Feminist Fail and Win at Aussiecon 4

Today I was trying to be con-lite and hang out with my family when not actually appearing on panels, to make it up to them about the entire lack of mummy for the las two and let’s face it, the next two days. This choice in itself has some feminist ramifications, let’s face it. Juggling motherhood and writing is hard, and juggling motherhood with cons is extra hard. I have help in my partner whi is basically prime child carer for them this week, and mostly on his own in the evenings, which he has managed excellently. Jem has been less than impressed with the arrangements, and clings tragically to me whenever she gets the chance. Raeli, while she is herself a mistress of emotional blackmail, is having a ball.

My morning panel, on the plight of the female superhero, was a sadly disappointing experience. I had been desperately looking forward to talking about this topic with Karen Healey, one of fantastic writers behind the Girlwonder.org project. Unfortunately the male member of the panel had not expected to have a conversation involving feminism, and the institutionalized sexism in the comics industry and all that sort of thing, which meant that we ended up in a frustrating argument about what the panel topic meant for most of the hour. It was a shame that we got derailed so badly and were not able to properly address the topic, and an even greater shame that no one had thought to bring the feminist bingo card as a power point graphic, to save time. We didn’t know we would need it!

Luckily there was some pro feminist awesomeness to redeem the day. I spent the afternoon chatting with Helen Merrick and a veritable cabal of academic women while Raeli had a playdate with Helen’s daughter. I then walked back over to the convention centre and got to sit down with Marianne and Maxine for fifteen lovely minutes, before going over to the green room to meet some of my fellow panelists.

Unlike this morning’s panel, Feminism in Fantasy was exactly as a feminist panel should be. Moderator Delia Sherman made it very clear right from the start that we all accepted the premise that fantasy has historically been a genre in which women got the short end of the stick, and no one argued. Hooray!

With Gail Carriger, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Catherynne Valente and Glenda Larke talking about feminism in their writing, I would have already considered this panel a must see of any convention. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to be sitting up there with them, listening to what they had to say and contributing my own thoughts and experiences. I had so much lovely feedback from the audience afterwards, and the whole thing was a pleasure.

Then I got to hurry back from the con centre to record a quick (ha!) Galactic Suburbia extra credit podcast with Alisa and Alex before returning to eat sushi and actually read bedtime stories to my daughters. Yes, yes, I still owe you all the first two days. I’ll get to it. Tomorrow we Hugo!!!

5 replies on “Feminist Fail and Win at Aussiecon 4”

  1. An Altenate View says:

    I was in the audience for the first panel, and I saw something different. Firstly the main impression I got from the your and Karen Healey’s introductory remarks was that the only superhero worth talking about in this context was Wonder Woman, that it was going to be a whinefest about how sexist the comics industry was. Your initial remarks centered around whining that you wanted to read WW comics to your five year old daughter, that while 1940s WW were better in terms of costuming, they still had all these sexist remarks that you had to censor.

    When the male participant tried to defend (admittedly very poorly) comics, both you and Karen turned on him. I was just waiting for one of you to say “you can’t understand this you’re a male”. The comment from Karen “I didn’t realise this was going to be one of “those” panels” was right up there with the most dismissive and devaluing behaviour I’ve seen from men with regard to women. There was a clear impression that you both wanted the panel to follow a particular path, and when it didn’t you lacked the skills either to pull it back or to effectively deal with the dissenting point of view.

    I and my SO walked out about that point because it was clear that the panel was going to descend into 1970s feminist cant. That unless you had total unity of purpose it was going to get nowhere.

    What I also found very frustrating was that, based on the introductory comments, none of you had any real qualifications to be on the panel. None of the panelists seemed to know much about comics history. You seemed oblivious to the fact that 1940s WW was written by a fellow who was heavily into bondage, and felt that women should be in charge:

    “Marston’s Wonder Woman is often cited as an early example of bondage themes entering popular culture: physical submission appears again and again throughout Marston’s comics work, with Wonder Woman and her criminal opponents frequently being tied up or otherwise restrained, and her Amazonian friends engaging in frequent wrestling and bondage play (possibly based on Marston’s earlier research studies on sorority initiations). These elements were softened by later writers of the series. Though Marston had described female nature as submissive, in his other writings and interviews he referred to submission to women as a noble and potentially world-saving practice, leading ideally to the establishment of a matriarchy, and did not shy away from the sexual implications of this:”

    Karen made a throw away comment about depowering WW which seemed to indicate that she was unaware that WW had been depowered in the early 1970s.

