I, Fangirl: The Comics World Wasn't Created For Women

Photo: John Linton Photography/REX Shutterstock.
Refinery29 is taking Comic-Con by storm! From July 9 – 12, Vanessa Golembewski will be reporting from the convention with videos, photos, news posts, and more. The following story is the first in our Comic-Con 2015 series.

The female comic book fan lives in a world not designed for her. She lives in a label, “fangirl,” that has begun to feel more like an insult. But, she isn’t going anywhere.

Well, she might be going to San Diego this week. Every year, some 130,000 super-fans descend on the SoCal city to attend Comic-Con, the world’s biggest convention celebrating comics, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, anime, animation, gaming, and myriad other nooks and crannies of pop culture. For movie studios, TV networks, and comic book publishers, San Diego Comic-Con is the place to trot out their wares. It's also an opportunity to stoke the excitement of the core audience whose collective yay or nay can make or break a project. As this year’s Con approaches — it kicks off on July 9 — Refinery29 decided to look into what it means to be a fangirl in a world that still very much caters to the all-powerful fanboys.

What we’re calling fangirls here covers an admittedly wide and amorphous group of women. They’re cosplayers, comic book collectors, sci-fi nerds, steampunk enthusiasts, booth babes, Lolitas, and more. They form a vibrant, diverse community with strong, often clashing opinions, connecting with each other online (through, for instance, the NY Cosplayer Network, which has nearly 1,000 members) and in real life meet-ups, like Green Jello Cosplay. Of the 130,000-plus attendees at San Diego Comic-Con in 2014, almost half were women. In 2014, women aged 17-33 became the fastest-growing demographic of comic book readership. And they are vocal: When the proportion of female writers and artists for DC Comics plunged from 12 percent to 1 percent in 2011, female fans started a petition for DC to hire more women. DC Comics responded by promising to try. Female fans from a group called the Carol Corps. were also instrumental last year in pushing Marvel to announce plans for a movie about Captain Marvel, a super-powered woman.
In other words, fangirls are engaged and numerous, making up a significant portion of the audience that shells out hard-earned dollars to support their pop culture passions. And yet, despite that, this group remains the third estate of the comics / fantasy world.

A Market For Men

By now, we all know the degree to which Hollywood studios lionize fanboys, but they're only beginning to show signs of caring about what fangirls have to say. Yes, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman appear to be on track for release in 2018 and 2017, but it has taken far too long for studios to get on board with the notion of a superheroine fronting a franchise of her own. This is not to say — by any means — that fangirls are only interested in female characters, but there's no denying that the lack of confidence in these stories sends a clear message to the women in the audience.

For many of the fangirls we interviewed for this story, what's particularly irksome is how The Avengers and Spider-Mans of the world seem to want to pigeonhole female characters as accessories to a romantic subplot. “I feel like writers or directors think that the only way to get a girl to like a movie is if there’s a romance involved,” says Paige, a 24-year-old from New York who, like all of the women we spoke with, asked that we not list her last name. Kiara, a cosplayer from Queens, has all but lost faith in ever seeing a film that would do justice to a female character. “I just feel like we wouldn’t get that because it probably wouldn’t sell for them,” she said.
Of course, none of this is all that surprising considering that the source material for these blockbusters — comics — are still primarily marketed to men. The words “women” or “female” didn’t even appear in a 2012 Nielsen survey of DC Comics readership, suggesting the publisher does not value the female contingent. Even some of the comics merchandise that's marketed to women carry a sexist undertone. Two cases in point: This Batman bomber jacket with a notoriously violent and sexist plot about a woman being shot, stripped naked, and then photographed, and this T-shirt for women who would like to one day be Mrs. Batman.

Even the label itself — fangirl — has become problematic. Though the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines both “fangirl” and “fanboy” as a person “who is an extremely or overly enthusiastic fan of someone or something,” some women find that the word calls out an unnecessary gender qualification. If “fanboy” connotes someone who’s dedicated and knowledgeable, “fangirl” suggests something less serious and more easily disrespected. (See exhibits A, B, and C.)

“Fanboy, for me, the definition that comes to mind is someone who is truly there for the creation aspect of comics. Their soul is comics,” says Michelle, a 24-year-old cosplayer based in Los Angeles. “Fangirl is like, everybody always says you’re fangirling — like, ahhh! The screaming girl.” Indeed, the word (and the image of the manic, immature behavior it suggests) now has come to characterize devotees outside of the comics community — namely, hyperventilating tweens at, say, a Justin Bieber concert.

Marin, a 26-year-old New Yorker, echoes Michelle’s concern. “Fangirl is something most women do not want to be,” she says. “It has a derogatory tone to it.” And, for Marin, the term is a way for men to place female fans in a category beneath them. “Fangirls are seen as women who ‘want’ to be into comics because it’s the cool thing to do, but they actually don’t have the knowledge that most men would have,” she explains. “A lot of us are thrown into that category, mostly by men in the comic world as a dismissal to our interest in comics.”
Photo: Courtesy of DC.


