Comic-Con’s Carnival Atmosphere Sadly Punctuated by “Slutty Victim” Feel

I enjoy going to Comic-Con. The creative costumes and the variety of people in them, old and young, fat and thin, gender normative and gender queer, as well as the diversity of non-costumed attendees gleefully taking pictures with those in costumes make the event feel like a huge, four-day Halloween. I also enjoy the coverage of shows and movies I love, the throng of people devoted to their love of “geeky” or “nerdy” stuff, the fact that the crowds are as diverse as the shows, texts, writers and so on that the Con features.

In short, I am a fan of Comic-Con. That doesn’t mean I can’t also be critical of it. I’m critical of two things in particular: The fact that women are now at least 40 percent of the attendees but are nowhere near 40 percent of those represented on panels or in Con content, and that misogynist, prurient atmosphere sometimes rears its drooling, leering head, leading to the objectification and harassment of women.

Regarding content, the panels themselves are still largely a male domain. This has not changed in the past three years I have attended. As in the media world generally, most of Comic-Con’s featured directors, writers, producers and lead actors are male. Even when there are females on the panels, males often dominate discussion.

A case in point was the Divergent panel. Neil Burger, the director of the film, did most of the talking, even when the moderator directed questions to the author of the book series, Veronica Roth. Burger was much like the dominator of the Doctor Who panel, Steven Moffat, who also did the majority of the talking. Acting as if he had created the series Doctor Who (when actually it was Sydney Newman), Moffat said at one point, “The only way to write anything is to write for yourself.” An interesting claim while sitting in a hall filled with 6,500 fans who apparently don’t mean a thing. In contrast, the show’s main actors, Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman, were very personable and funny and thanked the fans.

A nice variance to these white male dominators was Alfonso Cuaron, director of the upcoming Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock, who defended his choice of casting a female lead and noted his dismay that such defenses are still necessary (for a post on this, see here).

Though Cuaron displayed an awareness of the gender disparities within entertainment media, neither the Divergent panel nor the Doctor Who panel offered much commentary on gender, something that seemed glaringly absent given the Katniss-esque awesomeness of the main character Triss in Divergent as well as the recent buzz about casting the Doctor as a female (as here).

On a positive note, during the Supernatural panel, actor Jensen Ackles, who plays main character Dean Winchester, compared the new character Kevin to Katniss (how often are males praised for being like females, let alone male characters praised for being like a female character?!?) and Felicia Day (Charlie) pointed out the nearly all-male cast and creators of Supernatural, ribbing others on the panel that “I think the show needs a teflon vagina.”

Speaking of teflon vaginas, a show that has multiples of these is Dexter, and during the Dexter panel Michael C. Hall, the show’s protagonist, noted that a key part of why the show is so good and so successful is that women compose half of the writing staff. (Other shows, please take note!!!!)

The Vampire Diaries panel, another show with women writers, also deserves a shout-out for the panelists’ astute handling of the creepy question from a mother in the audience who shared that she is trying to teach her daughter the “values of abstinence” and asked if the panelists would support this message. After friendly joking regarding how she sees Vampire Diaries as “abstinence training,” the panelists vehemently refused to support her abstinence agenda, referring to sex as pleasurable, important and natural.

Although Comic-Con tends to be more about loving shows and geeking out over what would happen if Han Solo met Indiana Jones (a question posed to Harrison Ford during the Ender’s Game panel), political analysis was not entirely absent. Ford, for example, made references to Ender’s Game being very much about militarism and moral complexity, while director Terry Gilliam mocked NSA spying practices in his spoof about his upcoming film Zero Theorem.

I was unable to attend any of the panels focused on women, which tend to have the most pointed discussions of gender–an illustration of a point often made by women’s studies professors that if you don’t have “women” in the title or description of courses (or, in this case, panels) then women are often left out, as if human equals men.

