Women Attend Comic-Con But Don’t Run the Show

This year, 40 percent of the attendees at the just completed annual Comic-Con were women. If only that percentage was reflected in the event’s programming.

Instead, the majority of programming consisted of panels where the ratio was (at best) one woman for every five men. Though it’s true there are more strong women’s roles than before in television, film, games, comics and graphic novels (as discussed here), there is no equivalent growth in the number of women writing, producing and directing that media–let alone equivalent numbers of men and women on the Comic-Con panels.

Of all the programs I attended, only one panel consisted entirely of women–Entertainment Weekly’s “Powerful Women in Pop Culture (aka Women Who Kick Ass!).” Tellingly, none of the powerful women featured were directors or producers: They were actors. While the growth of powerful women’s roles is certainly something to be celebrated, it would be nice if growing opportunities for women actors to play “kickass” roles were accompanied by more woman power behind the cameras. Panelist Kristin Kreuk (Smallville, Beauty and the Beast) spoke to this problem: “We need to make sure that there are writers that are women and producers that are women.” Anna Torv of Fringe pointed out that while there are more strong women leads these days, the vast majority of supporting characters are still men:  “For every female lead there are five male supporting characters. It’d be nice to even that field a little bit.”

The panelists implicitly questioned the “kickass” sub-title, arguing that a reconsideration of what defines a “powerful woman” is in order. “When I think of a strong woman, I don’t just think of a woman who can kick people,” said Kreuk, later adding that “an emotional woman is not a weak woman.” Sarah Wayne Callies (Walking Dead) emphasized the importance of featuring strong mothers, citing her character Lori as a good example of a woman who is strong in more than just a kickass way.

The expansion of what defines being “badass” was also interrogated by the panelists. For example, when asked what badass thing they had done in the past year, Lucy Lawless (Spartacis) said, “I got arrested on an oil rig that was heading up to the Arctic.” She explained that her children should grow up in a clean environment and that it was her responsibility to make sure that happened. Callies noted her work with refugee women and said she recently bought her four-year-old daughter a bow and arrow; “I don’t know if I am a badass, but I am raising one. … I am committed to raising a badass little girl.”

When a fan asked during the Q and A what the panelists felt was the biggest issue of women’s rights today, Callies and Kreuk both referred to rape and sexual violence. Body image also came up as a key issue, with Nikki Reed (Twilight) noting that this is something women in the industry must deal with “on a greater scale than men do.” Callies said that not having to focus on body image is one of the great things about working on Walking Dead: “It’s hot and it’s sweaty and it’s gross and it’s liberating. … The show is the enemy of vanity.”

In contrast,  Kristin Bauer van Straten (True Blood) admitted that she would want a three-month warning before doing a nude scene so she could go to the gym more. Comments such as these, similar to those she made in 2010, gave credence to Callies’ claim that it’s difficult for women in the film business because “we are taught we ought to be thinner, younger, prettier.” But van Straten suggested that having to be so thin is a good thing, noting of True Blood that “we’re all much healthier for being on the show … we all work out a lot … we eat a lot more vegetables.” Though she did joke that “it’s all about vanity,” her comments were problematic, given that they promoted the idea that a female body is never good enough, requiring constant dieting, exercising and, as she joked, “a good spray tan.”

Lawless brought levity to the discussion by joking about having to use a “she-wee” on the oil rig and having to wear a merkin for Spartacis. She also emphasized she is a total fan girl of Sigourney Weaver and enthusiastically shared, “Have you noticed how much older women are reigning now on TV? I’m loving it.”

While older women are indeed reigning on TV, it would have been nice if more women of all ages had reigned at Comic-Con. Sadly, the women at the Con, whether real-live “booth babes” or illustrated characters, were far more sexualized and less clothed than their male counterparts. Thank goodness for the likes of Joss Whedon, who complained during the Dark Horse panel about the fact that he has been coming to Comic-Con for 10 years and has yet to find a woman hero statue that doesn’t look like a porn star. When he described the story of his career as depicting women who are not helpless, I was reminded of the “Zombie Dice” game I encountered on the Comic-Con floor, which included the characters “action hero” and “girlfriend.” When I asked the man demonstrating the game why the “girlfriend” couldn’t be a “action heroine,” he said “Oh, it gets worse … he has two brains and she only has one … but it’s OK because they save each other.” Too bad that the creator of this game didn’t take a page from Whedon’s book and create a woman with brains who didn’t need saving.

Here’s hoping that next year’s Con includes more strong women who are not only acting but also producing, writing and directing. And, who knows, maybe 2013 will be the year in which Whedon finally finds a non-pornified statue of a woman hero.

Photo from Flickr user heath_bar via Creative Commons 3.0


  1. Indeed, thank goodness for Joss Whedon.

    What I wonder is this: to what extent do the female audience’s perspectives count? 40% is huge.

