It shouldn't be surprising that a pop culture event like Salt Lake Comic Con's FanX will get more attention for its roster of celebrity guests, or discussions that enthuse over beloved movies and TV shows. But the programming shows some real toughness when it asks self-professed geeks to take a look at themselves.
Among the panels on March 24's opening-day schedule was one titled "Bullying and Gatekeeping: The Phantom Menace of Fandom." Moderated by Big Shiny Robot and City Weekly
contributor Bryan Young, it was inspired by an incident involving Young's friend (and also panelist) Dawn Pink, after Young introduced her to his beloved Star Wars
. She described the experience of watching Episode I—
which she loved, contrary to the sensibility of many Star Wars
die-hards—and wanting to find a place to talk about that experience. "I went online," Pink recalled at the panel. "Which I shouldn't have done."
What Pink found—and what much of the rest of the panel addressed in detail—was the experience of fandoms "policed" by individuals who harass anyone who doesn't pass their litmus tests for what constitutes a "real fan." And it's generally even more aggressively applied to women who dare to dip their toes into these fan cultures. "There are so
many legitimacy tests we [women] have to pass," said panelist Debra Jenson, a faculty member at Utah State University. She offered an anecdote about her playful habit of including pop-culture characters as part of her assignments in her communications classes, and having a male student stand up in class and ask her trivia questions, "to determine whether I was qualified to ask questions involving Spider-man."
"Like you'd have to be a train engineer to be able to ask those word problems about trains," responded panelist Brooke Heym.
Panelist Matt Martin, a Lucasfilm employee, used to oversee social media for the Star Wars
brand—"so I've seen some shit," he said. "It's hard being the voice of the brand. We have to find a P.C. way of saying, 'Hey, it's okay if you don't like that, but don't be a dick.'"
And those ideas were part of what made the panel so compelling: It was a serious exploration of the darker side of fan culture in a venue that was ostensibly all about celebrating fan culture. That made it perhaps unsurprising that the audience consisted of only a couple dozen attendees, but it was significant that the opportunity was there at all. As it has done before in exploring issues like feminism and diversity within the worlds of comics, fantasy and other areas of fandom, Salt Lake Comic Con wasn't assuming that those were perfect
worlds. It was worth asking if we could do better.
"I think you're going to see a change in the generation coming up," said panelist Leigh George Kade, referring to girls and women not feeling marginalized within fandoms. If that's the case, it will in part be because fans themselves took the time on occasions like this to make it clear that fandom's Fun Police need to take a step back.