Saturday night, photographer Shannon Cottrell and I walked up and down the line to get inside Comic-Con's Masquerade, noticing a curious wave of screams. We wondered what was happening, followed the sound, and caught a young man in a black, military-styled jacket holding a cardboard sign. Scribbled on it in pen was:
"Twilight ruined Comic-Con. Scream if you agree!!"
He wasn't the only one standing in protest against the presence of the teen vampire phenomenon at the annual fan gathering. All around us were crews of young people, mostly male but with some females in the mix, holding similarly haphazard signs. Some chanted the sort of short, snarky phrases that you might find in the midst of an Internet flame war ("Vampires burn, they don't sparkle!"), others stood quietly, their signs lodged ironically between campaigners for free hugs.
We combed the line trying to find people who would explain the anti-Twilight sentiments to us. Was there a gender war brewing?
"I don't think so," answered 19-year-old Daniel Maher. "I'm getting an equal amount of high-fives from women."
We met another young man, who only identified himself as Daniel, in line and asked him about the protest. Although he said that he wasn't necessarily speaking for himself, he noticed that many people felt Twilight was attracting "screeching girls."
"Isn't that kind of sexist?" I asked.
He countered, "But girls have been making fun of fanboys for years, calling them nerdy and smelly."
Neither Shannon nor I could argue that point. We know full well that the fanboy has been the butt of jokes for decades. But, when the President of the United States admits to collecting comics, can you say that's still the case? Boy geeks have become pop culture heroes, but for girls, it's a different story. Girls have no one like Seth Green or Kevin Smith, high-profile figures who have become successful at least in part because of their nerdy obsessions. And with Twilight, an almost exclusively female fandom, it's impossible to see the protest and not ask if there's even the slightest bit of a gender bias.
Earlier in the day, we attended the Women in Manga panel. Moderated by Eva Volin, Supervising Children's Librarian at Alameda Free Library, and featuring a variety of panelists that included comic creators, industry professionals and experts in the field, the panel focused primarily on discussing the differing roles of women in the American, Japanese and Korean comic industries and fandom. However, one important general point was made by both Volin and panelist Deb Aoki, creator of the comic strip Bento Box and About.com's manga guide. Women are rarely encouraged to hang on to their fan tendencies after adolescence. According to the panelists, they're expected to grow up, get involved in other things and leave the books, comics and TV shows that shaped their youth behind them.
Where fanboys are stereotyped as socially awkward chaps who sleep in convention screening rooms, spend most of the day detailing the Star Trek universe and follow Mark Hamill to the bathroom, fangirls most frequently portrayed as screamers ("shrill" was the word used most often) who write slash fiction and chase after any guy who remotely resembles Robert Pattinson. To the rest of the world, their intense interests makes both outsiders, but inside Comic-Con, geeks rule. Hence, a different hierarchy applies. Racing to the Lucasfilm booth in the Exhibit Hall to pick up some Darth Luke flash drives is cool. camping out to ensure your entry into the Twilight panel, however, is not.
"The fans are unabashedly passionate," says Aoki of Twilight at Comic-Con. For this crowd, though, that passion manifested into a superbly organized camp-out on Wednesday night. I spent some time with the ladies in line and learned that most had organized this well in advance. They met on various Twilight fan pages, worked out the details for saving spots in line and setting up camping spaces. The people involved (which included men), took shifts, holding spots as others went to freshen up or grab dinner. That one fandom could be so well coordinated is an unusual and awe-inspiring thing.
As for the Twilight protesters, we can at least partially understand their complaints. Comic-Con scheduled the Twilight events on the first day of the convention, apparently after the fans had bought full weekend passes. This caused a glut of congestion on Thursday, with noticeably lighter attendance in the following days. Comic-con attendees often griped that the Twilight crowd came with a myopic mindset, ignoring everything else that was going on at the convention. At the same time, though, we had heard through the grapevine that some Twilight fans have been moving on from sparkly vampires and gravitating towards vampire-themed comics and manga in the Exhibit Hall.
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"It's the way fandom works," says Robin Brenner, author of Understanding Manga and Anime and a panelist for Women in Manga, people will initially latch on to one series and then branch out into others.
Many of the protesters seemed to have a problem with Twilight itself. Some express discontent with the story, noting the control that Edward has over Bella as particularly problematic. Others simply think it's too mainstream, a very difficult argument to make considering that Comic-Con hasn't been underground in years and Star Wars and Iron Man are far from cult favorites.
We can spend months debating the merits of Twilight, but that would be missing the point. Taking out your frustrations over a particular franchise by calling the fans "shrill" is counter-productive, and even if the protesters don't see their actions as being particularly anti-fangirl, it could, and did, appear that way to some at the convention. Everybody has their geek gateway drug and for a lot of young women, that is Twilight. Running them out of the convention will prevent a new generation from getting involved in other forms of fandom. At the same time, it will only keep Comic-Con quasi-exclusively geek until the next phenomenon hits.
Prior to Comic-Con, the controversy over Twilight was part of a roundtable discussion "Girls and Fandom" at Robot Six. Read it if you have a chance.