This was going to be a somewhat laidback, chill blog post expanding on some casual tweets I’d made in the past, somewhat cheekily noting some similarities in the behaviours I’d seen in the knitting world and superhero comic book fandom. But there’s more academic in me than I thought, so look at me bringing in some sources. For the most part, this is a chill blog post though.
As I don’t know at this point who reads anything on this blog, or who may come across this post, I’d like to make a few things clear before I begin: this post is me playing with my research into the superhero comics fandom (stressing the comics part – not the movies) and my enjoying knitting in my time far away from panels full of breasts drawn by artists who I can only assume have never seen a woman naked, or know how gravity works. As such, I’ll throw in references to any texts I used when writing my thesis that I think might be of interest or are just plain cool. If you want academic or anecdotal/less formal stuff on knitting… sorry, but you’ll have to Google that. But when you do, be respectful of the spaces you go into, and if anyone has a Ko.Fi account or similar, please pay them for their labour and any educational resources they’ve created that you use. This isn’t going to be some catch-all post that covers every aspect of either group that I’m discussing here. I’d need a monograph for that. With that in mind, I’m going to make some assumptions and generalisations for ease, and I’ll simplify things as best I can. I am writing from a position of privilege, so it’s also important to note that my experiences and perceptions of both the superhero fandom and the knitting world will both align with and differ vastly from those of others. That does not make what I say more valid, nor does it make those of others less so. We cool? Right then.
The Stereotypes & the Binaries
Let’s do that cringey thing where we chat definitions before we bite into the meaty bit. For the sake of argument, I very basically define a fan as someone who really, really bloody likes something to the extent that they engage in fannish practices with the object of their fandom (for a more comprehensive and academically phrased version of what I’m saying, check out Mark Duffett’s Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture (Duffett, 2014)). As someone who has lived in geek culture since being an annoying tween, I’m usually referring to them, but that’s not to completely exclude football fans, Britney fans, or Hamilton fans. This post is therefore going to make comparisons to mainstream superhero comic book fans – think DC and Marvel, not the indie stuff – but I do not doubt that comparisons could easily be drawn from other areas. When I refer to “fannish practices”, what springs to mind for me is activities including (but not limited to) cosplay, writing fan fiction, posting online in forums and blogs, making fan podcasts, producing fan art, attending conventions and festivals, and buying associated merchandise – think comics with variant art, T-shirts, mugs, figurines, etc.
What’s a knitter? At the most basic level, someone who knits. But as I’m about to go into below, we have a lot of ridiculous stereotypes that make even that simple a definition go somewhat out the window. Can I get a “hashtag not all” over here?
Both the superhero comics fandom and the knitting industry operate along some gendered binaries, and produce some frankly ridiculous and offensive stereotypes. To put it mildly. Despite countless journalists cheerfully noting over the years that “girls read comics too!” (give me a break!), the superhero fandom – and indeed most geek fandoms – continue to operate along a binary which I summarise in my thesis as essentially “fanboy or not fanboy” (yes, this is problematic, and I will get to it, bear with me). Many fans, critics and academics have pointed out over the years that the fanboy seems set to inherit the earth – assuming he hasn’t already. Let’s be realistic here; fans in most geek fandoms are presumed to be straight, white, abled men, generally aged 18-34, with the occasional exception. Hell, there’s books on it – Matthew J. Pustz’s Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers (1999) and Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (2004) to name a couple. Women present in fandoms generally get treated to objectification, perceived as the baggage of another male fan (mother? Sister? Girlfriend?) or labelled a “fake geek girl”, aka someone entering the sacred fandom so that she can break the heart of a fanboy and basically destroy the fandom because she’s apparently the bogeyman. Having had that one thrown at me during my presidency of a gaming society, all I can say is: lads, y’all give us too much credit, you’re more than capable of fucking up that thing you love all by yourselves in your nicely gate-kept castles long before we even so much as blink at your comic or TV show or Magic: The Gathering cards. But I’m digressing with a big old axe to grind that a lad chucked there during my GUGS presidency.
This is the important bit! Do you notice someone missing here? LGBTQ+, POC, disabled and older fans barely get a footnote. Look in the panels of a comic, read a mainstream journo article (“did you know that girls read comics and D&D is cool now?!”), check out some books and academic texts, and these fans are barely acknowledged or represented, if at all. As someone who does see herself represented in these books – however wonderfully or poorly that may be – I am still there. Loads of my friends and colleagues and people I’ve still yet to even meet are not there. They’re excluded, they’re written out, drawn over, pretended to not exist. To say that the comic book industry, academia and a heck of a lot of other places need to do better would be a massive understatement. There are a few movements and sections of people who believe otherwise, but y’all can Google that, but do so with caution. It’s not pretty. One is a word ending in -g*te. Knitty folks reading : think along the lines of the groups that got butt-hurt when Ravelry said “nae Trump”, merrily harass designers and dyers online, and at some point came up with some nonsense about green socks on Instagram.
To return to the comics stuff: however much things may or may not be changing, you’re often reduced to whether you’re a fanboy or you’re not. Fanboys good; not fanboys, bad. And that is very much reflected in panels of comics, at conventions, in comic book stores, in critical texts, and the very image that comes to mind when we see or hear the word “fan”. Wee aside here: two books I used during my thesis that I really rate – and happen to touch on this! – are Suzanne Scott’s Fake Geek Girls : Fandom, Gender and the Convergence Culture Industry (Scott, 2019) and Benjamin Woo’s Getting A Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture (Woo, 2018). I recommend checking these out, they’re very well-written.
