The Year of the White Woman

[Originally Published July 2015, on]

Several panels on diversity and representation at San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) asked a simple question to start: ‘What is your definition of diversity?’ As the answers would pile in the room’s working definition of diversity grew from only race and ethnicity to include sexuality, gender, ability, and socioeconomic status, to name a few. By the time each panelist answered it was clear that we were working with a broad, inclusive definition of of the word.

Conversations would be so much clearer if they all began that way.

For instance, before A.O. Scott writes about feminism and representation, I’d love to know what his definition of feminism is and who all it’s meant to encompass. In his New York Times piece ‘At Comic-Con, It Feels Like The Year Of The Woman,’ Scott writes of Charlize Theron’s Mad Max: Fury Road character Imperator Furiosa, “Furiosa’s presence amid the [people dressed as] Disney princesses and Manga pixies is an especially potent sign of the feminism that is a big part of this event.” The feminism Scott writes about ostensibly centers around SDCC and representation in the traditionally white and male spaces of comics, gaming, and film/television fandom, but the examples he uses of that representation are limited.

Before mentioning Furiosa, Scott notes the number of women dressed as Sadness from Pixar’s Inside Out (voiced by Phyillis Smith), and attends the panel ‘Nobody’s Damsel: Writing for Tomorrow’s Women’ where he highlights author Sam Maggs’ contributions to the session. Maggs brings up incredibly valid points during the panel, beginning by noting that while almost half of the consumers purchasing comics, video games, and SDCC badges are women, women only make up 13% of the people who make comics and games professionally.

Which women make up that 13%, though? We see stats like this a lot when we speak about the gender, feminism, and equality. Take the oft repeated rallying cry of the gendered wage gap,“Women only make $0.77 for every dollar a man makes!” But if you take that a step further you realise that for every $0.77 a white woman makes, her Black counterpart makes $0.64, and her Latina counterpart makes $0.54.

Those numbers decrease by race in the same way when you look at the industries represented at SDCC. DC Comics publishes six ongoing female helmed solo comic series each month. Out of Batgirl, Harley Quinn, Starfire, Black Canary, Catwoman, and Wonder Woman there is one orange skinned alien (Starfire) and zero actual human women of colour. The last woman of colour to helm her own solo book from DC was the Japanese heroine Katana. Her book ran for 10 issues from Feburary-December of 2013. Marvel’s current female solo titles star Princess Leia (of Star Wars, which Marvel now owns), Captain Marvel, Silk, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, and Squirrel Girl. Because both Silk and Ms. Marvel are Asian, Marvel has slightly more representation percentage wise, but fewer solo female titles over all. Neither Marvel or DC have films staring women of colour in active development, and while both publishers have female characters of Latina, Native, and Pacific Islander in their vast rosters, none of them have solo books.

The numbers in social media companies — the industry that practically powers SDCC these days and which Maggs cited as being an necessary part of giving women a voice in these traditionally male dominated spaces — are no better. Twitter’s Equal Opportunity Hiring report just revealed that out of almost 3000 employees, 70% of those employees are male. Of those nearly 3000 employees, only 49 identify as Black. If you assume that 30% of those 49 are women then Twitter may only employ 14–15 Black women out of 3000 employees. Facebook and Google have similar numbers where Black employees sit at about 2% of the current workforce.

Women are not a monolith and it’s impossible to talk about feminism and gender equality without also including race, ethnicity, and diversity. Citing the increased presence of two characters played by white women and comments by one well known white feminist and author doesn’t make it ‘The Year of the Woman’ so much as it does ‘The Year of the White Woman’.

And at Comic-Con, that’s just about every year.

If it’s not yet clear, I am not a white woman. Seeing a large contingent of mostly white women dressed as Furiosa did very little to convince me that this was any different from any other convention happening just after the debut of an extremely popular movie with a majority white cast. In fact, I saw just as many, if not more, Reys, Daisy Ridley’s character from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Peggy Carters than Furiosas. I even dressed as both of those characters myself. There were plenty of ‘Disney Princesses and manga pixies,’ and their presence didn’t (nor has it ever) reduce the level of feminism at the con. If I hadn’t procrastinated on costuming projects I would have joined the ranks of Disney Princesses myself.

Whether they were princesses or weapon wielding badasses, these women still put equal amounts of time and effort into crafting their costumes. They’re all active participants in their own interests and they were demonstrating their love of pop culture as they saw fit. If anything it would be nice to see more manga costumes, since it’s representative of a non-white popular art form and has the potential to bring in more diversity than repeated Furiosa costumes.

It’s possible that I missed the Furiosas of the convention because I was too busy picking my jaw up off the floor when I saw how heavily The CW was marketing their new Vixen animated web-series. Vixen, one of DC Comics’ few Black female heroes, was plastered on bags, elevator doors, trains, buttons and other swag inside the convention center and all over the city of San Diego. I may have missed the women dressed as Sadness because I was sequestered in panels made up entirely of people of colour listening to an actress as talented as Chloe Bennett recount how she grew up thinking that she had to be blonde and blue eyed to be beautiful and didn’t see herself as ‘pretty’ until she started working on Agents of SHIELD. Thai/Filipino voice-over actress Sumalee Montano admitted that she initially moved into voice work because she thought that her ethnicity wouldn’t be as much of a factor since she wouldn’t be seen. And it worked: “I found in voice over I get to play so much more depth and diversity,” she said.

“Nobody is suggesting that a utopian age of sexual and racial equality has dawned in San Diego or anywhere else,” Scott adds as a qualifier, but I still question his sense of the ‘potent feminism’ in the air this year at Comic-Con. Women of colour are clearly still struggling to see themselves represented in the pop culture they consume, and often we’re still surprised when our faces are featured front and center (Is Candice Patton actually starring as Iris West on The Flash, or is this a fever dream 12 year old me created out of desperation? I’m still not entirely sure.)

So while the success of Mad Max, the idea of a Wonder Woman solo film (starring Gal Gadot), images from Marvel and Netflix’s Jessica Jones series (starring Kristen Ritter), or the numerous panels devoted to advancing women in film, television, and comics may make it seem like women have made these massive steps towards fandom equality, we always need to stop and ask which groups of women are advancing. Who is being represented? Whose accomplishments do you choose the highlight? Is it just the straight, white, cisgendered women of the world? Because, those women don’t represent the limitations of my feminism, or my idea of progress at Comic-Con or beyond.

Like what you read? Give Kendra James a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.