Jill Pantozzi is a rare bird.
That’s not because her social media handle is The Nerdy Bird, but because in a world where geek culture — comics, graphic novels, superheroes, science fiction, video games — has merged with pop culture, she analyzes it through the lens of a woman with a disability, but also gets to play an integral part in deciding whose voices get heard in that cultural conversation.
At a time when many people with disabilities still struggle to find employment, this 37-year-old mobility scooter user with spinal muscular atrophy has built a lengthy career as a reporter covering geek media and now serves as deputy editor of io9, one of the web’s preeminent geek media sites with over 44 million site visits per month.
A common refrain from the disability community is that we won’t see ourselves represented until more of us are working behind the scenes. Well, Pantozzi does work behind the scenes, and in addition to articulately dissecting key issues and themes affecting our community, she makes sure that more women, people of color and people with disabilities have their voices and perspectives included in the discourse.
This is important because as geek culture becomes more mainstream, with brands like Marvel, DC, Star Wars and Star Trek dominating on movie and TV screens, it is also becoming more diverse and more inclusive — think Black Panther, Star Wars and Star Trek: Discovery. These changes have inspired a backlash. A vocal minority fights vigorously behind their monitors to keep geek culture the way they remember it: white, male, sexist and insular.
From 2013 to 2016, a right-wing, anti-diversity voting bloc called Sad Puppies operated a failed attempt to suppress critically-acclaimed work by progressive or politically-leftist female or minority authors being nominated for The Hugo Awards — the most prestigious awards for excellence in science fiction and fantasy — in favor of less literary but more popular works by predominately white men, including the authors behind the campaign itself.
In 2014, Gamergate, a coordinated harassment campaign targeting progressive women in the video game industry, made national headlines for the extreme actions — death and rape threats, hacking, doxing (making target’s personal info available online) — taken by many of its anonymous antagonists.
Spinning out of Gamergate came Comicsgate, a smaller but just as harmful alt-right harassment campaign targeting female and minority creators in the comic industry who campaign proponents said were responsible for what they perceived as forced diversity in superhero comics. Campaign advocates argued that this alienated “traditional” readers and led to flagging sales across the board.
“The conversation in fandom has shifted from having to say, ‘Women play video games, women read comic books and you really need to start paying attention to this audience,’ to conversations about small but highly vocal groups who want to stop women from playing games, stop women from reading comic books and stop video game companies and comic book companies from making decisions based on the existence of those audiences, which necessarily acknowledges that those audiences exist,” says Susana Polo, co-founder of The Mary Sue, a geek entertainment news site focused on female fans.
As a fan and geek entertainment journalist, Pantozzi has both shaped and been shaped by the evolution of this conversation. As a bisexual woman with a disability who herself has caught shrapnel from these alt-right campaigns, she continues to fight on the progressive side of fandom’s culture war.
Has Boobs, Reads Comics
Pantozzi’s first forays into fandom began in childhood. She grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, with three older brothers playing Nintendo and watching Star Trek. She always gravitated toward science fiction and fantasy, even if she didn’t make a big deal of it.
“I didn’t really share those things with my friends growing up because no one else talked about them,” she says. “I guess I thought it was weird for a while and it wasn’t until about the sixth grade when a friend said something about Star Trek and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you like Star Trek too?’”
In high school she branched out to superhero cartoons, but it wasn’t until her 20s that she picked up a comic book. She’d feared crossing the line into a whole other level of geek, but when a boyfriend introduced her to three years of DC Comics continuity, she was hooked.
“I think it was the escapism,” she says. “Always wishing for superpowers of some sort. I guess that was part of my diagnosis and just wishing that something magical would come along … and maybe one day I would wake up and I could fly.”
Strong female characters were also harder to find, which is why she gravitated so strongly toward Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the original Supergirl, Helen Slater. As much as she loved superhero comics, every once in a while she noticed things that left a bad taste in her mouth, like how female characters were drawn differently than male characters.
“The women are there as sexual fantasies for straight men, and the men are there as power fantasies for straight men and that was something not everybody was critiquing at that point,” says Pantozzi.
Another difficulty Pantozzi had was finding anyone like her who was into geek stuff. “Back then, a lot of people didn’t believe girls liked this sort of thing,” she says. Not only that, but some of the fanboys she encountered online would engage in a practice female fans call “checking geek-cred,” where they would test her credibility as a fan every time she declared her love for superheroes and science fiction.
