Taking Up Room: Women Speak Up at San Diego Comic-Con

Comic Con Logo San Diego Comic-Con was packed with panels geared for diverse audiences.  I regret to say that I only made it to two such panels – Women Who Kick Ass, in Hall H, and Superheroines:  Power, Responsibility, and Representation.  A common thread was that when we write, draw, portray, and read about women who are empowered to put themselves forward in the world, it makes us more confident and “forward” as well.

I’m presenting the basic highlights from these panels, with special attention to the Superheroines panel, which completely blew me away.  The takeaway messages I got from both panels were that women want to create characters, in all kind of mediums, without being constrained by their gender.  They want to create complicated characters, flawed characters, characters who are sexy and characters who aren’t.  They want to be able to write and draw male characters without being grudgingly allowed into the comics world on the condition that they only draw/write women.  They want to be allowed to portray sexuality without being limited to creating (or being themselves) sexual objects.  Basically, women are people.

Another message I took from both panels is that you have to fight for the rights you want to have, the career you want to have, and the life you want to have, and you have to be able to keep all these things in perspective.  If you want to act, act.  If you want to write or draw, write and draw.  In the words of Jules Rivera, “I was going to like what I liked, and I wasn’t going to ask anyone’s permission.”

The Women Who Kick Ass Panel featured Katey Sagal (Sons of Anarchy), Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow), Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) and Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones, Mockingjay). 

Here’s some notes from the Women Who Kick Ass panel:

  • The women were all pretty sick of having to worry about looking pretty and they love playing parts where that’s not an issue.  Katy Sagal pointed out that it’s OK to get older, and that Hollywood needs to realize that.  Natalie Dormer worries about young girls who read celebrity magazines and watch shows without realizing “how much makeup and lighting is going on!”
     
  • Natalie Dormer pointed out that Katniss Everdeen is as popular as she is because she’s an anomaly.
     
  • When asked who their favorite ass-kicking women were, Katey Sagal said, “Hillary Clinton!”  Nicole and Natalie both said “everybody else on this panel”.  Tatiana said, “Leela, from Futurama” (Leela is voiced by Katey Sagal).
     
  • Nicole broke all shipper’s hearts by saying that she hopes her character, Abby, will never form a romantic relationship with Ichabod:  “One of the things that drew me to the project was that Abby is not defined by a man in any way.”
     
  • Tatiana, Sarah, and Nicole in particular talked about how they have changed because of the characters they play – they are less likely to step back, more willing to assume leadership roles on and off the set, and more willing to “take up room.”
     

The Superheroines:  Power, Responsibility, and Representation Panel was, hands down, the most exciting and inspiring experience I had at SDCC (other than meeting new friends).  The panel consisted of authors and illustrators Marguerite Bennett, Joanna Estep, Dr. Andrea Letamendi, Faith Erin Hicks, Jules Rivera, and Marjorie M. Liu.  Here’s what they had to say:

  • The panelists were adamant that the idea that comics are written by men, for men, and only read by men is a myth.  Marjorie Liu pointed out that in her experience, women are the driving force behind fandom as well as being vital parts of the industry:  “Women have always participated in making and reading comics.  When people refer to comics as a male-dominated industry, I remember my time as a reader and all the women that are here.”
     
  • This led to a lot of conversation about the importance of panels like the Superheroines Panel.  Marjorie Liu said, “The perception that comics are for boys is BS.  We all know it.  But the message is still out there, so when you come to panels like this you KNOW that that’s not the case.”
     
  • The women on the panel did not want their creative projects to be dictated by their gender. 

    From Marjorie Liu:  “I have heard, directly, as in told to me by editors of Marvel and D.C., that women don’t read superhero comics and therefore women can’t write them.”  
     

  • Women want to be able to write/draw men and women, and want the freedom to draw in whatever style they choose. 

    Says Joanna Estep:  “Personally, I want to feel secure that I’m drawing in a style that’s accessible to women.  In general, I want people to draw whatever they love without being constricted by a social or political agenda.” 
     

  • The panelists also talked about wanted to be able to create complex and sometimes unlikable or deeply characters. 

    Marjorie Liu:  “I don’t think male writers are pressured to create perfect characters.  We are being asked to be the model minority.  We are so hungry.  There isn’t enough.  And when there isn’t enough we reach for the ideal.  We should be free to create whatever we want as long as it’s part of a good story.”
     

