I attended Geek Girl Con in Seattle over the weekend, and it was beautiful. I’d like to recap some of the panels and provide some commentary and helpful links.
First of all, why does Geek Girl Con, now in its third year, exist? The panelists for “Changing Culture in Mainstream and Alternative Spaces” discussed how GGC came about and what we can do to make geekdom safe and fun for everyone.
Convention culture can create community, influence industry, provide marketing opportunities, foster career development, and challenge perspectives. But when difficult conversations regarding representation, gender, race, or ability are met with hostility by event organizers, industry leaders, and by geeks themselves, do we continue to show up to these larger spaces? Or is it more productive to create alternatives? Where is action most effective? Panelists will discuss where we draw the line, best use our energies, or vote with our dollars as community organizers, creators, speakers, and activists. We will talk about what constitutes a safe space, how to set an example, send a message, and raise the bar — as well as how we drive change and build our businesses through these smaller, yet safer and more inclusive spaces.
Panelists: Benjamin Williams (GaymerCon), Jennifer K. Stuller (InkStained Amazon), Jo Jo Stiletto (Nerdlesque), K.T. Bradford (Technology Reviewer and Journalist), Rob Salkowitz (Comic-Con and The Business of Pop Culture), Shoshana Kessock (writer, game designer, blogger).
This is not a transcript (I can’t type or write that fast) but a summary; some parts are out of order to better group them by subject. If a video of any panel I have becomes available, I plan to link to it. If I have in any way flubbed one of the panelist’s statements, let me know and I’ll correct it. My comments are in italics.
Geek Girl Con was created as a kind of alternative to PAX (Penny Arcade’s con). Although PAX has had panels like “Game Like a Girl” and audiences for these panels were generally positive, Shoshana Kessock remarked that the PAX creators’ continued cycle of making rude and ignorant judgments about women, trans people, and rape culture, then apologizing, then continuing to make those sort of comments, made her and others step away from PAX. Since the multiple PAX cons are some of the biggest gaming events of the year, opting out really takes a toll on creators’ earnings and exposure. The panelists addressed the sources of the problems and possible solutions in addition to opting out.
The Irony of “Peak Geek”
One theme that came up a lot over the course of the con was how the mainstream and the nerd culture interact. With nerdy pursuits, as Rob Salkowitz noted, there used to be this idea that nerd culture is specifically different from the mainstream culture (although there was a “no girls allowed in the clubhouse” mentality). But now that nerd culture has become more mainstream with, for example, films like Lord of the Rings and The Avengers, which brought in people who did not (or do not) identify as nerds into the fandom, especially at the two major things happened: 1. Mainstream culture’s increased contact with the nerddom has added a layer of dudebro mentality, and 2. Marketing and commodifying geek and nerd culture maintains marketing stereotypes and the idea of the “target market” as young males.
In my experience, and the experience of some other geeks, was that my consumption of nerdy things was so insular that I didn’t realize it was marketed for boys until much later. For example, Star Wars and Legend of Zelda were things I read/watch/played at home and did not connect with male nerds until I went to college.
The “period of peak geek,” Stuller commented, means having more acceptance in mainstream culture, but it also means that our culture’s dirty laundry is being aired in the mainstream media. Which, I might add, is the same problem Japanese culture has in the US mainstream media as being portrayed as “wacky” and “weird.”
Because of this new visibility of geek culture, Kessock pointed out that the unacceptable behavior is coming from outsiders coming on “nerd safari” and that these behaviors (harassment, bullying) are perpetuated by outside onto geek culture; meanwhile, the mainstream and marketing is pushing sexism into nerddom. Several panelists brought up New York City Comic Con, where camera crews harassed female con-goers. New York City Comic Con has cracked down on harassers to protect their financial interests because they need positive associations and reviews to stay in business, but in part due to financial concerns, which can help police bad behavior. In addition to marketing films, Salkowitz said, there is also a new issue of conventions like NYCCC as being a means of selling to geeks and selling geeks to companies, rather than geeks creating conventions for geeks.
Opting Out vs Change from Within
K.T. Bradford prefers less commercialized cons like Sirens Con and WisCon, feminist fantasy and scifi conventions which are FOR the attendees, not for businesses trying to buy and sell her identity. Even within smaller cons, though, there is room for making everyone feel safe and included. She used the example of Wiscon’s creation of a POC-only panel and a POC lounge/safe space. Initially someone had blocked it because of “exclusion,” but after that person saw the panel, they realized what a good idea it was to have a safer space and it became official.
