Elevate Difference

Florida Supercon (6/18 – 6/20/2010)

Since I live in Miami, a city of fashionable sameness, it can be difficult to find alternatives to the mainstream culture. So I was convention curious. Yet all I knew about anime was what I’d seen on Adult Swim or the Syfy channel: doe-eyed, borderline pornographic girls in their miniskirts and ponytails. I can never get past the not-so-subtle little girl fetish. Change the channel, thanks.

Of course, there is the stereotype of the person who regularly watches Adult Swim—a pasty-faced, bespectacled, often bearded man-boy who lives in his mother’s living room—and hey, if we’re going the route of stereotypes, why not throw in Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. That was my starting point for the Supercon.

Supercon is diverse compared to other conventions. I went with a friend, a veteran con goer. She spoke about how comic cons bring out collectors as well as kids, while anime cons appeal to the pink-haired teenagers. Florida Supercon had all of these audiences. It also had fans of yesteryear TV shows and films with actors like Dawn Wells (Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island), Tia Carrere (Wayne’s World), and Guest of Honor Richard Roundtree (Shaft). And if you wanted an autograph from a wrestler or former Playboy playmate, they were there too.

The convention schedule on Saturday offered a few women-related panels, where I hoped to observe how women and girls are represented at a con. First was the "Girl’s Guide to Con Going" with the female hosts of the Anime Addicts Anonymous podcast. This panel was my introduction, and I felt both out of place and at home. Out of place because the three women were decked out in wigs and costumes, and spoke another language with Dragon Ball Z, cosplay, and other con references:: “I need a new d20.” (Did con speak require a dictionary? Write it down, ask questions later.) I felt at home because these women also spoke a language in which I am fluent: feminism. I don’t know if that’s how they would define themselves, but they certainly had ideas that many feminists would support.

The women counseled the audience on not giving out too much information to people at conventions and creating a limited Facebook profile for con friends. At first, this seemed very Dateline NBC (read: obvious advice); then I noticed the young girls in the audience. Some were twelve or thirteen years old, maybe younger. Some of them were sitting alone. The three women on the panel looked like they were in their early twenties, and they acted as role models and mentors. How should you respond to a creepy con guy who wants to take your picture? Say no: “If that voice in your head says this is weird, listen to it.” I hadn’t expected this kind of talk at a comic book convention.

One of this panel’s best topics was how to create affordable and practical costumes. (Some context for the uninitiated: what you wear is a major part of conventions. Sometimes people dress as characters of their own gender, but attendees are just as likely to cross-dress.)The "Girl’s Guide to Con Going" was all about comfort in costuming; if you went wearing flats, that would be one less thing to worry about. Pack a change of clothes and double-sided tape. Practice poses in front of a mirror before the convention. “You may think something looks cool, but it doesn’t, and then you’re on YouTube,” said one panelist.

The panel also encouraged the audience not to live up to unrealistic portrayals of women when working on their costumes. Sexy girls are part of anime, like the female anime character featured on the back of the Florida Supercon program: Yoko from Gurren Lagann. She has red hair in sweeping ponytails, a skimpy maid costume, big boobs, a flat stomach, and a come-hither wink. The panelists offered the female audience validation: “That body type doesn’t fit into the real world! Anime is drawn; they aren’t based on real people. So, tailor your costume to whatever fits you.”

As far as their own costumes, the panelists were dressed as characters from Baccano! Nice Holystone wore an eye patch; Miria was a blonde in a red dress and opera gloves; and red-haired Ennis was dressed in a suit. Silly me. I had thought Ennis was Dana Scully from The X-Files.

The next women-related panel, "Meet The Roller Derby Girls," presented the South Florida skaters from the Gold Coast Derby Grrls. Roller derby is inclusive of both genders, in some respects; men can participate as referees, but only women can compete. Skaters recreate themselves into personas with names like Souljourner, Dela Ruthless, and Heinous Grace. One of the women, Caffeine Crash, explained the connection between roller derby and a comic book convention: “When you skate, it’s like an alter ego—like you’re putting on a character. But at the same time, that’s when you’re most yourself, with the war-paint and being kick-ass.”

