This spring’s MCM Comic Con, held at the ExCel in London, welcomed 122,634 visitors over the course of the weekend, making it larger by 10,000 visitors than the previous convention held last October. Last time I attended, I was merely an attendee–there for the fun and cosplay. This spring, I attended as a member of the press with all that perks that entailed: namely, spending most of my Saturday in the press room with twenty other reporters, trying to get the attention of celebrities. While it is difficult to make oneself heard in such a crowd in such a short time period (each interview session lasted approximately 20 minutes), it quickly became apparent that most of us news outlets had a common mission: to emphasize diversity and inclusion in mainstream media and culture.
On Fandom as a Community
Over the past two years, the Collectiva Diva and I have taken great care to address feminist and equality issues in fandom, and it is with a great breath of relief that I discovered that actors and other reporters share our concerns. In the press room with Once Upon a Time’s Merrin Dungey, Victoria Smurfit, and later, Queen of Geek Felicia Day, after cursory questions such as “how do you find London?” and “what do you think of the convention?”, conversations took a serious turn. As we spoke with Felicia Day, the Queen of Moons, about her upcoming book You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), she emphasized the importance of the internet in geek culture, attributing much of the culture’s growing popularity to online interaction. “I think the internet allows people, just like I talk a lot about in my book that’s coming up in August ‘You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)’…I think the internet allows people wherever they are physically to connect with people who are like them mentally and passion-wise, and that allows people to connect better and to celebrate who they are more freely. And I think comic cons and events like this are a perfect way to bring that online world, where you feel accepted, into the offline world, where you can also feel accepted.”
Felicia Day, in describing how people connect online through their passions, is telling mainstream media and culture what participants in fandom already know: together, we are more than just fans, we are communities. We are cultures. Political science theoretician Benedict Anderson describes the definition of a nation as thus in his book Imagined Communities:
In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.
Anderson’s definition is not so different from Day’s. Most participants in fandom never have the opportunity to meet outside of the digital sphere, except for events like MCM which provide a space for the community, the online fandom nation, if you will, to come together. The importance of the online geek culture is important, according to Day, because “We have the internet and we have places that you can show people and prove concepts that might not be mainstream and likeable or provable, but can find the audience.” By creating online communities based on mutual interests, we create opportunities for new and diverse projects to be created and enjoyed. “Communities,” Anderson writes, “are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuiness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”
On Strong Women in the Fandom
In addition to discussing the importance of fandom, there was a strong emphasis on women in the entertainment industry throughout the weekend. Not just as characters, but also as professionals in front of and behind the camera. The largest panel of the weekend was ‘Who Run the World?’ which featured nine women from successful television and web series. The women discussed a range of topics from their favourite superheroes to the impact they have as role models for young women. When asked why they believed there was an upturn in more strong female roles and not just “damsels in distress,” the panelists gave very positive answers. Felicia Day attributes the change to more women in the writer’s room. “I think there are a lot more female writers,” she said, which Victoria Smurfit (OUAT) followed with, “I also think that production studios and studios have worked out that the vast majority of their audience are women who want to see themselves represented as strong and as capable and as multi-faceted as we are, ladies.”
In fact, in their earlier interviews, both Victoria Smurfit and Merrin Dungey were very vocal about the importance of strong women in Once Upon a Time and elsewhere on the small screen. “When you look at Disney,” said Dungey, “all the interesting characters are women, you know, for the most part in the Disney stories and fairytales…they’re the protagonists and they’re also the villains so you’re already given that surface.” They attributed OUAT’s success to its wealth of strong women, particularly citing the popularity of Lana Parrilla as Regina Mills/the Evil Queen. Unsurprisingly, Felicia Day, when asked about Supernatural’s Charlie Bradbury, attributed the character’s success and popularity in the fandom to how the character was written (the character’s appearances were mostly written by Robbie Thompson). “She [Charlie] is a geek who’s a lesbian but she’s not defined by those traits,” said Day.