  • Marguerite Bennett talked about instances of sexism she’d encountered, as well as her least favorite trope, “The girl who is not like other girls:”  

    “There’s a big difference between saying that a character is ‘not like other people’ and saying that a character is ‘not like other girls’.  The first phrase indicates that someone is different because of his or her powers or their talents or some other characteristic.  The second diminishes the characters’ femininity.”  

    She also had advice for people who say, “I normally don’t like comics written by women, but I like yours:”  “Up your game, bro!”  she said.  “Insulting my gender is not a compliment.”
     

  • Jules Rivera’s advice to aspiring authors and illustrators was, “Never, ever, ever, ever, stop!”  She started writing webcomics when her niece was around eight years old:  “I wanted to be the cool auntie who was going to get this eight-year-old hooked on comics, but I couldn’t find much that was age or gender appropriate, so I said, ‘I will fix this!  I will draw comics she can enjoy!’  I never asked anyone’s permission.  I just did it.”
     
  • Dr. Andrea Letamendi talked about the viral video of Kacy Cantazaro completing the American Ninja Warrior course.  She said that she watched the video several times to try to figure out why this particular video has gotten such a passionate following.  Letamendi thinks that the key moment is when, “she gets to a point where she has to cross these poles, and because she can’t reach across she has to leap.  This is so representative of what women have to do to keep up with men.  She has to leap from pole to pole just to get to the same place that men do just by reaching.” 
     
  • In the Women who Kick Ass panel, women stated that playing characters who are not afraid to put themselves forward and “take up room” made them more confident and assertive.  This came up in the Superheroines panel as well. 

    Faith Erin Hicks said that she is a non-confrontational person and she loves the idea of being able to confront people directly:  “I stared writing The Adventures of Superhero Girl because I love the idea of superheroines and I felt there were not many comics with me in mind.”  

    Joanna Estep said that she’s drawn to female characters who are unfriendly or unapproachable, because women get so much pressure to be approachable.  Marjorie Liu admires Black Widow because, “she sees the world with perfect clarity, and she’s not afraid to take up room in it.”

I left this panel completely revved up.  I was angry and excited and touched and inspired.  I've tried to analyze why, of all the things I saw and did at San Diego Comic-Con, this panel was so exciting to me.  I think that what set the Women Who Kick Ass and especially the Superheroines panels apart form the other panels I attended was that these women were taking up room and inviting me to do the same, instead of just inviting me to consume their shows/books/comics.  I don't make comics, but after seeing these panels I was all fired up to make something – anything!  I was excited to be part of a group of people who leap from pole to pole every day (metaphorically) and who then reach out to others and help them make their own leaps.  These panels made me want to to show what I could do and made me want to take up space in the world.

I left SDCC with big dreams and ideas and great experiences and connections, but it's the Superheroines panel that really made me sit down and write out a concrete work schedule that might let me accomplish some of the career goals that I have.  The Women who Kick Ass panel and the Superheroines panel served as powerful reminders that my work is worthy, that I deserve to devote time and energy to it, and that it happens as part of a larger community of women who are trying to create not only works of art but workplaces and marketplaces of equality.  When we allow ourselves to take up room, paradoxically it creates more room for others.  This is why I think so many people named other people on the panels as their favorite kick ass women.  I aspire to be a kick ass woman in my own life (although not actually in the sense of physical combat) and these panels made me believe that such a thing could be possible.

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  1. 1
    Darlynne says:

    This is so great, Carrie, all of it. I want to take up room, too. Thank you for writing about these panels.

  2. 2
    flchen1 says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Carrie!

  3. 3
    DonnaMarie says:

    Wow, someone needs to do better demographics research. Women don’t read comics? I’ve got the better part of 50 years worth of X-men that says nuts to that.

    Thanks for sharing, Carrie.

  4. 4
    Karen W. says:

    I love the idea of taking up room.  Thanks for the great report!

  5. 5
    Sarita says:

    I wish I could have been there, this sounds so inspiring! One of my dreams is to write comics in collaboration with an artist, and this makes me even more determined to get there.

  6. 6
    Peggy O'Kane says:

    I love reading reports of women taking up room. But, I wish I had read this on Boing Boing or Wired. Were there men – or more importantly boys – in the audience? I recently discovered that I did not do as good a job as I thought raising my son to be as much of a feminist as my daughters.

