Saturday, August 23, 2008

Outside Poll: Geeks Need to Get a Life

For the last week I have been ruminating on the general perception of comic book fans in society, and how that would relate to the sexual harassment incidents at San Diego Comicon. What feels like a prevalent issue to us and something that should concern society as a whole, since harassment is such a hot button topic, may be seen as something completely different to the "outsiders" who aren't aware of the feminists movements and many discussions happening around the comic book blogs.

With that in mind, I spent the last couple of days talking to non-comic book readers to get their opinions on a wide range of issues. The questions asked were as follows.

1. When you think of comic book fans, what is your first thought?
2. Why is it acceptable to go see comic book movies but not read the books which the material springs from?
3. Have you ever read comics? Which ones? For what period of time? Why did you quit reading comics?
4. Are you aware of the fact that many of the people reading comics are female?
5. Would you ever attend a comic book show?
6. Have you heard about the sexual harassment that has occurred at comic book shows?
7. Any last thoughts?

I polled people at my work, at the athletic club, at a local Red Robin restaurant, and at the grocery store. I wanted to try and get a range of ages, creeds, and attitudes. I talked to 23 people from the age of 21 to 61. Some had tattoos and piercings while others embodied the white bread concept of white collar workers. I talked to waitresses, bankers, nurses, construction workers, full-time moms, a lawyer, a doctor, a tattoo artist, and the list goes on.

The biggest response I got when asking question one about first thoughts was the rampant belief that comic book readers DO NOT have sex. There is a sexless, mouth-breather perception that folks cling to. One of my co-workers still couldn't believe that I read comics since she knew I had been married for over 8 years and seemed quite "normal". She said that upon meeting "geeks" most of them stumbled and stammered and generally made fools of themselves in her presence.

Three of the guys I spoke with pointed to the William Shatner "Get A Life" skit from Saturday Night Live. That was the first thing they thought of when asked the question. There was a great deal of general confusion between gaming fans, sci-fi fans, and comic book fans. Evidently, general "geekery" is all lumped together. It is like them and us, you know?

To be fair, I also got responses that were "I don't think about comic book fans. I am too busy with my hobbies" or "I don't care about comic books". Two people said that they thought that nerds ruled the earth and pointed to Bill Gates as the king of our ilk.

The reaction about female fans is that they must be really unattractive or must be gay. One person told me that when I wear my comic book shirts, I look a bit "dykey". (Nice- strike that person off my Christmas card list.)

The bottom line of perception is that comic fans are sexless losers who still live at home. The people I talked to were not being mean spirited- they were simply perpetuating the stereotype by buying into it.

Most of the people I talked to that watched comic book movies said that they loved to watch films but were not big into reading. I also was told that comic books are perceived as fantasy novels and that most people would rather read action, horror, or mystery books. Other people said that they only read for work. I had three people in the group who actively read comic books. None were collectors, but they would pick up stuff from time to time or order graphic novels from Amazon.

The general consensus is that it is easier to view a movie and turn it into a family event then it is to read the source material. These people want to spend their money on big ticket items like vacations, boats, motorcycles, 4-wheelers, guns for hunting, fishing equipment, scrap booking stuff, or just simply have a different hobby.

It was remarked by a young woman that she did not like to go to comic book movies on the opening weekend because she hated dealing with the hardcore fans that spent the entire film bitching or talking about the plot. She always waited until the third weekend so that she would hopefully not have to hear all the subtext.

15 of the people I spoke to had read comics while growing up. One man wistfully recounted exchanging Fantasic Four and X-Men comics with his buddy all through school. He said that when he went to college, his mom tossed his collection and his buddy's mom tossed his. He is still sad that his Frank Miller Daredevils are lost to the ages.

Other people had read Archie comics and enjoyed those. Two women said they have recently purchased Archie digests at the checkout stand for their children. The majority that had read comics had a favorite character growing up. Other then the three that still read, none of the others read comics past college.

The people I polled were shocked that so many women read comics, and especially that grown women did. One lady said that women readers must not have kids, because comics are a frivolous expense. Another said that she had never met a female reader until she met me. She was shocked that I did so, as she also thought I looked "normal" and seemed "pretty cool".

Part of the men I spoke to thought it was great, and wished me well. The other part thought it was, well, gay or odd. They couldn't imagine a pretty girl reading books especially. One younger guy thought that girls in Maxim that said they read comics only said so to promote a movie so geeks would go to it.

The majority of people did not think that women read comic books. They also didn't realize that women were involved in the production of comic books. This was the most surprising fact to them.

Only six people said they would attend a comic book show. Those that said no had a variety of reasons. Two guys said that they attend sporting shows and to them that is the equivalent of a comic book show. Three other guys said they would rather save their money to go watch sporting events. Only two women said that they would attend, and one said she would take her kids so they could meet Darth Vader. The other woman said she wanted to soak up the atmosphere.