Holly Derr, writing on some of these gender-specific Con panels for Bitch and for the Ms. Blog noted her takeaway was that “the female experience is the human experience, people just aren’t trained to think that way.” Indeed. If they were, we would not need gender-specific panels in order to have more gender equitable panels.

Sadly, this was the case at the “Zombies in Popular Culture” panel, one of the those I was most looking forward to, given that I am currently working on a book analyzing the zombie genre from a feminist perspective. Despite not one woman on the panel, nor any discussion of gender in the zombie oeuvre, I did see a number of fabulous females dressed as zombies or in zombie-related costumes–one of which was a telling commentary on, well, quite a bit. She wore a tank top and shorts. Nothing unique in San Diego. What turned her outfit into an interesting costume with a subtext of political commentary was what she had written on her shirt in blood-colored paint: “Slutty Victim.” Whether she meant this as a feminist statement or not, I do not know. But I took it as one. The cursive claim emblazoned across her chest calls to mind the rape culture in which we reside, in which women “ask for it,” as well as the Comic-Con culture wherein some attendees feel entitled to ogle and, in some cases, sexually harass and/or assault women that, to them, are no more than “slutty victims” available for their violating gazes and gropes.

Admittedly, there are many positive interactions surrounding the costume features of the Con. For example, one can hear mutual compliments between those in innovative, creative costumes, and witness humans of all varieties taking photos of costumed attendees, a practice that is usually filled with appreciation and revelry. As my professor friend describes it, this gives the Con a carnivelesque atmosphere that allows for positive expressions of geekdom, sexuality and gender expression.

On her experience as a first time Con attendee she writes,

As a feminist, I was a little nervous about what it would be like at the Con … because of the reputation of geek culture as male (or masculinist—with its scantily-clad women with impossible curves) but I really found it to be quite friendly and welcoming. In fact, for me, I felt like it was a relatively safe space for women to express their sexualities publicly and positively.  I saw a range of women of different ages, body sizes, ethnicities and class backgrounds dressed in revealing or sexualized outfits or costumes, and I personally felt safe enough to wear what I considered to be a ‘sexy’ outfit on Saturday. The ubiquitous presence of cosplayers is one of the (many) things that gives the Con a carnivalesque atmosphere in which certain norms about sexuality (such as who can be considered attractive, who ‘should’ wear revealing clothes, or what it means when someone is wearing a sexy costume) can be tested and perhaps temporarily transcended.  But, among all of the costumes and scantily-clad women, there also seemed to be a profound acceptance for the ‘non-sexy’ woman, or the awkward geek who does not perform the various rituals of femininity as expected, which added to the welcoming, carnivalesque atmosphere.

Though I agree the Con provides a carnivalesque atmosphere, sometimes the more freeing aspects of carnival transform into behavior that is more in line with domination and assault. On that note, what I don’t love about Comic-Con are is its hyper-pornified aspects (thankfully not its predominant aspects), not only because I take my 14-year-old daughter with me but because there are lots of children in attendance. I could say the same thing of the world in general–it is far too hyper-sexualized in a negative, objectifying way, and there are lots of children in the world. Can we shield children from sex? Should we? Of course not! But must we give them the message that when other humans dress in a certain way, particularly female humans, that unwarranted grabs/comments/leering is okay? I think not.

Admittedly, this hyper-porn feel was much more readily apparent outside the walls of the convention than inside it, especially in the surrounding Gaslamp area and the food truck lot. This inside/outside dichotomy is interesting, and one I hope to explore further next year. The reactions to sexy costumes were generally more objectifying outside the Convention Center, and that objectifying gaze, when accompanied by comments or actions, can easily slide into harassment. (For posts on sexual harassment at Cons see here and here and here. For the Con Anti-Harassment project see here.)

I may be waiting awhile to see gender-equitable panels and a Con devoid of women treated as “slutty victims,” but until then I will revel in the Con’s more enjoyable aspects while keeping a critical eye on those areas in dire need of improvement.

Photos of Comic-Con attendees courtesy of Flickr users Rick R. and Andrew H324 via 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.