping us problem-solve without validating our emotional responses first. Most of us are very good at solving problems, but live and work in extremely emotionally invalidating environments.

I hope this article is a helpful introduction for therapists to the Geek Feminism wiki. More information can be found on the Resources for Therapists page and on the wiki as a whole. We welcome suggestions to improve the Resources for Therapists page — you can either make them on the article’s talk page or by emailing me.

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