“When women would show even the vaguest interest in something, they’d want them to prove that they’re already a superfan and know everything about everything,” she says. “I always hated the ‘fake geek girl’ assumption that people threw out there.”
So, in 2008, after a brief stint as a radio DJ and with her journalism degree in hand, Pantozzi registered thenerdybird.com — named after her Twitter handle — and started a blog titled Has Boobs, Reads Comics as a pithy clapback to those who thought female fans didn’t exist.
The blog quickly gained over 10,000 followers and provided a place where geek girls finally felt safe to talk about their fandom. “The name was probably something that got me more attention because I was so rare at the time,” she says. “It’s not that women didn’t like geek stuff — they have throughout history — but not as many were comfortable talking about it yet. I’ve definitely had women over the years tell me, ‘Thank you for writing the way you did because you also inspired me to write about these sorts of things.’ I’m so glad I did, because I found all these other people just like me.”
Well, not exactly like her — at least, not at first. For as much as female fans began to come out of the closet, disability was still largely ignored in geek culture.
It wasn’t long before Pantozzi’s blog got her the attention of the online fan press, and she began freelancing full-time for leading online geek entertainment news outlets like Comic Book Resources, Newsarama and IGN. Just as Twitter had helped build her following, it eventually helped get her a job.
It was through Twitter that she found out about an internship with The Mary Sue. Named for the putdown of female characters thought to be too perfect given their training or experience — think Rey from the last few Star Wars films — The Mary Sue is the premier site for female geekdom. Pantozzi eventually became a staff writer on the site before rising to editor-in-chief.
“Jill really has this very savvy way of being her own self-promoter online, and I mean that in an extremely positive way. She had a following and she had an established voice I really liked,” says co-founder Susana Polo. “Jill and I worked together for years, and for much of that time it was clear to me that she absolutely had the chops to run The Mary Sue. When I was forced to step away from the site, Jill was my clear successor — and I knew it was in good hands.”
“It was the perfect storm for me because these were people who not only had the same likes as me, they were also looking to talk about these creations that I love so much on a deeper level. Not just X was cast in Y movie, but what that meant for other people, specifically from a feminist lens,” says Pantozzi.
But as much as she got to tackle issues in fandom from a female perspective, her perspective as a person with a disability was initially absent. Sure, it would come up at comic conventions from time to time when she had to do a panel and there wasn’t a ramp, or when Comic Book Resources wanted to do interviews on a yacht but hadn’t given any thought to how she would get on the boat — but for the most part, her readers didn’t know she had a disability unless they noticed her occasional appeals for donations to The Muscular Dystrophy Association.
“It’s interesting because I didn’t think about seeing myself represented as a person with a disability for a long time because I guess I never thought it would happen,” says Pantozzi.
The first time she actually did see a wheelchair-using superhero was Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, in her Oracle persona on the 2002 live-action TV series The Birds of Prey. On the show, Gordon — a paraplegic after being shot by the Joker — teamed up with other female crimefighters to use her skills as an expert hacker and technology wizard with a photographic memory. Plus, she was a redhead, just like Pantozzi.
“Her skills weren’t a superpower; they were just who she was. There were a lot of things I saw later in the comics showing her everyday life, like using a shower chair, and not treating it like some bizarre thing, just part of life,” she says.
In 2011, DC decided to revert the character back to her nondisabled Batgirl persona. [See below, “What happened to Batgirl?”] Pantozzi was devastated. “I remember being at a convention just a year before when someone asked DC Co-Publisher Dan Didio whether Barbara Gordon would ever be Batgirl again and he gave a quick answer, ‘No,’ and moved on to the next thing. It was like, ‘Oh OK, he understands that Oracle is an important character for comics as a whole.’ Then, someone at DC actually called me to give me the heads-up that the change was going to happen because they knew I’d have a strong reaction to it.”
Did she ever.
In a subsequent op-ed for Newsarama she wrote: “People being disabled is part of the real world, [so] it is essential it be part of the fictional world as well. Especially if DC is dedicated to a diverse universe. And I don’t mean, ‘You have to keep Oracle around because I’M in a wheelchair,’ I mean for everyone. Are there people of every race, religion and sex in the world? Yes, so let your comics reflect that, as well as many other diverse subsets there are out there.”
