One of the largest festivals of geek culture in the world comes to an end today. The San Diego Comic-Con is a four-day celebration of fantasy fiction, comics and fan-favourite movie franchises. In other words, it is - and has for decades been - a homing beacon for sebaceous youths in black T-shirts plus the odd guy in a Magneto helmet or Wookiee suit. Yet this year in the run-up to the convention there was an outbreak of - strange to report - gender wars. This is remarkable largely because it indicates there was second gender there to have a war with.
The predictable flashpoint was a preview of New Moon, the sequel to the vampires-and-abstinence melodrama Twilight that screened at the 2008 convention. That fateful occasion sparked, in the words of The Hollywood Reporter, a "female fan frenzy", with press conferences overwhelmed by tweens, their protective parents in tow. The memories die hard. Peter Sciretta of the cinema website Slashfilm recalled the events of last year with a shudder: "When the summit panel began, you couldn't even hear yourself think as four or five thousand Twilight fans screamed in unison."
The big question on his mind was: "Will Twilight ruin this year's Comic-Con?" Annalee Newitz, the editor of the geek-friendly culture website io9.com, appeared to think it would serve him right. "Obviously," she wrote, "he is threatened. Twilight fans are stealing movie fandom away from him. They're willing to get up even earlier than he is to get into an event they're excited about. I dunno, but it sounds to me like he's threatened because women are better, stronger, more devoted movie fanatics than he is." Ouch.
Poor Sciretta: reports came in of fans queuing for the New Moon preview 24 hours before doors opened, cluttering up the San Diego Convention Center with their branded rucksacks and generally lowering the tone. The garden variety obsessive fanboys, desperate for a first sighting of, say, Avatar, James Cameron's long-awaited return to sci-fi, just couldn't compete. There have, accordingly, been some rather disobliging remarks made about these hordes of marauding nymphs (or "Twi-hards", as we're instructed to call them). There's also a good deal of innuendo: see, for example, Entertainment Weekly's Olivia Munn, who put together a checklist of ways "to hit on a pretty girl at Comic-Con". The advice, which I can only assume was intended in the nature of jocular sabotage, includes: "Mistake her for someone in Iron Man 2," and "Identify which Battlestar Galactica tribe she's from based solely on her accent." (Guys - it's a Cylon trap!)
Of course, the troubled relations between geeks and women has been a comedy staple for some time now. Indeed, it's the entire premise of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory - represented at Comic-Con 2008, natch. Nerds and women: never the twain, eh? The irony is that female attendance at Comic-Con has in fact been rising steadily for a long time. Even in 2007 - that is, before Twilight made its Comic-Con debut - women made up about 40 per cent of the convention's visitors, according to Variety magazine. The ever-greater Hollywood presence may have something to do with that. But it's also true that, as the internet shines its wan light into the most obsessive corners of the world, fandom itself has been revealed as a more feminine business than the stereotype of the lank-haired World of Warcraft addict might lead you to suspect. Visit any online fan fiction forum (that is, a website devoted to consumer-written appendices to existing fictional works) and the overwhelming majority of contributors will be women.
The practice of cosplay - essentially, parading around dressed up as one's favourite characters - also seems to exert a particular appeal over female fans. And these are just the manifestations of fandom that the chaps tend to shrink from. Whether they like or not, the lonely male nerds of the world might have to meet some girls after all.