It’s been a while since I’ve done a Nerds and Male Privilege column. But every once in a while, something happens in fandom and the universe provides me with another opportunity to illustrate just what male privilege is and how nerd culture is so often neck-deep in it.
Real talk time: I’m well aware that whenever I post on something touching feminist issues, I get a traffic boost, and it’s easy to say that I write about this sort of thing strictly for the page-views and the insta-cred that it brings me. And considering the people involved, the idea of using feminism as a way to advance one’s career has a certain poetry to it. But here’s the thing: I’m a geek. I love geek culture… especially comics. I love comics as an artform and medium. Some of my favorite stories, the ones that moved me emotionally more than 99% of the canon of Western literature1 came from comics. I even have made an occasional stab at being a creator and publisher. I have been in the trenches and have deep, deep roots in comic fandom and in the industry.
Which is why the comics industry pisses me the hell off in a way that few things can.
Because as much as I love the geek culture as a whole and comics in particular, there are times that I’m reminded that for all the progress we have made, it is still profoundly regressive and ass-backwards in the way it treats the people who take part in it.
But perhaps I get ahead of myself.
Let me back up a little.
Tess Fowler and the Comics Casting Couch
Last month, Tess Fowler - an accomplished and incredibly talented cartoonist – posted a series of tweets talking about a deeply unpleasant experience with a big-name comics professional that she had at San Diego Comic Con – the biggest comic and pop-culture convention in the United States. The pro in question – who has serious cred, working on some of the biggest titles being published at the moment – claimed to be interested in her work and invited her back to his room under the pretense of “getting to know her better” and possibly helping her with her career.
Tess understood exactly what was being said here – this was a casting couch scenario; play ball (as it were) and perhaps it might get her somewhere, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more. It wasn’t even terribly subtle: according to her tweets, he ran friends of hers off in the middle of a conversation so that he could give her his room number and let her know that he’d be waiting.
When she didn’t respond to his invitation, he pitched a fit on the con floor, yelling at her from his booth and demanding to know why she’d stood him up. Of course, because screaming at someone for not agreeing to blow you wasn’t enough, he later confronted her over Facebook and let her know that a) he never had any intention of helping her career, b) that he thought her art was shit and c) she should consider herself lucky that he was talking to her at all.
After weeks of various people connecting dots and sharing stories, Tess decided it was time to point fingers and name names.
I’m going to say it. And fuck anyone who doesn’t like it. Brian Wood is a DICK. And he’s preyed on women for too long.
— TessFowler (@TessFowler) November 13, 2013
Heidi MacDonald of The Beat reached out to Wood when the news broke; he declined to comment at the time and, to the best of my knowledge, still has said nothing about the matter.
(Doctor’s Note 11/15: Brian has since issued a statement on the matter on his site.)
For a lot of fans, this came as a shock. Brian Wood is known for, amongst other things, his feminist credentials in the comics industry. He’s the author on the first all-female X-Men title in Marvel Comics’ history and has helped foster the careers of many women during his tenure as a writer on Conan the Barbarian, Northlanders, and other titles. And yet, others have shared stories of similar treatment at his hands.
Sadly, Tess Fowler’s experience is hardly unique. In fact, this behavior – ranging from the sleazy-but-legal to out and out assault - has been part and parcel of the comics industry for quite some time.
Boobs, Butt-Grabs and Boundaries
I’m lucky to be friends with a lot of insanely talented people in all walks of the comic industry, from up and coming talents, rising stars and established names, writers, artists and publishers… and every woman I know involved in the comics industry has a story similar to Tess’.
Every. Single. One.
Some people have been open about their treatment in comics. One name that comes up over and over again is Julius Schwartz. Schwartz was comics royalty, a contemporary of legends like Carmine Infanto and Joe Kubert – a beloved figure at DC Comics and a critical architect of comic’s Silver Age. Everybody loved “Uncle Julie”, who told the best stories and had the most infectious laugh. And yet many, many women - including friends of mine – have stories of “Uncle Julie”. Stories about his wandering hands, or trying to force a kiss from them… or worse. “Uncle Julie” also assaulted a young female comic artist in a limousine and had sexually harassed several other women working in comics at the time.
But hey, who’re you gonna believe? The beloved creator of The Flash, Hawkman and the Green Lantern, or a couple of chicks?
Even allowing for such shitty behavior on the part of old men, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was all in the past – an ugly but ultimately finite point in comics history… if it had ever actually, y’know. Ended.
Men in positions of power and authority – creators, editors and publishers, convention runners – making passes and unwelcome remarks or trying to manipulate young and impressionable female creators into sex… talk to enough women in comics and you’d think you were hearing about the goings-on at Sterling Cooper, not about conventions in 2013.
If you ask that creator, she might tell you of the never-ending stream of micro-aggressions and diminutive treatment from older male creators. She might tell you about the boundary-pushing behavior, the multiple “How about dinner? No? Maybe breakfast then, heh heh” come-ons, the constant “I’m only kidding, don’t take it so seriously… unless you’re into it” propositions. She might tell you about the creators who would grab her ass during an otherwise “friendly” hug or about the co-worker who insisted that if he was going to keep working with her, she had to be “nicer to him” as he leans into her personal space.
The cosplayers may tell you about the big-name photographer who keeps pushing for a “private” photo session. The Asian-American creators may tell you about the creator with a self-confessed “yen for Orientals”2 or the ones who would go on and on and on about how Asian women are so much better than white women because they know how to treat their men.
