Remember way back in the day (in other words, middle school for a good chunk of us) when knowing all the Fellowship of the Ring members by name, or having an opinion about who's the best Avenger, or even being able to rattle off an appropriate "Star Wars" quote off the top of your head for any social situation made you kind of a weirdo?
If you do all of these things now that you're older, you're still a weirdo -- mostly because normalcy is an abstract social construct that has no clearly defined parameters and deep down, "weirdness" is a fundamental part of the human experience. But if you're really into dragons and superheroes and space operas, then right now in 2015 is a pretty good time to be alive, because they're the dominant form of entertainment at the box office, on your TV set and in the collective consciousness. Geek is mainstream! Anybody can be a nerd if they work hard, believe in themselves, and have very specific ideas about what they want from a "Batman" movie!
Unless, of course, you're not a man.
Yup, let's face it: despite all the advances we've made and all the conversations we've already had about gender representation in pop culture, and regardless of how deeply you, as an individual, might care about your fandom or your hobbies, there's still an uncomfortably large population of other self-identified nerds who don't quite believe that you truly belong in their clubhouse.
You know the kind of person I’m talking about: they argue that women only go to superhero movies because they think Chris Evans is hot (which is a true statement about Chris Evans, to be fair). They accuse content creators of “pandering” when they feature female characters as protagonists (see the recent flurry of internet comments on the character Rey in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"). They dismiss the sheer amount of over-the-top sexualized imagery in video games by saying that those games weren’t made for women to play. And they’ll show up in your Twitter mentions telling you go to back to watching “Twilight” if they see you complaining about any of it -- or worse, they call you some very terrible names and even threaten your safety over it.
The specific talking points are different depending on the situation, but it all tends to focus around one central conceit: that women, as a whole, can’t really be geeks like men can be.
Sure, the “fake geek girl” trope has been dissected and ridiculed so much in recent years that the words themselves have become a joke. But there are still plenty of people who just don’t think enough women are interested in superheroes and spaceships to justify caring about them as a demographic on any macro level. And, unfortunately a lot of people who think that way are still calling the shots when it comes to greenlighting new movies, television shows, video games and comic books.
Which is sad, because you don’t even really have to go too deep into the Internet to find plenty of female fans talking about the latest episode of “The Flash,” or the amount of time they’ve spent on their civilization in “Fallout 4.” Geeky girls can be just as passionate about games, science fiction, fantasy, and other nerdy pasttimes as their male peers -- and there’s a lot more of them than you might think there are -- even if you, yourself, are a geek girl.
Of course, “a lot more” is a pretty anecdotal turn of phrase -- wouldn’t it be so much more satisfying to be able to back that up with some cold, hard facts? That’s why we rounded up all the statistical evidence we could find from 2015 to prove once and for all that women not only have a place in the geek world, but a pretty big one at that.
Between “Jessica Jones” and “Supergirl,” this past fall marked the first time that two female-led superhero shows have existed simultaneously. But that doesn’t mean women have only just decided now to get into the superhero watching game -- they’re actually a pretty big chunk of the audience already.
According to data provided to USA Today by Nielsen in early November, the average audience who tunes in to watch “Supergirl” every week is almost completely equal in terms of gender parity. “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a close second, and even the show with the highest number of male viewers -- “The Flash” -- still has a relatively large number of female viewers. Recent data from ABC also suggests that the gender demographics for their mini-series "Marvel's Agent Carter" were almost completely even, too, similar to those of "Supergirl." (So on the flip side of what we're discussing, in case you were wondering whether a male viewer would ever respond to a complex and interesting female lead, take heart because they clearly do too.)
Of course, other genre-based television shows attract women, as well. In 2013 Wired found that women reportedly made up 42% of the "Game Of Thrones" viewing audience, while 50% of the positive social media activity about "Game Of Thrones" at that time was being generated by women. And according to Graphic Policy, which tracks Facebook analytics as they relate to fandom, women currently account for about 50.01% of the 22.8 million people on Facebook who consider themselves fans of “The Walking Dead." Compare that to 2013, where they were 40.63% of the 12.8 million Facebook fans.
