Finding the link: Fangirls and feminists

I’ve mentioned this before and I’ll say it again: I’m a fangirl. My fandoms are many and varied, but I am passionate about each and everyone. And that’s all it means to be a fangirl: To be a person who identifies as female and to have a deep passion for…something. For me that is a variety of books, movies and television shows. And I shouldn’t have to feel the need to defend that passion, nor should the term fangirl be a negative adjective. Unfortunately, it is often used that way. Sam Maggs says “No more!” in The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxywhich I received a preview of from NetGalley. As Maggs explains, when someone questions your undying love for Star Wars (or Harry Potter, Tolkien, Star Trek, Firefly, etc., etc., etc.): 

“Remind them (and yourself!) that throughout history, the best kinds of literature – the ones that have survived the longest – are the books that touch people on a human level. Your fandoms are like that: fiction, no matter the form, allows you to live a thousand meaningful experiences and relationships that you could never have in real life. Getting invested in a fictional world means you have a wonderful imagination, a big heart, and the capacity for endless creativity. No one can say anything bad about that.” p. 39

But it’s not the fan part of fangirl that gets a bad rap. Often it’s the girl part. It’s a sad reality that boys/men letting their geek flag fly face less popular resistance compared to the reaction when girls/women do the same thing. Granted, men who spend time in comic book shops (or other stereotypes like that) get to be the butt of more than a few jokes, even though they shouldn’t. Fanboys/men are generally awesome and fun to hang out with and shouldn’t be judged for their interests. But women not only get joked on from outside the geek community – as men do – but from within the geek community, as well, often from those same men that face prejudice from non-geeks. (Note: This is not true of everyone. The male geeks I have encountered have more often than not encouraged me when I expressed interest in a specific subset of geek culture.)

I have a confession: There has been a large chunk of my life in which I disliked feminism. I didn’t actively attack it. I treated it the same way I treat other things I didn’t want to deal with or didn’t support: I just ignored it. It’s not that I hate women, I just hate the big deal that is made out of girl power. Which I admit is kind of crazy, seeing as how I am a woman, I identify as such, and I admire powerful women, whether they be real, like Wendy Davis, or fictional, like Zoë Washburne. I like to believe we live in a society where we’ve moved past the need to point out that girls have power, too. It’s just a fact, or at least it was, in my worldview. Yes, I know this is naive and even lazy of me. And recent news stories have proved that my idealist view of the world is way off.  From the continued pay gap between men and women to the horrible Internet trolls that have attacked women for daring to be geeks have forced me to think about my own beliefs.

When I was younger, I thought feminists were die-hard, angry women who didn’t wear bras or make-up and relished attacking other women for conforming to the male-defined vision of “woman” (think housewife, circa 1950). This is a side of feminism that neither honors the intent of the movement, nor adds value to womanhood. Indeed, attacking women for being whoever they want to be is actually quite anti-feminist. Now, I prefer this definition of feminism:

“If you stand for equality, you’re a feminist. That’s it.” -Emma Watson, UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador

You should listen to Watson’s full speech to the United Nations here. Now. I’ll just wait here.

She was good, wasn’t she? I didn’t think it was possible, but Emma Watson is even cooler than Hermione Granger!

Returning to The Fangirls Guide to the Galaxy. Beyond a guide to different fandoms, how to write fanfiction and tips for attending Comic-Cons, this book is all about empowering women to be themselves. There is a whole chapter at the end about feminism. And it got me thinking about my own choice in fandoms. I have a lot, I’ll grant you. I love Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, Dr. Who, Sherlock, Tolkien, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity, and Big Bang Theory (just to name a few). Some are obviously feminist leanings and some don’t. Many have strong female characters, but there are just as many badass dudes (actually, there are more). My favorite characters are sometimes women (Luna Lovegood, Hermione Granger, Kaylee, and Tara Maclay) and sometimes not (R2-D2, Data, Gimli son of Glóin and Dr. Watson). And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. All of my fandoms, however, have at least one strong female. That might be more of a testament to the recent inclusivity of science fiction/fantasy, than the state of feminism and equality. But what does this lopsided representation of women in popular society mean to me as a woman? That’s the question.

I’m not the first one to think about the representation of women in the media. The Bechdel Test, which came about from a comic she drew (based on a theory forwarded by another woman), is a test to see if a film actually represents women realistically. TV Tropes describes it like this:

“In order to pass, the film or show must meet the following criteria:

  1. It includes at least two women,
  2. who have at least one conversation,
  3. about something other than a man or men.

There’s a website that lists whether movies pass or fail the test, and allows commentators to bicker endlessly about whether they do indeed pass the test, or if it even matters. For example, there is currently a spirited discussion about the pass rating given to Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie that does little to actually empower women. On the other side, Serenity, which boasts four women – two who literally kick-ass, one that is the epitome of femininity with power over men and one who is a tom-boy yet still feminine, as well as being a genius mechanic – was originally listed as failing one of the criteria (it has since been edited to pass, after much back and forth). Which begs the questions, if the test is so…shall we say, subjective, why does it exist at all? Ana Mardoll offers a good explanation:

“Instead, the value of the Bechdel test here is to get the viewer thinking about the ways our society views women and the ways it views men. If your women on screen only interact with one another in stereotypical “feminine” ways — in this case, largely talking about and growing interpersonal relationships — then as a writer, you’ve failed to recognize and reflect the reality that women frequently and daily have conversations with each other about regular stuff. We talk about our jobs. We share our aches and pains. We discuss movies and TV shows and food and books. We exist as regular people, just as regular as the men around us.”

In her book, Maggs celebrates women who have the strength to be themselves, whatever that self may be or which fandom they are obsessed with. She offers interviews with a number of geeky role models, making it just as excellent for teens struggling with their identity as it is for someone like me, an adult who is proud of my geekiness. But, as long as gender is used as a justification for treating people differently, we will need feminists. As Watson says, everyone is welcome into the feminist club, as long as you believe in equality, whether that be equal representation of male and female comic book superheroes (and villains!) or equal pay for women in real life.


3 thoughts on “Finding the link: Fangirls and feminists

    • I think I had heard a friend reference the series, but I hadn’t watched it until now. Love it. Definitely forces you to think harder about the media you consume. Thanks for the recommendation! I wish I could say I’m surprised at the backlash, but it is an unfortunate reality. The Mary Sue talks about recent research aimed at figuring out a way to end trolling before it gets out of hand, but I’m skeptical that that can ever really happen:

  1. Pingback: Mini-reviews: The Other | Beta Librarian

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