Recently there has been a great deal of discussion online, primarily on Twitter, concerning representation in media specific conventions and how this representation impacts these queer spaces. While no specific convention has been named it has become fairly apparent from comments and from inferencing that the convention in question is ClexaCon. A number of topics have been presented including how inclusive the convention truly is based on how primarily white, cis, and straight their featured guests appear to be. I will note there are some women of color on the featured guest list as well as some out women, though I will admit this number is small.
Outside of Twitter I have been discussing these comments and will say that within the featured guest list there is a lack of inclusivity. There are a number of white femme women speaking at the convention in featured roles and a majority of the guests in general are femme presenting. For those of you who may not know, femme is used to define traditionally feminine looking women. In the smaller panel rooms there is far more diversity, but these people have all had to pay their own way and also pay for their own accommodations as they are panelists and not featured guests. One of the mentions I have seen is that queer actors should be highlighted more strongly at this convention and I do agree that queer voices need to be heard and shared and LGBTQ+ people in the industry do need to be promoted and their work needs to be highlighted. These are again all valid points, but the fact that ClexaCon invites guests who play queer and are femme showcases a much larger issue.
The entertainment industry is not kind to out actors. It becomes harder to find work and many agents will say that coming out or even playing gay will have you pigeonholed for the rest of your career. Recently The Mary Sue published an article concerning Bella Thorne, an out bi-actor, who has been struggling ever since she came out. She mentions losing at least one audition immediately after her coming out and for people in the industry this sort of discussion has to be terrifying. If you are new to the industry or even been in the industry for a long time, but not established in something that you know will guarantee work for the remainder of your career you have to weigh the odds. Do you come out and risk future jobs or do you keep yourself in the closet, hoping that you can just keep finding work? Beyond that you may have to weigh the voice of your manager or agent who wants to ensure you get hired. Now there are some amazing out actors who are in smaller projects and even some who are in larger roles, but what about those who are in the closet who might be playing a queer character on TV and just not saying they are queer? I’m not saying this is the case with ClexaCon guests, but I am always curious if the queer character I’m watching is secretly queer in real life. I will say that a showcase on out actors and promoting those faces and stories over other actors would be a very strong positive message for the convention to make. They do host a panel, at least they have in the last 2 years that the convention has existed, focused on LGBTQ+ actors, which I think is very important and hope that they continue hosting this panel for years to come. This does not mean that work should not be done to increase this representation within the featured guests, but as the convention is still young I would hope that this is something that they plan to focus on as they grow and find their way.
Now in terms of femme presenting women being the showcase I also want to tie this back to the entertainment industry. The world presented within the media has had the default of the male gaze since it was created. Men were the audience you wanted to hook and if a woman just happened to watch what you made, that was a bonus. Since men had the money and were considered the people to get, women on screen, and even in print, were presented as idealized female characters. While we like to think the industry has evolved, traditionally feminine looking women still wind up as the dominant form of representation for women, even in shows that are made for women. For example The L Word, which is focused on lesbians and gay female culture, still predominantly presented femme women. This is the case in almost every series or film, even those targeted at women. The actors we are shown are pretty, thin, and even if they wear masculine clothes probably still have long hair and wear makeup. While I am feminine presenting myself, I used to love making people think I was a boy when I was younger. I had all boy friends, wore boys clothes, or something very unisex, and always had short hair. At one point I decided to grow my hair out and suddenly realized now I actually looked like the characters I liked in TV. I felt like I could dress like them and be more like them, but eventually I realized I didn’t want that. I wanted short hair and didn’t want to always wear makeup. I wanted to be me even if that meant not looking like the characters on TV.
Now there are some shows, for example Vida, that have showcased more butch or masculine presenting women, but these appearances on mainstream media are rare. With the entertainment industry still firmly set in the male gaze it becomes difficult to find people on screen who fit a more varied LGBTQ+ appearance. Even shows made by women struggle with this and the default is still often femme women. Shows like Wynonna Earp and Lost Girl provide queer representation that fans love, but again these ships remain very femme focused. I have come to think of this as a sort of trained lens. The women who create and cast these shows have been made so used to the male gaze being the default that they wind up being confined to boxes that they could break out of, but don’t think to push. This doesn’t take into account that the networks they create for may be insisting on certain things or giving notes about how castings or characters are presented. I don’t work in the industry so I don’t know how any of that works really. I do notice elements of this male gaze issue trickling into even smaller productions. While I love Carmilla, the main ship, Hollstein, is very femme and while there is the Laferry ship, the show never actively says La Fontaine and Perry are a couple or delves into their possible relationship. Even lower budget series wind up presenting femme female/ female couples as the default. Some of this comes down to actor availability and who creators know, it still shows some elements of carryover across all media that two femme females are the best default to sell a story.
What this all shows to me is that viewers and fans want more diversity, they want new and different stories to be told. They want butch and masculine women, they want trans and nonbinary representation, they want queer characters of color. They want more LGBTQ+ people on screen playing characters they identify with, but the industry itself is controlling what gets made and who we see on screen. It is also indoctrinating us to accept these representations and making us blind to the fact that this is even deeper than just limited guest selections, it is a problem impacting every part of media, including the people who make and view it. It also makes queer spaces difficult to maintain as non-problematic.
At this point in my life I have just assumed everywhere and everything is going to become problematic at some point, but I am a bit of a pessimist. Where I live there are no queer spaces that I feel comfortable. We have literally one gay bar and it is frequented predominantly by gay men and straight people. I have never gone to this bar alone and have only ever gone with straight people and never feel fully comfortable, even when I went with my girlfriend during two of her visits. While it is meant to be a safe place for me it feels like a regular bar and I can’t really be myself there. I feel restrained by the fact that I am still the minority. With that one and only queer space not really being a queer space I find myself an island in the Midwest. Making time to go to ClexaCon for me at least gives me some level of safe queer space. I can talk about myself openly and I can talk about things that I can’t talk about anywhere else. I also feel like I can actually talk to people without worrying about being judged. Though I will say I avoid having many thoughts on fandoms because some people are very intense and I am not a super fan of anything except Basil Rathbone and Sherlock Holmes (which is not a queer topic exactly though arguments have been made in connection to Holmes being asexual, but that is a conversation for another time) so I stay in my lane and try to not upset the super fans.
ClexaCon allows me to breathe for a little bit and metaphorically let down my hair. I will admit I have the privilege of being a cis, white woman who while bi, has a girlfriend and is thus assumed to be queer. This does mean that my experiences are different from a number of people who may not feel as comfortable in the space and who may have had bad experiences in a space where I feel safe. I don’t want to discount those experiences and I wish that everyone could have an experience like I have. I found my girlfriend at ClexaCon and I came out because I went to ClexaCon so I will admit I am a very biased person in this discussion and while I do think more work could be done to promote and invite diverse guests and showcase voices from throughout the LGBTQ+ community, I still plan to attend the convention and give myself that moment to breathe.
If you are interested in more LGBTQ+ focused content I write a bi-weekly feature for The Nerdy Girl Express, The Bi Line, and I will be sharing features in March focused on certain elements of ClexaCon. You can find me on Twitter, @kleffnotes, on my blog, kleffnotes.wordpress.com, and on my kleffnotes YouTube channel.