By Samantha Puc
On Thursday morning at New York Comic Con 2018, bestselling author Sam Maggs moderated a panel that prompted discussion from panellists and audience members alike. The “Women In [Everything]: Intersectional Feminism Across Genres” panel featured io9 deputy editor Jill Pantozzi, The Mary Sue founder and Polygon comics editor Susanna Polo, novelist Charlie Jane Anders, Mooncakes creator Wendy Xu and Archival Quality co-creator and Lion Forge editor Christina “Steenz” Stewart.
From discussing their favorite fictional women to discussing how to combat “people who think feminism is a four-letter word” (per Polo), Maggs asked questions of her own and pulled questions from the audience to get the panelists’ perspectives on how intersectional feminism and representation function within various types of media.
The general consensus? To achieve genuine, sincere representation of marginalized peoples in media, creators need to do their research and write material that doesn’t depend on token characters to represent entire groups of people.
“Push for visibility in a basic way and not in a tokenizing way,” Anders said, remarking that if creators “include visibility in all things” then it’s less “special” or othering and will draw in larger, more cross-sectional audiences.
Later, Maggs suggested that creators simply “put more women” in their stories.
The same goes for marginalized characters, whether or not they are borne of marginalized creators — although Xu commented that when characters of color written by white people are uplifted more frequently than characters written by people of color, that’s an issue. She also encouraged creators to “honor their friends” and “come from a place of empathy” when creating characters who are different from them.
“The main thing to do is listen to people who are different than you and have different experiences from you and practice active listening,” she said. Xu also clarified that there’s a difference between genuinely wanting to hear people’s experiences and pretending to understand them, because “you don’t always understand.”
“I try to just stand back and listen a lot of the time,” Xu said. She admitted that she’s hesitant to identify as a feminist because of how loaded the term is; Xu herself associates the word with whiteness and believes that it is used most often to refer to “mainstream feminism,” which historically leaves behind women of color, disabled women, queer women, trans women, and women living at any (or all) of those intersections.
Meanwhile, Steenz said she first identified as a feminist when she read the actual definition of the word. “I appreciate the ideology of feminism and the ideology is naturally intersectional, to me,” Steenz said.
Combating negative attitudes about diverse content, especially content that is considered “feminist,” can be tough, according to several of the panellists. Polo said that day to day, you have to decide how you can and want to push back. Maggs agreed, adding that sometimes, people just want to get into fights.
“What is the argument to not want [equality]?” Maggs asked. She said that anyone who doesn’t want equality is “kind of an asshole.”
Near the end of the panel, a high school instructor in the audience asked the panelists what they wish their instructors would have done when they were still in adolescence. The question circled back nicely to the panelists’ discussion of fictional female characters they connected to or loved as kids: Pantozzi loved characters she and her brother “affectionately called my kick-butt girls,” like Buffy and Xena, because there weren’t (and aren’t) a lot of disabled women in popular media; Anders loved Wonder Woman and Sarah Jane Smith from Doctor Who.
Polo admitted that internalized misogyny made her steer away from female characters because they were “just for girls” and were “boring” and “shoehorned in” with the boys; Xu said she loved the character Evvy from the Tamora Pierce novels; and Steenz said that rather than just one character, she really loved voice actor Cree Francks, who voiced several black animated women in the ‘90s, including Penny in Inspector Gadget.
Xu said, “The best thing my teachers could and did do for me was let me be myself and let me be problematic. … They’re young. They grow. I think having the good faith that they will grow into better people is the most important thing that you can do.”