Archive for the ‘Guest Blogs’ Category

If I Can’t Squee, It’s Not My Comic-Con

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Comic-Con was under siege.

An epic queue of Twilight fans camped out to get into the New Moon panel with Robert Pattinson and Kristin Stewart in the grand Hall H, apparently disrupting fans who wanted to see some of the convention’s other big panels, including the panel for Tron 2 and the one for James Cameron’s Avatar.

I didn’t attend Comic-Con, so any information I have about the imbroglio is second-hand. It sounds like convention organizers could have done a better job of panel organization and crowd control, which is true of…. well, every single con in the history of ever. If what I read is correct, convention attendees have a legitimate gripe here.

But what, precisely, are Twilight fans guilty of, besides being extremely enthusiastic about their fandom?

They’re “twi-tards.” They’re a “screaming, twittering horde.” They’re hyped up on sugar and caffeine.

They are guilty of… being teenage girls.

Comic-Con is not a professional conference. It’s not an academically focused convention in the vein of some science fiction conventions, like Boston’s ReaderCon. It’s a media convention with a focus on comics and plenty of floor space for fantasy and science fiction novels, movies, toys, and clothing. So why is Twilight the red-headed stepchild?

Reading the articles and blog posts on the signs and T-shirts that read “Twilight Ruined Comic-Con,” one thing became clear to me. The Twilight fans didn’t belong at Comic-Con; they weren’t real nerds.

I can tell you the story of another convention, one that I actually attended, a large science fiction convention that will remain nameless. I was 21 or so. Most of the panels I went to were a homogeneous sea of white hair and beards. Now, I know my science fiction from Asimov to Zelazny. But I did not feel welcomed. With rare exceptions, I felt the old guard staking their claim: this was their science fiction, and I shouldn’t get my grubby hands on it.

Now fans complain about the graying of science fiction, the decline of subscription figures for magazines like Asimov’s. I love science fiction literature, and I love science fiction fandom, but in many ways they are lying in a bed they’ve made, through all the times they’ve ignored the enthusiasm of young people, women, and people of color.

The comics industry is healthier, and younger, but that doesn’t mean it’s always been better. A lot of my friends have stories of times they were made to feel creepy and unwelcome in a comics shop; and it took some comic shops a long time to realize that if they stocked a few manga, they might actually get some girls to come in.

Twilight is not my own personal cup of tea. But I want to be clear about a few things:

  1. 1.) There is a clear split on gender lines as to what constitutes an acceptable fandom. Comics are an acceptable fandom, but shoujo manga is kind of iffy. Transformers is clearly a more acceptable fandom than Twilight; Megan Fox is clearly a more acceptable target of lust than Robert Pattinson. Don’t hide behind saying Twilight sucks, or I’m going to tell you everything that sucks about all those ’80s cartoons you love.
  2. 2.) The criticisms of Twilight fans as a group are even more explicitly gendered. They’re too shrill, too squealy, too girly. This is the same moral panic we’ve seen since Beatles fandom, and frankly, it’s really old.
  3. 3.) You can’t judge a True Nerd by her “Team Edward” T-shirt. That same girl with an obsession with yaoi manga or Sailor Moon might run Linux on her computer and speak fluent Japanese.
  4. 4.) I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and – oh, sorry, excuse me.

Still: today’s squealy fangirl is the future of fandom. No, don’t run and slit your wrists just yet. You don’t know when she’s going to start experimenting with Anne Rice or radical feminist theory or vampiric folklore, and take a road straight into the heart of nerd-dom – but it’s going to be her nerd-dom on her terms. And it’s going to be sweet.

An After School Nightmare

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

After School NightmareIf you’ve ever read an issue of a women’s magazine like Glamour or Cosmo, or maybe just glanced at the covers while you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, you might have noticed something that is, on reflection, kind of strange.