When I asked about sexual harassment at conventions, I was mostly met with shocked expressions or laughter. People didn't believe me. The biggest segment that gave me creedence were a couple of the guys who thought that the booth babes would "get it" more then anyone else. The women did not think it was possible. They felt that comic reading males, while creepy, were basically harmless.

When asked for any last words, 18 of the people said "that was interesting" or something like that and moved along. The five people that had more of a response were pretty universal in their wish that stereotypes could be broken and appreciated my explanations. Much to my dismay but also to stroke my ego, the response that meeting me gave them hope was pretty standard. One guy wanted to know if he could come by my house sometime and check out my husband and my comic collections.

That was all she wrote, gang.

The biggest misperception is that comics fans do not procreate. The second is that there is a fear and a feeling of creepiness ingrained in folks in relation to the accepted stereotype. I don't want to diss the people I talked to, because I was happy for their frankness. I want to take their responses and try and change those perceptions. The question is how to go about that.

Any thoughts?


Saranga said...

Interesting. First thing I thought of, when reading your questions, is that when I tell people I read comics, 99% of them have said, oh like the beano? ( to which I reply no, I read american superhero comics, and the odd bit of manga.
It's bizzare they don't associate comics with superman, x-men, batman etc, espcially given the recent films.
People are surprised I read superhero stuff. Is it because I'm late twenties, female and attractive? Probably. I think the steroetype of geeky-still-lives-with-parents middle aged balding fat guy still rings true to a lot of people.
Having said that, there have been times when talking to men I say I read comics and it's obvious I know about the subject, and know far more than them, it seems they give me respect and want to talk to me more. So individual's views differ, and I think the circumstance in which the topic is raised has an effect on what people say too.
Re your point about comics=fantasy, that's interesting, because I don't know any fantasy readers who also read comics. Yet to me, the two are veyr much linked.
Re people being more willing to see a movie than read the book, that makes sense to me. Movies are more accessible and it's a group experience. You come out of the film, you talk about with your mates. Reading is a very solitary activity.
How to go about changing people's perceptions? Shout loud and clear that you read and love comics and let people know it's not an activity enjoyed by only sub humnna freaks! (because that's what they think, I'm sure of it!)
Whew, long reply! I will link to this and see if anyone wants to give ideas on my blog.

drawmein said...

I don't feel I embody the nerd/geek universal profile per se, but I definetly don't hide my fanboy love of the hobby either.

I find it sad that because you wore a comic book shirt somebody thought differently about you.

This I do know, I find it hard to truely bring somebody new into comics. You can let people borrow and read your books, sure... they may even like 'em, but you can't get them to visit a comic book store to save their life.

Anyway, nice write up. I'm impressed by your "going out to get the word on the street" reporting. Looks like we're still stereotyped.

Females into comics = awesome. My girlfriend reads a handful of my monthly stash (The Boys, Walking Dead, The Sword, Powers) and goes out to the conventions with me. I don't know if I could be with someone who didn't embrace the hobby that I so love.

Unknown said...

Fat sexless loser I can live with, especially considering that they're true. But "Lives in parent's basement" really is insulting.

Lisa said...

VERY inteesting!! This is my new favorite blog post.

I know these stereo types do exist. Working in the comic book store for nearly 5 years had me immersed with so many comic book folks that I'd thought these feelings weren't so common. I thought that as super heroes seem to be becoming more main stream with all of the movies and merchandising, that people were more accepting. We've got TV shows where geeks are cool, we've got an entire cable TV station focused on geekery (mainly video game geekery, but still...), Marvel has clothing in Hot Topic, Batman: Dark Knight was the best selling movie for what, a month at least... Beauty and the geek... The hit song Good to Be a Geek... Yet the general population still doesn't seem to get it.

Sea-of-Green said...

I wish I could say your findings surprise me, but they don't. :-( As a reasonably attractive adult woman with a reasonably attractive husband, a reasonably attractive baby, a reasonably attractive house, and a reasonably attractive career as a book editor, I ALWAYS encounter shock or disbelieve when I tell people I read comic books -- and SUPERHERO comic books, no less.

I gotta admit, though, that some sick part of me very much enjoys the shock value. :-)

Swinebread said...

Great Great post

you've got a lot more fortitude than me to go out and talk to folks about this. But I also live in a bubble here in Portland too so I really shouldn't be so scared to try the same thing.

...I still blame the Comics Code Authority for taking comics out of the mainstream... what could have been.

Saranga said...

Hi Heidi,
Just to let you know, I linked this post at my site and various people have answered. Take a peek!