Gail Simone, the writer of “Batgirl,” “Red Sonja,” “Tomb Raider” and more, kicked off the Opening the Geek Clubhouse panel at Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo with an observation that cuts to the heart of why such a panel is important: “Automatically cutting out so much of your potential audience [women] by not even acknowledging that they exist is a poor business plan.”
That’s not a hypothetical. When Simone launched her Women in Refrigerators website, she said, female characters were just being used as plot points for the male characters. “It was kind of like the industry saying, ‘These characters don’t really matter. They are not important… Female readers don’t exist.'” She recalls asking a top editor at one of the Big Two what the percentage of female readers was. “He literally said, ‘I don’t know and I don’t care,’ right to my face,” she recalled. “It became clear at that point that we had a lack of diversity, not just in the creative pool, but in our actual comic books, which impacted the industry by keeping it behind the times.”
In terms of her own work, Simone said, “There have always been people from the beginning who wanted to close the gates… and I just kind of had the attitude that I was going to burn them down.” The audience responded with loud applause.
The panel, sponsored by the Chicago Nerd Social Club and moderated by its founder, Jeffrey Smith, featured Simone; writer and speaker Michi Trota; novelist Mary Anne Mohanraj, founder of the Speculative Literature Foundation; Hugo Award-winning fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal; “Batman” writer Scott Snyder and gamer and legal scholar Karlyn Meyer.
The lack of diversity in pop culture can go deep. Trota, who is Asian-American, said the majority of characters she identified with were white women. “When I looked at my own writing, I had written stories that were all about white people,” she said. “Even when I was Mary Sue-ing myself into a piece of fanfiction, I was Mary Sue-ing myself in as a white girl, which was really sort of fascinating, and a little horrifying.”
While diversity may be desirable, it doesn’t always come easily to creators. Smith asked the writers how they can accurately depict characters whose experiences are different from theirs. “I tend to go ahead and write, using my imagination, my knowledge of the world, etc.,” Mohanraj answered. “If I am writing about a character from a culture outside of mine, I’m probably going to get some things wrong… What I do before I publish it and embarrass myself in front of the world is, I show it to people. I take it to my workshop, and I go and bug my friends.”
Asking others for feedback is a difficult but important step, Meyer added. “We are really, really happy when we are talked about, and we would love to be talked about well,” she said. “Reach out to people that you know, and if you don’t know people in the demographic that you are writing about, maybe look into that, too.”
On the other hand, a well-meaning question can still be offensive. Smith, who is black, mentioned a friend who asked whether his family has chicken on Thanksgiving. “People in positions of privilege don’t realize what they are doing might be offensive or rude,” he explained. “It’s very difficult and uncomfortable to break through that and say, ‘Hey, what you said is kind of offensive,’ while at the same time not putting that person on the defensive.”
“I definitely have an extensive library of experience in being the person that has asked those terrible questions,” Snyder said. Although he grew up on the Lower East Side of New York, and his best friends are black and Hispanic, he describes himself as a “spazz.” Still, he said, “I think at the end of the day, what you have to recognize is that these people are my friends, and my best friends, because you connect at a level that transcends any of those elements that are culturally specific. You love comics together. You love sports together. You love the same things in school.” The same principle applies when creating characters. “You can be apologetically terrible and eventually apologize for it if you screw up, but if it comes from the heart and that’s why you are writing the character the way they are, because you feel an emotional connection to what they went through, or what they are going through, everything else is forgivable,” he said. “It’s OK to screw up. I have certainly screwed up. But you don’t write them to have a black lesbian in ‘The Wake,’ or something like that; you write them because the pain they experienced is similar in some way to the pain you experienced. Their orientation, or the things they have gone through because of that, are not necessarily the reason you are writing, it just feels somehow like that element of their life plays into or is confluent with the other elements that you are leaning into.”
Simone agreed that characters shouldn’t be created just to have a certain set of traits, however, “We have a lot of years of mostly white characters, and decisions were made all these years, all along the way, to create these characters that were straight and white… It wasn’t just organically happening that they were writing white characters. Those decisions were made. So when you create a new character or bring a new character in, the decision is made, from when the character is created: Are we going to create another straight white character, or are we going to create something different that we haven’t seen a hundred zillion times before?”
In the entertainment industry, Simone explained, some people will set up roadblocks because they are concerned about sales. “What I am finding is that most of those people are behind the times. They are looking at old numbers. I had an editor literally standing in a convention, at Artists Alley, saying, ‘I don’t understand why girls don’t read comics.’ This was a couple of years ago, and I was sitting at the table. I had a huge, long line, and I looked down the aisle, and it was female creators, females in line buying comics, people of all ethnicities buying stuff, and he’s standing right there looking at it, and he’s still denying it. So you sometimes have to, as I said, burn the gates, because they are not seeing what’s in front of their face.”