A Rising Tide and All That
If Pantozzi’s readers didn’t know she was a person with a disability before, they certainly did after the Oracle fallout. But her coming out of the closet as a disabled person didn’t exactly see her write more about disability. Instead, she uses her editorial power to raise the voices of other fans with disabilities, even as that same vocal minority tries to silence them.
For example, when Pantozzi hired Ace Ratcliff, a geek culture journalist and wheelchair user with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, to write an article about inaccessibility in science fiction, a segment of commenters loudly objected:
“Disability is a problem that should be solved. … It’s not ‘ableist opinion’ to prefer having body parts that function and to cure those that don’t,” read one comment.
“Seriously, what a dumb article. They have conquered gravity and space time but you think there would still be wheelchairs? Also, if you would for some reason not want robo-legs or have them regrown in a protein bath, YOU WOULD HAVE A HOVER CHAIR! io9 sucks now,” wrote someone calling themselves Cybertrump.
Pantozzi wasn’t afraid to put herself in the line of fire by jumping into the fray. When someone insisted that the Millennium Falcon is ADA compliant by posting a photo of its loading ramp, she calmly retorted, “There’s actually a specific slope and rise for ramps in order to be ADA compliant. The Falcon’s is way too steep/short.”
“That’s why I said Star Wars ADA. It’s a different set of regulations!” was the reply.
Pantozzi says others with disabilities within geekdom continually reach out to thank her for being so outspoken and letting these issues be heard in a more visible forum than they would have otherwise. One of these is Jay Justice, a mobility scooter-using cosplayer and queer woman of color hired by comic publishers to edit for minority experience authenticity.
“I really feel you cannot truly witness inequalities unless you are inside the sphere of influence, unless you’ve really seen from the perspective of someone who has dealt with being disregarded because of a disability, and because Jill’s seen that and experienced it, she knows how important and how vital it is to lift people up who have never gotten a chance to be heard before. She makes a huge effort to do so, and we all really, really appreciate it,” says Justice, who values the light Pantozzi shines on her own projects and point of view. “We know how many eyes are on her Twitter [almost 33,000 followers as of this article], so when she retweets something, you can absolutely see the metrics go up. It’s amazing!”
If Pantozzi needs more evidence that her work spurs change, she need look no further than The Sony Pictures hack of 2014, where private e-mails between Sony Executives were made public. The emails revealed how an article by Pantozzi pushed Sony to expedite plans for a potential Spider Woman movie.
Former Sony Pictures Senior Vice President Rachel O’Connor sent former Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal a link to Pantozzi’s The Mary Sue article detailing the 2014 announcement of the female Thor. In response, Pascal instructs O’Connor to tell Lisa Joy Nolan, a prominent show creator best known for Westworld, “to hurry.” A month later it would be leaked to the trades that Nolan was scripting a female-centric superhero movie featuring Spider Woman and others.
For her part, Polo doesn’t want to overstate The Mary Sue’s effect on general discourse and the increased diversity we are now seeing in geek media. But to whatever degree the site made diversity more of a requirement for fans of geek culture to buy in, she agrees Pantozzi certainly helped.
“I think we were definitely a part of it, but I also think the culture was ripe for change to start occurring, for female fans to become more visible at conventions and for minorities to have more of a voice. This is what the internet does, it unites what may have been previously isolated pockets of people so they can connect to each other, realize they’re not alone and realize they have a larger voice and something to speak to,” says Polo.
Pantozzi doesn’t get to write articles where fandom and disability intersect all that often. Fans with disabilities still see her as a role model just for being so outspoken on Twitter or participating on panels at comic conventions, but she acknowledges that sometimes her identity as a person with a disability takes a backseat to her identity as a bisexual woman in her writing.
“I think my disability is so much a part of me that I almost forget about it sometimes because it affects every moment of my life. It’s one of those things that’s in the back of my mind. I forget, too, about the disability lens, which is terrible and it’s something each of us needs to work on every day to keep those things in mind, because if we don’t, who else is going to?” she says.
But other fans with disabilities say she shouldn’t be so hard on herself. Ratcliff is one of them.
“Everybody has a right to not necessarily be out about their disability, especially because there’s so much discrimination and ableism in society,” says Ratcliff. “For Jill to have a public persona that wasn’t necessarily all about her disability made her easier to connect to, and then for her to come out and say, ‘Disability is part of my existence,’ it really allows nondisabled people to challenge some of their preconceived notions around disability and how they feel about it.”