The importance of portraying women as more than romantic interests was stressed several times throughout the convention. In her interview, Felicia Day discussed changing how women are portrayed in superhero stories. “That’s how I like to measure every character, whether it’s a strong character or not, [male], female, any background, would they be able to, on their own, carry the show. You don’t really have that, especially with female characters who are supposed to be love interests. So hopefully, you know, I think awareness and people pointing it out have been, make it possible to affect change and really encourage writers, male or female, to sort of broaden their idea of what a romantic female character, super or not, could be.” It was a theme carried over into the women’s panel, with panelists giving advice to young women entering male-dominated career areas. Merrin Dungey (OUAT) stated that “It [Acting] is not about taking your pants off” and said that she reinforces to her children the fact that “they also see that mommy has a career she is proud of.” Renee Felice Smith (NCIS:LA) encouraged women to “embrace their idiosyncrasies,” saying that her quirks had gotten her a part on several occasions.
Merrin Dungey’s simple advice to one young female fan perhaps struck the heart of what it’s like to be a woman in Hollywood: “Get a thick skin,” Dungey said, “because not everyone is going to like you, and it doesn’t matter.”
On Increasing Diversity in the Media
With such an impressive array of women represented at MCM Comic Con, it is unsurprising that many conversations focused on how to get more impressive women and more diversity into popular culture. As previously mentioned, many of the special guests attributed the beginnings of change to more women being involved in the creative process, and Felicia Day includes the flourishing online culture in that change. In response to women taking over a traditionally male-dominated culture, Felicia said, “I think that’s very encouraging, especially younger girls, a whole generation of girls who grew up on the internet and can express their fandom and connect. And Tumblr is an amazing platform that is very encouraging and also very female-centric. And, you know, you see the same enthusiasm about TV shows and video games there that you do in other areas like forums and things that are traditionally more male-oriented…I think that women have always been involved in them, but maybe just not as vocally because women are expected to be a certain kind of person…I think there are a lot of clichés of women not liking these things and that really kept women out of it, at least vocally.”
While many conversations focused on including more female representation, internet-savvy Felicia Day knows that in online fandom, diversity is not only important, it’s imperative. “The internet allows people to feel a bit more free in being themselves to they feel support to show the world that they are interested in a video game or a show,” she said in response to the same question about women in geek culture, “And I think it’s very awesome because, to me, nerd culture is genderless, it’s backgroundless, it’s ageless. Really, you’re connecting over something you love, and whatever that person looks like or they’re background, if you both love Doctor Who, you can have an amazing conversation. And it overcomes a lot of societal boundaries that might not even be real for us. They’re just sort of told to us that they are barriers and geek culture allows us to overcome those, I think.”
The topic of diversity was not limited to the press room, however, as one fan asked the ‘Who Runs the World?’ panelists about the representation of queer and transgendered women. The question was quickly addressed with promotions and praises for shows such as Transparent, which bring light to the topic. “There is an openness and awareness that’s coming to light,” said Merrin Dungey (OUAT), “It’s all happening…It’s maybe not happening as quickly as we like.” Change, according to these women, comes from diversity in front of the camera andbehind it. “Really, it’s about encouraging and educating people of diversity to be behind the camera more, writing more, being executives more, and directors. Really, those are the people who make the stories that are presented,” said Felicia Day in an interview response to a question about strengthening female representation.
Increasing diversity isn’t without struggle, as Felicia Day and the other panelists well know. Nor will it happen overnight, as Merrin Dungey previously indicated. However, the communal atmosphere of online fandom is one that brings hope, one that even the occasional troll or hater cannot dissuade. The struggle is real, but it isn’t hopeless. “So I think it’s the kind of struggle that you see when you’re trying to change people’s viewpoints,” said Felicia Day in regard to resistance of including diversity in fandom, “And hopefully there’s enough people to band together to say, ‘Yes, we can be inclusive’ rather than exclusive.”
I couldn’t have said it better, my Queen.
Interviews were conducted 23 May 2015 at the MCM Comic Con in London, held at the ExCel Centre.
The ‘Who Run the World?’ panel was held 24 May 2015 at MCM Comic Con at ExCel Centre. Appearances by Felicia Day (The Guild, Supernatural), Willa Holland (Arrow), Rila Fukushima (Arrow), Victoria Smurfit (Once Upon a Time), Merrin Dungey (Once Upon a Time), Renee Felice Smith (NCIS: LA), Emily Wickersham (NCIS), Annie Wersching (The Vampire Diaries), and Jadyn Wong (Scorpion).