The Salt Lake Comic Con might attract the majority of its attention because of the celebrity guests it attracts to its Grand Ballroom, or the creatively-costumed attendees strolling around the massive show floor. But fascinating things are going on behind the doors of the smaller rooms, where visitors can catch thoughtful discussions in panel programming.
In just one of these rooms, over the course of four hours, attendees could listen to a conversation on the psychology of Batman v. Superman, the female characters in the Marvel Comics universe (print and screen), feminism in geek culture, and the 60th anniversary of Disneyland. And one in particular showcased everything that these conversations could be at their best.
The panel was officially titled "Buying In or Selling Out? Using Feminism to Market to Geek Girls," but the subject matter proved to be more wide-ranging than that. Moderated by Hello Sweetie
podcast member Danielle UberAlles and featuring panelists including Utah State University communications faculty member Debra Jenson, artist Amber Dahl and podcaster Kelby LeNorman, the discussion touched on dozens of hot-button issues connected with women and female characters in comic books and other geeky pop culture: sexualized body types and costumes; the qualities that make for a "strong female character"; the absence of toys, clothing and other merchandise featuring female characters; and even calling out the "problematic" material in work by a writer like Joss Whedon, who's generally admired for his writing of women.
The strength of the panel came not just from a broad range of viewpoints and topics covered, but in its willingness to dig deeper into subjects that fans might sometimes approach uncritically. And it allowed for the discussion of something like this year's film Mad Max: Fury Road
to explore a needed complexity in the way women are portrayed as pop-culture heroes—specifically, that the kind
of hero they portray is often very similar, and not allowing for the uniqueness of individual people. And there was a wonderfully incredulous energy when discussion turned to a Halloween costume about the new Star Wars
character Captain Phasma—a woman in Stormtrooper-like armor—which is being marketed as "for boys."
There's plenty of room at Salt Lake Comic Con and elsewhere for the conversations with celebrities or creative people, or just to get into the geekiest details of your favorite games, movies or books. But there's an amazing opportunity in some of these panels for fans to be a little reflective, to ask hard questions, and to expect better from those who are gatekeepers of the most popular pop-culture properties. Salt Lake Comic Con programming for 2015 shows an eagerness to explore representation—a "Disabilities in Genre Fiction" panel is on the schedule for Saturday, for example—that makes it more than about the fantasies we all love, but also about making the real world a little better.