“Women as Supporting Characters Is a Problem”: NY Comic Con Panels Take on Strong Female Characters and Trans Themes

Sponsored by girl-geek destination site The Mary Sue, Saturday’s New York Comic Con panel on “Strong Female Characters: The Women Shining in Geek Media” began by making clear what a strong female character isn’t. “There’s a lazy definition of the strong female character,” Lindsay Ellis, creator of YouTube’s Nostalgia Chick channel, notes. “Which is: ‘female character that do guy things. And she punch and she fight.'” Along with “Secret Identities: Transgender Themes in Comic Books,” convened 24 hours later in the same filled-to-capacity room at the Javits Center, the panel took a hard look at representation in the works celebrated at this weekend’s Comic Con — both how far it’s come, and how far it has to go.

Moderated by Jill Pantozzi, editor-in-chief of The Mary Sue, the event began with the panelists’ personal favorite SFCs growing up. Most of the usual suspects (Buffy, Captain Janeway, Alanna from Song of the Lioness) were rattled off before Ellis cut the brainstorming short: “There needs to be recognized some of the internalized misogyny we all grew up with.” Ellis didn’t look to female characters for inspiration as a kid; instead, she found herself wanting to be a boy.

It’s a thought process familiar to anyone who’s been forced to choose between characters who aren’t like them or characters who are, but just don’t seem, well, real. Enter the punching-and-fighting SFC, an archetype Transformers writer Mairghread Scott describes as a symptom of “flawed” writing. “Women can’t fail,” Scott paraphrased. “You’re not allowed to fail. You’re good at everything all the time, you have to be good at everything all the time, and you’re completely selfless while doing it.”

Which doesn’t mean there haven’t been breakthroughs recently: panelists praised Sansa Stark for highlighting fans’ instinctive negative response to teenage girls, Orphan Black for depicting motherhood as a motivating factor, and The Hunger Games for opening the female-centric YA blockbuster floodgates. Mary Sue associate editor Sam Maggs argued that science fiction and fantasy have always had well-written women — they’ve simply been kept on the sidelines. Ellis agreed: “Whenever issues of representation are brought up, people don’t understand that women as supporting characters is a problem… why isn’t there Scandal, but with aliens or something?”

When an audience member asked how to move forward, panelists divided their advice between creators and fans: the former should tough it out and/or step up; the latter should vote with their wallets. Scott admits being a woman in the industry is tough — “I didn’t sign up to the be the Robot Susan B. Anthony!” — but urged novices not to “tell yourself no.” As for executives? “You have every right to tell them what you do and do not want to spend your money on.” And no matter what, “corporations will always accept money.”

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Moderated by actor and writer Charles Battersby, “Secret Identities” focused less on a single archetype than the various themes trans representation has taken on in American comics’ 75-year history. Given that the trans movement, though an integral part of LGBT activism from the start, has only recently attracted mainstream media attention, the panelists had far fewer examples to work with than The Mary Sue. Battersby even expressed surprise at how many people knew what the term “cisgender” meant, as demonstrated by a show of hands: “If we’d had this conversation two years ago, there would’ve been five people with their hands up.”

Along with Batgirl writer Gail Simone, indie comic writer Morgan Boecher, and writer/activist Kristen Enos, Battersby divided trans comic characters into a handful of categories. There are characters who change gender as a disguise; characters who change gender because of magic, often as a punishment; and, occasionally, transgender characters, either superheroes or everyday citizens.

Boecher, who writes a webcomic about his experiences as a trans man called What’s Normal Anyway?, noted that the trope of gender change as accident or disguise “highlights gender identities and gender roles as two distinct things.” When a cisgender male character dresses up as a woman, the connotation is often, “these people aren’t real women” or “there’s some sort of deception going on,” but “these are bodies real women have!” Battersby brought up a storyline in which the Norse god Odin changes Loki into a woman: “Do you know how many people would love to have that ‘curse’?”

When Enos brought up a subplot of the 1980s classic Camelot 3000 in which the adulterous Tristan (as in Tristan and Isolde) is reincarnated as a woman, though, Boecher brought up another aspect of the punishment narrative. In a way, it’s a representation of the trans experience: “Who wants to wake up as a gender they don’t identify as? That’s the transgender struggle.”

Important as characters whose trans-ness is central to their identity — like the androgynous Desire from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, or Doom Patrol‘s Coagula, whose ability to turn solid objects liquid is a metaphor for her gender fluidity — may be, Simone made the case for a character who could “just be your roommate.” In Simone’s Batgirl, Barbara Gordon’s friend Alysia is an openly transgender woman. Simone wanted a trans narrative that didn’t end in suicide or homicide, as many do; Alysia ends the story line with a spouse and child.

Still, Simone noted that Alysia was partly inspired by comics writer Greg Rucka’s comment that LGBT representation will hit a turning point when a transgender hero is on the cover of a book, a benchmark that’s still far off. “It still doesn’t go far enough to flesh out [trans people] as full characters,” Boecher said. Enos offered her own metric for progress: trans villains, which she avoids writing out of concern for playing into stereotypes of trans people having what Battersby called “inherently malevolent intent.” “We haven’t reached the point” where she feels comfortable making trans characters bad as well as good, Enos says. “But it’s coming soon.”