Con-Men: Understanding the Gendered Language of the Comic Book Convention

By Steven Dashiell

Featured image based on an Creative Commons image by GabboT.

I can clearly remember my first time ever going to a comic book convention. It was rather late in life- I’ve been a fan of comics since I was thirteen, but I went to my first convention at the age of 34. The circumstances were pretty basic- I moved to the city of Baltimore, which has its own comic convention (called the Baltimore Comic-Con). My friend and neighbor was a much bigger comics fan than me, so he was going with his boyfriend of the time. So why not go? Experiences when I am a fish out of water are much better in a group, and if I know individuals I will feel less awkward. Additionally, the boyfriend wasn’t a comics fan at all; he could easily be used as a buffer if things got a bit overwhelming.

All of this serves as the perfect setup for the comic book convention. It was, most likely, the same as every other con. I’ve seen pictures of San Diego’s huge Comic-Con on television, and Baltimore’s looked oddly similar, just nowhere near as large. There was table after table of memorabilia, comics in bags, and action figures; it was a lot to take in, even for someone who was a fan. I thought there would be less culture shock – boy was I wrong. Beyond the fact that this was “too comic-y, even for me” was the fact that I didn’t realize that I was a comic reader, not a collector. In other words, I got engrossed in character development and storylines, but after I was done with a comic it either went into a pile in my second bedroom, or in a storage box to be completely forgotten. I didn’t (and still don’t) prize comics, bag comics, or revisit comics for the most part. They are temporary entertainment for me, but the “comic convention” represents a completely different culture for me to absorb.

So, for me to go to the convention, it was for a distinct purpose of finding the most recent issues of the comics I read. I couldn’t care less about writers, artists, figures, or cosplay – I just wanted to be able to walk out with the newest comics. After walking to no less than 10 tables, I was starting to get frustrated; I couldn’t find any new comics. My friends’ boyfriend was assisting me in my search, and coming up empty on finding anything that wasn’t created when I was a teenager. The boyfriend has a great idea: let’s ask my friend. He’s gone to conventions before so he could direct us where to go. The boyfriend calmly touches my friend on the shoulder and asks where could we find the newest comics?

His response was loud, cold, and uncalled for. He literally yelled “WHO THE HELL COMES TO A COMIC CONVENTION LOOKING FOR NEW COMICS? THAT MAKES NO SENSE. I DON’T F**KING KNOW! I’M BUSY!”

We were both kind of taken aback – what in that rather simple question called for that much vitriol? It was almost like we committed some type of sin – me daring to come to a convention looking for new releases, and the boyfriend having the audacity to ask a true fan such a ridiculous question. I was on one level hurt (and on another indignant, and about to simply say “screw this” and take my leave) when I started to listen around me, to other conversations that were going on at the convention. What I came to recognize was this was the way that most of the guests were talking. Most notably in conversations with “noobs” (normally their friends brought on these quests and already uncomfortable), but additionally between themselves.Con Men Pullout 1 There was a coldness, an arrogance and edge to the conversations which had all of the elegance of two deer attacking each other with antlers. It provided some measure of sympathy for my friend (admittedly not much).

Looking back now as a social scientist interested in linguistic anthropology, I can see the convention experience, and the discourse surrounding it, in a completely different light. Linguist Robin Lakoff developed what she called the Politeness Principle. In her analysis of women’s gendered conversation, she noted that females, in their interactions, had to adhere to rules that men didn’t. Most notably, this principle speaks to the fact that women must do three things:Don’t impose, give the receiver options, and make the receiver feel good” (Lakoff 1975).

It is clear that while comic book conventions aren’t homogeneous in gender, they are two things: hegemonic and male dominant. In the sense of being male dominant, it means that men have the ability to essentialize these spaces as “male spaces” and act accordingly; social nicety patterns of comic conventions don’t even have to pay lip service to most agreed-upon social norms. Men don’t have to use gender-inclusive pronouns or engage in use of “respectful” language and topics; in male public space, very little is off limits. This in itself would explain various convention blowups such as the Dickwolves controversy (from Penny Arcade wherein a comic parodied and minimized the concept of male rape in a geek/fandom oriented comic) in 2010 and, of course, #Gamergate. In terms of hegemonic, I use the concept of hegemonic masculinity as it was developed by Raewyn Connell to describe circumstances that “promote the dominant social position of men, and the subordinate social position of women “(Connell 1995). In this sense, not only is any inclusive pretense ignored in comic con spaces, but aspects of gendered difference, such as language, are completely dismissed.

To that end, I re-examine the responses I encountered at the Baltimore comic convention from the perspective of not necessarily masculine discourse, but operating in blatant opposition to the Politeness Principle.

Don’t Impose.
While this might be arguable, there is an aspect of discourse at conventions that is all about imposition.Con Men Pullout 2 Many of the conversations are about discussions that highlight one’s level of knowledge, and how much one knows about a particular topic. Much of this comes off as a recitation of cold facts, presented in such a way that it isn’t so much about discussion or debate, but to provide the meta-message of “I know this”. Therefore, if one is dealing in the commerce of facts, questions are the enemy. Questions demonstrate weakness. When one asks a question, it would only be to someone who might know more about a topic, a subject matter expert. You can feel free to ask a writer or editor onstage a question, but never a fellow con-goer. Additionally, when you do ask a question of a subject matter expert, if you get an actual clear answer, it reinforces your power. Many of the answers provided by these individuals are steeped in “I can’t answer” or “spoilers”, so to get something definitive says as much about the questioner as it does the subject matter. So, in these circumstances, questions aren’t impositions; they are interrogations.