    You seemed unaware that WW has been written by women:

    “On April 12, 2007, DC announced that Simone would be the new regular writer of the third volume of Wonder Woman, first scheduled to start with issue #13 but later changed to #14.[6][7] Simone is notable for being Wonder Woman’s longest-running female writer and has often erroneously been credited as the first woman to write the character, when she was in fact preceded by Mindy Newell, Trina Robbins, and Jodi Picoult. In early 2010 she was named as the writer for Black Canary and the Birds of Prey under the “Brightest Day” banner.[8][9]”

    None of you touched on any potentially positive work in the field, you didn’t mention Terry Moore’s work on “Strangers in Paradise”.

    “Moore’s work is known for its sensitive and realistic portrayals of women in particular. At a time when the comics industry was portraying women in highly exaggerated and sexualized images, Moore created female (and male) characters with natural body fat and who had body image problems.[citation needed] Moore continually emphasized in his editorial pages how he wanted to portray real women in real relationships, rather than the busty, unrealistic images that were common in most comic books in the early 1990s.”

    You didn’t seem to be going to touch on Alan Moore’s work, including Halo Jones.
    The creators of the web comic “Girl Genius” were at the con, and you made no mention of that.

    The thing is we all know that the comics industry is sexist. We know that it has reflected dominant cultural attitudes for decades. Comics are mostly written by males for a male audience. Get over it!

    We don’t need a panel saying that the comics industry is sexist (although it might have been useful to touch on the implications that some of the most popular writers are gay, and that there has been some criticism of how hyper sexualised the male characters are being made — and examined the raw deal that gay characters get in comics).

    We didn’t need people with strong opinions, but no in-depth knowledge rabbiting on about a genre they only have the barest knowledge of.

    What I would have liked to hear was what was happening to roll back the tide, whether powerpuff girl comics are a positive step, whether “Empowered” by Adam Warren is just a hugely sexist comic with fanservice or quietly subversive, a discussion of manga comics (which are becoming more popular in the west) and the implications of that. What comics women are actually buying, and what sort of market signals they were sending.

    But what I got was whining about one DC character Wonder Woman and an inability to tolerate opposing points of view. Bullying isn’t attractive regardless of which gender is doing it.

    The panel was a massive fail, and that was entirely down to all the panelists, not just the token male.

  2. tansyrr says:

    Hi “Altenate View”

    I agree with you that contributions to the massive fail came from all three panellists, and that we didn’t deal with the situation of dissent at all well.

    In actual fact, I am aware of the Wonder Woman history you mention – if you read deeper into my blog you will find discussion of many of those points including recent reviews of the early “bondage-themed” comics and the Gail SImone run. Karen has been a comics reviewer for many years and is doing her PhD on superheroes.

    Unfortunately, we were not able to delve deeper into the topic as we wanted to, or to express that knowledge, because the male panellist was so antagonistic to our first principles – namely, that female superheroes have been treated quite badly over the years – and we struggled with getting past that issue.

    We did not realise it would be a panel where feminist principles and critique would be shouted down at every turn, and we would be treated as if we were just, well, whining for no reason. Which is, I believe, what Karen meant when she said “one of those panels”.

    It’s not fair at all to say “The thing is we all know that the comics industry is sexist. We know that it has reflected dominant cultural attitudes for decades. Comics are mostly written by males for a male audience. Get over it.” and then dismiss everything else we had to say as feminist cant, when we were in a situation where we had to argue that particular point.

    The male panellist also agreed in theory that comics had been quite sexist, but continued to argue that it wasn’t that bad a problem, we should get over it, and that we shouldn’t talk about it, which was a bit of a surprise since it was in fact the panel topic.

    The panel was a disaster and I know Karen and I were very disappointed, though we did in fact move on to other superheroes later in the panel, discussing a wide variety of characters from different kinds of comics, and did attempt to make the best of it. We covered several of the topics you mention, and did our best to ‘agree to disagree’ though the points of disagreement were so huge it was hard to step around them.

