Conventions: Then & Now – How Women Saved the Con Scene (special guest editorial by author/historian Tom Elmore)

For those who have never seen it, or don’t remember it, check out the infamous ”Saturday Night Live: Get A Life” skit from 1986 showing William Shatner at a Star Trek Convention before you read any further. Go ahead, I will wait for you.

As one who attended such events “back in the day,” I am forced to admit that this skit was very correct in a number of ways. One thing it does not show, however, is female con goers, most of whom looked like they were related to Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler of The Big Bang Theory.

Fast-forward almost three decades to 2015. These days, a con is full of sexy, muscular and confident men. As for the women, just do a Google search and you will find websites and Facebook pages devoted to sexy cosplay women. Heck, there are even cosplay porn sites! (but that’s an entirely different matter that we won’t even get into)

So how did we get from conventions from being gatherings of would be extras from The Revenge of the Nerds to a massive gathering of objects of lust?

Some of it is due to the natural evolution and acceptance of science fiction as entertainment. Whereas late in the 1970s it was often viewed as something just above children’s programing, science fiction, fantasy and horror are now considered acceptable entertainment. Validating this is that many of today’s con attendees are the children and grandchildren of those who grew up watching Star Trek when it aired on NBC in the 1960s and saw Star Wars in the theatres. Naturally, their fondness for these and genre related movies and shows were passed down to their descendants.

But the genre has changed too. In the 1960s, prior to Star Trek women were viewed as second class to men, thus there were few, if any role models for females. Yes you had Supergirl and Batgirl but they were generally portrayed as an inferior female version of their male counterparts. Wonder Woman, despite being just a notch below Superman in terms of strength, was used during the golden age of comic books as the “Secretary” of the Justice Society of America and stayed home while the men fought the battles.

And though Star Trek was the beginning of the end of Sci-fi as a “good ole boys club” the fact remained that seemingly every alien in the galaxy with breasts was romantically pursued by Captain James T. Kirk. Ten years later you had Princess Leia in Star Wars. Though the princess was a strong feisty, independent woman, she nonetheless always seemed to need rescuing not to mention being in the middle of one of the weirdest love triangles in Hollywood history.

No wonder conventions were like they were.

Fast0forward again to the 1980s which will be remembered as one of the most important decades in the history of the science fiction/fantasy/horror genre, thanks to the growth of cable television, video games and the VCR.

In the early days of cable many channels scrambled to find something, almost anything (And I do mean anything!) to put on the air. Japanese cartoons (more commonly known as “anime”)were one option, and one that took the country by storm was Sailor Moon.

While scorned by some of today’s anime buffs, and beloved by others, Sailor Moon is a landmark show in the sense that it was the introduction to anime to millions of Americans. It also showed that the American public would watch anime. For girls, Sailor Moon and her fellow Sailor Scouts were powerful women who, while definitely female teenagers, were not afraid of a fight.

Another off-shoot of the era was MTV. Back when it was about the music, it was the most imaginative videos, often with sci-fi/fantasy or horror themes, that caught people’s attention and many such videos were made, the most notable being Michael Jackson’s landmark video for Thriller.

Thanks to VCRs people could see more movies than ever before. In some cases home video turned box office duds into viable commercial franchises, (such as the Highlander series) while creating a new sub-genre of film: the direct-to-video-movie, which is still going strong in the DVD era. Combined, both the VCR and cable television gave people opportunities to see classic films and television shows they might not have seen otherwise.

Meanwhile, both on the big screen and televisions, women were making more of an impact. Sigourney Weaver played one of the strongest women in movie history with her character of Ripley in the Alien series. Then in the latter part of the decade came Star Trek: The Next Generation which showed women in even greater leadership roles. Of course, any discussion of the 80s would not be complete without mentioning Jessica Rabbit, arguably the most sultry cartoon femme fatale of all time.

The trend to strong, beautiful women continued into the 1990s with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and Xena: Warrior Princess. Star Trek even put a woman in the captain’s chair in Star Trek Voyager. And with video game graphics becoming more and more realistic, we had the first video game sex symbol with Tomb Raider’s Laura Croft. For those who like their women naughty, there was The Joker’s sidekick, Harley Quinn introduced in Batman-The Animated Series. In fact, Harley Quinn became so popular that she became a fixture in the DC Universe and even got her own comic book.

Besides the above there were now television channels devoted entirely to science fiction and cartoons, showing the world that, yes, there were people who cared about such things and thanks to the new marvel of the internet, people could talk to others in chat rooms about their shared interests, while fending off offers from “Nigerian princes” and ads for “natural Viagra.”

Then comes the new millennium and after surviving the non-existent Y2K bug (personally I am more worried about the Y5B problem-think about it) we had anime popping up all over Cartoon Network as well as original movies and programming of varying degrees of quality on the SyFy Channel. Perhaps the most significant event was the uber-successful reboot of Doctor Who. Happily, the producers have paired the Doctor with strong, intelligent women who seem to rescue him as much as he rescues them. The Hunger Games as shown that a young woman can be a revolutionary. And to round things out, within the last decade Marvel Studios have produced some outstanding films based on their popular super heroes, while Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has allowed women to drool over Johnny Depp in eye-liner, forgetting that in real life Captain Jack Sparrow would have had REALLY bad personal hygiene with horrific body odor and extremely bad breath. Oh yeah, and there is that series with creatures that sparkle a lot.

With all of this, it easy to see why more and more women would become interested in the genre, which in turn has helped it attract more males. But there has also been some interesting plot twists along the way.

Because of the explosion in the genre over the last several years there are far more universes to play in than just Star Wars and Star Trek. At a con, one can see pirates, fairies, anime characters, comic book characters, Ghostbusters, zombies, characters from the Doctor Who universe and almost anything else you can think of.

One thing that you did not see 40-30 years ago is gender bending. One can see females playing the Doctor, Loki or the Joker, while men dress up as Sailor Scouts and, of course the Bronies who I will never understand them even if I live to be a million. Much of the gender-bending is a reflection of society being more understanding of alternate lifestyles and I would dare say that the cosplay community has been a strong positive force in pushing that change forward. In a weird example of art imitating life, the planned Ghostbusters re-boot will have the four lead characters played by women.

Also the perception of women has changed. Consider that for the ground-breaking Mary Tyler Moore Show of the 1970s, the producers were told that Ms. Moore could not play a divorcee. During that time you would never hear two female singers back to back on the radio. Today women, divorced or otherwise, can be found doing almost anything and everything a man does. Furthermore the way the two genders respect each other has changed as well. If Captain Kirk acted today like the skirt chaser of the 1960s he was, he would be court-martialed for sexual-misconduct.

So there gentle reader, is a brief 1500-word 30-year history of cons and how they have changed. Remember, there is nothing permanent in the world except change and it will be interesting to see what cons will be like 30 years from now, though I hope sparkling vampires are not part of them.

-Tom Elmore
Special Guest Contributor

Tom Elmore is a professional author, editor, journalist, and Civil War historian from Columbia, South Carolina. An alumnus of the University of South Carolina, and self professed history buff, he has published numerous books, including four critically acclaimed novels on Civil War history in his native South Carolina. Also a veteran of the convention scene for decades, Tom can still be found among literary guests at countless cons throughout the United States. This is his first contribution to Nerd Nation Magazine, and like all of our editorials, his views and opinions are his, and do not necessarily reflect those of Nerd Nation Magazine, or anyone else, so don’t be a d-bag and try to sue anyone over the stuff he writes. K? Thanks.



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