Navigating the nerd world as a woman of color
Standing outside the Anaheim Convention Center, I joked with my dad that one’s devotion is really tested by these sorts of things. It was barely 10 a.m., and the Southern California heat drew sweat from our foreheads. The doors to WonderCon (the precursor to the big kahuna, San Diego ComicCon) would not even open until noon. Of course, the first people in line had been here for over an hour. Many of these early arrivals were cosplaying in finely-detailed, handmade costumes: a man in Hamilton-esque coat and tails, a Poison Ivy whose skin gleamed with the DC villain’s signature green hue. Sweat coagulated under their costumes and heavy makeup.
Still, as the hours passed, I felt buoyed by the gleeful anticipation of seeing every world I’ve ever loved come alive. This is the promise of fandom: an embrace for the outcasts of the world outside the Con—geeks like me and my dad who, somewhere subliminal in my mind, believe in epic quests and chosen ones.
By all appearances, fandom spaces are homes for the marginalized. Except when they are not.
Sure, I attended the “diversity” panels on strong female protagonists or characters of color. I was glad to see these self-selecting audiences and panelists made up of geeky women and people of color like me. But outside of those “niche” spaces, the Con was a predominantly hetero-cis white male galaxy, and I was a Filipina American lost in space.
“Check out that ass,” a man behind me murmured to his companion. They were standing in line behind me for a comic book artist signing, and a young woman cosplayer had passed by. “That’s a nice ass.” I turned around and scowled at him like, You’ve got some nerve to be a chauvinist douchebag out loud.
The systematic exclusion of women and people of color in the realms of sci-fi and fantasy is well-documented. Only 14 percent of the 100 top-grossing sci-fi and fantasy films had a female protagonist and 8 percent had a protagonist of color, according to a 2014 report by book publisher Lee & Low Books. The numbers for LGBTQ protagonists and protagonists with a disability are 0 percent and 1 percent, respectively.
Just as disturbing are the strains of toxic masculinity that infiltrate geek culture. A fan reviewer on film website IMDB complained that the 2016 feminist rewriting of Ghostbusters had “no respect for men at all.” This does not begin to compare to the virulent racist, sexist social media attacks on lead actress Leslie Jones.
But for all the times I felt overlooked at the Con, there were the moments when I felt hyper-visible.
Later in the day, I attended a workshop on writing high fantasy, led by Eisner Award-winning writer Marv Wolfman. Besides me and the Zelda cosplayer beside me, the auditorium was crowded with white men. During the audience Q&A, a woman rose from her seat to ask a question.
“I can’t hear you,” Mr. Wolfman interrupted. “You,” he said, pointing to the man who had asked the previous question. “I could hear you. Speak for her.”
If the events earlier in the day hadn’t happened, I might have excused the brusque, gray-haired author with hearing difficulties. Instead, I heard a confirmation of prejudices that I had tried to ignore. Zelda and I exchanged glances.
To its credit, the genre has seen amazing breakthroughs lately. The relaunched Black Panther comics, co-authored by Ta-Nahesi Coates and Roxane Gay, and Ms. Marvel, which stars a Pakistani American Muslim teenage superhero, have been nominated for some of the comic book world’s top awards. The last two Star Wars movies featured well-developed heroines, and publishers that specialized in LGBTQ graphic novels held prominent booths on the convention floor.
Black movie critic Angelica Jade Bastien cautions readers and audiences from taking this progress for granted. She speculates that hostility intensifies as a response to the growing presence of critics, creators, and fans of historically marginalized backgrounds in the nerd world. She writes, “Perhaps this reveals the heart of the matter—that white viewers are forced to empathize with characters that don’t look like them in a genre they thought they owned.”
For a genre that is dedicated to the search of more vibrant worlds, one that claims to celebrate the outsider narrative, it’s ironic that entire groups are systematically barred from participation. The truth is that no matter how fantastical your fictional worlds are, they aren’t insulated from the racist and misogynistic politics of the real world. And no, painting people’s skin blue or making them aliens isn’t “diversity” if the heroes of those stories are consistently white. Until perspectives from female creators, LGBTQ creators, creators of color, and creators with disabilities can generate their own stories, sci-fi and fantasy will continue to careen through cold space toward the repressive status quo. The Empire wins.
During the Con, I found myself wondering why I’m still so devoted to a genre that has long sought to keep people like me out. I remember my dad who, as a kid in the Philippines, saved his allowance to buy American comic books. When I was nine, he introduced me to Star Wars and bought me my first Wonder Woman collection. Sci-fi and fantasy have been a source of joy and hope for us. Why should this world belong any less to my dad because he is Filipino, or to me because I am a woman?
At WonderCon, I couldn’t help but notice the sci-fi and fantasy genre’s (or more precisely, the industry’s) dependence on the dedication of its fans. On the nerds who are willing to stand in lines for hours in the sun out of their sheer love. On the geeks who stirred the whitewashing controversy that, according to a salty Paramount exec, caused Ghost in the Shell to flop. Young fans of historically marginalized identities are in unique positions to create, to demand, to resist the status quo and use their economic capital to support art that represents the more just and fantastic worlds that they want to see.
After her panel, I talked to author C.B. Lee about her novel Not Your Sidekick, whose protagonist is a queer Asian-American superhero. I told her about how much seeing a character like hers meant to me, how refreshing and true her story rang. She encouraged me to write my own book. I said I would.
Because somewhere subliminal, I believe that in this vast and uncharted galaxy, there are stories for all of us.