Fangirl and Feminist Forever: An Interview with Sam Maggs
You may have seen her on various nerdy platforms and sundry, and Sam Maggs wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s all about sharing her brand of geeky media and feminism with everyone she meets. With her first book, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sam brings fangirls of all types together to revel in their geekiness. This year, she’ll be spotlighting 25 amazing women throughout history in Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History (out October 4, 2016).
Sam recently chatted with WWAC about the year since Fangirl’s Guide first came out, how her feminism has grown in tandem with her fangirl life, and the women that inspire her every day.
Your first book, The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy–I did get a chance to read it last year–it was quite interesting as someone who’s been in fandom for over 10 years. Those are some of the kind of things I wish I had known growing up.
Yeah, you know, my approach writing the book was–when I was 15 and didn’t really know anyone who was into this stuff and didn’t really know how to connect with people, didn’t know that I wasn’t the only girl who liked these sorts of things–what kind of book would I wish I could have gotten from the library and picked up? What information would I have wished I had known going into this process ten years ago?
I tried to write it so that that girl could pick it up, but then also, you know, the 26-year-old who’s been in fandom for ten years could still hopefully learn some new things from it or take some new tips from it. Or the girl who’s never really thought about feminism before and could be like, “Oh, that’s what that means.” So that hopefully fangirls of all ages and experiences could find something in there that interests them.
I found that really interesting actually, how you tied in being a fangirl: That you don’t exist in a vacuum and you do interact with sociocultural concepts like feminism. I found it interesting that you chose to tie them so closely together.
Being a fan is being a cultural critic. As much as it doesn’t seem that way, sometimes it is. You don’t live in a vacuum, we live in a society that conditions us to like certain things or to think about things in a certain way, and it’s good to be educated when you start to watch or read things.
[pullquote]It’s okay to like things that are problematic as long as you understand what makes them problematic…”[/pullquote]I say this in the book a lot: It’s okay to like things that are problematic as long as you understand what makes them problematic, because where issues start to cross up is where if you like Twilight and then you internalize the messages in Twilight, you might end up in an unhealthy relationship, which actually happened to me! Whereas if you read it and you understand the issues in it, that it’s an unhealthy relationship, then it’s fine, you can like whatever you like. It’s when you get into these things without understanding the principles behind them, then, you know, they can really affect you. Fiction you consume does influence the way you look at the world.
In that sense, I’m gonna turn it back to you. It’s been about a year since Fangirl’s Guide came out. Have you learned anything new about your own feminism and your own being a fangirl in the year that’s passed? What has helped revitalize or helped change the way you practice your feminism?
It’s a constant learning process, in part because we’re always learning how to be better people. I think because the discourse is always developing and evolving, it’s your responsibility in a certain sense to stay on top of that. In the year since that book came out–I really struggled when writing the book with this sense of imposter syndrome, of, you know, “Who am I to be an authority figure on this?” I know this stuff, but I don’t want to feel like I’m speaking for other people. In writing the book, it was this process of being like, “No, your voice is important, you have important things to say, other people will benefit from it.” Which was great in writing the book, but in the year since that book has come out, I’ve really–through my experiences, on social media and in that online space–I’ve learned when [this is ironic to say in an interview] to not speak. When it’s not super important for my voice to be heard.
I think I’ve spent a lot of time this year listening to other marginalized voices or other people with different experiences than me and lifting up–I try as often as possible to lift up other voices because, you know, people of color don’t need me to speak for them. They need to speak on their own experiences. Stuff like that. So I think that’s been a really important lesson for me this year and one that I wish I had hit a little bit harder in the book actually. I don’t think I touch on that overly much. It’s super super important to know when to speak and when to listen.
Yeah, it’s definitely a learning process. Some people learn it really early and some people learn it later in life, but we’re all working to get there.
[pullquote]It’s super super important to know when to speak and when to listen.[/pullquote]Yeah, and that honestly is kind of the point of Fangirl’s Guide. Like for me, I didn’t learn about feminism until a literary theory class in university. And like, I spent my whole life with these ideas about it that I had gotten from popular culture or people who would talk about it [in a derogative manner], and it wasn’t until I was in this privileged space of a university class that someone could finally explain to me what it was. And I was like, “Oh, I get it now.” That shouldn’t be a thing that’s limited to people who can go to university and take a theory class. Everyone should know about it. So, whether you’re super late to the party on it or you were ten years old, it doesn’t matter.
