To mark publication of Geek Elders Speak, an anthology exploring the history of women creators, we spoke to one of its editors, Maggie Nowakowska, about the ways in which fandom has changed over the last fifty years.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Fandom was a versatile place way back when. The freedom, the breadth of interests that modern fandom assumes as normal and a right started half a century ago. In the Geek Elders Speak essays, readers will meet professional women and women just having fun; a lot of opinionated women and many generous ones. There are sad stories, but more triumphant ones. There are some references to clashes between people, and the existence of cliques and painful misunderstandings. But I don’t remember anyone saying that they wouldn’t do it all again. Maybe a bit differently, but there’s more “Hell, yeah!” than regret in this book. There are exciting lives revealed and ordinary lives simply enhanced. There is hope. Fandom provides a lot of hope for people.
How has fandom changed since you first strode into the fray?
Here’s one way to look at the difference between coming to fandom then and coming to fandom now. Fifty and more years ago, media fandom flowed out of science fiction fandom where it developed a fairly open environment within which media fandom thrived. Then, between the mid 1990s and the mid 2000s, new tech built a virtual dam that transformed the surroundings of that fannish river in the same way a concrete dam changes a water river. Anyone who comes to fandom now arrives below the dam. She steps into the same river with the same source, but into fandom in an environment that has become rather fraught.
In the Geek Elders Speak essays, women write that discovering science fiction and media fandoms was a relief for them, a release from limitations, a joy. Over and over again, the women in the book remember how wonderful it was to “find my people, my tribe, my community.”
We were the girls who didn’t fit in at school, who just didn’t act like girls as society defined behavior in those days. Fandom offered the room to be who we were; somewhere to get away from social expectations. In fandom, we defined what we wanted to do by going ahead and just doing whatever we enjoyed.
We stepped into the media fandom river to be saved.
The oldest women found fandom in clubs with boys who liked to read science fiction. They widened the river by bringing in fans who longed to explore the universes of Star Trek, Star Wars, and other favorite sagas. Women who played games on a university science department mainframe, or Pong at a local tavern, joined the flow. All the women found a place of their own in this outlying world of fandom where being one of “the weird girls” was just fine with everyone. In modern parlance, their river was a safe place.
How has fandom changed for us? That shiny new tech dam brought the whole damn world to the fannish riverbank. Everyone in the new environment knows about Star Trek (or Star Wars or [fill in the blank], even if they never watched it. Everyone knows what fan fiction is, or thinks that they do. Everyone says they’re a fan, even if all they know is that fandom exists and that it seems to be really cool. In this new development by the river, no one escapes notice and everyone has an opinion. You can’t get away—even when you want to.
That’s very different from fandom in the 1950s, ‘60, ‘70s. In many ways, older fans feel back where they started: they don’t do all the tech; the fan fiction that most of them wrote wouldn’t be popular now, anyway; and now there are new boys who insist that they define everything.
Why are women STILL so frequently written out of the conversation when it comes to the SFF community and fandom?
Is it too simple to say that as fandom has grown it has been normalized? Fans were once a small group of intense people with esoteric interests. Nerds. Now, in online memes and in respected articles on Serious Subjects, people throw around fannish references assuming that everyone takes the point. Now, everyone can be a nerd or a wonk or whatever.
But that last isn’t quite true. Girls who enjoy all those boy books and games, or who write all that smutty fanfic, can still be an embarrassment in a normalized fandom that is indistinguishable from the everyday society that continues to write women out of history and still protects the status of males who are properly studly.
We older fans see boys claiming fandom for their own, and we look at each other, puzzled. When SF fandom finally accepted Star Trek as legitimate science fiction and dropped the canard that Media Fen (i.e., women) Don’t Read, didn’t we put that kind of “true fan” nonsense to rest?
Apparently that lesson, those years of history, got lost in the data dump of instant online experiences. Nobody bothered to tell the kids growing up in the new world-wide social community that fandom had a history before 1994.
That’s on us elders and that’s why some of us are working hard to preserve the history of women in fandom in the 20th century. That’s why we want to preserve the experiences of our Geek Elders.
So much brilliant SFF content is presented as inclusive and yet the fandom around much of it continues to close doors for women and others who are considered different. Why is there such a stark contrast between the messages embedded in the content and the community of fans?
In 2002, at the San Jose World SF Convention, a panel of computer mavens (including Steve Wosniak) addressed the issue, “Why did SF get the personal computer so wrong?” The conclusion (iirc) was along the line of, “Well, SF danced all around what it would be like to have a computer on your own desk, but—hey, the future is always in motion, and getting close should be good enough.”