Williams, on the other hand, started going to PAX to help make safe spaces in mainstream cons and found merit in that. But, as he pointed out, you know that you’re not the audience for the con, and so he started Gaymer X to provide a safe space for queer games.
Kossock added that, in contrast, there was no safe space at NYCCC and that she only felt safe in the press area. There was not a place for cosplayers to change, for example, a member of a camera crew yelled at a cosplayer to “take it off” while she was adjusting her costume.
What is “Safe Space”?
Jo Jo Stiletto: The places where my friends and I can be ourselves, especially if we can’t be ourselves at our day jobs.
Rob Salkowitz: The comic book stores of other countries are my embassy. I am white and straight but I don’t have to apologize or explain for being a geek in these places. If we peak geek and lose our culture, there are no safe spaces.
Shoshana Kessock: Anywhere my feelings will be respected. It’s harder to create in big spaces, but a quiet space and a place for respect.
Benjamin Williams: Anywhere where someone’s privilege won’t be imposed on me.
Change From Within or Without?
Stuller posed the question of whether community building and changing geek culture should come from inside geek culture or from the outside. Williams, who works at UW on diversifying curriculum, prefers a multi-pronged approach. In his area, this is to build queer geek community and identity and create visibility, and to “corrupt from within” at PAX.
Kessock commented that if you step into those spaces and you have the energy stand up and fight back, to do so, but if you can’t, it’s okay. Sometimes the microagressions get to all of us, and we need to take a break. Choosing your battles was brought up, but mostly in the context of choosing which battles vs. “growing a thicker skin.” Salkowitz added that confrontation, especially in [polite] social media directed at big cons like San Diego Comic Con, gets you more leverage.
Bradford added that some insides are easier to change than others; for example, WisCon was and is easier than PAX because PAX is the creators’ business and livelihood, not a fan-run con. Boycotting PAX would be easier, in her opinion.
Mainstreaming: It’s Complicated
Stiletto asked the question of what happens when your grassroots movement grows and gets commercialized or changes? What will GGC become?
Stuller responded that we’re not always aware of what’s needed unless someone says so, so if GGC needs to be more inclusive or if something is missing, con-goers should speak up.
Stiletto connected the idea of fan-based cons growing to huge events to her experiences in roller derby, which she loved because it didn’t play into narratives of typical sports or athletes. With recent influence to be more like a sport, she ended up distancing herself from it. “We are making our own space and our own rules,” she said. “We don’t have to grow up.”
Kessock added that just one person can impact a con. “All it takes is one voice.” The media will pick it up and create change. “One person can change an entire dialogue.”
Questions from the Audience
Comment 1: If you see something, report it.
The reactions to PAX “dick wolves” was withdrawing, and we need to be active. Our worst stereotypes are out in the media, and if we withdraw from PAX, etc., that’s all we have left. We must be vocal about our displeasure.
Comment 2: On having layer of being a minority within geekdom.
It’s up to is what we want to be and how do we make something more of it. “Wonderful and uncomfortable.”
There was a prior discussion on Nerdlesque: For example, the purpose of burlesque as a subversive genre is often misunderstood, and when geekery is added to the mix, the burlesque enthusiasts and nerds alike had misconceptions and backlash. Jo Jo Stiletto’s Nerdlesque, a nerdy burlesque show, shows how being an alternative art within an alternative culture (or vice-versa) can be difficult. Geek culture offers new opportunities for burlesque, which has a history of subversion and satire. Yet the larger culture is not interested in women’s stories or the diversity of bodies on stage that the show aims for, and at Emerald City Comic Con, the con marketers marketed the event towards men, when it was supposed to be a fun, sexy event for anyone interested. In regards to marketing and media, Stiletto’s recommendation was to share good, quality posts, such as this one in Geek Quality instead of drawing attention to reviews that do a poor job.
And, on the note of race and minorities within minorities, Bradford discussed again the mainstreaming of geek culture and how it may help with outreach. As a Black girl, she was told “it’s weird to be geeky. Black people don’t do that,” and believes that mainstreaming geekdom may helps make it okay to be black and geek and girl; that mainstreaming will make safer spaces.
Part 2: There was an excellent related discussion of mainstream bullying at the “A Community Divided” panel, which merits its own post but touches on similar topics in relation to cosplay and cyberbullying.