Illustration by Nikki Burch
A new generation of rebel girls advances to the next level.
Call it the Slave Leia Paradox.
Anyone who’s seen Return of the Jedi recalls Princess Leia’s attempt to rescue Han Solo and her capture by slimeball patriarch Jabba the Hutt. Nobody forgets her revealing slave-girl costume and the sweet satisfaction of watching her strangle Jabba with her own chains. Once freed, Leia returns to her modest royal robes and helps lead the Rebellion to victory over the Empire.
Go to any pop culture convention that attracts fans in costumes—last month’s San Diego Comic-Con International, this month’s Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in Seattle—and you will see a Leia or two. Yet, she’s most often not dressed as the victorious princess but as the slave, resplendent in her metal bikini, a remnant of chain hanging around her neck. Is she a liberated member of the Rebellion or a sexy slave girl, still trapped in a room of slimy men?
Powerful women have always played important roles in geek culture. But in most popular geek-friendly video games, movies and television shows, female characters live in a man’s word. The few exceptions—Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer—are dressed in form-fitting costumes designed to appeal to men. Maybe slender, buxom heroines are only further proof that geek culture is just for boys and their joysticks.
Or maybe there is space on the convention floor for women not dressed in metal bikinis. That’s the issue Jennifer Kate Stuller is pondering in early July, while sipping a glass of white wine on the patio of a Fremont bar.
The author of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, Stuller is scheduled to speak on a panel at Comic-Con later in the month titled “Oh, You Sexy Geek.” There, she will join a group of women who mostly view the sexualized female as a powerful figure in geek culture. Stuller will be arguing the counterpoint.
“One of the other panelists was the first winner of America’s Next Top Model and she’s really into dressing up like Slave Leia,” Stuller says. “Their argument is, ‘Girls who don’t like Slave Leia are just jealous of how hot we are … or they hate women.’ So that’s who I’ll be: the one who hates women.”
Stuller is part of a growing contingent of women who care deeply about female geeks. Panels like “Oh, You Sexy Geek” are populated by apologists for female objectification. But thanks to thinkers like Stuller, they’re also giving women a place to discuss what it means to be both a geek and female. Everyone is listening: In an industry that makes billions of dollars catering almost exclusively to men, women represent an enormous untapped market.
Seattle’s PAX is the fastest-growing gaming convention in the nation, featuring panels, concerts and a lot of costumes. It’s also one of the more feminist-forward geek gatherings. Following complaints from fans, PAX organizers have banned “booth babes,” the scantily clad models who work at product booths and know nothing about the video games they are promoting but look good in costumes. Some PAX attendees have taken it upon themselves to start a Sunday morning brunch for female fans where men are persona non grata.
Last summer, Comic-Con had six panels comprised of all women, a first at the world’s largest pop culture convention, which drew more than 130,000 attendees last year. After one of those panels—“Geek Girls Exist”—a group of women, including Stuller, convened online and decided that female fans need more. They need a convention of their own.
Because many of the women involved in that discussion were from the Puget Sound, a meeting was set at Wayward Coffee in Greenwood in July 2010. A month later, almost 40 women and a few men gathered to lay the groundwork for GeekGirlCon, the first-ever female-centric pop culture convention, which will take place this October at Seattle Center.
A year later, hundreds of women are not only counting the days until October, but coming together regularly to talk about Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Barbarella, Burlesque and Nancy Drew.
“We started fundraising for the convention, like throwing a concert or showing a movie,” says Stuller, the convention’s program director. “Then we realized that here we are creating spaces for women and our allies to come together and 1. Be geeky, 2. Make friends, and 3. Have opportunities. We’re an organization.”
An organization that now consists of 25 staff members and 200 volunteers. Come October, they’ll add 200-300 panelists from around the world, and an expected 400-800 convention attendees.
Fans at GeekGirlCon can expect a lot of geek fare common to other pop culture conventions, e.g., panels on “Women in Horror,” Star Wars crafting sessions, a closing night quote-along screening of Labyrinth. But they can also expect programming that promotes women as creators of geek culture, including panels such as “Women in Science” and “Women Running Geeky Businesses.”
This isn’t the first time women in the Pacific Northwest have employed emergent technologies to create their own space. Twenty years ago, in the pre-Internet era, young women used Xerox machines to create zines that railed against 1980s conservatism and mass media sexism. Cassette technology allowed female bands to record and distribute music on their own. In doing so, they eschewed rock’s testosterone-filled traditions and replaced them with urgent stories about girlhood.
In the midst of that movement, another Northwest convention changed the role of women in culture. On Aug. 20, 1991, the now-infamous International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia opened with an all-girl bill titled “Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now,” which featured musicians like Corin Tucker, Lois Maffeo, Jean Smith and Kathleen Hanna. Those women later emerged as the leaders of the Riot Grrrl movement.
Mainstream media eventually co-opted the movement and riot grrrls exited stage left. The remnants of that era—more women in the music industry, rock camps for girls, self-defense studios—are essential in the empowerment of women, but the movement has faded.
This is where GeekGirlCon comes in. As the geek joins the rocker as a powerful symbol of popular culture, GeekGirlCon is an opportunity for women to be seen and heard.
“Ever since I was three years old I’ve been watching Star Trek,” says Erica McGillivray, GeekGirlCon’s president and marketing director. “And that is a version of utopia where everyone gets along. A woman can be Captain, a black guy can be Captain. Anyone who wants to can do their thing. I was like, ‘Why is my world not like this?’ That’s really what drew me to being a feminist, because I wanted to make the world that way.”
EDITOR'S CORRECTION: The print version of this story mistakenly said the GeekGirlCon was happening at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center. The GeekGirlCon will take place at Seattle Center in the Northwest Rooms and a portion of EMP. Also in the print version, the author implies that PAX started the Sunday brunch for female fans. This version has been adjusted to reflect the true origins of that gathering.