  7. 7

    Wonderful, wonderful essay.

    Women don’t like superhero comics? I’ve got a closet full of boxed comics I’ve saved over decades that puts lie to that statement!

    Thank you for sharing with us your impressions of SDCC, and for attending these panels. These women are all amazing and I love hearing their stories.

  8. 8
    CarrieS says:

    @PeggyKane – there were men and they seemed to “get it”.  I was especially moved by my experience with men in Hall H, where the Women who Kick Ass panel was held.  Hall H is the biggest space at the convention center and so that’s where the heavy hitters do their panels.  Marvel was doing their thing right after Women who Kick Ass and many of us had camped in line overnight to get in.  Because they don’t clear the room between panels, you basically sit through everything until you get to the thing you want to see.

    That means that I wasn’t sure how many men were actually interested in Women Who Kick Ass.  I also happened to be wedged in a seat right between two big guys who I didn’t know.  I was literally embarrassed to be taking up room since the seats are really small and we had been practically on each other’s laps for the last 8 hours.  I was a little nervous about how thee guys would react to the panel – but they seemed to love it.  They cheered and clapped and nodded at all the right places, and they didn’t show any impatience – they weren’t muttering, “OK, let’s get to Marvel!”.  That reinforced for me the concept that many men, maybe most men, get the importance of panels and want to see interesting female characters on screen.

  9. 9
    Xandi says:

    I am a teen librarian who develops a kick ass comic collection (thank you amazing creators of comics!), and I can assure you, it is a daily delight to keep true diversity in my collection. Every day I have men and women reader-fans looking for stuff with strong and flawed female characters, amazing world building & great stories. I put a lot of effort into proving old guard attitudes wrong, and my best recommendation is to consume all the Faith Erin Hicks that you can and also check out Womanthology: Heroic which is amazing! I am not shocked by the guys cheering to support strong women in comics, and Marvel & DC are missing out on market share if they continue to be blind…as Paul Dini has tried to make them understand FOR YEARS!

  10. 10
    garlicknitter says:

    Somebody (possibly Wil Wheaton) tweeted something implying that somebody deliberately set it up so that the Women Who Kick Ass panel was immediately before the Marvel thing to get as big an audience as possible for it (and maybe point out to Marvel that their being dumbshits for not jumping on that bandwagon).  If so, kudos to whoever did that.

  11. 11
    ppyajunebug says:

    I wish my experience with the people around me during the Women Who Kick Ass panel had been better.  The large group in front of me were rolling their eyes and muttering about how boring it was during the whole thing- including one of the women who spent the whole time texting and taking bathroom breaks. 

    Then I got into an argument with one of them who was complaining about the placement of the panel right before Marvel and SDCC’s “pandering” to women to prove their PCness.  When I started arguing back that this was clearly a major panel that deserved to be in the space, he said it was a “TV” panel on movie day.  Which was stupid, since after Marvel was DC’s screening of all its TV pilots.

    Basically, look up the video for that panel because it was awesome and Natalie Dormer is THE BEST.

  12. 12
    jimthered says:

    I would *hope* that the female characters and portrayal/popularity of women in comics will improve—but I wouldn’t bet on it.  Comics began largely as divided into superheroes for boys and romances for girls, and that has largely stayed the same since.  A lot of writers only know how to make women as barely-dressed seductresses (in fairness, most male characters are buff, handsome, and often wearing spandex) or horrible bitches.  And while there have been plenty of different, stronger females—from Daisy in PREACHER to the stars of SEX CRIMINALS and SAGA—if you look at the top 50, 100, or 200 selling comics it’ll be dominated by male characters.

    This is the same sort of depression I felt after reading Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS: It made me see how comics had so much more potential than just guys in spandex hitting each other; then I saw what sold or walked through the comic store, and it was almost all guys in spandex hitting each other.

  13. 13
    kate says:

    Zach Levi also had a panel of badass women.  I kinda like it better than the one at Hall H. He runs a sort of Comic Con convention at the same time and all the proceeds go to charity:  anyway here is the link to his panel (there is cursing involved)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuV-RWJb5d0

    featuring: Yvonne Strahovski, Retta, Jennifer Morrison, Sophie Turner, Missy Peregrym, Ming-Na Wen

  14. 14
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