While this is reminiscent of cosplay, that’s probably where the similarity ends. Roller derby is a fast-paced game where skaters often get injured—sprained shoulders and bruises are standard—so skaters learn to “fall small” and spend money on a good set of knee pads. The sport is one of the few outlets where women can be full-on aggressive. But what’s remarkable is how roller derby has become an international network of women who support each other and contribute to charitable causes. (The Derby Grrls have organized relief efforts for Haiti and collected supplies for people affected by the oil spill crisis in the Gulf.) The Gold Coast Derby Grrls have traveled nationwide for matches in Philadelphia and Oklahoma. Despite the competitive nature of the sport, other leagues will often show hospitality by giving their competitors a place to stay.

The last panel was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and featured Georges Jeanty, the artist who worked on the season eight comic book. Jeanty’s previous work includes strong female characters like Wonder Woman and Razor. He considered what makes Buffy different: “Most female characters in comics are men drawn in female form. Buffy is independent and powerful, but still very much a girl.”

But what does it mean to be a girl? The first two panels had presented more than one definition. You could have comfort in your cosplay or you could be bruised up from roller derby. There are many ways to be an independent and powerful girl.

However, Jeanty’s point about the male influence on comic books was made evident by browsing the Florida Supercon's vendor and artist tables. Plenty of the female characters in comics and anime could have been featured in Playboy or Hustler. There was even a Typhoid Mary action figure with mechanical straitjacket and spread-eagle legs. What’s the message here—keep your women locked up and prone?

There were also empowering images to be found. The front cover of Derrick Fish’s The Wellkeeper made my friend stop at his table: “Look, she has a belly!” Zoe is the main character, a young girl with curves. The cover shows Zoe ascending into the sky out of the green earth, surrounded by a radiant light. A synopsis of the story suggests that Zoe is connected to a planetary life force, so there are definite mother-earth overtones. Her belly makes sense in that context, but she also represents a body type we don’t often see as heroic, and that acts as an alternative to depictions like Typhoid Mary.

Artist Juan Fontanez said he appreciated the presence and influence of female artists and collectors at Florida Supercon. This sentiment was also shared by Banky (V. Farano), who has sometimes been mistaken for a “convention girlfriend” instead of an artist. Yet Danielle Soloud, creator of the webcomic Life With Death, voiced the need for even more women in the industry. She said, “We should be able to get in there… boys and girls [can] make comics together!”

Younger fans have found interesting ways to deal with gender disparities. I asked a group of teens—one boy and three girls, aged twelve to eighteen—about what it’s like for a girl at these conventions. One girl responded, “It’s harder because of the costumes… sometimes it’s easier [for a girl] to be a guy.” She went into detail about how it costs less money and results in more fun if you're seen as a boy. The only difficulty was in binding down her chest, but the compliments made it seem worth it.

Another girl, who was dressed as Allen Walker from D.Gray-man, said some people didn’t recognize her as a girl in costume; instead, they just said she was a really good Allen. The boy was dressed as his own gender, with orange hair and a brown robe. He insisted that when a guy dresses as a girl, it was “just for laughs.”

Sure, Florida Supercon had women in tight-costumes, all boobs and high heels, and more than a few pasty-faced man-boys (even a few who could double as Comic Book Guy), but that stereotype is a very limited truth. Women artists and fans are claiming their place in the realm of comic books, anime, video games, and sci-fi while cosplay is expanding the continuum of gender expression. There is definitely the potential for empowerment at conventions like Florida Supercon; however, women and men should continue to voice the need for broader representations. For every Yoko, there should be a Zoe. Until then, women should keep attending these conventions and establishing a presence within this pop culture niche—so every girl can be her own superhero.

Photo credit: Debbie Chamberlin

Written by: Andrea Dulanto, July 30th 2010