The Magnitude Of Female Readers

It’s hard to get an exact read on just how massive the female fanbase is. Recent reports suggest women make up roughly 30-40% of comic books fans. Refinery29 reached out to both Marvel and DC for comment on the size and importance of their female readership, but neither responded.

Kiara feels that some comic books simply aren’t designed for female interest. “You can walk into Midtown Comics and find really nice, PG comic books, but then you can still walk into that same [store] and still find covers with risqué women who are scantily clad,” she says. “As much as I would like to say comic books are for everyone, you know what it is: Sex sells. Who buys sex? Men.” That said, Kiara points out that she still enjoys those comics, even with overly sexualized female characters. “They’re good reads,” she says.

Marin thinks there’s been an effort in the past few years to market comics to women. (For example, Marvel debuted a weekly Women of Marvel podcast in June 2014 that’s still going strong.) Yet, it’s not exactly what she’d hoped. For example, the Batgirl character was recently redesigned. “She can be seen sporting a thick cat-eye, eyeliner, and yellow [Dr. Martens] look-alike boots,” Marin explains. In one of the featured images, she’s even standing in front of a mirror taking a selfie while other women are fixing their makeup. To Marin, the takeaway isn't hard to suss out: “It’s as if to say, ‘Put women doing makeup out there, women will like that.’”

And for Marin, over-sexualized characters are a problem. “Even in the new Black Canary series, her costume is still very revealing — fishnet tights and a leotard with massive cleavage and high heels,” she says. “I feel this was a missed opportunity for DC to make her more of an empowered character and less of a sex symbol.”

Earning Fangirl Street Cred

The notion of authenticity is critical in comic-book culture and, for some diehard devotees, having a cursory knowledge isn’t enough. Michelle, for instance, says fans of the Batman movies who can't demonstrate a working knowledge of the “real” Batman origin story and plots aren’t taken seriously. “They write you off, like you’re not true,” she says, adding that it’s especially hard for women in this respect. She gets questions like, “Are you really into it? Are you sure it’s not your boyfriend? Are you sure?”

It’s important to note that the women we spoke to for this story represent a small segment of a huge population of female fans with varied interests, concerns, and identities. Still, the challenge of proving one's bona fides was a common theme.

For example, take "gatekeeping." By this practice, fans — usually male — anoint themselves the guardians of authentic fandom and question anyone (usually women) who want in. Several of our interviewees say it’s not uncommon for men to approach women in comic book shops and start quizzing them on how much they know about a certain character or even question why they’re there.

“I’ve been quizzed maybe on four occasions,” says Darlena, a fangirl in her 40s from New York. “I told them I refuse to answer the question because it’s based on a stereotype and I don’t buy into stereotypes. It’s saying that you can’t possibly be an authentic fan because you’re a woman. That just doesn’t make sense. … You get to a certain point, you’re like, ‘This is about me, my expression, and my love for the character. You’re not worthy of an answer. Have a good day.’”

On the other hand, Grace, a member of Darlena’s cosplayer group, says her experience has felt less like gatekeeping and more like a knowledge exchange. She shared a story about a recent trip to Midtown Comics in New York City, where a man asked her about a plot point in the Doom comic. "We went back and forth and that just showed me that the person had respect for me as a [fellow] comic book lover,” she says. “I recommended a bunch of comics to him.”

Gatekeeping rears its head between fangirls, too — usually in cosplay. “The first [question] when you dress up [is often] did you make your costume or did you buy it?” Michelle says. Those who make their own costumes are revered, while those who purchase them are considered “meh.” This creates a divide between women who dress as the "authentic" version of the character versus those who are perceived as trying to be cosplay famous. “The girls will get side-eye from other girls if they dress like the slutty versions of the characters,” Michelle explains. Granted, she adds, “comic book girls to begin with are provocative.”
Hope For The Fangirl

For all of the challenges, things are improving. In October, Marvel released a female Thor comic — and she outsold her male predecessor. All of the women we spoke to said they found strong female characters in comics that she could identify with — even if those characters never make it to the big screen.

Women may very well be the sleeping giants of fandom. Darlena notes that when she goes into comic book shops, there are more and more women there. Some might reason that this is because cult properties like Buffy the Vampire Slayer opened up the world of sci-fi / fantasy to a broader swath of women. Others, like Grace, point to a simpler answer. “When fathers who are comic book fans and they have daughters, they start putting in the comic book knowledge into their daughters’ heads and the daughters grow up loving comics,” she says. “That’s why there’s going to be a newer generation of women appreciating the comic book scene, appreciating all that culture.”

Certainly Comic-Con has taken notice of the power of the fangirl. For the past several years there has been female-centric programming, and this year is no exception, with panels like “Nobody’s Damsel: Writing For Tomorrow’s Women” and “Building The Modern Super Heroine” on the schedule. Further signs of progress came back in April, when DC partnered with Mattel to create Super Hero Girls, a new “multi-platform superhero universe aimed at female fans ages 6-12.” Meanwhile, Supergirl is getting her own live-action TV series on CBS, debuting this fall.

It remains an imperfect world for the fangirl — but it’s starting to look a lot more like home.


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