by Andrea Dulanto
When attending an event produced by Wizard World, it is hard not to feel a bit geeky.
Currently on tour throughout the U.S. and Canada, Wizard World made its first stop in Miami, Florida. Same as other comic book conventions, Wizard World presents artists and merchandise from different genres—not just comics, but graphic novels, sci-fi, anime, gaming, cosplay, and cult comedy.
The traditional comic con audience is male. This was definitely the case in the Miami gaming room where men and boys showcased their card-playing skills with Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering. The competition had a high-stakes vibe with prizes ranging from Xboxes for younger players to $5000 for seasoned pros.
Some players compete in several tournaments a year and “can live off the prizes,” says a representative of Phoenix Games, the organization that hosted the competition. He estimates that women are only 5-10 percent of the gaming world, and is not sure why more women are not involved. Not that long ago, entire conventions were a “gaming room” of men, but more women are participating in the comic con world as artists and fans.
Many of the women at Comic Con represent distinct approaches to empowerment. Some may identify as feminists, others may not. Some may want to be known as a woman artist or a cosplay girl. Others may prefer to be seen as an artist or cosplayer without any reference to gender.
Erin Hurst, creator of the live-action comedy show 3000 Brigade, started going to cons as a fan in 1999. At that time, any girl who actually showed up at a convention was “worshipped…put on a pedestal.” In recent years, Hurst has seen a lot more women who do not care if conventions are “nerdy.” Hurst admits there is “still a little bit of sexism… [with girls] scantily clad in Princess Leia costumes.” But now there is also the “girl with a rodent hat on… [to add] more balance.”
Since 2007, Hurst has entertained convention audiences with comedy skits based on video games and con culture. Despite the enthusiastic response from fans, Hurst still has to confront the stereotype that “women aren’t considered as funny as men.” Her male audience will “come to a show, laugh like crazy” and when she presents herself as the author of the skits, they react with disbelief: “There’s no way a woman wrote that.” As evidenced by the continued success of the 3000 Brigade, Hurst enjoys proving them wrong.
Comic book artist Cayce Moyer has also had to deal with preconceived notions about her work. At a previous comic con, a man passed by her table several times before he finally asked if she was the artist. When she said yes, he seemed amazed at the idea that “girls can draw too.”
Despite this experience, Moyer has found that “most people at conventions… [know that] girls can do anything guys can do,” and she has built a supportive network with both men and women in her field. Moyer counts her former professor Bob Pendarvis as a strong advocate for women artists. Pendarvis created Sugar Ninjas, an open anthology for girls and women to share their artwork. Moyer affirms that the purpose of the website is “not [to be] against boys, but… to give girls an outlet.” Although the career path for an artist, especially a female artist, can be “uphill all the way,” Moyer knows “none of us can imagine doing anything different.”
Similar to Moyer, artist Nara Walker connects with communities online as well as at conventions. One resource, The Ormes Society - named for Jackie Ormes, a ground-breaking African-American female cartoonist of the 1930s-1950s - highlights a broad representation of African-American women in comics as artists and audiences.
Scott Blair, freelance illustrator and graphic artist, who has participated in comic cons for seven years, observes how women and men artists “help each other out…and get inspired by each other’s work.” Blair’s aesthetic, geared towards pin-up art, uses real models, “everyday girls,” who are a wide range of shapes and sizes. “It’s not overly sexualized stuff, they’re more comical situations as opposed to sexual… Once in a while someone [says] women shouldn’t be portrayed this way, but I get a lot of women customers.”
Other male artists share Blair’s support of women in the industry. Comic book artist Alé Garza, whose art reflects the same Playboy standard of seductress, admits that the profession was a “boy’s game in the past.” But there are “really talented women… who are starting to balance it out.”
Outside of the variations of pin-up girl, there aren’t many other ways to portray and view women at comic cons. And pin-up girl is not only on the cover of comic books and anime DVDs. She is also represented in the girls and women who dress up as these characters at conventions.
