Superhero movies have proven to have a diversity problem, yet somehow the conventions that celebrate the subcultures which birthed this media have become celebrations of body positivty, racial and sexual diversity, and feminism. While nerd culture has a long history of exclusionary politics and hostility towards racial and sexual minorities, this year's New York Comic Con seemed to mark a significant change in attitude, with the fight against intolerance feeling like it's coming to a conclusion. And, spoiler alert: intolerance seems to have lost.
As an excited participant in nerd culture, I've spent countless weekends wandering the halls of convention centers. Seeing women explicitly harassed at these events had become expected, if not completely commonplace. Similarly, audiences of anime and comic book conventions had (until rather recently) been notoriously white. But as these media formats break out of their subcultural constraints and completely take over the mainstream (need proof? Check the box office sales of superhero films), participants in this world now span the gamut of cultural backgrounds.
The resistance against the inclusion of these cultures was palpable to anyone with internet access who dared grace the forums and websites of cosplayers or convention attendees. While arguments over whether or not enthusiasts could dress as characters outside of their race were waged, so too were discussions of consent and inclusivity proliferated — with female, queer, and non-white geeks pushing hard against the standards of the scene.
Professional cosplayer Chrissy Lynn reflected on the changes in Con culture: "With access to social media [discussions around diversity] have become more aggressive. There's a lot of talk of what you can and can't do. But if you look at cosplay from 10, 15, 20 years ago nobody cared what your race and gender was. There wasn't that many gender-bent cosplay or crossplay or rule 63 costumes. Now, because everything is so instant and because it's so easy to type something you don't agree with and hit send it all gets to everybody much faster. It's so easy to hate something and bash on something as opposed to celebrating it and rising above and accepting it," she said. "The women geek on women geek bashing is driving me bonkers. The body shaming is out of control, mostly between women. There's a lot of jealousy. We had to fight to be up there with the boys ... We need to band together and build each other up. We have to work together on this so that we're not being bashed by men but also by each other."
That being said, Chrissy also noticed improvements: "I'm a huge advocate for body positivity and the cosplay does not equal consent movement. Just yesterday there was a Storm cosplayer who was man. He had facial hair and everything! And he was fierce as f*ck! Everyone was super happy to take his photo. There is a certain acceptance here now. We were all geeks and nerds. We were all bullied growing up and now we rule the world. We're making all the money becuase we're making the fandoms."
The perspective shift was certainly palpable. At Comic Con this year, not once did I hear a disparaging comment made about a woman's body. Not once did I hear audible complaints about cross-racial or cross-gender costumes. Queer men and women openly showed affection for each other on the convention floor. It was almost like all of the discussions around diversity and nerd culture had come to a conclusion with the side of social justice emerging as the victor. Of course: as a white male, perhaps a number of the micro-aggressions women and POC face at these events are totally invisible to me. But that is also partially the point here: whereas hatred used to be out in the open, perhaps it has been driven if not completely away, then at least out of sight.
"A lot of these characters were created when conversations about diversity didn't exist," said Elizabeth Barrial, a vendor at the con and owner of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, a gothic perfumery she jokingly described as "nerd perfume for secret librarians."
"Because the stories touch all of us, because there's a Joseph Campbell or maybe Jungian idea behind so many of these heroes and so many of these villains, the studios are starting to see people needing representations of ourselves. Everyone here at the con already knows it though."
"I think that the popularity of pop culture and media is evident in the increase in crowds in all the cons we go to," she continued. "The crowds have some of the same people you'd see back in 1992 but they've also grown exponentially. Now you see businessmen and you see scientists and you see teachers and you see normal people. Everybody is familiar with the heroes we had as nerdy kids. The stories have touched more people."
"Of all the niche groups, I think that comics fans have embraced diversity the most," said Barrial before gushing over a bearded Wonder Woman cosplayer walking by. "There's such a vast acceptance of everyone because we're all here for a common interest."
Sam Kusek, the direct market representative for Boom Studios, also had some thoughts on the changing landscape of conventions: "Without it being uncomfortable, everybody is being cautious about how they approach people. They're being courteous now. For a while, it was really a shameful thing, there were awful videos coming out of men at cons going up to well endowed women and asking them their bra size or commenting inappropraitely on their bodies. I don't encounter that any more."
Kusek also went on to talk about how the changes at cons also reflect changes in the publishing industry: "What's been nice for us, because we publish a lot of children's books, is that families will come trying to get their kids into reading. Maybe they have learning disabilities. People are looking at comics as an educational tool. When you have characters of color or different sexual orientations, it's easier for people to identify with. The content creators are starting to recognize these audiences."
Kusek responded to a question about the frustrating lack of change in the mainstream media with some perspective and hope for the future: "The history of the industry is white guys. All of the people at the top are straight white men still ... I think we're now seeing more and more success stories [from minority creators]."
"There's only so many times you can have a conversation about diversity without actually doing something about it," he concluded.