A Feminist Visits Comic-Con

This weekend, I attended my first ever Comic-Con–the annual comic-book industry bonanza–with my 12-year-old daughter. As always, I wore my feminist lenses, and noticed many things, both good and bad, to report.

As my daughter and I wended our way through the crowded exhibit hall, I was glad to find many women artists and editors and to see a number of seemingly girl-positive comics such as “Girl Genius.” Not so pleasing were the many comic-porn tables with highly objectifying images of women.

It was quite off-putting to see the many young children in attendance staring wide-eyed at animated porn. Also troubling to witness were the many women “cosplayers” (those costumed as characters) with massive fake boobs and massively thin bodies posing for photos with leering men. I watched in dismay as one man who appeared to be in his seventies shuffled after a human Jessica Rabbit, practically drooling as he tried to get close enough for a good picture.

Arguments surrounding sexualized cosplay are complex, and I don’t intend to condemn such roleplay. But, as noted by writer Andrea Dulanto in her piece “Feminist in Wonderland: The Women of Comic-Con,” it’s troubling that with boundless opportunities for playful dress, most women at conventions end up as “variations of pin-up girl.” While Dulanto accedes that “Comic-Cons espouse a celebratory, Halloween-ish, drag queen, theatre-esque, be-whoever-you-want-to-be energy,” her post explores the complexity of being “whoever you want to be”:

What matters is not whether we wear the seven-inch heels. What matters is whether we have asked ourselves—why do we wear them? If we have not addressed that question, then this is objectification, and it holds all of us back.

One reason the sexualized objectification of women in cosplay cannot be easily written off with be-whoever-you-want-to-be or dress-however-you-want-to-dress mantras is that sexual harassment of women cosplayers at cons is rampant. While all people should be able to dress as they wish without fear of sexual harassment or violence, the longstanding tactic of using the women’s bodies as commodified objects at cons creates an atmosphere in which real-life women are treated as if they are comic book characters ripe for the handling. Disturbingly misogynistic blogs featuring galleries of women cosplayers further illustrate this way of thinking.

This attitude is no doubt amplified by the omnipresence of paid cosplayers. Scantily clad, often very young women (and even girls) acting as “bodies for hire” were everywhere amongst the throngs of people, passing out ads or serving as human advertisements for upcoming films. What almost naked women with fake torpedo breasts have to do with films such as the forthcoming Total Recall is unclear. Here and elsewhere, the marketing tactic seemed to be “use hot women to lure people in, regardless of what we are trying to sell.”

One thing that struck me over the course of the weekend is how quickly it starts to feel “normal” to see women’s bodies on fetishized display. If I, a card-carrying feminist, become somewhat immune over the course of four days, what does the constant onslaught of female sexual objectification in the wider culture do to people over years?

But on to the good news: Many TV panels (Doctor Who, Supernatural) included vocal women writers, producers and editors. As a vampire junkie and the author of a new book on the Twilight saga and fandom, I felt dutybound to attend all events vampire–and thankfully, at those, no sexism reared its ugly head. At The Vampire Diaries panel, I was glad to hear Candice Accola (playing Caroline Forbes) enthusing about playing a strong, determined woman and to find Nina Dobrev (Elena/Katherine) wearing a Smurf-nerd t-shirt. Similarly, at the Breaking Dawn panel, Elizabeth Reaser (Esme) said she’s pleased the upcoming film shows Esme as a fierce and powerful mother and Nikki Reed (Rosalie) said she’s glad the final films are allowing her to show that strong women can also be funny. Meanwhile, Rob Pattinson joked about a “what’s it like to work with such hot women” question, nodding to the fact his co-stars are indeed “hot” but also talented and smart. Kristen Stewart chimed in, mocking the focus on the cast’s looks.

Unfortunately, outside of the vampire world, many male panelists seemed unwilling to take seriously questions about sexism in the industry (as evidenced by this post). For example, when a young boy asked the Simpson’s panelist with apparent genuine curiosity whether, if Edna Krabappel married Ned, he would become Mr. Krabappel, the panelists scoffed at him. The boy’s implied critique of the practice of women taking on their husband’s surnames was later skewered again when a panelist, with obvious derision, quipped that if Lisa married Millhouse he would have to become Mr. Simpson. Oh yes, how absurd to think a male might LOWER himself to take a woman’s name! Hardee-har-har. I desperately wished Lisa Simpson could have been in the room to respond.

Similarly depressing is the news from D.C. comics, as reported on at Feministing.com, that:

D.C. Comics is giving its universe a facelift this coming September, but it’s not just the characters that are being cut off the roster. Before the reboot 12 percent of DC’s staff was females post reboot? It’s cut down to 1 percent.

Given the diversity of attendees and the reputation of a LGBTQ-positive atmosphere, I was also disappointed in the many homophobic quips between men on various panels, as well as by the numerous anti-fat comments I overheard while walking around the con, among them, “fat people shouldn’t cosplay” and “I can’t believe that fat woman is dressed like that.” Sadly, the male control of conversations was also dismaying, with many instances of male privilege hogging the mic at various panels.

Yet, despite the general male domination of Comic-Con, despite the woman-as-object meme apparent in the exhibit hall, and despite the off-putting commentary of some panelists with obviously unexamined white/male/heterosexual privilege, I nevertheless left Comic-Con with the feeling that fandoms are indeed becoming more diverse (though I was unhappy to see “No Women Allowed” T-shirts at several of the large clothing booths).

I was glad to see so many women authors and artists making comics, and to hear women screenwriters, directors and actors making comments about the importance of strong women characters. And I am still fondly nursing the image of the young girl dressed in a Weeping Angel costume who asked the Doctor Who panel when there will be a woman Doctor.

For her sake, and for all the feminists who enjoy the narratives and characters of the comics world, I hope we not only see a woman Doctor soon, but a Comic-Con where women are allowed to be as fully human or fully villain or fully superhero–or at least, in the case of women cosplayers employed by studios, as fully clothed–as their male counterparts.

Photo of Entertainment Weekly’s “Women Who Kick Ass” panelists Jena Malone, Anna Torv, Elizabeth Mitchell, Ellen Wong and Mary Elizabeth Winstead from Flickr user Ronald Woan under Creative Commons 2.0


Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.