Shannon Miller: Co-Host of Nerds of Prey Podcast, Women of Color in Comics & Nerd Culture, and Oscars So White
"The most important thing for me is that my daughter has the opportunity to see other Black girls and women flourish in this atmosphere. It's also vital that she understand that the Black Girl identity doesn't exist as a monolith. All girls of color should have that."
This week, I got to interview the brilliant, Shannon Miller, about her upcoming podcast, Nerds of Prey, hosted by four Black women (Shannon, Lauren, CG, and Mel). Also, I asked her about women of color in nerd culture and comic books, and #OscarsSoWhite. In addition to her podcast, Shannon has a great blog about the representation of women on television.
What inspired you to create the Nerds of Prey podcast?
I wanted to listen to a podcast that featured Black women talking about comics the way my girlfriends and I talk about comics. We discuss everything, from "Wow, it's really great to see so many women of color at the forefront of this action story" to "I really identified with Alana's struggle with her identity as a new mother in Saga" to "How hot would it be if John David Washington got to play Baal in a Wicked + Divine movie?" I can always count on having a layered discussion with my girls, and I thought it was important for others to hear nerdy women of color have these conversations that are as well-rounded and complex as we are...conversations that have been happening in other spaces for ages, long before I started picking up comic books. When I couldn't quite find the show I was looking for (after much searching and a plea for recommendations) I decided to reach out to a few of my friends and create one. With their input the model for the show has since expanded to include gaming, television, movies, and everything under to the great nerd umbrella. I'm so excited to for us to premiere in February!
Can you briefly talk about the importance of having women of color voices in nerd culture?
I grew up with very narrow definitions of "Black Girl/Woman" and "Nerd" and a lot of that had to do with the lack of exposure to WOC voices within the nerd space. That's not to say that they didn't exist, but they just weren't amplified in the way that white men were. I think having that exposure would have saved me a lot of confusion and encouraged me to live a far more authentic life from a younger age, which would have allowed me to take better care of myself. There are plenty of reasons why the voices of women of color belong in nerd culture (including the fact that we are a valuable source of revenue for a lot of these nerdy ventures), but the most important thing for me is that my daughter has the opportunity to see other Black girls and women flourish in this atmosphere. It's also vital that she understand that the Black Girl identity doesn't exist as a monolith. All girls of color should have that.
Who are you hoping to have on as guests (if you're willing to say)?
EVERYONE. Hahaha! There are so many inspirational women that I follow on Twitter that I'd love to have on as guest nerds, from podcasters/bloggers to independent creators (I'd love to name them, but I also don't want to put them on the spot). I would also love to have Danai Gurira, Christian Serratos, and Sonequa Martin-Green to talk all things Walking Dead. Lexi Alexander, Aisha Tyler, Fiona Staples, and Kelly Sue Decconick are all dream guests of mine. Finally, for the record, I wouldn't turn away Steven Yeun or Idris Elba if they ever felt compelled to join us for an episode or five. I would strive to keep my fanwomaning at a respectable level.
I'm just curious, how do you define "nerd"?
The nerd identity is one that has definitely evolved over the years for me. I used to associate the word "nerd" with a community that was very white, male, and exclusive. It had a very pejorative connotation to me. Now I consider it to be the identity of anyone who is unabashedly passionate about something, whether it be comics, art, games, theater, television, dance, design...it's such an expandable and inclusive identity, even if there are still subcommunities that are ridiculously closed off to diverse voices.
"Mainly, it's time to see more women of color being given the chance to pen these stories and get the support they deserve in the mainstream scene (if that's what they want) as well as the independent scene."
I know you nerd out over comic books. Could you please speak briefly about the evolution of the representation of women of color in comic books?
The main issue that kept me from really digging into comics at an earlier age was that the industry, on a mainstream level, largely catered to straight, white men. In many ways it STILL does. The difference now, however, is that there are more studios than just Marvel and DC, and those studios are far more ready to center women of color in their stories. Now, studios like Image (home of The Walking Dead) are proving that they are mainstream contenders. I think seeing the emphatic response to their competition, as well as hearing the demands for more diversity via various social media platforms, has pushed creators to not only put out more content featuring women of color, but to publish more stories and art by women creators. It's getting incrementally better, but there's still a lot of ground to cover. Mainly, it's time to see more women of color being given the chance to pen these stories and get the support they deserve in the mainstream scene (if that's what they want) as well as the independent scene. The same can be said for gaming, I'm sure, but my cohost Lauren could expound on that far better than I could.
Do you remember how old you were when you discovered your first comic book and what it was?
