Each year at San Diego Comic Con, UCLA and UC Berkeley team up to put together a series of panels dedicated towards bridging the gaps between geek culture and education. One such panel, Geek Ed: Civility vs. Anger, sought to answer the question of whether polarization in fandom is all in good fun, or if it creates barriers that prevent progress and civil discussion. To gain a bit more insight into this discussion, I spoke with panelist, pop-culture historian, and geek activist Jen Stuller.
Stuller is a proud feminist who teaches film appreciation classes at SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) and was the co-founder of GeekGirlCon, an organization that supports and celebrates women in geek culture. On the panel, Stuller was joined by Keith Chow (Nerds of Color), Dr. La’Tonya Rease-Miles (UCLA), Tony B. Kim (The Hero Within), and David Surratt (UC Berkeley). Brian MacDonald (UCLA) moderated the discussion. So can civility really help us or is that simply another code for policing others anger? Since it’s a topic that’s been on my mind, it was one of the first questions I asked Stuller. But first, I wanted to know what she might have to say about how often fans want to take ownership and set the rules for how others engage with participatory fandom.
Stuller says, “There are several connected factors surrounding the policing of fandom: feelings of ownership lead to gate-keeping. Gate-keeping is often fueled by misogyny, racism, and homophobia. There is also fear of change and fear of not being special. I have never understood why fans wouldn’t want more people to join the community. Additionally, with the mainstreaming of geek culture we’ve seen a lot of tension and toxicity about who gets to claim fan space and what constitutes a correct fandom for said space. GeekGirlCon was founded with a strict policy of NO GEEK CRED REQUIRED. You were invited to come to the celebration with your curiosity unchallenged. There, and in like-minded communities of geeks/fans embracing their identity politics and coming together as fans of many things tend to be more inclusive from the get-go.”
I wondered if Stuller could speak more about why the call for civility was important, especially in fan spaces where we see a lot of ingroup and outgroup behaviors modeled but rarely do we see ever unpack these behaviors. There’s a real dearth of investigation into how our brain’s treatment of those it classifies as outgroup lends itself to a host of behaviors that may not be all together nice. Of course not all of our behaviors informed by intergroup communication are negative. Many simply inform how we think about our identity and space within the world. It’s a big topic but knowing about it can help us digest why fan exchanges can get at best heated and at worse, become lightening rods for abuse.
When I asked Stuller why civility was important she said, “I’m a big believer in calling in vs. calling out. There is a lot to be angry about right now, and being able to feel and acknowledge that anger is part of what keeps us human. But it has to be transformed in order to be productive, in order to create change. Anger is fuel, but it is not a solution.”
That’s why Stuller is excited to see so many calls for Geek related activism. The Rally for Rose event at SDCC in support of the Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran, who recently deleted her social media accounts after a targeted harassment campaign, is a great example of turning anger into action. Something the geek community tends to respond really well to is taking on positive political statements from fan culture and using them for empowerment. I asked Stuller how we can inspire folks go one step further than empowerment towards political activation and activism.
“I think it’s important to encourage young folks to recognize that what they’re doing IS, in fact, activism, and that they can claim activist labels rather than be intimidated by them. Once they’re able to recognize their power to affect change, consciousness-raise, and advocate, they can compound that work with more traditional tactics: letter-writing, canvassing, voter-registration, petitions, and so on,” said Stuller.
As is usually the case with panels at SDCC, there’s never enough time to get into the real gritty of it all. Still, it’s encouraging to see this topic being discussed. The panel wasn’t about denying people their right to be angry it was about giving fans with different tools to handle different conversations. Hopefully this is a topic that will continue to garner discussion and exploration.
If you’d like to read a great live-Tweeting of the panel, I recommend checking out Editor at Large for Racialicious, Arturo Garcia‘s thread. For more information about Jennifer Stuller you can check out her website, Ink-StainedAmazon.com. You can also check out the other panel she was on at SDCC 2018: “What Rebellions are Built On: Popular Culture, Radical Hope, and Politically Engaged Geeks” online.