Related to that, what would be your advice to girls, like young women of color or girls whose life circumstances prevent them from pursuing things that they like? What would you say to girls interested in geeky pursuits who might not be able to access them?
I can’t recommend libraries enough! Like talking about my next book, Wonder Women, libraries were super invaluable to me during that process. And they’re getting so good [about it]. Libraries are expanding their graphic novel sections, which are really cool. They have free internet. They have big video libraries. And teen librarians–I’ve been to a couple [conventions], like ALA, over the last year for Fangirl’s Guide, and they’re so passionate about this kind of material and getting it to girls. If you go to your local library, there will be a librarian there who will be stoked to help you find anime or manga or a cool Batgirl [issue].
You did mention Wonder Women, which features 25 women who have changed history. I’m sure you had a hard time picking and choosing which women to feature. Were there one or two whose stories drew you in immediately?
It was obviously super hard to narrow this book down to 25 women! There were so many women through history who’ve contributed great things, who people never seem to mention. So for me, the narrowing down process–once you get into the research and you start discovering all these women, the ones that history has mostly written about have been straight white women. This is what happens.
So, it was important for me as I was writing the book to include a significant number of queer women and women of colour, and that helped me narrow down the list a lot. So, that’s how I made those decisions. I think two of my favourite women in the book–it’s so hard to pick favourites–I really liked Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi, who was the first Indian woman to ever get an education in Western medicine. She was actually the first Hindu woman to come to North America.
It was the late 1800s, and she was 19 years old. And women of her caste–women in India weren’t really allowed to be educated. Her husband wrote to a Christian missionary newspaper and was like, “Listen, my wife really wants to come to America to be educated as a doctor, can you help me with this?” Cause he had seen that they had sponsored other people to go to America, and this Christian missionary magazine, instead of writing him back, published their response in their magazine. And they basically said, “We would love to help you, but you have to renounce Hinduism and become a Christian.” And [Anandi and her husband] were like, “Well, we’re not gonna do that.”
In a dentist’s office in New Jersey, a 30-year-old widow named Theodicia Carpenter was waiting for her appointment, picks up an issue of the Christian missionary magazine and sees this response in the back. She thinks to herself, “Well, that’s not very Christian.” So she reached out to the publisher, got Anandi’s address in India, and sent her a letter. And the two of them became pen pals, best friends talking all the time about everything, and [Carpenter] was like, “Why don’t you just come live here with me, and I’ll help you to go to medical school?”
So at 19, this girl has nothing, leaves her husband behind in India, comes to live with her pen pal in America, and ends up being the first Indian woman with a medical degree from the Pennsylvania Women’s Medical College. Sadly, she passed away from malaria after that. But it’s such an amazing story. So her story is really great.
[pullquote]But every woman in the whole book–they were up against such extreme odds to do the things that they did…[/pullquote]And the other story I love so much is Dr. Marie Equi, who was a queer birth control advocate in the early 1900s, who went out of her way to not only fight for suffrage, but also fight for reproductive rights at that time. She was so cool and fiery that at one point her girlfriend got stiffed out of $100 pay by her employer, and Mary chased him down the street with a horsewhip. And everyone hated him so much that they, like, cheered her on and bought her a new dress afterwards cause she’d destroyed it in the process. That was just the kind of person that she was. That story was so funny when you read it in, like, the old-timey language of the 1888 newspapers. So those two really stand out to me.
But every woman in the whole book–they were up against such extreme odds to do the things that they did because, you know, you couldn’t get a patent if you were a woman, because a patent is property and women couldn’t own property. So that’s gonna stop you from inventing things for a very long time. Black women often wouldn’t file patents, because if it got out that the invention was by a black woman, then white women wouldn’t buy it. So they would often file under a man’s name or their white employer’s name, so it’s hard to discover how many black women were really inventors. For the longest time, there was no education; there was no availability of these things to become scientists and explorers. It was so difficult. The fact that so many women still managed to do things even when up against seemingly insurmountable odds is really incredible.
Switching tacks a little bit, at Fan Expo, you will be interviewing the cast of Carmilla.
