Gender in sci-fi, fantasy, and geek subculture has been a topic of discussion in the geek community for years. The Buffy to Batgirl Conference aims to explore the many roles women play in the culture – as well as the roles of female characters. The conference takes place on May 2 and 3 on the Rutgers University-Camden campus. (You can find schedule, registration, general details, and parking information on the conference’s official website. Plus, it’s free for attendees!)

After learning about this local conference on my favorite topic, I contacted conference organizers Julie Still and Zara Wilkinson to learn more about it and to offer further exposure to this fantastic event. I am happy to share some of their insights with you:

What is the genesis of this conference?

In 2013, we both attended a conference in Ithaca College in Ithaca, called Pippi to Ripley, which focused on women and gender in science fiction and fantasy. We both presented papers and really enjoyed the conference. The woman who organized it had also held it in 2011. In 2012 it was held at Middle Tennessee State University and called Catwoman to Katniss. The premise of the conference is that people at all levels – undergraduate, graduate students, academics, and independent scholars – mix together; there’s no “class” distinctions. Presenters pay a nominal fee and the public can attend at no charge. It was great fun and we learned a lot. We asked the organizer, Katherine Kittredge, if she was holding it in 2014. She said that she thought every other year was enough. So we asked if she would be open to having it held at Rutgers-Camden. She was, so we looked in to the possibility on our end. It was accepted as a Chancellor’s Signature Event, and from there we were off and running.

What do you hope to achieve by organizing this event?

Julie: We wanted to continue the Pippi to Ripley tradition and bring together researchers from all levels, as well as the public. Rutgers-Camden is a great school and we were hoping to bring people from throughout the Delaware Valley onto campus. The general topic appeals to people – we had over 80 paper submissions from four different countries. The location is optimal, too, close to New York, Washington, Baltimore, and just across the river from Philadelphia. There are a lot of colleges and universities within train distance. The campus’ Comic Con last month brought about 600 people out on a Saturday.

Zara: We also really wanted to give our students, both undergraduate and graduate, the chance to experience an academic conference close to home. We have students from all three Rutgers campuses giving papers. One of them is a freshman! Most of our moderators are graduate students in English or Childhood Studies at Rutgers-Camden. Even some of our presenters from other universities have written to say that this is their first conference. It’s a great opportunity for everyone involved. We have worked hard to ensure that Buffy to Batgirl is a welcoming conference that has a place for both established and developing scholars.

What community support have you received in putting this together?

Julie: We’ve had tremendous support from the campus and the university system. The Committee to Advance Our Common Purposes, the Rutgers University Libraries, and the Rutgers-Camden Women and Gender Studies Program are all conference sponsors.

Zara: Back when we were first considering the conference, we applied to be a Chancellor’s Signature Event. The Chancellor’s Signature Events Series highlights events that attract regional and national attention and that position Rutgers-Camden as a center for scholarship and cultural activity. We were fortunate enough to be selected, and the campus administration has been providing a lot of assistance and support.

Have you encountered any challenges or opposition in organizing this conference?

Julie: It’s more work than we expected. It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of work.

Zara: Definitely a lot of work! But it’s great because we’ve been able to learn a lot. Neither of us has ever organized an event like this before. I know I was quite daunted at first. I still am, actually, when I think of how much we have done just to get to this point.

What panels or presentations are you most looking forward to personally?

Julie: This is like asking me to pick a favorite child. They all look great. Our keynote speaker is Marleen Barr. I’ve heard her before and she’s fabulous. Katherine Kittredge is coming from Ithaca College and bringing a panel of her students.

Zara: Is it cheating to say that I’m looking forward to them all? Because I am. One of the most impressive things about the conference program is the sheer amount of variety. We will be having three concurrent panels, so at most I’ll only be able to see one-third of the conference.

Has your conference received any attention from the Whedonverse or geek culture celebs?

Julie: Not directly, but I’m sure they are all watching closely [tongue in cheek].

Zara: I wish. We did get some interest from Geekadelphia – and from The Geek Initiative, obviously!

How can conference attendees get more involved in promoting gender equality in these genres and media?

Julie: I think we have more control through buying power than we believe. Last year at Philadelphia’s Comic Con I told a few vendors that I admired their artistic talent but I wasn’t going to buy their products because of the way women were portrayed. I buy a lot of books by women authors or with strong women characters and I pay to see movies with women in significant, substantial roles. We need to be better at communicating this to the people who create media and products.

Zara: Anything that encourages us to think critically about how women are represented in the genre is important. Events like this conference start crucial conversations. This is especially true because I think sometimes fan culture teaches us that we have to love unconditionally. It can be really hard, as an enthusiastic fan of sci-fi and fantasy, to say “I enjoyed that movie/tv show/book a lot, but there was still something really problematic about it.” That problematic quality might be any one of a number of things—rigid gender roles, the lack of female or LGBT characters or people of color, or something else completely.

What positive or negative experiences have you had as a woman involved in this type of culture?

Julie – It’s mostly been positive.

Zara: Always positive.

Please tell me a bit about yourself (background – job/major, hobbies, how you started getting into this topic, sci-fi, etc.)

Julie: The first television show I remember watching was the original Star Trek, the Gorn episode. It made such a huge impression on me. Some of my earliest reading material was my oldest brother’s comic books. In high school I tried to find books with good female characters. There weren’t that many in science fiction, but then Anne McCaffrey published Dragonsong and Dragonsinger, and I found Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Right about the same time the X-Men rebooted with the new Jean Grey, Ororo, and later Kitty Pryde. Star Wars and Alien came out a few years later, so suddenly there were a lot of characters out there to read about and watch. Academically I have a BA and MA in History, and an MA in Library Science. I’ve been a librarian for over 25 years.

Zara: I have a BA and an MA in English Literature and a Master’s in Library and Information Science. After graduating with my MLIS in 2010, I joined the Paul Robeson Library here at Rutgers in 2012. I have been a lifelong fan of science fiction. My parents are fans, so I was introduced to the genre early. I grew up with all the Star Trek series, Babylon 5, The X-Files, Alien Nation, and a lot of other fantastic television shows. I was probably the only kid whose favorite movies were Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Blade Runner. In junior high and high school, I discovered Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Tolkien, and the like. Of course, it didn’t occur to me until much later that there were no women on that list and that I was missing Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Connie Willis, and so many more.
Buffy to Batgirl is an interdisciplinary academic conference on women and gender in science fiction, fantasy, and comics. Intended to be a diverse and welcoming conference, Buffy to Batgirl will feature scholarly presentations from students and faculty from colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. Learn more about attending the conference at the official site.