As female fans stake their claim as a growing part of the "geek" audience, the previously male-dominated world of fan culture is struggling to get used to the idea.
While the differences between the sexes have been argued for years in barrooms and kitchens the world over, now it's fandom that is dealing with the issue. As women are becoming more interested (part 1) in sci-fi and fantasy media, the idea that there might -- or might not -- be differences between how men and women approach fandom is a concept that everyone from Hollywood filmmakers (part 2) to comic book fans are trying to understand.
The growing pains that come from women embracing a once men-filled realm were evident at this summer's massive Comic-Con International: San Diego, where more than 40 percent of the attendees were female, their percentages growing over time.
This Indiana Jones fan at Comic-Con isn't afraid of snakes, he's afraid of fangirlsDuring the convention, internet fans argued male-female issues like the potential sexism of the event's "booth babes" and claims that the show was "ruined" by the influx of female "Twilight" fans.
In one panel, filmmaker/comic shop owner Kevin Smith mentioned "Twilight," and his throngs of fans responded with such loud boos and jeers that Smith chastised them.
"That's the next generation of fans!" Smith said. "That's what I love about a comic book convention. People will come to a convention, stand there in a Spock costume, look at someone in a Chewie costume, and say, 'Look at that f__in' geek. How dare you pass judgment on those 12-year-old girls who like vampires!"
Behind the backlash
But behind the backlash seems to be this idea that not only might female fans be attracted to different stories than men, but male and female reactions to fandom are sometimes at odds.
Joss Whedon, the creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," has ushered in a surprisingly large female audience for Buffy and other sci-fi projects like "Firefly," "Serenity" and "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." Yet despite his stories appealing to women, he sees no difference between his male and female fans.
"There's not a difference. I do not think there's a difference," Whedon said. "What? Female fans are more nurturing? People are crazy, and fans are the best kind of crazy. And I speak as one of them. And I've never seen a difference in the way the men and women respond to things."
Actor/writer Michael McMillian has seen more than one side of fandom, both in his role on the HBO vampire series "True Blood" and as part of the comics' community while writing the upcoming magic-based comic "Lucid" for publisher Archaia.
McMillian pointed out that while female readers were the target of the Sookie Stackhouse book series on which "True Blood" is based, the television show has appealed to both sexes -- something he tends to think is possible for any good story. But he recognizes that while men and women may like the same stories, their attraction and response may be a little different.
"When someone’s passionate about something, it tends to transcend gender lines. I loved Sean McKeever’s run on 'Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane,'" the actor said of the teen-centered comic book, "but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t written with me in mind. I do think, however, from watching my niece and nephew play 'Star Wars' together, guys still tend to be a bit more violent in their role-play, while girls seem to be drawn into interpersonal relations between characters."
That focus on relationships is something unique about the way women approach fandom, said Louise Krasniewicz, an anthropologist and lecturer for the University of Pennsylvania who studies fan culture.
"Men may have the same type of emotional investment in the characters, but their focus in social settings will be more about what they know," she said. "I think girl fans talk a lot about the emotional investment they have. They love the characters, and when they become part of fan culture, they feel connected with the other women because of the emotions, so that's what they concentrate on."
These guys seem cool with having to share space at Comic-Con with fangirlsThe anthropologist, who is a long-time comic book fan but recently got involved in "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" fandom, made the comparison of a boy who studies the back of a football player's rookie card while his sister couldn't care less about those statistics, instead focusing on how seeing a touchdown made her feel. She said the same can be said about how most men and women communicate about properties like Pokemon or the X-Men.
"I've discovered at different comic book conventions that it's more about 'can you top this?' The men know what superhero did this and in what issue he did it. It's almost a competition game," Krasniewicz said. "With women, there doesn't tend be as much of a competition where they want to prove they know more. Their discussions are more likely to be about their emotional response to the characters. They want to talk about how the stories make them feel."
That emotional part of fandom is something that seems to drive many female fans toward becoming enthusiastic about actors who play their favorite characters. For example, a group of almost exclusively female fans followed "Star Trek" franchise star Zachary Quinto when he walked through the halls of San Diego Comic-Con, despite the fact the "Star Trek" franchise attracts male fans as well.
"Men tend to get more wrapped up in the technical aspects of the films where the females get wrapped up in the emotion," said Lori Joffs, co-owner of Twilight Lexicon, one of the leading websites for fans of the "Twilight" book series. "And when you think about what the female fans have done to meet the actors -- sleeping in the streets for several days, waiting for filming to wrap to get a glimpse of the stars -- I can't think of any male fan of something like 'Watchmen' going to those extremes for their favorite film."
But that excited reaction by female fans to genre actors like Robert Pattinson or Nathan Fillion is also something that leads male fans to roll their eyes when talking about the women they encounter at comic conventions.
"When the hell have you heard a thousand guys screaming in high-pitched banshee yells for 'Green Lantern?'" said one male fan on the comics' message boards at Newsarama.com. "I'm sorry. I have no problem with the current trend. But I just want to blow my brains out when I hear that ear-shattering crap."
"Well, they certainly are more vocal!" Joffs acknowledged. "'Twilight' has sort of become like the Beatles when it comes to screaming. I think the obsessive tendencies of the fans, myself included, have really driven the franchise to what it is today."
But Krasniewicz said that obsessive "screaming" phenomenon is probably less inherent to women -- who have been among comic book and genre fans for years without being noticed for screaming -- and more about the emotional aspect of the "Twilight" franchise.
"If we are experiencing these fan activities as alternative universes (which is what I believe), then we end up following the rules and expectations of that world," she said. "[Twilight] is a world built on emotion, on thinking and feeling passionately about something or someone and acting on it, and to hell with being appropriate or calm.
"So I don't think women are inherently over-emotional or silly when they meet celebrities, those living reminders of the mythical/magical alternative universes that we love," Krasniewicz said. "Instead, I think certain of these worlds encourage and require emotional reactions, and others have sort of built-in rules about not showing such reactions. The rules are different for men and women within these universes just like they are in our world, and this is truly cultural: we learn how to act like this; it is not built into us."
Sex and silliness
Yet sexual attraction to characters isn't exclusive to female fans, McMillian said, and may in fact play a role in the escapism of genre movies, comics and video games.
"One characteristic both audiences seem to share is sexuality," he said. "In either case, whether it's Laura Croft or Edward Cullen, there are obvious sexual projections onto the characters of these fictional worlds. Genre seems to play a large role in sexual and emotional escape."
Besides, Krasniewicz said, even male fans become "silly" about their heroes, even when it's not related to sexual attraction. Sometimes, it's just about being a huge fan.
"I have been in several Comic-Con sessions where male fans got giddy and breathless asking Joss Whedon or Seth MacFarlane or some comic book artist a question," she said. "It's a good thing there are so many different types of fan communities to accommodate all our expectations."
And as Whedon pointed out, a fan is still a fan, even if they aren't exactly the same in other ways. "There are differences between men and women, I am aware," he said, "but a lot of them are artificial. And when it comes to the fans, I've never seen the difference."
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