San Diego Comic-Con: The Diversity Conversation

You could have spent your entire San Diego Comic-Con going to panels about diversity and feminism. Thursday had three panels in a row about women and genre: 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: Positive Portrayals of Women in Pop Culture. Later that evening was the Transgender Trends panel, the first panel on that subject ever held at San Diego Comic-Con.

There were enough panels along these lines that it was actually physically impossible to attend them all, no matter how much you wanted to—The Black Panel was up against Gender in Comics on Friday morning, and Diversity in Genre Lit overlapped with Fantastic Females: Heroines in Paranormal Fantasy on Saturday. This is actually an excellent problem to have, even if it did mean a lot of scampering from one end of the convention center to the other (which, along with a misreading of my own schedule, led me to miss Beyond Clichés, which had reached capacity by the time I got there). It’s certainly an improvement on the days when there was just The Black Panel and maybe one or two Women in Comics panels across the entire weekend.

A certain consistency emerged across the discussions and in the audience Q&As in these panels. Nearly every one seemed to involve someone not part of the group under discussion (e.g. a cisgender attendee at the transgender panel, or a white person at the Diversity in Genre Lit panel where the panelists were largely POC) asking for advice on how to write characters who are female/POC/transgender/etc. And the answer was more or less the same every time, an answer that thoughtful authors have been beating on for ages: do your research; get beta-readers with personal experience; be open to being wrong and being corrected; and if you screw up, apologize and learn from your mistake. Greg Weisman’s extensive discussion of his research into Taino culture and the history of the Caribbean for his novel Rain of the Ghosts was a good example of someone sincerely doing the work required to write a female protagonist of Taino descent.

It seems like such a simple formula, but there was often the sense that the questioner was looking for some kind of magic scroll that would avert all of that…work. There is, alas, no substitute. And chances are good that you will get it wrong at some point, but better to do that in the draft than in the final published piece. And no writer is immune to mistakes. On the Diversity in Genre Lit panel, author Lydia Kang, in talking about her research on congenital central hypoventiliation syndrome for her book Control, admitted,

“I struggle with this diversity issue. I think the fact that you are a person of color and you’re an author doesn’t mean you have all the right answers. I get put on diversity panels once in a while, and I’m always like, ‘I’m going to say the wrong thing!’ Because it is constantly a struggle. Each of us has our own little sphere we live in. Some are larger than others, but it still takes effort to go outside of that sphere, try to be comfortable with trying to be as inclusive as possible.”

Another recurrent theme across not only the explicitly diversity-focused panels but others as well: frequent authorial insistence on writing characters less as A Woman, or A Black Person, or A Gay Person, and instead writing a character as a person who happens to be female, or black, or gay. It’s an answer that in some hands can be a solid insight, but which in others seems a little disingenuous. Can you really say that “gender doesn’t matter in a character; just make them a person” when you are writing the character within the context of and/or for an audience that is a highly gendered society, or one shot through with racial tensions? “Treat the character as a person” doesn’t mean to treat the character as a straight white male in some kind of drag; it requires the author to examine the character’s context and to consider the structures of the world in which they exist. Jane Espenson, at the Most Dangerous Women panel, discussed the exercise of switching a character’s gender not simply to check off a box, but to see what that does to the narrative, and to expose the assumptions you may have unconsciously laid in your writing; this is a thing that needs to be done thoughtfully, rather than simply find-and-replacing every John with a Joan and calling it a day.

Still, the fact that these panels and conversations are happening at all is a good thing. An audience comment in Diversity in Genre Lit underlined the necessity of these conversations: a young woman born in Trinidad to a Chilean father and a Canadian mother spoke powerfully of her experiences at the University of Arkansas among American students who had encountered very little in the way of literary viewpoints outside of the European canon, and who had difficulty grasping the concept of a woman of color who couldn’t simply be categorized as “African American.” Not only do readers need to see themselves in literature, film, TV, and comics—they also need to see and understand others outside of their own spheres.

To be sure, we haven’t reached nerd diversity nirvana by any means. We’ve already talked about the disappointing answers to “which superhero would you play” at the otherwise excellent Women Who Kick Ass, which at least was pleasantly able to define ass-kicking as more than just whomping villains with a sword or gun. There were still a lot of panels where the men outnumbered the women, or where women were absent entirely. The Rulers of the Realm panel, delightful as it was, featured four men and one woman, and Putting the Epic in Epic Fantasy had a 5:2 ratio (4:1 if you include the moderator).

Meanwhile, outside the panels, the group Geeks for CONsent and author John Scalzi have made firm public statements criticizing the inadequacies of SDCC’s harassment policy. The incident where model Adrianne Curry served a beatdown to a man who molested a cosplayer friend of hers hit TMZ, and a young female cosplayer was allegedly violently assaulted offsite near the con. And who knows how many large and small incidents there may have been that won’t ever see the light of day. There are still problems, and no number of diversity panels alone can fix that—only action.

It’s easy to look at the bad incidents and the problems and say things are only getting worse and nothing’s changed. Weisman expressed considerable frustration at the fact that after twenty years in the business, he still has a hard time getting female leads greenlighted in action cartoons. I certainly have days where a spin through my RSS feed, Twitter, and Tumblr leaves me throwing my hands up in despair.

But to paraphrase something Anina Bennett said in the Female Heroes panel, though the conversations about feminism, race, and gender can get ugly at times, it’s good that we’re having them at all. Having those conversations in the first place is the only way anything will ever change.

Karin Kross is back from 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 posted about SDCC at nerdpromnomnom.


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