I recently attended Gen Con, the largest tabletop gaming convention in North America, and the experience of being surrounded by so many like-minded people was, simply put, amazing. Everything from the Writers’ Symposium to the panels to the gaming led me to inclusive, progressive, accepting people and genuinely interesting conversations and experiences. The best moment for me personally was standing on the dance floor at Union Station during the “nerd party” and realizing that all of the people surrounding me were the people who, at any other party, you normally see standing against the wall or playing with the cat. But here, in this safe, all-inclusive, open minded environment, everyone felt comfortable being themselves. And that was a beautiful sight.
One of the panels I was most looking forward to was called “Writing Women Friendly Comics.” As a nerdy female interested in seeing more diversity in the comics that I read and sell, I was curious as to what the term “women friendly” would mean to the panelists, and I was looking forward to having a safe space to discuss these issues with like-minded individuals. One of my best friends, a woman of minority status, came with me to the panel with similar expectations. The moderator, Bill Willingham, however, had other plans.
To begin with some background, earlier in July, this particular panel received a lot of backlash from the Internet due to its condescending description and all male lineup. Although the panel’s title was “Writing Women Friendly Comics,” the description stated: “Note that this isn’t a Women in Comics panel. Dissenting opinions may occur.” The Mary Sue, a website that gears itself toward female geeks, wrote a story about the forthcoming panel, reaching out to the powers that be at Gen Con and asking why there were no female panelists on the slate. Gen Con quickly responded with a thorough statement, and in addition to getting females added to the panel, they were vocal about their relief that the panel would now include female voices. Those of us following the story, including myself and my friend, were ecstatic to hear that a panel discussing “women friendly comics” actually had women on it.
When the panel began, however, our hopes of having a safe space to discuss diversity quickly dissipated. Bill Willingham, who is best known for his work on the comic series Fables, moderated the panel and began the discussion with a defensive disclaimer about how the panel was not actually supposed to be about women in comics, but “a certain rabble-rousing website with no journalistic integrity whatsoever tried to redefine this as a women in comics panel” (referring to The Mary Sue). And that was only the first of a slew of misogynistic, ignorant, hateful, devil’s advocacy comments defending white male privilege from Willingham. Any time a female panelist or non-white male panelist tried to give a personal account, Willingham interrupted with defensive comments. He refused to call on anyone in the audience who was not a white male for questions, and when anyone tried to assert an opinion different from his, he interrupted and talked over them.
My friend, a woman of minority status, and a woman with strong opinions, raised her hand almost immediately when the panel began, and she was ignored not only then, but throughout the panel and was never called upon. Willingham did allow several questions from the audience, first from white males, then eventually, from a couple of outspoken women who called him out on his idiocy. My friend left about 45 minutes into the panel, disgusted and unable to handle the outright suppression.
After this panel, my friend and I were discussing actions we could take to raise awareness and actually call for change. One of the things I can personally do as a female bookstore owner is pull Fables from my shelves, and when people ask for it, explain exactly why I do not carry the series. Another thing we can do is share our experience. My friend had her own, different, experience with this panel, and here is what she had to say:
“As a woman of minority status in the U.S., I am used to being an ‘other’ at gaming events. My personal experience with this in gaming circles had been mostly positive, and Gen Con this year was no different. In fact, it was even better than I expected. One particular event that stands out in my mind is an excellent panel on diversity that I attended Thursday afternoon. My overall positive experience at Gen Con is why the Writing Women Friendly Comics panel left such a bitter taste in my mouth. Bill Willingham’s blatant racism and sexism, and his utter unwillingness to consider or hear perspectives other than his own was a strong symbol that no matter how far we have come as a country, and as a community, we still have plenty of room for growth. As I sat in the panel, my raised hand ignored by Mr. Willingham as he glossed over me in favor of other, maybe less visibly agitated, attendees, I was reminded of the struggle of so many against voices of ignorance. Mr. Willingham interrupted every woman speaker, including those women on the panel. Women, whom I would note, were included on the panel only after a strong push from outside criticism about an all male panel on women in comics. While this experience was highly obnoxious, it serves as a reminder for gamers to be diligent in always advocating and promoting diversity amongst each other and also in the games that we play.”
As a white female, I am someone who understands and acknowledges my privilege. I am also a person who is rarely offended. But sitting in that room, I couldn’t help but think that this was a microcosm for the world and indicative of a much larger societal problem. Looking around, the crowd was visibly miffed and uncomfortable. The majority of the crowd were women. This was ONE person, ONE man, and he had all the power in the room. At any moment, every person in that room could have stood up for what we believed, staged a mass walk-out, or done one of a million other things to express our exasperation. But not one person did. Although we cannot speak for every attendee, from our perspective, it seemed that the entire room, including some of the panelists, felt so suppressed by this one man, a powerhouse in the comics industry, that we were afraid to speak up. And although you know that this type of person and situation exists, to have it right there, right in your face, was deflating. My friend and I were hoping to have an intelligent discussion and leave the panel feeling uplifted and hopeful. Instead, we got ignorance and misogyny and left feeling devalued. Therefore, in upholding the mission and vision of Tubby & Coo’s as being all-inclusive and accepting and supportive of ALL people, we have decided to remove Fables from our shelves to publicly express our disdain at the author behind the series and in the hopes of encouraging discussion about diversity.
This was originally posted on Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop blog in 2015.