Dr. Geek: Chicago Gets Its Geek On

Once a year, the geeks of Chicagoland, the Midwest, and beyond make a trek into Chicago for a pop culture extravaganza known as C2E2.  The Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (hence C2E2) is one of the many general pop culture conventions that occur around the country in a year.  I call them “general” in the sense that the convention does not revolve around any particular media text and does not cater to any specific fandom.  Instead, it houses the larger general geek culture, and gives spaces for the variety of fandom communities to have their own particular enclaves.  There were panels for Supernatural fangirls, steampunk aficionados, tabletop gamers, and Voltron fanboys — and, yes, I thought that particular fandom had died out as well.  There was even an “international” tournament for college quidditch teams.

When not off to the panels that satisfy their particular fan appetites, all of these geeky tribes could be found co-mingling on the exhibition floor.  During my three days walking the con, I was struck both by how similar and different C2E2 is to the other large scale general pop culture convention I have been to: Comic-Con, in San Diego.  Comic-Con is most certainly bigger, and has been steadily growing bigger in recent years, due mostly to another huge difference: there is a much larger presence of Hollywood at Comic-Con.  Comic-Con began as C2E2, and so many other cons, as a place for comic book geeks to gather, swap floppies, swap fandoms, and swap stories.  At C2E2, the focus appears to still be more towards comic books than it currently is at Comic-Con.  At Comic-Con, the exhibition hall has seen comic book traders and vendors pushed out by large, swag-laden industry booths, from video game producers to television producers to even TV Guide.  At C2E2, the ratio of comic book booths to non-comic book booths is much more in favor of comic books — but that doesn’t mean all of the other fandoms have not made significant inroads.  There were quite a number of steampunk booths selling wooden and metal apparati or top hats, corsets and skirts.  However, unlike Comic-Con, the only real industry presence at C2E2 was of comic book producers, with the largest booths being for Marvel and DC Comics.









Now, the tricky thing here is that both of these comic book publishers are also part of larger Hollywood studios, which means they were not just hawking their comic books at the convention.  Both were also exhibiting their animated shows and other productions.  Marvel, because of all its recent success with feature films and the fan fervor over the upcoming Avengers movie, had displays of movie props that were also auctioned off at the convention.  Luckily, the auction happened after we got to see the Cosmic Cube and Mew-Mew.

And so the weekend went well with all of the regular trappings of a convention of this sort.  There were the people in costume, cosplaying their hearts out — in some cases it really worked, in some cases it was really inventive, in some cases it was downright sexy, and in other cases you would wonder if that the people have no one in their lives to stop them from cramming too much body into too little costume.

There was the overpriced food, the con funk (although, honestly, I smelt a lot worse in the heat of San Diego), the waiting in long lines, the trotted out celebrities that you know or don’t know.  And they had a number of celebrities that pushed all of my fangirl buttons: John Cusack, Val Kilmer, Anthony Daniels, Nicholas Brendon, Sean Astin, and John Barrowman, smiling that wonderfully big smile of his.  I learned later that Shia Labeouf was there, just walking the con, and I had failed to get a chance to punch him — I mean, meet him, of course.  It’s not like I harbor any grudges against him for raping my childhood memories…twice… Anyway, for pictures of all that and more, visit my Flickr album for this special occasion.

Being a good academic, I also attended some more scholarly panels, arguing that they could be useful for my research and teaching.  And, indeed, so they may be.  Two of them I’ll discuss next week in my regular column when I talk about Chicago’s indie game scene.  One was a screening of a documentary about board games, called Going Cardboard: A Board Game Documentary.  Then there were the panels about gender and geekdom.  One was truly academic, as the Comic Studies Conference organized panels at C2E2 for academic presentations.  The one I attended had a presentation by Christina Blanch on how DC Comics editor, Mort Weisinger, inflicted the comics with his insecurities, which led to the downfall of Lois Lane from tough, ace reporter to simpering, manipulative reporter.  There better be a book on that presentation coming out.

Sponsored by the Chicago Nerd Social Club, another panel consisted of geeky gals from across Chicagoland who have found ways to make their geekiness pay off in the careers they have chosen.  Like, who knew you could have geeky belly dancing?  Or geeky burlesque?  Dr. Geek got all kinds of ideas for her man after hearing about that!  But it was in the Q&A of this panel that the conversation turned into something of particular interest as I had not thought of it before.

Is it derogatory to call people fanboy or fangirl?

With “fanboy”, the argument can be made that the use of that term emasculates men, takes away their power and maturity by calling them “boy” (there is also the racial subtext of white men calling black men “boy” as a way to be superior over them).  The derogatory aspect could come with the stereotype and joke about about how grown, mature men should not like comic books.  The idea of referring to grown men who have a passion for such geekiness as “boys” could be seen as a way to “other” them, to separate them from normal society, and further ridicule them.  The same logic could be applied to “fangirl”, although I think there is less of a power issue here because women are more used to be infantilized and called girls as they mature — in fact, some women prefer the term “girl” as they stretch back into their youth to try to retain the attention that young beauty garners.

And, truth be said, there are fan behaviors that definitely are more boyish or girlish.  Getting very excited — the kind of excitement a child has Christmas morning under the tree with the unwrapped presents — is a common phenomenon with fans when they get to engage with something they really, really love.  The idea of the Squee as the noise fangirls make when in the presence of their fandom love is a kind of girlish, high-pitched giggle.  I’ve embraced my Squee, which involves said high-pitched noise, tightly clenched fists, and a little shake-shake motion of said fists.  Come lights down for The Avengers in a couple weeks, I’ll be Squeeing as loudly as any other fangirl in the movie theatre.

So is it derogatory to call people fanboy or fangirl?  Well, perhaps only if your intention in doing so is to make fun of them.  When they call themselves that — and when they openly and consciously engage in activities that can be interpreted as that — then I do not see it as being derogatory.  It’s a symbol and a label of being part of a community, as much as the Jayne knit hat, the welder goggles, the broomstick, or the Pokemon backpack is to the Browncoats, the steampunks, the Potterites, and the otaku, respectively.  At a place like C2E2, they are ambassadors of their tribes, mixing and mingling with fellow travelers and ambassadors, sharing their passions, and perhaps learning new ones.  In such a geeky community, we are all fanboy and fangirl.  At C2E2, we let the Squees rip.

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