    I am surprised that you feel we were bullying the male panellist, and I’m sorry that’s what you took away from the panel. In fact we were both trying very hard not to get “attacky” despite the fact that he reacted with anger to nearly everything we said. It was a horrible experience to be part of. But I do find it interesting that two women disagreeing with a man is seen as “bullying” when he was the only one making personal remarks and getting visibly angry. Perhaps it looked different from the audience. Or perhaps, you know, there’s that male gaze thing.

    In closing I would like to add that a panel topic about gay writers and the “hypersexualisation” of male characters would be a great and interesting thing for a convention program, but that was not what we were there to discuss. It was not the panel topic we had been requested to speak upon, which was “the plight of the female superhero” and while the question did include positive aspects, the topic made it necessary to start by outlining THE PLIGHT OF FEMALE SUPERHEROES. Asking that a topic about female characters make immediate room to discuss male issues is a classic derailment tactic, and if you really think (as indeed did our male panellist) that it should have been our priority, then you are part of the problem.

  3. An Altenate View says:

    I think we remember the panel differently.

    And I think that both you and the male panellist hit each other’s triggers. Which resulted in the vicious circle of the increase in the emotional content of the exchanges. As I noted I didn’t stay for most of the panel having been turned off by the first few exchanges. So I wasn’t able to hear the more in depth discussion that you managed.

    And having read both your blog and had a look at Girlwonder.org I’m disappointed that neither you nor Karen were able to establish your credentials and depth of knowledge in your introductory remarks which set the tone of the panel.

    Given the description of the panel in the program guide, I don’t think anyone there was under the mistaken impression that there isn’t sexism in comics and that the panel wouldn’t be on that subject. And that there are issues to be addressed. But “Women in Refrigerators” was eleven years ago, has the field stayed still or moved on? From your introductory remarks it felt as if we were still back in the dark ages.

    The male panelist in his introductory remarks said that he felt that you were both exaggerating the level of sexism, he wasn’t challenging that there was sexism. The emotional responses ramped up from there.

    If two male panelists had spoken to a single female panelist the way that you both did, I would call that bullying as well. Being dismissive is just as aggressive as a raised voice or personal remarks.

    What I was trying to say about the hyper sexualisation of male characters is that the issue of exploitation in comics is a more general issue than just for female characters, they may have experienced it first but it is not confined to them, which suggests that it is a more general issue that affects people, not just women, and perhaps is requires a more general set of responses. Or indicates an underlying flaw in the comics genre that cuts across gender lines.

    As the phrase “part of the problem” is a dismissive statement and doesn’t actually engage with the issues, and I suspect implies that you think my gender is male I don’t see the point of continuing this discussion.

    We are both in agreement however that the panel was much less than it could have been. I hope there are future panels on this topic that are much more fruitful.

  4. A frustrated attendee says:

    Ok, I will first admit that I haven’t completely read of the above – too many words saying the same thing and I find that boring.

    I was however at the panel discussion and was horrified at the apparent ambush of the poor male panelist. I could almost feel his shocked intake of breath when you both attacked his every word. I have only ever been to a few cons, and this was my first world con, and I was totally unimpressed with the way the panel lost sight of the discussion topic right from the get go.

    I do wonder if the topic “Capes & skirts: the plight of the female superheroes” didn’t mean different things to different folk. Personally I was expecting to hear about how skirts and capes get in the way of doing the important super hero stuff, not about how bad they are for a four year old to read. When I was four I was being read Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse comics, I didn’t get to read Superman or Supergirl until I was at least ten to twelve. I certainly didn’t read them to my own children at four, they were more interested in Spot the dog and Hairy McClarey than Wonder Woman and Batgirl at four years of age.

    Perhaps it is not about the female superheros at all and more about your frustrations at not being able to pass on your own reading tastes to your children at such a young age.

    The unbalanced panel was not good for debating any topic, be it what we were expecting or otherwise. Perhaps it would have been better if the con organisers had found someone to fill in for the missing panelist. I didn’t stay for the entire hour, the unbalanced panel discussion was not enjoyable and I had better things to do with my time.

  5. tansyrr says:

    Sorry to hear you both had such a bad experience in the audience; I think the one thing we can agree on is that the whole thing was a messy, unpleasant situation.

    I’m certainly happy to put it behind me now.

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