[pullquote][Carmilla] fills this space, this empty space in media, of women who love women that don’t have tragic endings.[/pullquote]Yeah, I’m so excited! I interviewed them on a panel last year, and I’m so excited to be back again with them this year. That show is so important, I think. To start off, it’s so funny and well acted and well written and just delightful to watch. But on top of that, it’s like it fills this space, this empty space in media, of women who love women that don’t have tragic endings. Like we’ve seen so much of that this year, between The 100 and Person of Interest. Queer women are not treated super well in the media right now, so to have a show like Carmilla, it’s just so unabashedly queer and to have these two characters that love each other so much despite the circumstances and the odds and they don’t drive off a car at a cliff at the end. They get to be together and happy, and it’s so cool and unusual. It’s just really important for girls to see media like that, and to be able to use this webspace to create that content is so important, that we have that opportunity. So I super love Carmilla for that.
For sure! I started watching about midway through the first season, episode 17. I saw a bunch of those GIFs and I was like, “Wait I’m sorry, there’s a story about queer girls who get to be like, flirty and romantic and not be like, dead right away?”
How did you discover the series initially?
Honestly, the same way you did, through GIFs and Tumblr. Cause like, the Tumblr community is so strong–Creampuffs are such a strong fandom that I was just seeing it all over social media and people talking about it, and I was like, “What is this?” And so, I was like, “Oh, I can watch it all on the internet for free?” So I watched the first episode and was like, “I know what I’m doing for the next eight hours of my life.” I just sat there and marathoned the entire first season. So that was–it was the social media presence. Cause people are excited to have that representation, you know? So I think that’s why you see it everywhere online.
Exactly, comparing it to like, the reaction to The 100 and Clexa, everyone was like, excited “oh my God,” and then to have that kind of ending–Carmilla and Laura are nice; it’s nice to have that alternative. It should be the rule instead of the exception.
Absolutely! So I’m really excited to chat with them about the third season of the show, which is premiering this fall. And to kind of find out what is next for the two of them.
This is a little bit spoiler-y, but what would you like to see play out in season 3?
The writers are so good at their jobs that I don’t want to be like, “I want x, y, and z to happen!” But for me, my favorite parts of the show–I love the plot and the crazy stuff that happens to them–but the character moments are my favorite part of the show. Like, the supporting cast who are so amazing and who I feel deserve all the love; they’re all just good distinct unique characters. I want so many of those little cute moments and glances that will end up being turned into photos and GIF sets. That’s like my bread and butter, those cute character moments. So I’m hoping for a lot of that.
I totally get you. The cute little things that you don’t notice when you’re watching the episode the first time.
Right, like, “You’re right, she does touch her shoulder there!”
So that’s one exciting thing happening for you at Fan Expo–and I’m hearing we might be seeing a preview of season 3?
Yeah, I think so! And I’ve got some signings as well. I know we should have some Wonder Women posters and Fangirl’s Guides, so I’ll be there all weekend.
What are you looking forward to at Fan Expo?
There’s so many good things happening! The Doctor Who stuff–the companions panel, like all the women from Doctor Who, I’m so stoked about that! These are so kickass–to see them all on a panel together is gonna be great.
Yeah, I’m sad Billie Piper couldn’t be here.
Yeah, I saw her at Calgary Expo, and she was so delightful, so I’m sad she couldn’t be here, too. But the rest of the gang is all coming, and I’m really excited Michelle Gomez is coming too!
Last question is rapid fire: What are some new geeky things that you’re into? First off, books?
This is such a hard question, cause I’m reading like a million! This is not the rapid fire answer that you want, but I’ll give it to you anyway: I’m on a female science-fiction kick right now, written by women and featuring female protagonists, and there are so many good ones. Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach, Lightless by C.A. Higgins–she’s like a real physicist that wrote this book about this ship’s engineer in space. Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman, space exploration. I just finished Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel, which was really good. Oh, and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, which was my favorite book of 2015, and the sequel A Closed and Common Orbit is coming out in October, so I’m rereading the first one right now, which is a great female-led story.
Any movies you’re into?
I just saw Star Trek: Beyond, and I waited the whole movie for them to screw up Jaylah, the new kick-butt female character, and they didn’t! She’s amazing! She’s nobody’s love interest. She’s never rescued. She’s like a fully realized character.
And TV show?
Honestly, I’m rewatching Parks and Recreation, because that show is so positive and happy and feminist and intersectional and good, in so many ways. So, whenever I’m feeling down, it makes me feel better.