So this myth that women are grossed out by gore and can't keep up with convoluted comic book-style continuity? Totally bogus. They might not be the majority, but they're certainly a big part of a TV's regular audience, at least as far as Nielsen ratings go -- and if they all stopped watching, you would definitely notice.
From 2012 to 2014, theatrical market statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America pegged women as 52% of the movie-going audience across all films -- which is actually 1% higher than their total share of the population. And while young men are still considered the primary audience for most science fiction and fantasy films, they aren't the only ones lining up on opening weekend.
According to data provided by movie studios to Box Office Mojo and Variety, the opening weekend U.S. audiences for the highest grossing science fiction and fantasy films of 2015 featured a healthy mix of men and women that hovered somewhere around a 60/40 ratio. It's also interesting to note that the films that are closest to parity, or that saw more women in the theater on opening weekends, all featured female protagonists at the helm -- like "Mockingjay," "Insurgent" and "Cinderella."
(Note: "Ex Machina" is not included on this list as we could not find any demographic data on the film's opening weekend. The production company, A24, did not respond to our requests for that information.)
You see the same thing when you look at the opening weekend exit polls of superhero movies over the past few years, although the gender dynamic shifts a little bit -- it tends to level out at 60/40 much more dramatically, with "Big Hero 6" being exactly at gender parity with a 50/50 split, and comic book adaptation "Dredd" on the farthest end with 75% male, 25% female.
And the trend is continuing: while 70% of the record-breaking pre-sale tickets for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” were reportedly bought by men, the actual gender breakdown continued to even out until the very end of the weekend, when it ended at 58% men, 42% women -- pretty close to that overall 60/40 split. And as was the case with "Mad Max: Fury Road," more word of mouth about the film's powerful and complex female hero might encourage more women to see it for themselves.
When video games were first introduced to the American consumerist public in the mid '70s, they were marketed as gender neutral toys, not specifically targeted towards boys or girls. But in 1983 the industry crashed, and when it began to make money again in the '90s, developers decided to specifically target young boys as their primary customers. Now, thanks to the past two decades of gender-based marketing, when most people think of "gamers" they automatically picture a teenage boy.
As is so often the case with stereotypes, that’s not a very accurate portrayal of the varied types of people who play video games today -- at least, not according to a 2015 study by the Entertainment Software Association. Of the 155 million Americans who reported that they play video games in 2015, 44% are female -- which is 50.6 million people. If we break it down further by gender and age, there are actually a statistically higher number of adult women who play games then there are males under the age of 18 -- despite the fact that the latter is generally regarded as gaming's target demographic.
Some critics might dismiss this percentage almost immediately, as the ESA's data also accounts for women who play mobile games -- which many who identify as "gamers" condemn as inherently inferior to PC and console gaming. And it is true that women are statistically more likely to spend time and money on mobile games than men are, according to a recent study by Flurry Analytics. Their research into the gender dynamics of their own games suggests that not only do female players spend 35% percent more time in gaming apps than male players, but they also retain the apps for longer and make 31% more in-app purchases.
But another recent survey, this time from the Pew Research Center, also found that more women report owning a game console than men do: 42% of women, versus 37% of men. These numbers could possibly be influenced by the fact that women are less likely to live alone, and the consoles could technically belong to roommates and living partners. Still, it certainly demonstrates that women have a higher rate of access to consoles than men do on average.
And it's not just video games, either. Although the world of tabletop gaming and LARPing (live-action role playing) is predominantly male, there are plenty of women who participate as well. For example, a global "LARP census" conducted by RPG.net last year found 35% of their respondents identified as female. "Magic: The Gathering" head designer Mark Rosewater also recently disclosed on Tumblr that 38% of their current player base is female -- a far cry from the dude-only mental image you probably have in your head from the way most "MTG" conventions are depicted online. Women might not be the most visible members of these subgroups, but there are certainly more of them than you'd think.