The first comic book I ever read was an Archie Digestthat I begged my mother to buy for me in the grocery checkout line when I was 9. I couldn't understand why we were following the life of a fairly ordinary guy who couldn't settle on a girlfriend, but I really liked Veronica. She was self-assured, confident, and unafraid to clearly state what she wanted in life, no matter how shallow the circumstances. She was rude, narcissistic, and sheltered, but she was an interesting woman who was wonderfully flawed and had a kind heart. Also, her fashion was on point. I still read Archie.
What are your favorite comic books by or about women of color?
I mentioned Saga and The Wicked + the Divine earlier because those are the two comics that I devour the quickest. The women of color in both publications are allowed range, which is really important. They're never just badasses; they're also vulnerable and scared and angry and sexy and kaleidoscope of other things. We don't get to see that type of complexity often enough, especially in comics. Another story I really love is Fight Like a Girl by David Pinckney. It was a short run from Action Lab comics about a girl named Amarosa who pleads to the Gods for the opportunity to literally fight for the life of her terminally ill brother. I love her because she isn't a superhero with otherworldly strength or inconceivable power; she's just a clever, brave Black girl with natural hair, a cute sense of nerdy style, and strong will. Some other favorites include Lumberjanes, Jem and the Halograms, and Ms. Marvel.
I know you as a big TV and film nerd too. With the #OscarsSoWhite again this year, how important is it that POC are nominated even if the Academy is an institution that feminists might want to dismantle?
The major misconception about our desire to be represented in the Oscars is that we are aiming for "White Approval." The reality is that the Oscars, like with every other award show, is a cog in a much larger machine that determines who we get to see in our entertainment more frequently. When you pair the Oscars with various media outlets (Hollywood Reporter, for example), magazine covers, social media trends, etc., you get an idea of who is going to have an easier time finding work in the coming year(s). Talent also plays a part in this, obviously, but there are so many exceedingly gifted performers who just aren't given the chance because the execs would rather see the women or men who are guaranteed to garner attention come award season.Why take the "risk" on the women of color when you know that Jennifer or Cate can grab a nomination with much more ease? Sure, those women work hard and act their butts off, but there's a level of very clear privilege that contributes to their success while performers of color can't even get in the room to audition.
Also, you can peruse a short list of the major Oscar nominees throughout the last decade and come to the conclusion that the Academy, as it stands now, only considers a handful of stories worth telling, and that is utter bullshit. This idea that the only interesting tales exist in period dramas, outer space, and their narrow idea of the lives of the marginalized has kept them from recognizing some outstanding work. They reserve their kudos for the things that they can readily identify. How fundamentally narcissistic is that?
What do you think of Jada Pinkett Smith's comments about #OscarsSoWhite? Do you agree/disagree with her?
Well, I definitely agree that we as people of color are powerful. We have the ability to sway public opinion/support, build powerful platforms, and affect change. #OscarsSoWhite is a major example of that. April Reign created the hashtag a year ago to facilitate this very discussion and it's finally getting the national attention it deserves. Her voice did that. That's incredible.
What I don't agree with is much of Jada's framing, especially when it comes to creating our own content. The problem with the "create our own" argument is that we've BEEN creating. Look at Ava DuVernay's ARRAY, a literal collective of creators of color! There is no shortage of material, resources, and quality and to frame it as if this is a new revelation is a bit out of touch and kind of condescending. I say that with love because I have wholeheartedly supported her and her family for as long as I remember.
Also, I'm not seeing anyone "begging or asking" for approval. The discussion and resulting call to action is about shedding light on the Academy's willful discrimination, especially since we KNOW that this award holds some weight in the industry. This idea that acknowledging disrespect is somehow "undignified" - that being upset is somehow beneath us - is especially bogus. We're nuanced as fuck. We can express our dissatisfaction with our treatment and remain powerful.
Which performances, writers, and directors would you have liked to see nominated for the Oscars this year?
Everyone involved in Creed, from cast to crew, was catastrophically robbed. And how phenomenal would it have been to see Mya Taylor (Tangerine) rightfully nominated? Her performance was stunning. And I would have loved to see a movie like Magic Mike XXL, something that wouldn't "traditionally" (God, I hate that word) be considered by the Academy and accomplished some fairly important feminist feats, get a nomination or two. Jada Pinkett-Smith was an absolute gem and a nomination from the Academy would have been entirely justified. If 50 Shades of Grey can land a nomination, why not Magic Mike?
Finally, what are your favorite current TV shows or films featuring women of color?
Every woman and girl in Black-ish is incredible. This season is so deeply funny that I hope they start coming into the recognition that they deserve really soon. The Mindy Project, Jane the Virgin, Fresh Off the Boat, and Empire continue to be favorites. Bessie was unbelievable! And while it's not that recent, Beyond the Lights is still a movie that I hold very dear to my heart.