Mike White, creator of the graphic novel series Amity Blamity, shares his perspective on ‘scantily clad women’: “They’re perceived as objects… it’s deeply psychological… [they] dress as what they would like to be, rather than what they are.” White’s own characters are wryly whimsical—a 4-year-old girl and a pot-bellied pig. He also satirizes the provocative woman by depicting Daisy Duke in his graphic novel—although one could argue that this image brings in the comics-as-usual audience.
There is objectification here—but comic cons espouse a celebratory, Halloween-ish, drag queen, theatre-esque, be-whoever-you-want-to-be energy.
Molly Gamboa, a 19-year-old fan at Miami Comic Con, dresses up in a way that is not as revealing as other girls. She is adamant about accepting different styles of dress: “If you have the right body, show it off.” For the past four years, she has attended cons and notes that “[outside of conventions] people are afraid to express what they are. Here, you can do anything you want… leave behind the stressors of your life. I can be myself. I’m not going to be judged.”
Another fan, 17-year-old Samantha Davids, is in full anime garb as Nia Teppelin from Gurren Lagann. She admits there are disadvantages to portraying an anime character: “Some guys think just because you’re dressed up, you’re easy.” But Davids also has a passion for costume design and make-up, so cosplay gives her the opportunity to learn technique. It also allows her to “be [her] own person,” because even outside of conventions, Davids has found that she is more comfortable in whatever she wears—skimpy or not.
The girls in anime appear to stand for more than their sexuality, which is probably why so many real girls want to dress up as them. When Davids was ten years old, she connected to the powerful girl characters and storylines of Sailor Moon. At seven years old, Gamboa discovered an anime series featuring a girl of fifteen travelling through time. Gamboa could not wait to be fifteen, so she could “fight demons with a bow and arrow.”
Feminists should honor the strength of these experiences, while we should also acknowledge that others may not find the same strength in these images. In order to create more alternatives for everyone, we should be able to critique the ubiquitous image of the pin-up girl, the sexed-up anime character. Why should we accept only one mode of sexuality? Why should we limit ourselves to only one path to empowerment?
At one of Miami Comic Con’s booths for local fan groups, Urban Ronin presented evidence of another path. A unique endeavor, Urban Ronin provides stunt combat training for cosplay fans. Taught by professional trainers with experience in the martial arts, jujitsu, and weapons combat, students learn how to enact the fights featured in anime. Since students perform at conventions in full anime garb, Urban Ronin gives sewing lessons to create costumes on a budget. Learning how to fight and sew is definitely one way to challenge gender expectations.
Samantha Puentes, 21, says “you can be your girl-self and be aggressive. We encourage aggression in the form of stage combat… and the girls can be just as aggressive as the boys.” Puentes also observes how the training helps with confidence: “People who are self-conscious, I see them blossom. This is an environment of people who say ‘you can do this.’”
If you are a feminist in the comic con wonderland, you may find it difficult to justify your critique of women’s image. Everyone seems to be having a good time, so why not relax and enjoy the pretty girl in a vinyl bodysuit and electric-blue wig? There are different ways to be a feminist. One may wear seven-inch heels. Another may perform comedy sketches or learn how to stage-fight.
All of us should speak up for the girls and women who do not fit into the comic con image, and be willing to re-examine our decisions in order to build more awareness of ourselves. 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.
Girls can write comedy sketches. Girls can draw. But if we only have one prevalent image of women at comic cons, then we will also have yet another person stop by a woman artist’s table to ask: Are you really the artist?
About the author:
Andrea Dulanto received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Florida International University, and her B.A. in Literature & Women's Studies from Antioch College in Ohio. She works as a freelance writer and editor, and teaches writing at Florida International University. Publications include BlazeVOX, PopMatters, Elevate Difference, Sinister Wisdom, and Court Green. Her writing can be found at andreadulanto.wordpress.com.