  2. O.ZahZah says:

    It definitely still is a very male-dominated venue. I had the pleasure of attending and co-exhibiting with my close friend and collaborator, Eliza Frye who, aside from the graphic novel we are currently working on together (www.deathcomic.com), has released a collection of her own short stories and regularly writes and illustrates amazing comics and fine art pieces, all of which can be found on her website, http://www.elizafrye.com. We mostly stayed at the booth, and a frequent topic of conversation was how ridiculously and exaggeratedly sexualized female superheroes are, or even woman characters in general. In an industry that both tacitly and explicitly endorses and perpetuates institutionalized sexism, it is definitely still an uphill battle. Yet I feel very fortunate to have been able to attend with Eliza, and it gives me hope to know that, while it is rarely glamorous, she can make a living through her creative work alone. As a mutual friend of ours, Sarah Becan (another wonderfully talented, independent female comic artist and writer–www.sarahbecan.com–), once said, “What’s the best way to solve the ‘problem’ of women in the comic industry? Get more women to make comics!” The enthusiastic individuals who stopped by our booth made it clear that, while women are rarely accurately and/or fairly represented, many people are a lot more welcoming of work that is mostly to completely created by women, about women, and often for other women (rather than men) than the big presses or studios seem willing or even able to recognize.

  3. Maybe we should accept that Comic-Con is a guy thing, an adolescent guy thing. Super heroes are for boys. Funny comic strips (Cathy, Stone Soup, For Better or Worse, Luann, Pickles, Baby Blues, Zits) are popular with women, but only a small percentage of the artists/writers are women.
    FACT WE MUST ACCEPT: Women will go to a super-hero movie but men won’t go to chick flicks. Therefore, Hollywood, Comic-Con, newspapers and webcomics are focused on men. As president of the Southern California Cartoonists Society I have attended Comic-Con for six years. The most fun? Meeting other cartoonists, especially the women! Women unite! Refuse to attend Dark Knight till he attends To Rome with Love!

    • Barbara Doyle says:

      As a woman who actively avoids “chick flicks” and, generally speaking, loves superhero movies, I’m confused by this comment. Forcing somebody to see a movie that neither one of us want to watch, instead of the one we both want to see, will have exactly what effect?

      • Jennifer says:

        I too am confused by this comment. And how it ended up on Ms….

        But here, let me entertain you with some statistics on another “adolescent male” hobby.

        It might surprise you. http://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/ESA_EF_2012.pdf [PDF]

        Try page 3.

        Ms. should focus on conventions that have put the kibosh on booth babes, like E3.

        • Jennifer says:

          PS: I *dragged* my boyfriend to the Avengers. He won’t see Thor or Captain America, and I have to explain who all the characters are – especially the ones that get no intro, like Thanos.

          I point out the Stan Lee cameos to him, not the other way around.

          I also have no idea what To Rome With Love is, and but I’m betting it has nothing to do with Rome, our favorite show, because he likes the drama and I like the sword fighting.

          We both like history, and neither one of us will see The Dark Knight Rises, because Senator Leahy was treated to a cameo, in the same way that landed-gentry is treated to rule the world. WB & DC Entertainment can work a little harder to get my money, if they are going to fluff the MPAA with it.

          And I wouldn’t read Kathy if it had the daily lotto hidden in it. Sorry. Just not my thing.

  4. There was another panel at SDCC that featured all female panelists; “Womanthology”. It included both writers and artists that were featured in the comic book anthology; the namesake of the panel discussion. It was absolutely uplifting and encouraging as far as the growing presence of women in the industry is concerned. As a small press publisher of comics, I am fully aware of how women are tyoically viewed in the industry, (professionally as well as within comics themselves), but I rail against it by continuing to produce good books, make myself visable at conventions, reaching out to other women in the industry, etc. We have the power to change the industry and move it forward into the 21st century by networking with one another and supporting each others work.

    • Jennifer says:

      Thanks for the very very positive comment. I’ve been looking forward to Womanthology, the book.

  5. I would just be happy if the men who draw comic books learned to draw human anatomy competently–and by “human,” I mean “female.” Your average comic book super-heroine or super-villainess tends to have a spine that bends in quadruple directions, has breasts so large that she should be top-heavy and, as she delivers a martial arts kick to an enemy, can gaze at her own rear end. (And if you don’t believe me, check out the Tumblr Eschergirls: http://eschergirls.tumblr.com/post/27920977027/qwertybonus-submitted-too-bad-the-anatomy-isnt)

    What baffles me is that the industry so resolutely ignores the female comics fans. It’s a sizable market, and surely women’s money is as good as men’s. Yet, over and over, comic book artists draw women as grotesque and oversexualized caricatures–or as the character whose kidnapping, torture and/or death happens solely to give the male hero something to do. I love comics–who doesn’t? But the blatantly sexist attitudes get a bit wearing.

  6. Jennifer says:

    I’d like to ask the author about the stats.

    Natalie Wilson is right on all points, but I take issue with the oft quoted ubiquitous stats that came out of no where, and compare to nothing I can find. Help me find the data.

    People are saying that Comic-con was 40 percent female, but no one cites their sources. Thus, there is no way to know the methods.

    Frankly, I’m worried that this is coming from that trashy NPR article published on All Things Considered, where the sum total of an engendered Comic-con analysis is, ‘must be Twilight’.

