Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Geeky Gals Who Think Like I Do

Growing up I never had that many local female friends who were geeky in the same way I was. None of the other social misfit gals with whom I hung out seemed to have the same kinds of obsessions that I did. With a few exceptions (Helene the drummer at summer band school, my best friend Debby who loved Donny Osmond the way I loved David Cassidy), all through my school years my geekiest friends seemed to be male, and I didn't think that much of it because, in enjoying the same things they did and in not looking like a typical girl (I was large and boisterous, had very short hair and hadn't developed too many social skills, much like them) I guess I was accepted into their unspoken clubhouse.

After college, though, things shifted a bit when I struck out on my own, figuratively at least. I had befriended a few girls involved in Uncle Floyd fandom and who regularly caught other comedy acts like "Weird" Al Yankovic, but for the most part they didn't live near me. Jill, whom I met at a number of Jewish singles events, did. She introduced me both to actually effective pot and The Firesign Theatre in the same evening, and that's when it dawned on me both that "oh my god, there are people out there who think like I do!" and that women could be clever geeks and be very girly as well.

So Jill was one of them – more accurately, One of Us – and was around a lot during my INSIDE JOKE years, when I met more women who thought like I do. Those were the years of the zine scene, science fiction fandom, apas and so forth. And there was Anni Ackner and Candi Strecker and lots of others whose names are since lost to the aether of an aging brain. And we kind of stood out, especially those of us with zines that weren't strictly about sf fandom, because there weren't all that many young women self-publishing zines in those days. Like many pop culture hobbies, the zine scene was pretty male-dominated.

And then I married Steve and my circle of friends widened to encompass comic book fandom, and now that I'd attained the requisite social skills to get by in the real world it was like hitting a brick wall. After the relative female-friendliness of sf fandom, it was kind of a shocker hanging with all these guys who were creative and enthusiastic, to be sure, but also didn't seem to know how to deal with a woman who shared their interest. It was as though the unspoken clubhouse had suddenly reared its ugly head again, and after the comparative luxury of female geeky friends in IJ and sf circles I wasn't that used to being on the outside any more.

To me, comics were just another thing to read; I hadn't gotten into them earlier because, while I enjoyed (and still do) the fantasy aspect of "what would you do if you had amazing powers?" I found them too soap-operatic and didn't have the inclination (or money) to keep track of their interwoven plots. With Steve's help I'd quickly been brought up to speed on what was happening at the time and who was whom in the various "universes." He didn't prepare me for how female characters were depicted, but I'd had too many years of sighing in libraries during high school because Heinlein's space adventure books were soooo male that having female characters present at all in this new-to-me hobby was something of a relief. And of course, being the '80s, there were always plenty of independent comics to read as alternatives, including most of what Eclipse put out which was by and large female-friendly. Not having had the Marvel/DC habit ingrained in me as a youngster, I didn't put more weight on the content of those companies' books than that of the other comics I bought. So, while the social aspect of comics fandom was disappointing, the hobby itself still entertained me for the most part.

As the '90s rolled in, the more "grim and gritty" comics I encountered the harder the depictions of women characters became to ignore, particularly the visuals. And after the "speculeech" crash a lot of female-friendly indies went by the wayside, leaving mostly the male-appeal stuff. By this time I'd schooled myself in enough comics history to differentiate artists' styles, and I was learning more all the time thanks to apas, conventions and the Internet. And I knew it hadn't always been thus, both from a perusal of the medium's history and from my own personal experience. I was able to join Friends of Lulu, an organization which had just gotten off the ground and was determined to increase the visibility and viability of women in all aspects of the industry, from creators to retailers to fans, and that's where the great majority of my feminist energy went for the rest of the decade, as my circle of female geek friends increased.

By the turn of the century it appeared things were turning around. Many male as well as female readers were bored with "all grim all the time" and looking for books with more universal appeal. Girls were getting into manga in a big way. Women were becoming so accepted at conventions and on creative teams that some began to wonder if a specifically pro-woman industry group was even all that necessary any more. And yet, telltale signs remained that parity was far from achieved: the "cool" artists of the moment not quite getting that, to paraphrase Andrea Rubinstein, kick-ass female characters have no real claim to strength when their every move is in the context of male desire (skimpy clothes, butt- or boob-shots, etc.); the dearth of female names on convention guest lists and anthology "training ground" books at the Big Two; and the persistent creepiness of many male fans and pros at industry social gatherings (including not even giving any forethought to whether holding some of those gatherings at strip clubs or Hooter's breastaurants was at all welcoming to fellow creators and fans).

Every now and then such simmerings of frustration boil over, as evidenced by the most recent spate of feminist posts chronicled these last two weeks at the excellent link-farm When Fangirls Attack!, begun when one comics professional's dissatisfaction with conditions that virtually screamed at her "We don't want you girls in our clubhouse!" prompted her to give up on working in the so-called mainstream (the part of the industry that actually affords established creators a decent living). At such times when the glass ceiling seems more impenetrable than ever, it's heartening to see how many of us "geeks that think like we do" there really are. Thanks to the internet dozens of women, and not a few men, have weighed in on the subject with their own experiences, support and advice on how to continue improving things. And comics being at present but a tiny sliver of the entertainment pie with a loyal but vocal audience, chances of improvement are fairly good. After all, everyone concerned, from readers to creators to suits, wants to see the industry grow again. And being more welcoming to half your potential audience seems a win-win situation. The more feminist readers speak out about how to remedy continuing inequities, the closer those remedies become to implementation, and the more geeky friends we can all discover who think like we do.