Despite the constant jokes that your average Comic-Con is full of hopelessly awkward dudes, many conventions across the United States are close to reaching gender parity -- if they're not there already. In a 2015 study by Eventbrite that polled 2,100 different fans around the country, “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture“ author Rob Salkowitz found that the amount of male and female respondents who attend conventions was exactly even.
A similar study Salkowitz conducted last year with 2,260 fans found similar results for attendees under 30, but that overall the population favored towards male convention goers at a rate of 55 men to 45 women.
It’s also worth pointing out that no one particular subgenre of fandom has achieved equal parity yet in the Eventbrite poll -- comics, toys and games fans skewed a bit more male, while sci-fi/fantasy manga and anime lovers skewed female (Although when Forbes looked at the 2014 demographics for six of the biggest anime conventions in New York, they also found that the gender breakdown was fairly close to even).
More importantly for convention organizers, female fans buy close to the same amount of merchandise as male fans. So it's not just -- as some recent convention critics have suggested -- that predominantly female cosplayers (64% of attendees are cosplayers according to the Eventbrite poll, and 62% of them are women) are coming to conventions in droves, and then not buying anything.
Of course, big name conventions like San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic Con are going to draw a wider range of people, and not every event you go to is going to be exactly the same as far as gender demographics go. But that doesn’t mean that you’re automatically less likely to see women at your local con. When Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con released the numbers for their 2014 convention, men were actually the minority at 46%. And don’t even get us started on the awesomely-named GeekGirlCon, also based in Seattle, which in 2015 saw a pool of attendees that was made up of 85% female and non-binary attendees.
“We have seen growth every year at GeekGirlCon,” Danielle Gahl, the convention’s interim Executive Director, told MTV News. “We are 100% volunteer run, from Agents on the Con floor to the Executive Director, so our growth is somewhat limited by our bandwidth. However, we've gone from a 2,000 person event to over 8,500 in just five years. We also have been selling out earlier each year.”
The ongoing success of GeekGirlCon also demonstrates another positive trend in recent years, which is that the rate of female convention attendees has been growing rapidly across all conventions. In 2014, writer Janelle Asselin crunched the numbers and found that between 2010 and 2013, the number of female fans who attended New York Comic Con grew at a 62% rate, much higher than the rate of new male fans.
Female fans also made up 41% of the 151,000 people who attended New York Comic Con in 2014, according to the most recent REEDpop sales kit, which actually bumps the rate of growth since 2010 up to almost 84% in the past four years -- so it's clear that female convention attendees are very quickly becoming a force to reckon with.
Unfortunately, it’s notoriously difficult to chart the demographics of comic books. Diamond Comic Distributors, the largest comic book distributor in North America, doesn’t release sales data on any of the titles they sell. Neither do Marvel and DC, the two biggest comic book publishers in North America. So for this one, we’re going to have to do a little stretching.
To start with, the number of people who identify as comic book fans on Facebook is a fairly decent indicator of interest in the medium. Every month Graphic Policy charts these numbers using over 100 different terms that relate to comic book fandom, including the phrase “comics” or the names of specific publishers, and over the past year women account, on average, for 43.42% of the people who "like" these terms. In November of this year, the rate at which women appeared to like comic books on Facebook (51.22%) was actually higher than it was for men (46.34%) -- although author Brett Shenkar acknowledged the very real possibility that there was a glitch in Facebook's analytics at the time.
It’s also fairly easy to see that number of female comic book readers has been growing at an impressive rate over the past few years as well, especially in online marketplaces like Comixology and Marvel's Digital Comics. In fact, young female readers are currently Comixology's fastest-growing demographic when it comes to new registrations. “Recently, surveys have shown that 30% of our new customers are female,” Comixology’s Chip Mosher told MTV News. “This is up 50% from the last time we revealed the percentage of female new customers at NYCC in 2013.”
Which isn’t to say that brick and mortar comic book shops are still the same old boy’s club either. Many stores are reporting an influx of young female customers, too. Earlier this year, Publishers Weekly conducted an informal poll of 13 North American comic book stores. Of the ten that responded, four reported that their customer breakdown was between 30 to 35% female, and six reported their customer base was closer to 40 to 50%. However, all the stores reported that their newest, youngest customers were more likely to be women.