Men’s magazines like Maxim usually have pretty girls on the cover. And women’s magazines like Glamour and Cosmo… usually have pretty girls on the cover. Which doesn’t seem so strange once you realize that while Maxim is selling you a message of “You, too, can have a pretty girl!” these magazines are selling you something to aspire to: “You, too, can become a pretty girl!” What does it mean to become a pretty girl, though? It means to see yourself through the eyes of men – and that’s why the covers of women’s magazines and men’s magazines end up looking pretty much alike.

It’s the same thing, by the way, with comics. In manga, you can see a sharp line between comics for men and comics for women, and though that line’s blurrier in the U.S., the vast majority of mainstream comics are written for an audience that’s male as a default. Both the popularity of manga and the growing visibility of geek girls are starting to break open that assumption, and sites like Girlamatic are doing a lot to create spaces where girls can be the default. But whether you’re reading a comic for men or one for women, you spend a lot of time looking at girls. If you open up a shoujo manga, you’ll see girls posed as if they were pin-ups, drawn to emphasize their beauty and their sexiness. It’s not as blatant or as raunchy as it would be in a typical shounen manga, but it’s there.

In movies, in T.V., in advertising, all day long you see women used as symbols for sexiness, women whose only purpose is to stand there and look pretty. It’s not surprising if that way of looking seeps into even comics written by and for women. But it does create a strange double vision. You’re supposed to identify with the main character, with her hopes and dreams and worries; at the same time, you’re always watching her, because comics are such a visual medium. She’s modeling how women are supposed to act, how women are supposed to look, what it means to be a woman. You’re identifying with her – but you’re also comparing yourself with her.

One of my favorite recent manga is After School Nightmare by Mizushiro Setona. The main character, Masshiro, is a hermaphrodite. He is – and I realize this is entirely impossible biologically, but it’s almost justified if you keep reading until the end – male above the waist, and female below the waist. He lives as a boy, and this sort of works for him until one day, just before kendo practice, he realizes to his own horror that he has started menstruating. For the rest of the series he is haunted by his sex and his sexuality. Can he live as a boy? As a girl? As both? Is he in love with Kureha, the pretty traumatized girl, or with Sou, the kendo-playing boy who can’t escape his sister’s shadow?

It seems like an unusual set-up for a story (and that’s without getting into his school’s bizarre dream clinic), but as I kept reading, I started to think that Masshiro’s situation wasn’t so unique after all. To a girl of eleven or twelve years old who has to suddenly confront the complexities of womanhood – periods, body hair, the distant possibility of sex – Masshiro’s horror looks like the most normal thing in the world. The only difference is that he has some justification for being horrified! Girls are told every day that what they’re going through is normal and natural; that’s not wrong. But Masshiro is so compelling as a character because he provides a space for yelling and screaming and getting angry and scared.

So the dynamic in After School Nightmare is inventive and brilliant; it straddles that line between voyeurism and identification. It’s painful and funny and awkward to watch Masshiro put on a skirt and try to negotiate his life as both feminine and masculine; it looks just a little bit off, just a little bit wrong. But at the same time, you can look at him and say, That’s me. Or at least, There’s someone who gets how hard and weird it is to figure out shaving your legs. And in the midst of realizing that I had been Masshiro, once upon a time, I felt that much more compassion for my gawky terrified teenage self.

One of the reasons for the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is how it simultaneously validates teenage anxieties and provides a glimpse of a way out. High school is hell, literally; lovers can suddenly change into vampires, literally; your life is controlled by shadowy forces. And then, in the midst of that, it shows a girl who has all the normal vulnerabilities, but also has the resources to overcome them, in her supernatural powers, in her friends, in her determination to survive. It’s never glib; Yes, it’s scary, it says. But you can do this too.

After School Nightmare affirms that it is frightening to have to deal with becoming a woman, that gender roles are often arbitrary and ridiculous, that sex can be used as a weapon, that it’s hard to deal with love and sex when they’re bound up with pride and ego and defensiveness and the need to prove oneself. But we see Masshiro taking the tiny, difficult steps towards discovering who he is, accepting himself, affirming himself – and we cheer for him.