Never-Hads and Should-Haves.

WisCon, the world’s first and largest feminist sci-fi and fantasy convention, is held every year in Madison, Wisconsin in the States. It’s a vibrant three days of panel discussions, paper presentations, readings, karaoke, book-selling, awareness-raising, recruiting, networking and purest, concentrated awesome.

It’s not quite Themiscyra. For one thing, there are men there – intelligent, thinking men who never start sentences with “What you ladies really should do is-“ And although WisCon is something of a refuge, it’s not a retreat. People there know the world is fucked up. They want to fix it, not hide from it.

Which is not to say WisCon doesn’t have its own fuck-ups – guests bring the world in with them, and occasionally that means the world’s unthinking prejudices are brought in too. And when it goes wrong at WisCon, it hurts more, because WisCon is supposed to be right.

But until I went to WisCon 30 last year, I couldn’t conceive of anything like it. I couldn’t imagine such a gathering: a thousand people; brave, brilliant, angry people, activists and critics and fans and artists; dreamers of enormous dreams; shining word-warriors. I was surrounded, for the first time in my life, by people I could reasonably assume would not judge me according to preconceptions about my gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, or any of those other myriad, stupid conventions.

That’s how the world should be. I’d never had it before.

This year, I enlisted more friends. We went to the costume ball dressed thusly:

Birds of Prey, plus Batman.

I am the blonde with the bangs:

In nearly every shot of me, I am holding a drink.

It was awesome*. I had thought I’d feel self-conscious about my belly, my butt, my arms. I didn’t. I felt great the whole night, posing for pictures, promoting Girl-Wonder.org and explaining who the Birds of Prey actually were. And because WisCon achieves near-parity and perfect safety, I didn’t worry about being harrassed. I had the privilege most men have daily of not being automatically viewed as a sexual object. So quickly did I adapt to the privilege of not having to put up with that shit that I didn’t even notice I had it.

Until, going to the bathrooms on the second floor alone**, I stepped into the elevator. It was filled with men who were all taller than me, and not wearing WisCon badges. They looked surprised and pleased as I got in. And I felt uneasy and self-conscious before I had time to think of why.

“Well, hey, now,” one guy murmured. “Hey there.”

“Yeah,” another chuckled.

“Second floor, please,” I said.

“Hey!” someone else said. “What’s going on on that floor?”

“Costume party.”

“Well, can we go?”

They laughed appreciatively. I said “No.” And I got out.

And that was it. They didn’t say anything foul, they certainly didn’t touch me, and it wasn’t even close to harassment by the standards of our society. So why was I shaky and scared and angry afterwards?

Two things:

1) At the costume ball, my clothing – fishnets, black leotard, blonde wig – was coded “superhero”. In the elevator, it was coded “stripper”.

2) Everyone is conditioned to assess women primarily by how sexually attractive and/or available they appear to be. Making that assessment clear is normal. Vocalizing that assessment is normal. Blaming women for others harassing or abusing them based on how attractive they are or what they were wearing at the time is normal.

If you’re gearing up to say something like “But nothing really bad happened!” or “Well, what did you expect?” or “Come on, weren’t you looking for attention?”, or “They were just being nice!”: don’t.

I know that those men almost certainly meant me no harm; they probably thought expressing a wish to follow me to a party was a compliment. It is entirely possible that none of them have ever imagined being in an enclosed space with a group of big strangers eyeing you up and asking if they can come with you could be a frightening experience. Our culture is set up so that they’ve never had to.

This and like incidents have happened to me, like many women, time and time again: strange men telling me to “smile!”; strange men shouting “Show us your tits!” as they drive past; strange men groping my breasts and ass in crowded train carriages.

(Women also buy into the patriarchal imperative to judge women primarily by their physical appearance, and that is also extremely unpleasant. However, as it is far less likely that women will follow such assessment with rape or other violent crime, it is generally much less threatening when a woman says, “You look like a whore.”)

If a woman doesn’t want to be viewed – for some weird reason – as a sex object, her choices are limited. She can be visibly angry or ignore harassment, in which case she is a FRIGID BITCH who can’t take a COMPLIMENT from NICE GUYS. Or she can be pleasant in an attempt to show them she’s actually a human being, in which case she may be ASKING FOR further “compliments” with her MIXED SIGNALS.

Or she can stay at home.

I wore that costume because Black Canary is badass, and the Birds of Prey are heroes. I wanted to join a group of strong women, who, like the Birds, are striving to change their world for the better. It’s sad that I would never wear that costume outside of WisCon – not at any other geek con, and certainly not on the street. I’m already female in public; being a scantily-dressed woman in public compounds my crimes and my punishment.

The security I experienced at WisCon, bar those thirty seconds in an elevator, should be a universal privilege. That’s how the world should be.

How can we make it so?

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* Although I have no idea how Canary fought in a wig for so long. It’s hot and distracting and hair gets in your eyes even when you’re just dancing! Wig-wearing superheroes now also break the suspension of my disbelief.

** NOT the easiest outfit to get in and out of in a hurry. I’m just saying, Dinah probably doesn’t drink a lot on missions.

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Save the world: tell me how!

6 Responses to “Never-Hads and Should-Haves.”

  1. [...] if I thought my last discussion on this was going to get me in trouble…sigh. I read this article about a costume worn at a Sci-Fi Con. The Con itself is what’s called “safe [...]

  2. [...] And maybe those Neanderthals artists are also part of the problem? [...]

  3. [...] of allies from outside the oppressed group. That’s part of why I linked to the story of the WisCon costume. The simple fact is that wearing bedlah should not lead to any kind of harassment. [...]

  4. [...] of Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed) shares her experience of attending a feminist con, and of a brief moment in an elevator when she [...]

  5. [...] For a final serious post this week, I want to highlight something by Karen Healey at Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed) that straddles the interesting line between comics and real life experiences: [...]

  6. [...] as compare and contrast them with the expectations inside from an insider’s point of view. The account by Karen Healey does so in a frighteningly personal way, detailing a short period where she had inadvertantly found [...]