There was a popular Scott Pilgrim discussion going on at the same time. But the room was still packed at an unassuming panel called “Geek Girls Exist” at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con. It was clear that a convention centered around geeky women was not only plausible but could also be successful.
Those on the panel and many supporters put their heads together and the result was GeekGirlCon, an annual celebration of the female geek. The first show took place in a couple of rooms at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (then called EMP) in 2011 and has since grown into a movement.
More than 11,000 people attended the show in 2018, nearly triple the headcount from the original event. This year’s show takes place Nov. 16-17 at the Washington State Convention Center and just as many, if not more people are expected to turn out this year.
GeekGirlCon aims to be a welcoming place that allows all kinds of geeks to participate. Kristine Hassell, who has been on staff at the show since the first year and currently serves as the con’s director of community engagement, shared a story most geeky women have experienced. It was tough not quite fitting in with the “normal” crowd, but also hard to crack the hardcore geeky groups.
“As a longtime geek — or an old, as I like to joke — I remember how isolating it felt with old school nerds who embarrassed you if you weren’t 100 percent knowledgeable in the fandoms that you loved,” said Hassell.
Sonia Michaels, a senior lecturer at DigiPen Institute of Technology and long-time attendee, noted how the notion of “geek” has evolved, in particular for females.
“I grew up in the 70s and 80s, when the words ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ used to get thrown around as insults, and when even the outcast ‘nerd’ groups didn’t admit girls,” she said. “It has been wonderful to see geekdom becoming more and more popular over the years and to see so many girls and young women unashamedly embracing the things they love to learn and do.”
Unlike some of the larger comic-cons, young attendees have always been a centerpiece of GeekGirlCon. Hassell said one of the best parts of the event is the DIY Science Zone, a section of the first floor dedicated to helping young attendees learn about science through various hands-on activities taught by women working in STEM fields.
“It was an easy decision to include kids in our programming over the years,” said Hassell. “Do you remember the D&D red box as your first RPG experience? Or do you fondly recall your first home video game console or computer? Those fans have families now, and it was a natural progression for those parents to share Star Wars or Doctor Who or the fun of rolling initiative with their burgeoning geeks.”
As a long-time attendee and speaker with a young daughter, I can attest to the value of the DIY Science Zone. My daughter has been attending the con since she was 3 years old (she’s now 7) and it’s always our first stop. While there are mainstays in the space, like The Bug Chicks (my daughter’s favorite), the experiments and activities vary from year to year. Last year my daughter made a mummified gummy shark and extracted DNA from a strawberry.
But kids are only one part of the equation. The show actively pursues opportunities to help the geek community unite through contests and meetups. One such meetup is run by Michaels and includes women working in the tech and science industries where they are a minority and can be seen as holding each other back.
“The most wonderful thing about GeekGirlCon is that empowered women really DO empower other women,” Michaels said. “This event disproves so many old, toxic stereotypes: that women can’t get along, women have to compete with rather than support each other, women would rather backstab each other than collaborate.”
As the show pursued more opportunities to bring women together, it found that other minorities needed a space to celebrate their fandoms as well. Though the focus of the show is still women, it has expanded to include everyone.
“We’ve shifted away from white feminism toward a stronger commitment to universal equity — providing and prioritizing spaces for those who have been marginalized and giving them a platform to speak and share their work with our community,” said Hassell. This comes in the form of diverse programming, with a large percentage of inclusive panels and workshops that Hassell hopes will appeal to everyone.
Some of the programs on the schedule this year include lightsaber choreography classes, a meet and greet with the women of NASA, a robot building workshop, and a variety of panels about everything from data science, to grief in fandom, to the Disney princesses, to The Good Place and Game of Thrones. Besides the programming, the show is host to a large expo hall where vendors sell everything from jewelry and clothing to original art and graphic novels.
Even with its huge success, GeekGirlCon is not without its challenges, most of which are financial.
“Nonprofit life is tough. We do this because we’re all extremely passionate about GeekGirlCon’s mission, not to make money,” Hassell said. “We specifically make it a point to keep our pass pricing low enough to ensure that our community can still afford to attend, regardless of our growth as an organization.”
GeekGirlCon was also the center of controversy in 2017 that led to the resignation of five volunteer staff members and the executive director at the time. The situation sparked debates over racial and gender tensions and discrimination.
Despite the challenges, the show continues to provide a space for people to reconnect with their fandoms. Michaels, in particular, feels like she’s found a place where her lifelong love of Star Wars can continue unabashed.
“This past year at GGC, I watched a number of glorious women in General Leia cosplay moving around the conference, and they actually made me cry,” she said. “I know that Leia’s journey — from Princess/sex object to a strong, confident, and compassionate leader — resonates with many geeky Gen X women like me. We are finally getting our place at the table.”
GeekGirlCon runs from Nov. 16-17 at the Conference Center at the Washington State Convention Center.