Editor's note: Rob Salkowitz is a business analyst and consultant specializing in the future of entertainment, media and technology. This is an excerpt from his latest book, "Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture" (McGraw-Hill, 2012) which focuses on the nerdy audience at the largest comic book trade show in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him @robsalk.
I don’t think it will come as a big shock that, for most of the history of comics fandom, conventions have not been distinguished by high numbers of females of any age. That began to change in the 1990s, when strong and emotionally authentic female characters like Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the cheerful Goth-girl personification of Death in Neil Gaiman’s popular "Sandman" series activated the recessive fan gene on the X chromosome.
The trend accelerated with the mainstream popularity of manga, which had developed numerous styles over the years to appeal to all genders and was sold in bookstores, beyond the boys-club direct market comics shops. The rise of the Internet poured gasoline on the fire, creating spaces for feminerds to come out of the woodwork and share their passions. Many of today’s best online comic and fantasy-genre news sites and discussion groups were started by, and remain powered by, women.
Today, there are increasing numbers of proud girl geeks of all ages; I count myself fortunate to be married to one. Crowds at conventions and even some comics stores now reflect a much more equal gender balance. As for the comics industry itself, not so much. But that’s a different conversation.
There are big differences between the mature, established, mostly Generation X women, who developed their interests through actual comics and comics-related media (and can be every bit as marinated in the minutiae of continuity as the hardest-core male superhero reader), and the younger cohort, who are largely drawn into the worlds of fantasy and pop culture through manga and young adult fiction: not just "Twilight," but also "Baby-Sitters Club," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," and, of course, "Harry Potter." But at least girls and teens are coming into the social and participative world of fandom rather than just sitting on their couches playing Xbox.
You would think that male comics fans would have no problem with women getting into both the hobby and the business. Traditionally, guys who are into comics and related subcultures did not suffer an overabundance of female attention during their adolescence. Now that they are grown-ups, they might see the advantages of having women around who share their interests and passions.
Indeed, most of them do. But there remains a hard core for whom arrested adolescence extends beyond the persistence of childhood interests. These are the boys who put the “no girls allowed” signs on the doors of their clubhouse, and those signs are there still.
Perhaps this is why the "Twilight" phenomenon activates such intense passions among the Comic-Con crowd. Back in 2008, when the Con was “invaded” by thousands of young, female "Twilight" fanatics, some guys caused a ruckus by walking the floor with signs and T-shirts reading, “Twilight Is Ruining Comic-Con!”
That attitude has gone underground, but it has not gone away. Sure, a lot of the hostility is wrapped around objections to the series itself and its lightweight treatment of the supernatural (fans take this stuff very seriously). But it’s telling that many of the same folks who pitch a fit over a couple of twinkly, sparkly boy vampires mooning over Bella Swan have no problem with unorthodox treatments of the material that feature mostly naked girl vampires and sexually depraved demons, as can be seen in many modern horror comics.
Commitment to the purity of subject matter is apparently only skin deep.
Like all reactionary cultural movements, the anti-"Twilight" sentiment at Comic-Con is rooted in the primal fear that tribal territory is being threatened by outsiders (leavened in this case by a generous helping of sexual anxiety). Young men of the Millennial generation are routinely outdone by their female peers across a wide range of academic, social, and professional achievements. Hardly a month goes by when we don’t see one of those “young men in crisis” stories on the cover of a magazine.
Camp Breaking Dawn is a concrete example that even in the traditionally masculine world of fandom, girl nerds can outperform boy nerds when it comes to demonstrating support for their pop culture obsessions. Through their numbers and their visible presence, they are forcing their tastes into the conversation, regardless of the disdain of purists.
Mainstream comics publishers could tap into this audience and make their offerings more female-friendly by cutting down on gratuitously offensive characterizations of women in their books, or perhaps by employing more female creators. But current evidence suggests that publishers see this as a zero-sum game: cut out the cheesecake and you’ll alienate the proven audience of male readers— and why risk that? Or perhaps the creative decision makers are simply the products of the same culture as their audience.
Whatever the cause-and-effect relationship, most comics demonstrate through their design and marketing that they view male readers as essential, and any women who want to read along are welcome as long as they don’t insist on any of that icky frilly-girly stuff like you find in Twilight. Typically, female comics fans who speak out on this issue from a feminist perspective are roundly and rudely shouted down, sometimes from the podium.
It’s hard to imagine a more self-defeating strategy for the long-run health of the industry. Women today are the loudest and most compelling voices in fandom; young girls are making some of the most popular self-published comics. Decades from now, Twilight will be fondly remembered (or ironically inflected) nostalgia for millions of middle-aged women, some of whom will be able to look back on the shared communal experience of sleeping out for days at Comic-Con and having had the time of their young lives.
At the fifty-ninth Comic-Con in 2028, I am sure a reunion will be on the program calendar. Maybe one of the (by then) corpulent, middle-aged ex-teen idol stars will get a day pass from the rehab center to attend.
And where are the millions of young fans of "Ben 10" and "Generator Rex," two popular tween boy–oriented properties with much closer affinities to comics and comics culture than "Twilight?" You can’t buy a monthly comic book called "Ben10" or "Generator Rex," even though the properties belong to Warner Brothers Entertainment, parent of DC Comics, and were created by comics industry veterans.
Where, indeed, is the next generation of male comics fans to take over from their nerd-pioneer forebears? I think I saw a few of them playing Game Boys and putting on their best “Can we go now?” expressions as dad pawed through the white boxes in search of that elusive copy of "Avengers (1963 series) #135."
When it comes to the changing gender balance in the future of pop culture and fandom, the writing is on the wall . . . in blood.
And it sparkles.