Now for the knitting stuff. My perception here would be that the knitting industry suffers from some similar assumptions when it comes to what a knitter looks like. If you live in the UK, I’m sure you’re somewhat familiar with the old Shreddies adverts, where “nannas” (white actresses in what were very obviously cheap grey wigs, frumpy clothes) would sit in rocking chairs knitting the cereal pieces. As with superhero fandom, anyone actively engaged within the knitting industry – or a knitting community such as a local knitting group or similar- will be aware that the stereotype doesn’t necessarily match the reality. The past 18 months alone has seen some extremely important discussions about racism in the knitting world, as well as more recently conversations about ableism after Ravelry – the website to be on if you’re a knitter – gave itself a makeover. I won’t be placing links here as I do not want to redirect any readers to Ravelry when the site is – at time of writing – causing seizures, migraines, and is just downright unsafe. Wee reminder to please respect the spaces of knitters you go to and pay them for their labour and resources here!
Knitters aren’t typically presumed to be groups of blokes; an obvious contrast to that of the comic book fan. I’m not entirely sure if there’s a particular group of knitters who are the “true believers” or “of tomorrow”, but as it’s a craft that’s perceived as feminine in a patriarchal, capitalist society that undervalues such things, I doubt it. Men who knit certainly exist, and they make up some of the most successful and prominent indie designers, but they don’t necessarily spring to mind when someone – particularly someone well beyond the reaches of the craft – hears the word “knitter”. Generally, it seems to be old ladies or, according to one drunk bloke in a pub I once encountered, “pregnant lassies” because, and I quote, “well why else would you be knitting if you’re not making something for your baby?” There’s probably plenty to unpack there, but as with the superhero fandom, why would a woman be engaging with something if it wasn’t connected to securing a male partner and later reproducing?
When it comes to knitters and fans – and indeed most other groups – one thing that is really, really obvious is that language kinda needs to evolve. When I started my PhD five years ago and did a slight veer into the whole fangirls thing, there wasn’t much by way of material on anything other than male fans versus female fans. It was an either or game, and the idea of “fangirl” being anything other than a derogatory term (and delightful slice of toxic masculinity because ew, girls apparently) was around but still in the process of being reclaimed. Writing my thesis was a nightmare – did I want to write out “female superheroes” ad nauseam (even if it would bump up my word count)? Much as I wanted to use plain ol’ ”superheroes”, it too usually conjures up images of the lads in their tight spandex, and wasn’t helped by the fact that so many critics and other fans use the terms “superheroes” and “female superheroes”. If you want some cracking further reading on this, I suggest you look out Carolyn Cocca’s Superwomen: Gender, Power and Representation (2016), or for some accounts straight from the mouths (keyboards?) of fans, The Secret Loves of Geek Girls (2016) and/or more recent “sequel”, The Secret Loves of Geeks (2018). Note the uses of women and girls there. The Secret Loves books do contain a wide and diverse range of contributors who share very personal stories and experiences around their fandoms. Geek Girls alone includes playground bullying, drag, shipping, crushing on Dragon Age characters (hard relate), relationships, cosplay, comics, creating sexy fan art… These books aren’t perfect, but in 2016 on the heels of that chat about ethics and gaming and journalism, it was cool to have something that didn’t assume that all geeks were members of The Big Bang Theory Cast. I’d hope that an anthology made in 2020 – or later, it’s a pandemic right now and we don’t need to leave lockdown with a publishing deal and a ripped physique – might be all the more inclusive and intersectional. More nuance. Less exclusion.
The same goes for knitters and the image we conjure up when we hear “knitter”. Whilst the fact that language around knitters may be a relatively interesting contrast to superheroes and female superheroes with knitters and male knitters, we’re still returning to something limited that completely excludes a significant portion of knitters. I include myself in writing this post. Whilst these conversations may be happening online – they have yet to reach the mainstream. Sure, huge swathes of the population can casually reel off details about Harley Quinn previously only a dedicated cartoon viewer or comics fan would know thanks to Hollywood, the same can’t be said for yarn, needles and the people using them to create colourwork sweaters. When knitters talk about “the knitting community” on Instagram, this comes with the assumption that everyone who knits uses Instagram and is aware of the conversations occurring there. Or, in the past, that every knitter made use of Ravelry. The changes in understanding that are occurring in these spaces and groups needs to continue to expand. I think. I’m on one cup of coffee right now, and I’m not an expert in linguistics, but it would be remiss of me not to, at the very least, mention this. In short: language at present is not entirely reflective or inclusive of the communities, groups, cultures, and sub-cultures it is used to describe. As I mentioned at the beginning, I’ve kept this super basic. PSL-drinking basic, and even that is by no means ideal.
Did you think this was all of it? Oh mate, goodness no! I wrote this entire thing out in one and it was well over 3000 words so lucky you, I’m splitting my yarn and spandex chatter across multiple posts. This was just the tiny tip of a very noisy and somewhat spiky iceberg. If you’re willing to humour me, the next post will expand on what is here, and (hopefully!) cover spaces. After that, I’m thinking I’ll tap into celebrity, and… we’ll see. Along the way, I hope to touch on as much as I can, all whilst trying to keep things light and breezy, bloggable and bite-sized. In the meantime, I’m always up for a good chat here or over on Twitter, and honestly, the more points of view – the better. Mine isn’t and shouldn’t be the only voice.