In addition to becoming customers, women are also beginning to stake their claim as retailers. The Valkyries, a collective of current female comic book store owners and employees started by comic writer Kate Leth, was founded in late 2012/early 2013, and has grown to almost 500 members. A second group for women who work with comics but not at a comic book store was also created last year, and already has 200 members.
"We have heard that some comic shops have begun hiring more women because they heard about the group and realized there's nothing weird about having a woman behind the counter!" said Annie Bulloch, co-owner of the 8th Dimension Comics & Games in Houston and social media administrator for the Valkyries. "So the Valkyries functions as a support organization for the members, but its existence has resulted in more women getting a seat at the comics table."
What Does It Mean?
There’s no getting around the fact most of the data still finds men to have a slight majority over women in many of these aspects of media, most commonly in the 60/40 ratio. But that doesn’t mean that the women who enjoy comics, superhero stories, video games and other stereotypically male-marketed mediums should be ignored, because they still currently make up well more than a third of the audience on average -- and sometimes closer to half, or beyond. If you were hanging out in a group of three people, you wouldn’t pretend that the third person doesn’t exist, right? Would a pair of people in a group of four ignore the other two?
Besides, all of that interest from female fans translates directly to more money and attention for content creators. "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," for example, made $187 million in its opening weekend, meaning that about $76.6 million of that came just from women putting their butts in those seats. "Age of Ultron" still would have made a lot of money, but subtract that audience and you get the 25th highest opening weekend of all time -- instead of the third biggest.
Not only is there already a pretty sizable audience of female geeks, gamers and comic book readers out there, but the data also demonstrates that their numbers have been growing rapidly over the past couple of years, particularly among younger women. This new trend towards mainstream geek acceptance hasn't totally eradicated the social stigma against these interests, but it’s made them much, much more accessible to women who might have felt unwelcome previously.
And a lot of this has been powered by online conversation. Social media, which is primarily dominated by women (80% of women say they use social media, compared to 73% of men, according to Pew) has given female geeks a chance to connect with one another directly, and to encourage new fans to get involved as well. It's no small wonder that on Archive Of Our Own, a popular fanfiction website with an overwhelmingly female user base (80%, according to a third party survey in 2013), geeky properties like "Doctor Who," the works of J.R.R Tolkien, and the DC and Marvel universes -- "The Avengers" especially -- reign supreme over the the 20,000+ fandoms featured there.
Finally and most importantly, because geek entertainment is so mainstream, and because the Internet allows for better communication across communities, female geeks have been able to make themselves heard in a way they never have before, particularly when it comes to demanding better representation for female characters and creators. While women are still woefully underrepresented as a whole (especially behind the scenes) and society still has a very, very long way to go to achieve a higher level of diversity, the entertainment industry as a whole is slowly starting to notice that there's an audience for stories about women -- or, at the very least, for stories that don't pretend women only exist as eye candy. Marvel Comics' recent reboot with a female Thor might be "pandering" in a technical sense, sure, but it's also pandering to an audience that's eager to see a hero they can relate to, in a way they may not be able to relate to male characters.
That newfound commitment to expanding on the female audience has also started to pay off, especially in 2015. In March, when Comixology hosted a Buy One, Get One Marvel Comics sale, seven of the ten highest selling issues for that sale starred a female lead character. Earlier this fall, "Supergirl" had the highest premiere ratings of any new show of 2015, as well as any superhero TV on air today. And of course, it bears repeating that "The Hunger Games" franchise is a money-making powerhouse -- to date it's made more than all 13 "Star Trek" movies combined, and its lowest grossing installment, "Mockingjay: Part 2," still earned over $100 million in its opening weekend.
So to all the film producers, comic book editors, game studio executives, and anonymous haters on the Internet, take note: the raw numbers don't lie. Not only have girls and women been a vital part of the geek community for years, but they're only getting stronger. History has already been made, and the tide has turned -- so stop fighting the inevitable, and let's move into a bold new era of gender parity, together.