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Black Girl 'Geeks' Want To See More Of Themselves In Comics


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, it's the 20th anniversary of the horrific genocide in Burundi that took thousands of lives. We'll hear from a survivor about how he found healing and forgiveness for his tormentors through running. That's just ahead. But first, off the top of your head, how many black female comic book characters can you name? There's Storm of course from the X-Men. She was my favorite growing up. But other than that, who else?

Well, now a number of self-proclaimed black girl nerds who grew up reading comic books with characters that looked pretty much nothing like them are now joining forces to bring some diversity to so-called geek culture. To talk more about it, we have Grace Gibson with us. She's a contributing blogger for the site Black Girl Nerds, and she was recently featured in a piece for the Huffington Post called "Black, Female and Super Powered." Grace, welcome.

GRACE GIBSON: Thank you. Glad to be here.

HEADLEE: You have written about - that black women haven't really been embraced by nerd or geek culture. How is that different from - I mean, I've heard a lot of complaints from women in general that just haven't been embraced.

GIBSON: Definitely. Well, women in color tend to - we have kind of like a double-edged sword. You know, we're black and then we're women. So we have that battle that we have to deal with on a constant basis, whereas those who are not of color, typically, you know, you can kind of work with that, and it's a lot easier to grasp.

HEADLEE: You went to a GeekGirlCon over the weekend.

GIBSON: I did, yes.

HEADLEE: What's the difference between that and, say, just going to Comic-Con?

GIBSON: So GeekGirlCon is just basically lots of women who are self-proclaimed geeks. So it's more than just talking about comics. Everything is discussed from video games, comic books, just being a geek or nerd within the culture, everything you can think of. There's even science. It's everything besides just comic books, and it's primarily women that are there, which is - typically, if you go to another Comic-Con, we're probably in the minority. So here, we were in the majority.

HEADLEE: Do you get some of the publishers, some of the directors, some of the authors and illustrators? Do you get them there, as well, so you can talk to them rather than just each other?

GIBSON: You do, and it's starting to grow. GreekGirlCon - this is going into, like, the third year, so it's still new. But I think as time goes by, it will get to a level of, like, a Comic-Con in San Diego or the New York Comic-Con that just happened, as well. So right now, it's kind of, like, in the embryo stages. But I think once it gets older and more take place, it will definitely get to that magnitude.

HEADLEE: Well, maybe you can answer the question I asked earlier. I mean, I read a lot and still read a lot of comic books, and I really can't think of anyone besides Storm. What other black female superheroes do we have?

GIBSON: So there's Misty Knight, who was basically kind of, like, a...

HEADLEE: Oh, yeah.

GIBSON: ...Character taken from "Foxy Brown" during the blaxploitation period. You have Nubia, who is, like, the sister to Wonder Woman. You have Martha Washington, who was created by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons - some of the same people who did Batman and the Watchmen. You also have DC Comics' Vixen. There's also Image Comics' Crimson Avenger. You also...

HEADLEE: Grace, you know, all these characters are very, very small characters who appear in very few comics. I mean, 'cause there are ton of black men superheroes.

GIBSON: Right. Absolutely.

HEADLEE: So how do we change that?

GIBSON: So it's, you know, informing people. And so, for me, when I talk to people and when they ask me about my research, you know, I get that question, well, Storm's the only one. I'm like, God, no. There's, like, so many. And so they ask, and so then I tell them and then I write - that's what I do here in academia, is write about many of these characters so that they can be introduced to the outside world and also just to be introduced within academia because comics don't really have a place there just yet.

HEADLEE: You've also written, though, that many of these black female characters are hyper-sexualized. What do you mean by that?

GIBSON: Absolutely. So they're scantily clad, overexposed breasts, behind, clothes are very fitting and skintight, and...

HEADLEE: Wait. Isn't that all females characters in comic books?

GIBSON: It is. It definitely is, but at least in some cases, with some of the white characters, that's not the case. But with pretty much every black character, that is the case. And so there is no, oh, you know, we have one who is kind of more tamed. But they're pretty much all in that category, so there is no left or right. It's just this is how it is, and that's how they're seen.

HEADLEE: Do you think that more African-American girls would be more attracted to geek culture if the culture were more welcoming?

GIBSON: Yes, absolutely. I remember as a kid, when someone called me a geek or a nerd, I was quick to say, no, that's not who I am. But I think there's so many stereotypes and tropes that go along with it that make it seem like it's a bad thing. But as I've gotten older, I've embraced it and realized this is who I am and I love it and that's what it is. I tell people, you know, some of the geeks and nerds that are out there now are making lots of money, more money than those who don't want to be claimed as that.

HEADLEE: Although, I'm sure you hear people in the African-American community say, look, that's not African-American culture, right? I mean, you're trying to - what, are you trying to be white? I mean...

GIBSON: Right.

HEADLEE: ...I have to imagine you get those questions.

GIBSON: And then I ask, so then what is that? So then what does geek culture, what does a geek look like? Is there a definition? And I don't see a working definition. I think it's one of those where it's going to always constantly be changing. And, you know, you can be black, you can be white, you can be Asian - that's all. Everybody can be that, and there shouldn't be just one particular label that says that this is what it is.

HEADLEE: Other than this being something that you enjoy and maybe some of your friends enjoy, why is it important? Why do you make this kind of your mission in life to both get more acceptance of black girl geeks and encourage young women to be geeks if they're going to be?

GIBSON: It's kind of saved me. It's kind of allowed me to be who I am and kind of gotten me out of my shell. And so I was one of these kind of shy girls who just kind of stayed in the corner. And for me, being able to embrace and say - or even for others to be able to embrace and say that they're geeks, it allows them to be true to themselves. And we so often tell, you know, young girls and just people in general, be you, be yourself. And so by being able to do that and allowing geek culture to be a norm and not considered to be an outsider, it allows people to be kind of free in being that.

HEADLEE: Grace Gibson is a PhD student at UC Berkeley. She's also a contributing blogger for Black Girl Nerds. And she joined us from the campus of UC Berkeley in California. Grace, thank you so much.

GIBSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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