I think the same logic has been applied to female representation in science fiction. Writing about diversity, about A New Society, is considered close enough for a problem that is far older than civilization. Give one of the cast scientists a woman’s name; make the genius robot builder female; the effort will be seen as Amazing! and distract from all the change still needed. Anyone who worked through the last decades of the 20th century can remember how many younger men in offices reacted to watching the older men get their ties tangled in 2nd wave feminism. I sure remember how startled, frustrated, and angry we were in my workgroup when we realized that the lesson those younger men took away was that they should be a lot more subtle about their prejudices toward women if they wanted to be able to profit from their bias the way the older men did.
In small fandom, women could develop loud enough voices and have power enough to change more male attitudes than the women in my office group did in the 80s. In large fandom, in normalized fandom, it appears that we are still dancing around change. The office scrim of subtlety is now the power of the internet and social media to allow boys and men to just keep harassing women.
What elements of fandom have you found most empowering? Why?
Fandom gave me the opportunity to practice and improve my fiction writing while having fangirl fun and without endangering the possibility of publishing professionally.
Many women have used their fannish experience publishing fanzines, illustrating fanfic, working on convention committees, crafting—just a few examples—to create careers or their own businesses. Women who had no opportunities in their daily communities, or encouragement from their families, found out through fandom that they did indeed have the confidence and gumption to make their dreams come true
Through fandom I met the friends who have stayed by me the longest. Forty-two years ago, my Star Wars fanzine editor introduced me to the woman I’ve lived with since then. We returned the favor by introducing her to the graphic and fannish artist she married; he in turn was our best man when we were legally married. Fandom gave me an adult life rich with fun, friends, and experiences that could not be bought for love or money.
Would I do it all again? Yes. I’ve been doing it since I was 5 and making up stories based on the Westerns I watched, so I couldn’t GAFIATE (Getting Away From It All) if I did want to. But I don’t.
Have your views of fandom and the creativity, empowerment and pain that has gone hand in hand with it changed over the years? This project is specifically the voices of the elders – those who have been there since ‘the beginning’. Do you think younger fans understand how much you fought to be heard and taken seriously in the community?
When my friends and I started worrying about pre-Net fandom being forgotten, the situation seemed bleak. The women at Lucasfilm (LF which once had a whole library of our fanzines!) thought that only boys were fannish about Star Wars fandom. Fanlore and the Organization for Transformative Works were brand new. Many Pro writers still didn’t want anyone to know they had written fan fiction. The University of Iowa at Ames opened an archive library for fanzine collection donations; a couple years later, A&E Texas started scanning zines for academic use; but we were still trying to convince our peers that they must not throw out all the old letters and production material for fanzines.
Then the “Geek Elders Speak” panel at GeekGirlCon 2014 proved a great success. Younger fans followed panelists around the con asking questions about the old days with great enthusiasm—We had no idea that so many girls had been fans before us!—and older fans came up to us with tears in their eyes, saying, I thought we had been forgotten!
I started reading a lot more fan posts online a couple years ago and uploaded a few of my old Star Wars fanfic stories. I became involved with the documentary, Looking for Leia; I talked with young women in podcasts, try to keep up with current interests.
But I really don’t know how to answer this question. The younger girls are far more socially capable than most of us were. They’ve grown up in the “better world for women” that my generation fought for in the 70s and tsk-tsk us for having put up with male stupidity when we were their age. They do get nicked for ‘shipping in their fanfic, and they have the toxic fanboys and trolls to deal with, but…to me they seem to be part of normalized fandom.
I don’t see myself in many of them. Oh, we can talk Star Wars (my main fannishness) happily, but these young women seem so…normal. They worry about people thinking that they’re a bit strange for their fannishness, but they seem pretty connected socially. They do nerdish things, have nerdish interests, but…are they nerds?
They do have the same boy problems that rise up in media fandom throughout its history, and yet, after saying all of the above, it seems that the boys intimidate many of them far more than we were ever cowed.
Maybe we’re still too deep in the middle of starting to talk with each other for assessment.
Maggie Nowakowska became active in media fandom in 1976 in Star Trek fandom, and later became a writer, illustrator (as Pam Kowalski), and zine editor in Star Wars fandom.
Her first Star Wars story was published in the first issue of the early Star Wars zine Skywalker edited by Bev Clark.
She later edited the parody zine JediStarDarkFalconKnight and published a three volume collection of her ThousandWorlds stories, Thousandworlds Collected, published by Linda Deneroff of Mazeltough Press.
In 1991, Nowakowska was a fan guest of honor at AllianceCon. In 2019, Maggie and her large Star Wars fanzine collection were featured in Episode 2 of the documentary Looking For Leia: The Stories We Tell.