The Women Warriors panel at New York Comic Con brings female heroes to center stage

Unless you’ve been able to hide from both social media and Hollywood – and if you have, please tell us how you did it – it has been a contentious year for women behind the scenes, in front of the camera and on the page. Between the new Ghostbusters, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the never-ending saga of “social justice warriors” and the “sad puppies” who hate them, the conversation hasn’t stopped, nor has it gotten anything but louder. So why stop at New York Comic Con?

At the Women Warriors panel on Friday, a panel of authors who have worked in every field from comics to video games to music enlightened a packed audience to what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated field and how to create a “strong female character” that avoids stereotypes. (Believe it or not, this is something that is possible to do, even if you’re a man!)

To kick things off, moderator Margaret Stohl (co-author of the Beautiful Creatures novels and the author of Black Widow and Captain Marvel) asked the panel how excited they were about the introduction of Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but if it was too little too late. Why have we had to wait until 2015 for a character like Rey? This was what bothered Sam Maggs (Bioware writer and author of Wonder Women), who said she saw TFA “eight times in theaters” and cried actual tears when Rey activated the lightsaber, but still wondered why, in 2016, this is something noteworthy and not the norm. Though as Holly Jennings (Arena) noted, this year marked a huge shift in little girls’ Halloween costumes. For the first time, young girls were buying more hero costumes than princess costumes, which is a pretty promising turn of events.

While there was ample discussion of recent female characters, the conversation also turned to male characters and how we female humans view them. Many of us (present company included) would see a male character whom we admired and aspired to be like them without any regard to gender. Stohl specifically cited pretending to be Hana Solo, saying that as a kid she “didn’t want to be in love with Han Solo – I wanted to be Han Solo.” Though, as Amy S. Foster (The Rift: Uprising) pointed out, this might be a generational thing; she is the mother of three children, including two teenage daughters (read: not as young as Stohl was), and gender never really fazed them as something that might make them feel like an “other” when seeing a male protagonist. Fortunately, Foster’s daughters have been able to grow up with not just a woman who is a genre writer but many characters that have always been around to provide inspiration.

One show featuring such female characters mentioned by the panelists was the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Between Starbuck, Boomer, and President Laura Roslin, Stohl was prompted to say “Every time I see Hillary Clinton, I think ‘There’s the Fleet Commander.’” Though it should be pointed out that these are genderswaps, or characters that were originally male. What about original female characters? While taking questions from the audience, the panelists provided some solid hints about what they’d like to see in new female characters. Foster said that she wants to see a woman who handles a crisis without being burdened with guilt and was instead “unapologetically violent” if the situation called for it: “I have a vagina, but I’m going to kill you.”

But while there was plenty of talk about fictional women, it takes real-life women to create them, and that isn’t always easy to do in male-dominated fields. Stohl recounted a time when she was a company’s lead designer, but when she arrived in a room full of all male colleagues, one of them said “the stripper was here.” But as she pointed out, “We need to be in the room.” Being in the room, as hard as it is to get there, is what will ultimately put the necessary changes in motion. And the more women in the room, the more men will get used to it and it can stop being so weird for them! (Because come on, guys – stop being so scared of us.)

The panel also had a great discussion on ambition and what it means for women versus men. Foster said that ambitious is one of the best things men can be, but it’s one of the worst things women can be. Should we care? Of course not! She said women and girls should be unashamed of their ambition and that women “should be the CEOs of our own companies.”

Perhaps the best nugget of advice came from E. K. Johnston (author of the upcoming Ahsoka as well as The Story of Owen and Exit, Pursued by a Bear) in response to a question on how to create a “strong female character”: “Imagine she’s a person.” Yeah – imagine that!

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