“Longer lines at the ladies room.” SDCC and the Increased Presence of Women in Comics

The SDCC schedule this year is notable for its abundance of panels about female characters and women in comics and games—Monday alone featured “Female Heroes, Then and Now,” “Beyond Clichés: Creating Awesome Female Characters for Film, TV, Comics, Video Games, and Novels,” and “The Most Dangerous Women at Comic-Con.” All of these panels were well-attended—in fact, I couldn’t even get into “Beyond Clichés.” As the weekend progresses, themes are bound to emerge, and it will be interesting to see where it goes.

“Female Heroes, Then and Now” emphasized comics, and was moderated by Anina Bennett and featured Paul Guinan, Kiala Kazebee, Jimmy Palmiotti, Alison Baker, and Claire Hummel. Bennett observed wryly that one sign of the change in comics and nerd culture was the fact that there were now lines at the women’s restrooms at SDCC. She noted the increased level of conversation about women in comics and female characters and accompanying intensity and frequent ugliness. “The reason we’re seeing so much more of this conversation now is because for the same reason there are lines at the women’s room: there are so many more women in the industry now.”

The panel began with a roundup of everyone’s favorite female heroes, real-life and fictional. Both Guinan and Palmiotti cited their mothers as heroes; Baker and Kazebee mentioned multiple female comics artists, including Trina Robbins, Erika Moen, and Joelle Jones. When discussing fictional female heroes, Hummel pointed out that a good, well-rounded female character didn’t need to be powerful; a character like Sansa Stark who “plays the slow game” was just as interesting. Baker noted that a common thread amongst all the fictional women named—who included Lilo and Nani, the characters from Orange is the New Black, and the women of the Alien films—is that they were all written as people and didn’t exist simply to be one-dimensional and reflect on the hero.

From there the discussion went on to what Baker described as the nearly daily occurrence of some egregious example of sexism or fear of feminism, such as the Assassin’s Creed controversy over the lack of a female avatar in the upcoming Unity, and Ubisoft’s less-than-stellar response. Also brought up was Meredith and David Finch’s interview about their new Wonder Woman and David Finch’s reluctance to call Wonder Woman a feminist character, which brought a general round of dismay from the panel over the fear of the word “feminist.”

Marvel’s announcement regarding a female Thor was up next, and was treated with a certain amount of ambivalence. Bennett commented that on one hand, the female character was welcome, but on the other, Marvel has very few female freelancers working for them—“in one month there were more women working on Lumberjanes than in all of Marvel comics.” There was further discussion about how a lack of creator diversity is a systemic problem: people hire people they know, and men generally tend to hire men. Baker said that it’s important to hire women and POC not just because of the perspectives they bring, but also because it encourages other women and POC to get involved. When Bennett asked if publishers and producers have a responsibility to hire a diversity of talent, the response was a resounding and unanimous yes.

Bennett’s question to the panel about how they’ve reacted to accusations of sexism or bigotry led to a discussion about accountability and willingness to learn. Hummel talked about getting called out for a design where she used Victorian and European steampunk elements for an “Indian” design without thinking that there could be an Indian, non-European approach to the steampunk aesthetic. Baker talked about the challenge of shedding one’s own internalized sexism when raising a daughter. Palmiotti had the most well-publicized story—the controversial art contest that came under fire for being a frivolous and sexualized depiction of suicide—a mistake for which Palmiotti still seems to be sorry for. In handling such situations, the consensus was that the important part was to take a step back, recognize the mistake, apologize, and adjust behavior going forward.

The general sense of this panel was one of both aggravation and hope—aggravation at deeply ingrained attitudes of sexism in comics and games that consciously and unconsciously informs editorial decisions and audience reactions—but also hope change nevertheless is happening—so quickly, Palmiotti quipped, that “We’ll be working for half of this room eventually.”

All of our ongoing San Diego Comic Con 2014 coverage can be found here.

Karin Kross is at her sixth San Diego Comic-Con. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter, and she, her husband Bruce, and her friends Shellie and John are posting about SDCC at nerdpromnomnom.


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