She might tell you about the creator who pushed and pushed at the idea of her having a threesome with him and his wife, or the time she had to share a room with another professional only to find him standing over her bed in the middle of the night with a condom in his hand. You might hear about the con employee who would try to force long, lingering hugs out of female guests, or the one wanted to demonstrate his “massage tool” on her in his room. There were pros who exposed themselves, who groped up and coming artists in hot tubs and in stairwells or who would reach out and grab her breasts on the con floor .
And these aren’t just fans or socially maladjusted friends and acquaintances, these are their idols, their co-workers, their editors, bosses and mentors. People whom you might expect to behave with some manner of decorum and a bare minimum of professionalism and decency.
Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is an underlying part of the culture. Again, I stress that this isn’t just a one-off incident, the deplorable but rare occasion. This is so common that just about every woman in the industry has had something happen to her or is close to someone to whom it has happened.
As Fowler herself said:
The behavior of the man in question is considered normal in this business. And the few people who know about it consider it to be my fault for “falling for it” when he feigned interest in my work. In my pursuit of doing this work professionally I ran a gauntlet of this sort of thing.
Of course, you may hear about it from an individual… but it’s rare that such behavior becomes more than a poorly-kept secret. Everyone may know about it, but nobody’s willing to talk. And that’s part of the problem.
The Culture of Silence
I’ve been nice. REALLY nice. But when I have 3 women in my inbox in TEARS as they’re typing over the same guy? Yeah, screw being nice.
— TessFowler (@TessFowler) November 13, 2013
This behavior is enabled by an overwhelming culture of silence, especially when it comes to bad behavior amongst pros. Women are already socialized to be nice, to be deferential, to avoid attracting attention to themselves and to not make waves…. and this becomes even more pronounced in comics. Comics is an incredibly small industry, where getting a job is as much about your ability to network, make contacts and build relationships as much as it is about sheer talent. A person who’s easy to work with and can hit his or her deadlines is even more highly valued than the temperamental but brilliant writer or the popular illustrator who can’t get his pages turned in on time to save his life. For many women, it’s less daunting to not speak up out of fear of being blacklisted or being labeled “difficult”. It becomes even more of an intimidating prospect when the person who’s been harassing you (or worse) is entrenched in the power structure – a big-name pro, an editor, someone who has more pull in the industry than his accuser.
“I’ve never spoken publicly about my shitty experiences in comics because I’m small potatoes and people would just say I’m looking for attention or whatever,” as one of my friends told me.
When many women do speak up, they often immediately come under fire, especially if they name names. Colleen Doran and Lea Hernandez both found this out first hand when they spoke out publicly about the harassment that they’ve faced over the course of their careers and almost immediately faced an epic shitstorm of outrage. They were accused of being liars, of being attention whores, of being overly sensitive or just plain crazy.
The irony of calling Colleen – who, amongst other things, had to deal with a stalker for more than two decades – overly sensitive about shitty behavior from men is especially harsh.
As a result, women usually have to rely on a network of whispers to know who is cool and who to avoid, who is safe, who is a genuinely good guy and which people you should never be alone with. It becomes a “missing stair” problem – everyone is so used to having to leap over that missing stair that they don’t think about it until somebody who wasn’t warned trips and gets hurt.
And the damage it does – to both women individually and to comics as a whole – is immense. This behavior grinds down even the strongest and brightest, destroying their confidence and self-esteem. It chases some of the best and brightest talent out of the industry – and why should they want to take part in a system that continually tells them that they’re only there to be decorative, to be a consumable sexual object? Much like the “fake geek girl” label, it becomes another way of minimizing and othering women, preventing them from participating fully within a fandom they love – both as fans and as creators.
And thus we come to the male privilege aspect of the post. Comics – and fandom in general – is an incredibly male-oriented culture. The vast majority of movers, shakers, deal-makers and power-brokers are men… and we simply don’t face these issues by virtue of our gender. Women are forced to knuckle down and endure it; men get to skate by blithely without noticing that it’s happening at all.
And we’re also in a position to help make it all stop.
One of the ongoing issues with harassment in comics – and at conventions in general – is that the onus is put on women to avoid the bad actors; it’s about “not letting yourself be harassed” rather than not allowing the harassment to happen in the first place. In her post “Comic Guys, Harassment and Missing Stairs”, Rachel Edidin, a former editor at Dark Horse Comics correctly points out that whenever the topic comes up, whenever the whisper network shares names to avoid and tips to keep safe, there is almost never a parallel conversation among men about not treating women like shit. The air of “boys will be boys” or “what did you expect?” continues, and it’s maddening.
It’s not enough for men to just “not be that guy”. We can’t just pat ourselves on the back for not being a scumbag as though this were somehow going above and beyond the bare fucking minimum of being a man. Male behavior is the problem and we have to be part of the solution.
Here’s an unpleasant truth about our society as it exists today: men are privileged in having a louder voice than women do. It’s much easier to dismiss women’s concerns, to – as Edidin says – silence women by labeling them as malcontents and squeaky wheels. When we speak up in support, we make it possible for their voices and their messages to carry that much further, to penetrate that much deeper.
We need to be willing to take the risks and potential backlash to call out harassing behavior when we see it, especially if we’re in a position to directly affect it. We have to be willing to get in people’s faces, to boost signal when it’s needed and to speak out when we see harassment happen. We need to be women’s allies, providing support when they need it and back-up when they ask for it.
Comics are supposed to be a safe space for everyone, where diversity is welcomed and harassment and assault aren’t permitted to continue, where creepers aren’t allowed to prey on others.
And it’s on us to man up and help make it happen.