The Austin Chronicle

http://www.austinchronicle.com/screens/2014-05-23/girls-gone-geek/

Girls Gone Geek

Weird Girls: Winning the battle to be yourself

By Richard Whittaker, May 23, 2014, Screens

Call Danni Danger a weird girl, and she'll probably take it as a compliment. Although, she'll also correct you. She's one of the Weird Girls.

That's the name of the Austin-based website and YouTube channel dedicated to all thinks geeky. In any given week, there will be new entries on anything from cosplay techniques to book reviews, convention etiquette to fantasy film-casting. What makes it different from a lot of other fan sites is that the hosts are all women.

Danger is the site's resident expert on comics, and she is quick to explain this isn't a site for women in geek culture. This is a site for everyone in geek culture, but one that highlights women as experts, makers, and reviewers. She says, "I want to talk about things from a female perspective. Not just because a woman needs to say it, but because somebody needs to say it. It was really important to me to have someone go, 'OK, can we talk for a minute about the fact that they're trying to pull off this woman fighting in thong underwear and a corset?' I've worn both. Not possible."

So why weird girls? Why not weird women? Ask website creator Mark Gardner. Back in 2012, he was dining with friends before a UT volleyball game. He'd ended up at the kids' table, and realized the preteen girls were having a much more interesting conversation than the adults. That morphed into his pitch for a Web series: Weird Girls, the story of four demon-hunting grade-schoolers that he described as "The Goonies meet Poltergeist with a liberal dose of Buffy." He couldn't depend on developing a lightning-in-a-bottle Web smash like The Guild or Red vs. Blue, so he decided to build an entire community. He says, "We can supplement the higher cost of the scripted series with lower-cost blogs, like we do right now, and it also gives our fans content between the scripted seasons."

Gardner took the term "weird" from a column by author Joe Peacock, who made it a badge of honor: "Being 'weird,' whether you're a guy or a girl, means winning the battle to be yourself." Next step was finding the front-of-camera talent. He wanted to keep that female, genre-savvy voice constantly present. It was Brandon Zuern, the store manager at Austin Books & Comics, who told him, "'You need to talk to Danni.' It was pretty clear early on that she was going to be a pretty significant part of this."

Part Pauline Kael, part Red Fraggle, Danger was one of the store's most knowledgeable and enthusiastic employees, and, in her costumed alter ego as Sidekick Girl, its official mascot. She had been thinking about something similar to Gardner's proposal for the previous five years, so she jumped at the chance. She says, "When I'm in the shop, I'm the happiest I am in the world, doing what I love. I want to make that a form of entertainment for people."

But it was still a long way from that "yes" to a show. Danger says, "When we began, we didn't know what we were going to talk about. It was, 'OK, we're going to talk about comic books. All right, we're going to talk about the color blue. Can you narrow it down a bit?'" She started looking at other women doing online video coverage of sequential art, and found there weren't many. This was before Felicia Day's GeekandSundry.com became an essential bookmark, and before ComicBookGirl19 did her TED talk, back when it was really just Blair Butler for G4's Attack of the Show and Grace Randolph recording The Watcher for Marvel Comics. But it was still essential research she did want to do. "It's not worth it for me to waste anybody's time if I don't have some unique perspective on things. If I don't have an individual outlook, if I'm just talking to hear myself talk."

The first recording, a review of the horror series Locke & Key, was rough. "It was a five-minute video that took two-and-a-half hours to do," says Danger, but it immediately picked up fans. Two in particular were instrumental: Joe Hill, the comic's writer, and Gabriel Rodriguez, its illustrator, who retweeted the video. When that happened, Danger says, "This is a thing. We're going to be OK." That support from artists and writers is part of what excites her about comics. "The people who do this stuff make themselves so accessible. They are just normal, regular people who happen to be well known because they create something for a popular medium. They're even, in some cases, nervous and uncomfortable about talking to people because they just don't expect it."

So Danger had the comics covered, but there's a lot more to geek culture than just four-color storytelling. Enter gamer and cosplay expert Kelli Nova, who met Danger and Gardner at Wizard World Austin. She admits, "I cyberstalked them forever. After a month they said, 'Hey, where's that girl?'" Gardner approached her about joining the team, and gave her some simple advice: "If you make videos that you want, people are going to respond." Like Danger, she was new to the short online format. "It was painful at first to find my footing," she says. In the early days, there'd be a lot of waiting around as Nova worked on a costume piece. "Now, if I'm making something, I get each stage ready and shoot it. ... With the more personality-based things, I just say, 'OK, I'm going to talk for 20 minutes, and then edit it down.'"

While Gardner's drama nears filming, the site grows with new content, adding contributors, and tackling fresh areas like role-playing and desktop gaming. Danger says, "As we expand the realm of what we talk about, we get more views."

