For Mike, who loved to collect and was taken from us far too soon.


A few days ago I received a comment on a blog post I wrote over a year ago about unboxing collectibles. Cringe though you might, I’m an un-boxer and it turns out so is my new friend, Dana. I love meeting fellow geeks — especially collectors –, even if it’s only virtually, but her comment made me suddenly wonder, ‘hey — why don’t I know more female collectors?’

The market for cultural “geek” products can be characterised by a single myth propagated by the mainstream media; that geeks are men. Despite my lifelong love of pop culture, I still exist on the fringes of fandom. Only months ago fans had to petition Disney to release more Rey merchandise for the new Star Wars toy line after manufacturers seemingly overlooked the relevance of the lead character to their audience. This soon became part of a larger conversation around the lack of marketing to female fans and the minimisation of female characters in film and television. The hashtag #WheresRey has become emblematic of a broader struggle to credit the roles that women play, both as characters and fans, in popular culture.

The cultural geek industry perpetuates social norms that emphasises men and boys whilst deemphasising or ignoring women and girls. Yet women have always existed in the marginalised space of geek culture. For many female identifying fans, fitting in with the Boys Club is a defining feature of their engagement with the scene. It is only in recent years that fandom has begun to embrace “girl culture”. For women and girls, this means being able to find like-minded people and enjoying niche products tailored to their gender, but there’s a larger problem that still isn’t being addressed. Women are still defined by their difference. Their interest in popular culture is still measurable compared to a market comprised largely of men and boys. The legitimacy of female fans is not properly recognised.

Female fans are catered to by large corporations with gendered products like lingerie (Cotton On Body once stocked a popular DC Superheroes range), cosmetics (see MACs Wonder Woman line) and an array of wearable accessories (see Disney couture). This is partly as a result of the lack of marketable female characters in action/adventure narratives. Yet there is nothing wrong with these products. The commercial interest in girl culture has meant that women are being recognised as fans with buying power; a somewhat sleazy development in the struggle for equality, but important nonetheless. It makes women and girls more visible as an audience. Yet despite an abundance of frilly knickers and emancipatory lip gloss, (for which there is no doubt a market) this emphasis on women as niche consumers still alienates them from the broader cultural group.



The trouble with catering to female fans with gendered products is that consumer goods are instrumental in the social construction of gender. Furthermore, in most fandoms, collectibles, such as character action-figures, which are typically marketed to boys, are used as currency for social capital. The consequence of being ignored by merchandisers is that your capacity to participate in social and cultural trade is severely diminished.

Despite the lack of character role-models marketed to women, there are some amazing exceptions to this rule; for example, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marvel’s Jessica Jones and Ripley from Ridley Scott’s Alien. Yet even the best examples can be problematic and generally speaking, representation of women and girls in genre fiction tends to be tokenistic. Furthermore, as a woman who moves through social circles dominated largely by men, my presence in the geek scene has no doubt satisfied the illusion of diversity; however, this will not suffice. Women deserve meaningful representation both in the stories we consume and as active members of cultural fandom. For example, as a member of the Whatcha podcast, I naturally feature in a lot of our promotional material. Part of the marketing for our show has involved publishing images from movies and comic books with the teams’ faces photo-shopped in place of the original characters’. Beforehand the group will discuss with amusement who should ‘play’ who. But the outcome, at least for one of us, is always inevitable, because usually there is only one female character. I am assigned a character by default.



Sadly, this perpetuates a myth that only men are geeks and that female characters serve the purpose of bolstering a male lead. Furthermore, it is both reductive and counter-intuitive to deny women access to role-models in super/heroic roles. The assumption that men are better suited to lead, fight and problem-solve, whilst women are better suited to follow, nurture and intuit, does a disservice to us all – women, men and the trans community (which has a host of its own issues to confront). It limits our potential to be well-rounded. It stifles the creative storytelling process. And unfortunately, due the inherent submissiveness assumed of the nature of women, it works to exclude them from this vibrant culture.

Yet, despite the hurdles this community faces in it’s struggle to achieve gender equality, there is A New Hope. Ironically, given the disappointing turn of events following the release of The Force Awakens, Director J J Abrams has positioned himself as a key player in this struggle. Whilst Disney may have dropped the ball on the marketing front, part of the reason fans became so incensed is that The Force Awakens gave them something they had been yearning for – no, not a Strong Female Character, just a well-rounded female character in a meaningful role. You can read my commentary on Rey’s characterisation here.



Abrams has openly embraced the responsibility to create characters that a diverse audience can relate to. Despite his minor guffaw in suggesting that Star Wars was “always a boys thing”, he clarified his comments in a series of tweets explaining that what he meant was that many have perceived Star Wars as a boys club when it isn’t – a necessary correction in light of the blindingly ignorant commentary of George Lucas who’s definition of “family soap opera” is limited to “fathers and sons and grandfathers”.


Abrams’ latest release, 10 Cloverfield Lane, is comparably progressive. The film is helmed by a capable female lead who could have easily been played by a male. What’s refreshing about Abrams’ brand of feminism is that it is apolitical, by which I mean his casting choices do not destabilise the narrative structure used to appeal to a mass audience. In this respect, not only can Abrams “sneak” his feminist politics into mainstream Hollywood (which in itself is a misnomer given how outspoken he has been on the matter), but his ability to cater to a mainstream audience allows him to assist in the mainstreaming of diversity.

As cynical as it seems, having a voice on The Inside to counter heteronormative rhetoric is important. Whilst real progress can be seen on the fringes of dominant networks (e.g. grassroots initiatives and indie publications), these ancillary efforts can never truly compete with established structures on a cultural or financial level – and as The Force Awakens demonstrates, having grossed over $2 billion worldwide, movies with female protagonists sell.

Relying on a middle-class, white male to help revolutionise the geek industry for women and other minorities is both ironic and less than ideal. And yet. Evidence points to the pervasiveness of sexism in Hollywood and it reminds us that the problem is deeply rooted and cannot be solved quickly or via sheer resistance alone. Here’s hoping Abrams is the first of a new generation of film-makers in Hollywood who recognise the unique needs of their female audience as being treated as not unique at all.