At the end of next month, I am going to be standing in front of a ballroom full of librarians at our state library conference. I am going to spend fifty minutes waxing on about comics, girls in libraries, STEM fields, and whatever else makes its way into my PowerPoint presentation. Fortunately, I like to hear the sound of my own voice.
The good news: most of the librarians in my conservative state are sold on the idea of having graphic novels in the library. It’s taken about ten years, but they show up at panels and discussions involving graphic novels, manga, anime, teen programming and outreach. Finally, the converted.
So why bother with yet another presentation about comics in the library? Am I preaching to the choir?
I proposed this session because I think there’s still more to confront on this topic. And obviously some planner from the state conference agreed, because they approved my presentation and gave me a prime slot for my vociferations. So for fifty minutes, I will be beating a dead horse.
The funny thing about librarians is that most are women. It’s a whole different world than most workplaces. Historically, it had been a man’s job, like teaching and nursing, until communities discovered that they could pay women less for the same quality of work. It remains women’s work to this day.
It may sound like I am digressing, but I am not. Libraries are primarily the domain of women. Tech and STEM fields are dominated by men, so are other high visibility fields like law, politics and the entertainment industry. I think, when you come into work every single day and see nothing but female faces, you forget that feminism has not solved all of our equality problems just yet.
This isn’t an article about comics in the library, really. It’s about what those comics represent: a whole world outside the library that is hostile toward women in every aspect of life, from enjoyment of something as simple as a comic book to not being run out of an engineering program by self-entitled men.
Comics, and most genre media have been seen as a hobby for boys and men, even though girls have been reading comics and enjoying comic-related media since its’ inception. A quick google search can turn up pictures of girls reading comics as far back as the 1940s. We’ve always been there. We’ve not been taken seriously, but we’ve always been there. Girls and women read comics and enjoy other media, such as cartoons, movies and video games featuring the characters they have come to love.
The catch that seems to hang up a lot of men: women tend to encounter comics, science fiction and genre films in a way far different to men. This is not a hard and fast rule. Just a general guideline. Women gravitate toward relationships, subtext (even if it is humorous, made-up subtext) and the generation of new material based on the thing they love (fanfic, cosplay, fan art, etc). They also form strong bonds and friendships through this. Not that guys don’t, women just do it in a different sort of way, usually through the Mutual Admiration Society.
To some men, this is a threatening prospect of women invading their space, and that women are expressing themselves differently than men. Things that women do are often considered to be lesser than the pursuits of men, simply because they are seen as women’s work. Otherwise, we would not live in a world where there is literature, which sounds pretty all-inclusive, and ‘women’s literature,’ or writers, and ‘female writers.’ There are so many other examples and avenues that place women as the ‘other’ in this world. Whole books have been written on the subject, most with far more grace and luster than I can manage. But I will say this: the societal attitude that anything women do is of a lesser variety, or meant only for other women is deeply embedded in both mainstream and in nerd culture.
Some men see themselves as the gatekeepers of fandom. They have decided what is and is not the correct way to express one’s joy over a piece of media. And obviously their way is the better way because it is the male way, which is obviously the default. The way of the universe.
The problem? Not only do micro-aggressions drive women away from fandom, and away from friendships, self-expression and media they clearly love, certain portions of fandom have gone so far as to declare some girls and women “fake geek girls.” They claim the girls are only into video games, or science fiction shows, or comics, to impress guys. Some openly mock the products that girls and women make, showing their creativity and their love for a character or show. They editorialize (or are downright mean) about cosplay construction skills (or body-type), art/writing ability, giggling girlish enthusiasm. Anything female-involved is a target.
It’s dangerous being a girl and stepping out into the world. In any way, shape or form. Women encounter outright mocking to threats via the Internet (including incidence of female nerds speaking out about an issue and receiving death and rape threats). This is aside from all the other mixed signals society sends to girls and women. Do you want to be the only girl in your upper-level math class, or engineering program? Isn’t that a terrifying prospect?
If we push girls out of boy spaces when they are young, and don’t allow girls to stand up for themselves by saying hey, I don’t cosplay or dress for you, and I don’t read comics or play games for you, I do it for me, none of these girls will have the confidence to take the first steps into male-dominated fields. Nor will boys and men learn that women are allowed to be there. They are not there to be the object of anger or sexual aggression or the butt of jokes. They are there because they deserve to be there, and those men should shut up and work with their colleagues like professionals.
It starts with Barbie, maybe. But I think hobby interests are really the thing that either lets girls step up with confidence and say “yes, this is the thing I like to do, my hobby, interest and obsession, and I am going to do it any way I want without fear or intimidation,” or drive girls back into the corners of the Internet, creating their own safe spaces that men never see. Which perpetuates the idea that girls do not exist in fandom.
We’re making strides. Women write and draw comics, and blog about them. Conventions are seeing gender parity. And yet, when a group of girls dressed as Amy Pond passed by at a Doctor Who convention, middle-aged men were chuckling about the “Gaggle of Ponds.” They commented on how “everyone” wanted to dress like Amy and how several of them were “too obese” and had the “wrong body type.” News to those men: NO ONE has Amy Pond’s body type. Karen Gillan is approximately 98% legs. Does it hurt those men in any way that a chunky girl is dressed as a character she loves? No. But they feel entitled to editorialize.
And that, is what we need to fight against. To the point of being annoyingly outspoken, especially in in front of our girls, so they can see someone fighting for them. So they know that the women around them are unafraid of body criticism, hobby criticism and all the other types of harassment women face daily. So they know they can be that person too. Be their own super hero, as it were. They can push back against the good ol’ boys’ club and be brave enough to step through the closed club doors. We have to fight for our girls. And for ourselves.
–Your Friendly Neighborhood Librarian