Kentucky-based Amanda Dawn is one of those new Weird Girls. She came across the site by sheer accident: A Disney fanatic, cosplayer, and video blogger, she had posted pictures to Twitter of herself as the wide-eyed and creepy Weird Girl from Tim Burton's Frankenweenie. Happy coincidence, she and the site were using the same hashtag. She started following them, and then last year, she won a scavenger hunt they organized at San Diego Comic-Con. The prize was a stack of graphic novels and a subscription to Loot Crate, a company that sends blind boxes of toys, games, and merchandise to subscribers. Every time one arrived, she would do a short video about unboxing the mystery contents. She says, "Little did I know, Weird Girls was watching."

She's now their resident Disney expert. That's all of Disney, from cartoon classics to recent acquisitions like Marvel and Lucasfilm. But it's not all Mickey Mouse ears and Epcot memories. In a recent video, Dawn tackled the sometimes thorny issue of Disney princesses. Films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella face contemporary criticism for being anti-feminist, and Dawn understands that. "It leaves a bad taste in people's mouths because these ladies are a bit different than the girls we are raising." But she argues that it takes more than imitating Tinker Bell to turn back the social clock. "I don't think liking these characters is going to influence your young girl that she needs a man to save her or only pretty girls get the prince. How you raise your child is what counts, not what he or she is watching." Moreover, with films like Frozen and Brave highlighting young women controlling their own destinies, "Disney has caught on and the female characters in these films now are strong, independent, funny, and smart. I just think people are still having a hard time accepting the older princesses into the new group of princesses for that reason."

Geekery, nerd-dom, fan culture, whatever you call it, is going through some serious soul-searching about the representation of women and minorities. Internet trolls get publicly shamed when they harass other users. Warner Bros. gets pilloried on a daily basis for their failure to get a Wonder Woman movie off the ground, while Marvel fans are cracking their knuckles for a Captain Marvel marquee feature. Last month, the We Are Comics Tumblr and the accompanying #Iamcomics hashtag went viral as readers celebrated their diversity. That includes the stereotypical comic-fan demographic of white males, and it's a discussion Gardner has had as the guy among the weird girls. While he's basically there to provide some content and support (he's Commissioner Gordon to their Batmen, rather than Charlie to their Angels), he has faced accusations – mostly from men – that he shouldn't be intruding on a female space. "Danni and Kelli went crazy on the commenters," he says. "We talked about it a little bit, and what it came down to for me is that the channel is not about women doing stuff for themselves. It's about people coming together."

The ultimate coming-together is always a convention, and if one doesn't have a zero tolerance/no harassment policy, that's grounds for not going. After all, cosplaying isn't just about wearing the costumes. It's about making them. It's about becoming proficient in leatherwork and vacuum forming, learning how to add servos or cooling fans, understanding what glues will bond to what materials and what will melt straight through. That's hard enough without also having to deal with misogyny. Nova says, "The female cosplayers in the forums, there are some of them who have to physically show themselves using Pepa­kura [design software] because other people say, 'Oh, yeah, your boyfriend did this.'" It can get even worse at conventions, where Nova often is accompanied by her husband. She says, "When he's there, everyone's fine. When he's not there, the creepers come out of the woodwork." While it's frustrating and disturbing that some fans think leering and groping is acceptable, Nova says, at the same time, "We're having our conversation, and people are being brave enough to point it out."

That fight goes back to the famous Women in Refrigerators list. In 1999, comic writer Gail Simone (Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey) struck back against Green Lantern (issue 54), in which the hero's partner was murdered and stuffed in a refrigerator. The death was just dumb, and reduced the victim to a plot device. So Simone and her friends came up with a list of every time a supporting character was metaphorically or literally stuffed in that same fridge. Unsurprisingly, it happened to female characters a lot more often than their male counterparts (as Simone wrote at the time, "Not every woman in comics has been killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her, but ... it's hard to think up exceptions." It's beyond disappointing that Danger, Nova, et al. still have to make that same point, but, Danger says, "It's great to be able to put my foot down and say, 'Hey. Stop refrigerating characters.' 'Using rape as a plot motivation just because you can't think of anything else is tacky.'"

And while Danger is quick to criticize the comics community, like Dawn with Disney she's also quick to defend it from what she sees as misguided attacks. She says, "There's this great misunderstanding that objectification of female characters means them being scantily clad." Case in point: Last year, DC Comics gave Wonder Woman a costume change and swapped her traditional onepiece for pants and a leather jacket. "Everyone went, 'Oh, well, the feminists should be happy she's wearing pants.' Well, no. You just put pants on her to put pants on her. That's not the issue we have with the treatment of women in comics." Or another case in point: Barbarian warrior Red Sonja. Her costume seems like the worst fanboy fetish wear: part scale-mail, part beachwear. Yet the She-Devil With a Sword is often cited as one of the great female characters of comicdom, and is currently being written by none other than Gail Simone. Danger sees traces of grand American Puritanical prudery in some of the criticism, and as long as Sonja is written as a rounded character, her costume should not be an issue. In fact, as written by Simone, she's arguably the original weird girl. She's comfortable with herself, and to Hades with everyone else.

After that, the only real question is one of practicality. Danger says, "Why is that woman fighting in a chain-mail bikini? That's not protecting any of her internal organs. That's just silly."


Find Weird Girls online at www.weird-girls.com and www.youtube.com/user/lovablevarmint.

Copyright © 2014 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.