This belief could work against women at comic conventions, linguistically speaking, given that women are perceived as more likely to engage in the high rising terminal (HRT), what we otherwise call “uptalk”. This language feature, where a speaker ends a sentence with a slightly higher inflection giving the indication of a question, is performed by many in American culture, but more associated with women. Use of uptalk reinforces the removal of imposition; in an article from Slate Magazine, New York Senator Kristen Hildenbrand justified use of uptalk by noting [f]or a lot of young women, they want to be well-liked. If they’re too aggressive, or too pushy, or too declarative, they won’t be well-liked” (Green, 2014). Uptalk, in its negation of imposition, could be detrimental at a comic convention, as it relinquishes power.

Give the Receiver Options.
In dealing with a lot of the vendors there is a great deal of haggling. At times a comic book convention can feel like an open-air bazaar with people in costume. This is not a coincidence. For discourse to be surrounded around haggling is a very deliberate lexical construction that inhibits women. Hermann explains this by noting[m]any women still feel uncomfortable assuming positions of power and negotiating in contemporary American society“ (Hermann 2004). So much of the interactions that go on at a comic book convention are about negotiation, which involves a jockeying for power. Only a novice takes prices at face value, and assumes that what is seen is all that is available. A seasoned participant knows that in some cases “the good stuff is in the back”, or that the vendor can send you what you need. There are hidden opportunities that wouldn’t be readily apparent to someone who isn’t a part of the comic-con world. You aren’t likely to see signs that say “ask for what you don’t see”. The nature of the haggle at a comic-con is that anyone who is involved is going to get “theirs”, so to speak, so the offers and counter-offers serve as a means to figure out the constraints. This style of interaction is very much not what women are taught to do. Herrmann tells us “women often exhibit more sensitivity to particular sellers and their needs, and greater awareness of the circumstances (2004). To put it simply, American women are conditioned to barter where their offer becomes an interrogative, while men (and comic-con participants) barter in the form of a declarative. As stated before, the comic book convention is all about the bargain, and thus, the barter. How the transaction is framed matters greatly. If there is a figurine that is on a table and one wants to begin a process of haggling, there is a difference between “Is the price twenty five dollars?” versus “So this figure is twenty five dollars”. Both statements can begin a process of haggling, however, the former statement (“Is the price twenty five dollars?”) could be perceived as uncertainty, and thereby weakness. The latter statement? Incredulity, putting the seller on the defense, and giving the power to the sender of the question. Using Hermann’s work as guidance, women, who are more likely to be sensitive to sellers, would be willing to relinquish power and use the interrogative, while men would be more likely to use the declarative.Con Men Pullout 3 This helps to explain why I saw a Wonder Woman jacket go to a man and a woman at two completely different prices at the convention; the power transference that occurs with how a question is framed.

 

Make the Receiver Feel Good.
As my example in the beginning demonstrated, nothing in the exchange with my friend was about making me (or his boyfriend) feel good; his overarching goal was ending the conversation and getting “back to business” as it were. Janet Holmes, a linguist who has specifically looked at issues of language and politeness, most notably in business circumstances, tells us that women’s communication tends to frame itself around an expectation of politeness. A person does not need to be friendly to everyone they meet, but for someone to appear adversarial (or attacking) in a conversation – that means something. This is different than male expectations in language; in being direct, my friend leaves no question as to his intention and meaning. In other words, in his communication practice, which seemed to be the common practice at conventions: I don’t have to be nice, I simply have to be clear.

What was made clear to me in this circumstance, and in looking at comic conventions through an anthropological lens, was that a discussion of inclusion and visibility of what are seen as women’s linguistic tactics was a multi-layered circumstance. It is very clear to anyone who has been to a comic book convention that there are a number of women in attendance, so we cannot say that comic conventions are male-only spaces. However, it is undeniable that cons are spaces of hegemonic masculinity, and that in order to function effectively in these spaces, you need to act like a man in certain circumstances. It is ironic, given our tendency to marginalize comic convention attendance as geek behavior, but we know in gender research that hegemony is not only present even in subordinated populations, but sometimes magnified. The negation of politeness, as Lakoff illustrates it, not only serves to enforce a subculture at comic conventions, but also to marginalize those who take aspects of the “politeness principle” for granted.

Thereby, for some, participating in a comic book convention might involve an entirely different type of cosplay.

Works Cited
Connell, Raewyn. 1995. Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Green, Amanda. 2014.A Female Senator Explains Why Uptalk Is Part of Women’s ‘Nature’,” Slate. Jan 16. (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/01/a-female-senator-explains-why-uptalk-is-part-of-womens-nature/283107/)

Herrmann, Gretchen M. 2004. “Haggling Spoken Here: Gender, Class, and Style in US Garage Sale Bargaining.” Journal of Popular Culture 38(1):55–81.

Lakoff, Robin Tolmach. 1975. Language and Woman’s Place. New York: Harper & Row.

Steven Dashiell is a PhD student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in the Language, Literacy, and Culture department. His dissertation research investigates masculinity constructs and cultural identity of male students who were in the military. His research interests involve the sociology of masculinity, popular culture, narrative analysis, and linguistic anthropology. He has presented his work at several conferences, including the Popular Culture Association, the American Men’s Studies Association conference, Eastern Sociological Society meeting, and the American Sociological Association. In addition to his doctoral studies, Steven works for Johns Hopkins University as a Research Outcomes Coordinator. Beyond the military, Steven has done research on Bronies, role players, and card gamers. He can be reached at steven.dashiell@umbc.edu .

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About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

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