    If your estimate at 40 is valid, I apologize. But people keep talking about an uptick in a trend from last year, and it bothers me that no one really has said what the demographics were last year.

    To my estimate women have always been present in high numbers. Always. And I think its important to consider that, as Comic-con becomes more mainstream (with prime time televisions shows and box-office hits to consider) it follows that more women are being included in particular aspects of programing. But that says almost nothing about the attendees. Just as the popularity of male serialized characters in comic books, says nothing, absolutely nothing about who is reading them. There have been far too many assumptions in this industry, and heaps of money follow those assumptions into the business world. It gives me a headache.

    So I suspect that women at Comic-con are higher than 40 percent, and are not up that much from last year.

    Marketing persons that are responsible for bad data, and logically also bad strategies like booth babes, are stuck, have always been stuck on this idea that comics, old school six panels a page comics, are the domain of men. They aren’t, and they never have been. In fact, they think it’s the domain of a particular kind of man: 30-40 yo, never been laid, has man boobs or a wrist you could snap like a twig.

    Yet, it’s women who have worked really hard to undo the damage done by ill-informed production and marketing plans, because women pay the price for video game rape culture and role models who end up perennially de-powered. The first time I played Nintendo’s baseball, they guys I was playing set it to ‘softball’ for me so that I could play a girl [how kind]. Then, when my player got hit with the ball, it dropped to its knees and cried. Try playing Modern Warfare and hearing about getting your ‘$hit pushed in’, and having your characters voice be a man. No fun. So it won’t come as any surprise that when the Entertainment Software Assoc. finally decided to get real data on players, they found that women only played one or two games. Almost half of all payers were women, adult women outnumbered adolescent men, but the nuanced data show that women only bought a select few games – no doubt games that bothered them less than the others, like Halo, where you can play a female character.

    So just as women have worked to undo the stereotypes, Comic-Con has become much more commercially viable. This leaves it vulnerable to more crap analysis like NPR’s, who cites no one, creates an imagined trend, and chalks it up to Twilight, deftly undoing all our hard-won notice.

    Meanwhile, the publishers’ answer to all their troubles is to create a couple of female characters, as if we haven’t been reading the male characters – forever already. We can read about men, even ridiculous over-the-top men, like Steranko’s Nick Fury. But they still can’t hear us. They think we want Scarlet Johansen to look great and perform flawless round-kicks, and that will make us ignore the fact that the female *founding member* of the avengers isn’t present. With the Wasp, they missed a perfect opportunity to undo the wrongs of the past. circa 1960s Wasp’s super-power, back in the day, was buzzing in people’s ear. Not joking. They’ve talked about bringing back the Black Panther, a Black super-hero, who is no one’s side kick, for a feature film, but they just get stuck on the idea that only Black people will go see it, and 13 percent US demographic puts them off.

    It’s as if no one knows how to research a market. Social scientists learn the ins and outs of inferential statistics; business majors need to have a high proficiency in math for economics inferential and descriptive statistics; yet marketing people want to stick to stereotypes and survey-moneky surveys that only their friends participate in, and rule the bloody world with it. It’s maddening.

    They can’t hear us. And if this ’40 percent + up from last year’ is just someone’s qualitative idea, then that doesn’t help matters. Please author Natalie Wilson, help me source it.

    Women just want the to be acknowledged for our presence in the comic community by being allowed to earn places in the creative community, but they think that women should be hired to write female capes, and that men should be hired to write male capes. We want to not be killed off, de-powered, marginalized, stuffed in refrigerators, and that won’t happen on its own with men obliviously writing these tropes. You can’t blame them, its the same genre-tropes they grew up with, and they’ve never had any reason to be bothered by it. But they need to move over and let us have a turn. That will never happen while people are stuck on the bad data.

    My point is, and I mean no offense, but could someone please tell me where this 40 percent is coming from, and give me some quantifiable data to compare last year and the year before etc., before talking about the engendered Comic-con to end all Comic-cons?

  7. “Sadly, the women at the Con, whether real-live ‘booth babes’ or illustrated characters, were far more sexualized and less clothed than their male counterparts.”

    I’m a bit confused. Don’t women wear less clothes than men in real life? Is that not a fact of 21st century society? From the passage it seems as though it is being suggested that this is somehow either restricted to comics or media when it is clearly not. And real life unlike media is not written by one person.

  8. John Smith says:

    > The panelists implicitly questioned the “kickass” sub-title, arguing that a reconsideration of what defines a “powerful woman” is in order. “When I think of a strong woman, I don’t just think of a woman who can kick people,” said Kreuk, later adding that “an emotional woman is not a weak woman.” Sarah Wayne Callies (Walking Dead) emphasized the importance of featuring strong mothers, citing her character Lori as a good example of a woman who is strong in more than just a kickass way.

    This is *exactly* why there are so few women writers in this industry. Personally I lost interest in Walking Dead when Lori’s drama and emotions took over the show. I have every right not to enjoy that stuff and until women writers are willing to write to their target audience in this context they will always be in the minority.

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