The conversation turned from indifference and ignorance to the abuse many fans and creators experience on the internet simply due to their gender or sexuality. Meyer spoke of gamers receiving rape threats, simply because they have a female avatar. “It’s these things that sound really absurd, unless you are part of them, things that sound like there’s absolutely no way that people are actually making these decisions, that people are actually doing these atrocious things, but they are, every day,” she said. “When you are in that position, where you are becoming aware of that for the first time, and it doesn’t affect you directly, just kind of recognize, this is a time when my eyes are open. The world is disgusting, but I can be an ally now.”
Allies are important. Mohanraj spoke of the time a few years ago when she wrote a post about racism in science fiction for writer John Scalzi’s blog Whatever. She appreciated the fact that he moderated the comments in real time, stopping most of the attacks on her before she could see them. “He said, ‘I’m not going to allow this kind of conversation in my space.’ It was really valuable. It provided a shield that made it possible for me to be there, engaging with everyone else who is engaging in good faith.”
Kowal counseled online allies to respond thoughtfully when they see someone saying the wrong thing. “Do you want to help them transform into an ally, or do you want to punish them?” she asked. “Someone that you punish, those are people that you are slamming the clubhouse door on, and they will never become allies.” She herself recently goofed, using the term “hearing impaired” in a blog post. “Someone Tweeted back at me and said, ‘Just so you know, “hearing impaired” is not favored in the deaf/hard of hearing community,'” she said. “It was really great, because it was presented in a way of, ‘Let me help you not screw up.’ It wasn’t, ‘You are a terrible, terrible person.’ Sometimes you do need to tell people that they are being a terrible, terrible person, because they are, but sometimes, they just don’t know any better.”
“An analogy my students like is, if you had a booger on your nose, you would want your friend to tell you,” Mohanraj offered.
“If someone tells you you have a booger on your nose, don’t go, ‘Oh, my God — you are a terrible person for telling me I have a booger on my nose!'” Trota added.
Smith brought up the question of anti-harassment policies, confessing that he was opposed to the Chicago Nerd Social Club adopting one, simply because, as he said, “In my mind, we weren’t condoning this behavior by not having it, and I have this thing against policies in general.” Trota, who wrote the initial policy, explained why it was important. “It’s like, we are going to take care of you, and here is what you can expect us to do, so you can come into the space feeling safe, knowing that if something happens, you will continue to be safe and we will continue to take care of you.” Similarly, she advocated careful moderation of online communities such as Facebook spaces or discussion threads, as Scalzi does at Whatever. “I always tell people, if you want to read Whatever, you can read the comment threads. It’s OK, because John is there with the mallet, and he will actually moderate things and keep things on track. That makes for a better community, that makes for a more vibrant discussion, because they know that things won’t get sidetracked and they don’t have to worry about the ambient kind of harm that comes out when people unthinkingly spout racism or sexism or misogyny or homophobia without being called out.”
“When you know up front that there is a policy, I think you are less likely to go in, guns blazing and start spouting racist and sexist remarks,” Simone said. “It provides safety for people to speak, and it also puts people on notice that this is not going to have any power here, so take it somewhere else — or nowhere at all.” She also emphasized the importance of men speaking up when women receive rape threats. “If we have a lot of male people in the industry jump in, as well as female people, it lets them know that this isn’t right. It is not a cool way for a dude to behave, and we’re not going to accept it either. Any type of ally in any situation like that helps a lot.”
Women are often told to “shake it off” when they are harassed or threatened, Mohanraj said. “I have heard women editors and women writers say, ‘If someone gropes you, punch them in the face. That’s what I would do.’ I like that we establish a certain minimum standard of decency so not everybody has to be the tough chick in order to survive in the field.”
Snyder said he was completely unaware of the level of vitriol aimed at women until his student, Marguerite Bennet, showed him the messages she got after DC changed the look of the character she was writing, Lobo. Although she had nothing to do with the change, some readers thought she had deliberately made him look like a “hunky guy,” Snyder said, and she started getting hate mail. What he didn’t initially realize was that her hate mail was very different from his. “I’ve gotten hate mail,” he said. “These people are like, ‘I hate you Snyder, you fucking suck, I’m gonna punch you at a con. You’re like, ‘OK, bring it!'” When Bennet showed him her hate mail, “It was like, ‘I know your address, I’m gonna come rape you, I’m gonna find you at a con.’ It was all that. Dozens and dozens of messages like that. Not only, obviously, is that not OK, but you have to say people are doing that, because I would never know… And when you see it, that’s when those of us in positions who have more of a bullhorn can say ‘There is a harassment policy and you guys get out. That’s not OK.'”
“I think there’s a defensiveness, sometimes, when policies are implemented in the space that you love,” Meyer said. “You say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t happen here. Are you saying we are bad guys? I know these people, they are my best friends, they are great.’ I think it’s important to recognize that your personal experiences are not the totality of the experiences of people in that space, and just because you haven’t heard about something happening doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And even if it isn’t happening, which would be wonderful, we are just saying we are going to make this safe going forward. And then, when people come in to the community, they will say, ‘You know what? I was anticipated. People are thinking about people like me and they want to make sure that I am OK,’ and that’s a beautiful thing.”