I’ve been attending conventions and conferences since I was a teenager. I’ve been to fan cons, to professional conferences, to spaces where men dominated and to ones where women empowered each other and created unforgettable bonds. Coming back from the 2013 RT Booklovers Convention, at which I worked as a representative of RT Book Reviews magazine, I have a lot of Thoughts about gender dynamics and safe spaces. (I can’t promise I’ll articulate any of them adequately!)
I have never felt safer at a convention than when I’m at one for women’s media. It’s such a sisterhood. A shared joy. A meeting of minds and passions. Be it soaps or romance, that is when you’ll see me at my most Me. (Assuming I’m not sleep-deprived and/or hysterical from nerves.)
And I can tell you exactly when I begin to feel diminished: when a man, SO aware of his Mighty Thunderstick, holds court and treats me like a silly little girl. I go from being a competent writer and editor, and proud published author, to an interloper in a boys’ club. I hear my voice get higher in response. I feel dumber. I feel naked. I feel like someone just took my safe space, and my brain, away from me. It’s pretty awful.
Author John Scalzi*, whom RT honored with a Reviewers’ Choice award for his science fiction novel Redshirts, was not part of a boys’ club. Neither was writer Andrew Shaffer. They were allies; they acted as part of the greater community, happy to be included in a group of women, not to rule it. They may be controversy magnets on the Internet (and who isn’t?) but, in person, they couldn’t be more welcoming and welcomed. It was just really cool to have them there. Not as men, not as dudes, but as people. Like the rest of us.
You can call it privilege, you can call it evidence of patriarchy at work, but there are men who know how to interact with a large group of women. And there are also men who know exactly how women feel when the numbers are flipped: cover models.
Yes, cover models go to conventions to “work it.” It is their job to look good and to be approachable and to be “on” all the time. It is part of their job to be flirty. It is not part of their job to get groped. But they are often objectified, marginalized and treated like pieces of meat. I spent a lot of time with these guys as events were being set up during the week, and one gentleman told me that someone grabbed his ass but he didn’t even turn around. What could he do, right? And I’m sure it wasn’t the only instance of unwanted touching. Sure, you could say, “Well, that’s how women feel all the time.” But that doesn’t make it okay. These men are no more “asking for it” than a Booth Babe or a Hooter’s waitress. It’s nice to ogle, to be able to own our sexuality and revel in it, and whoop it up as a crowd at Magic Mike, but it’s a not a victory for women when a man is actually sexually harassed.
Let’s face it: People are complicated, but also very basic. Get a group of more than 10 human beings in a room, and shit will get real. When it comes to fan-centric conventions, no matter the gender balance, there are just two very simple rules we can try to live by: 1) Respect each other and 2) Play the game. Within the confines of RT, I felt strong and empowered and body positive. I was almost never self-conscious about what I was wearing. It didn’t matter if I was hanging out with cover models or my fellow romance novelists; we all were part of The Club, all on the same page, pieces on the same wacky game board. As I said on Twitter, “I sported more cleavage at RT than I ever would at a comic con.”
But the moment I stepped into the “Link” that connected the conference hotels and the Crown Center mini-mall, or was sitting at a registration desk interacting with the public, I was aware that the rules were different. I was back in the Real World, where we aren’t as lucky to be able to bond over our shared love of books or TV shows. I buttoned up my sweater, let the blush heat my cheeks, shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot, knowing that I was not around Our People. And the goal for regular con attendees should always include being Our People.
We’re in this together. Embrace geekery across genres and across gender, sexuality and racial lines. Share the freedom to let our freak flags fly. Don’t be Them. Be Us.
For me, this past week, that Us included my awesome RT colleagues and so many amazing authors and publishing professionals. I would name them all, but this post would become overrun by teal deer. Just find a copy of the RT Booklovers Convention agenda and read all of those names. That was our family bible for the week. Add your name to the tree. Be an ally, be a sister, a brother, a friend. Be the best you. I promise you’ll have the best time.
*Scalzi gave me his cake pop at the awards ceremony. This might make me biased. I will be dining out on the anecdote for a while. But not the cake pop. I ate that right away.