The GeekGirlCon Effect

Our family has been to every GeekGirlCon, from the first in 2011 to the most recent, held just last month. While comics is a major reason why we go, GeekGirlCon has never primarily been a comics convention. The mission of the event is much broader, including not only all kinds of popular media and culture, but also science, math, and tech; just about anything commonly associated with American “geek culture”. At the same time, the official “origin story” for Geek Girl Con has its roots in “comic-con” culture.

On the organization’s “About” page, the creators reference a panel at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, “Geek Girls Exist”, as a primary motivator for the invention of their event. This panel is a rhetorical variation on the now archetypal “Women in Comics” session that has become common place at conventions, both big and small.

As is often the case with these kinds of openings, what began as a progressive maneuver aimed at inclusion has, over time, started to feel less like progress and more like a way to limit or manage the involvement of “others”, obviously, women and girls, but in this case, we are clearly also talking about all queer and non-gender conforming individuals, too. At least, as GeekGirlCon has grown, it has grown in no small part as a cultural safe space for all geeks who do not match the dominant image (which remains that of a white, heterosexual male, however socially awkward he may be). Essentially, by 2010, declaring that “Geek Girls Exist” or that there are “Women in Comics” no longer seemed to be the point to be made, both because of the narrowness of the statement and also its obviousness.

By contrast, GeekGirlCon starts from the premise that there are geeks who are also girls. The question is not whether they exist, but whether they are allowed space to share and express their interests and passions in ways that are equal to the opportunities afforded to geeks who are also boys (and, of course, it needs to be noted that the “boy” in “geek” is normally assumed, which is why we have, and need, GeekGirlCon, but not GeekBoyCon; consider how much odder the latter looks and sounds and you get the point. If the world were, historically, matriarchal rather than patriarchal, this entire conversation would be different).

In recent years, GeekGirlCon has been held opposite New York Comic Con. This year, my Twitter feed exploded with reporting on the “Women of Marvel” panel at that other event while GeekGirlCon was still underway. I was struck not only by the size of the panel, which featured sixteen writers, artists and editors, and the announcements for upcoming female-led titles, but also by how different the construction “Women of Marvel” is from “Women in Comics”.

To begin, “Women of Marvel,” is far more specific than “Women in Comics. In both cases, female panelists are still given the burden to represent an entire gender, and not just themselves as individual creators. (Again, consider how there are no “Men of Marvel” or “Men in Comics” panels). However, the burden is significantly lessened when given a more discrete body of women on whose part you are being asked to speak. If standing in for all women in comics seems, at best, absurd for any select group, standing in for all of the women who work for a single publisher seems, at least, manageable to contemplate.

There is also the difference between “of” and “in”. “In” implies presence, but without conveying a specific sense of whether that presence is welcome, simply tolerated, or something that needs to be contained or repelled, like a virus or an invading army. I think that the sense that the word might mean containment, or little more than toleration, is one of the reasons why GeekGirlCon was formed from frustration with these kinds of panels, especially where such sessions are virtually the only formal acknowledgment of girls and women at a convention.

By contrast, “of” connotes belonging, attachment, being part of something. “Women of Marvel” is the publisher not merely acknowledging the presence of women at the company, but embracing female writers, artists, and editors as part of the whole, rather than holding women at a distance or treating them as some foreign body.

This year’s New York Comic Con was also notable for the prominence of its anti-harassment policy and adoption of “Cosplay is not Consent” as an official standard of behavior for the event. The intent here is to make conventions places where everyone can express themselves and their fandom without being treated with derision, disrespect, threats of violence, sexual assault or unwanted sexual attention. Needless to say, having a clear anti-harassment policy, and making enforcement of same an essential part of running an event, has been part of GeekGirlCon from the beginning, even as these efforts have been taken up more slowly by “traditional” conventions.

Of course, as I note above, GeekGirlCon is more than a comics convention. Even so, it’s difficult for me to imagine that the creation of that event has nothing to do with the intensity of interest and marquee value of this years “Women of Marvel” panel in New York, or the manner in which anti-harassment policies and enforcement have become prominent issues in debates over the cultures of comics conventions. Before GeekGirlCon, women in comics and geek girls were still primarily being treated as unicorns or snowflakes — mythic, special, elusive, transient — and “anti-harassment” was a battle being fought on the margins.

Now, it could not be clearer that geek girls are real, that women are not only in, but of, comics, and they, and everyone, go to cons for their own reasons and not to be eye candy or sexual targets for men and boys. The world of comics is a better world, now.