Female fans of comics, films and games claim their spot in China’s geek culture

By Yin Lu and Chen Fangjun Source:Global Times Published: 2016/6/22 21:58:00

A young woman dressed up as Legolas, the Elven prince from The Lord of the Rings, at Beijing Comic Convention on June 9. Photo: Li Hao /GT

Comic book nerds come in all shapes and sizes, but in the popular imagination, they share one thing in common: they're men. Which is why an observer would likely have been confused earlier this month when an audience of almost all women flooded into a Wuhan cinema for a screening of the recently released X-Men: Apocalypse (2016).

These weren't just any women - they were bonafide fangirls from across the country, who converged in Wuhan for a mini convention of their own. They called themselves the "Mutants in Wuhan." They screamed at the plot twists, applauded at the grand fight scenes, cheered in excitement when beloved characters were introduced, cried when Magneto watched his wife and daughter killed, and rejoiced at the heroes' reunion.

"Enjoying superhero movies shouldn't be a privilege for only one specific gender. Women who like them should not be considered weird," said the event's organizer, Shier Zhan, a 22-year-old graduate school student majoring in material science and engineering.   

Recently, a string of movies widely considered "geeky" or "nerdy" have been released, including Warcraft (2016), which is based on the popular Blizzard Entertainment video game. Though they've already drawn wide excitement from female fans, the media continue to cast these films as male fare, seeming to prove Zhan's point that fangirls are largely ignored by the market and by the public. While some still consider technology, sports, comics and superheroes the domain of boys and men, there's no denying that female "geeks" are on the rise - and eager to be recognized.

Watch out for geeky girls! 

Zhan was surprised and delighted when she realized that around 160 out of the 170 or so people who signed up were women.

The attendees ended up out-nerding even the most dedicated of geeks. Not only had they all already seen the film, but they came from all over the country bearing X-Men banners, posters and T-shirts, and some even dressed up in costume.

"It is a different, and pleasant, kind of experience when you are with people of your own kind," she said.

While the kind of nerdy obsession that Zhan and her counterparts have for the series designates them as decidedly non-mainstream in China, these women nonetheless (or, perhaps, as a result) have enjoyed finding a sense of belonging in their shared identity.

Fangirls are enthusiastic and capable, she said. The organizers and producers of the event were all women.

"They are reliable. They communicated with the cinema, and did a good job of designing the promotion materials, publicizing the event and staying in budget. We had limited time to prepare for the event, but it turned out really successful," she said. 

While Zhan acknowledged that some female fans are drawn by the handsome and talented actors who play these characters (in this case, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor X and Magneto), she added that many are attracted to the overaching theme that runs throughout the X-Men films: fighting for the rights of minorities who are bullied and discriminated against. It resonates with how she feels as a fangirl, a rarer breed in the geek community. 

A majority female crowd gather in Wuhan for a screening of the most recent X-Men film. Photo: Courtesy of Shier Zhan

The changing face of fangirls

While the image of nerds has undergone a makeover of sorts in recent years, as a pop culture shift transformed them from the unwashed losers of old to beloved characters like Sheldon from American TV show The Big Bang Theory, fangirls are still largely lacking in recognition and understanding.

Zhan, for example, says she is often told that her interests are "boy hobbies." She has also noticed that whenever "geek" movies are screened, there are often articles online with titles like "Teach girls how to understand the plot in 10 minutes," or "What your girlfriend should know before watching this film."

She doesn't like these articles.

"I feel uncomfortable, because I think it's plain prejudice based on gender, which not only hurts women, but men as well. The idea that women can't be superhero fans stems from the same kind of prejudice that says men can't or shouldn't do household chores, or that they can't enjoy crafts," she said.

"I think everybody is their own person, and should be able to like anything, outside the limits of gender."

The current reigning stereotype about fangirls in China is that their obsession stems from attraction to male characters, or fantasies of same-sex romances between male characters. But according to Zhan, this is only a small, or even nonexistent, part of many women's fandom. "I think the general public may have some misconceptions about fangirls," she said.

Varonia Liang, a university senior who's counted herself as a superhero fan for seven years, agrees that female fans can be just as, if not more, passionate than their male counterparts.

She recalls an instance in high school, in which several of her male classmates taunted her, saying that superhero comics weren't for girls, because girls couldn't understand them. In response, she unleashed a torrent of esoteric knowledge about superhero characters and plots, and the boys fell silent when they realized that not one of them knew as much as her.

These gender stereotypes hurt both genders, she said - something she realized when she noticed men pretending to know more about superheroes than they did just to fit in better with their friends.

 "I believe I am also unique, and I can make the world a better place," she said. Liang added that she's inspired by superheroes like Marvel's Spider Man, whose transformation from a common person to a hero has inspired her to dream big. She also likes Quicksilver, a superhero with the ability to move at great speeds, who she says is free from restraint yet insists on his own code of morality and justice.   

Fangirls having fun with their fellow comic nerds at Beijing Comic Convention on June 9. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Destroying stereotypes

Nineteen-year-old Liang Qing, a university student in Wuhan, prides herself on being a devoted player of League of Legends, otherwise known as LOL, a multiplayer online battle arena video game. So she was confused when another girl mocked her for her pastime, boasting about her more "feminine" hobbies of crafts and painting.

"I am totally confused why she would think she's better than me because of that," said Liang Qing.

She was also greatly offended when a male classmate attributed her love for gaming to her desire to attract men. After several moments of speechlessness, she angrily explained that her interest was rooted in the game itself.

Liang Qing said she felt sad that some people harbor such stereotypes about women who enjoy stereotypically "geeky" hobbies - and even worse that the prejudice exists even in her own LOL community.

In the game, she has found that some male players are interested more in her gender than her skill, and that some even try to "go easy on her."

Wang Suosuo, a dedicated console gamer who's got her bacholer's in Interactive Media & Games from the University of Southern California, says that discrimination against female players is common in China.

"People are startled when they hear a girl's voice," said Wang. She was once kicked off the team of an online game the moment the other players realized she was a girl.

In the US, by contrast, she's found that people seem to fuss less about her hobby and gender. Wang thinks this may be because the gaming industry in the United States is more developed.  

"It is normal for girls to play games in the United States. I have a female friend who has played games since childhood with her brothers," said Wang. "And many families I know support their children playing games. Some parents would even buy their children new games on Christmas or Thanksgiving."

However, at this year's Beijing Comic Convention on June 9, visiting guest speaker Jim Lee, a Korean-American comic artist with DC Comics, said that he was surprised to see so many female fans at the event, adding that it's a far cry from the male-dominated state of American comics culture in its infancy.

"[The proportion of female readers] has impacted how our stories are told. We have more female characters and writers as well," he said.

Chinese fangirls agree that getting more women involved is the first step to implementing change.

"I'm so happy to see independent female characters in the X-Men troop, such as Mystique. Their stories and characters are independent of any male characters," Zhan said. 

"Women are freer these days to have their own interests, and we're seeing more fangirls, not only in China, but all over the world, which I think is a major sign of progress."

Newspaper headline: Fangirls unite

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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