For Pantozzi, being able to give others a platform to talk about disability issues in her capacity as an editor is so much more important than taking it on herself because she knows there are lived experiences she couldn’t begin to cover herself and that much more lasting progress can be made from her fortunate position.
Kristen Lopez, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, agrees. When Pantozzi hired the wheelchair-using Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic to review the live-action Lion King for io9, Lopez says she got paid more and was taken more seriously than in any other job she’s had. “Seeing Jill on the frontlines and being backed by her belief that disabled voices are important just furthers the conversation that will hopefully give us more room at the table,” says Lopez.
Ratcliff says she feels more secure writing for io9 than she does writing for any other site, knowing Pantozzi is at the helm. “Even though my direct editors are not disabled, they still approach the work in a way that is very clearly informed by a higher level that does have that knowledge, that does have that support and is looking to try and uplift disabled voices. Even though we’re one step removed from each other, I still feel Jill’s presence,” says Ratcliff.
Backlash Comes as Hope Reigns
Positive change has come to geek culture. Women lead top science fiction and superhero franchises, movies centered on black superheroes break box office records and receive critical acclaim, and even new characters with disabilities have come to the forefront following the loss of Oracle. Not only did the popularity of Netflix’s Daredevil, which follows a blind superhero, pressure the streaming service into including audio description on all its content, but one of its animated shows, The Dragon Prince, features a deaf woman of color using accurate American Sign Language.
But for every step forward, the backlash is swift. As much as the internet can bring people together, it can also tear them apart. Ruby Rose left Twitter in 2018 amid accusations that the lesbian actress wasn’t gay enough to play Batwoman, a gay character, and Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays Rose Tico in Star Wars, left Instagram because of racist harassment and threats from alt-right fans of the franchise.
For every argument toward advancing diversity and inclusion in fandom, there’s someone there to tamp you down, check your knowledge or tell you why you’re being unreasonable. No one knows that better than Pantozzi herself. When Gamergate was at its height, she was a target simply because she ran editorial at a feminist website.
“After Gamergate, there’s nothing that can be thrown at me that I won’t roll with because I’ve seen the depths of internet hell. It was something that, looking back, I almost can’t believe was real. It started from a place that was very disingenuous in that people used it to claim they were working for some injustice or ethics in journalism. But when you saw the comments and tweets day-to-day, it was very clear that Gamergate was a campaign to silence women who were vocal,” she says.
Though her personal details were never exposed online and she didn’t have to rearrange her entire life just to get away from the harassment like other targets, Pantozzi still deeply felt the effects of Gamergate.
“It takes a mental toll seeing such negativity day in and day out. I remember one day taking an hour just to block people on our Twitter account and not believing that others would pop up left and right, how organized it was and how methodical it was,” she says. “It was extremely tough, and I’ve probably blocked out just how bad it was simply so I could move on with my life. I’m lucky I got out of it as unscathed as I did.”
Though Gamergate itself has died down, the vitriolic assault on progressive change in geek culture remains. “This sentiment has only rooted deeper in broader culture since the end of 2016,” says Polo. “A lot of the playbooks that were written during Gamergate are now being used on a much, much broader scale. We’re in a very interesting place now that we realize Gamergate was a prelude to something that was happening in the general political discourse and now, three years later, we’re still wrestling with a lot of it.”
So, what do we do now? If you are Jill Pantozzi, you keep being vocal, you keep doing the work, you keep raising awareness, you keep fighting for change and you don’t stop until you see yourself represented in all media as a matter of course, while having the same confidence and privileges that a cisgender, nondisabled and straight white man enjoys.
“There’s a lot more work to be done, and that’s why I will not stop vocalizing where I can,” she says. “I now run io9 and have a platform with a bunch of writers that are really great at expressing these issues well. I will continue to give them a platform and make sure the vocal minority doesn’t take over the conversation to try and say that things are equal when they clearly are not. At the end of the day, we just need to keep going.”
What Happened to Oracle?
The change was part of 2011’s “New 52 initiative,” where DC planned 52 number one issues rebooting every classic DC character — Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc. — to an earlier stage in their careers. DC tasked Gail Simone, who had written many issues of Birds of Prey from 2003-2011 and was known for flagging issues of inequality and representation in comics, with the makeover. Here’s what happened in her words.
“[DC] had asked me several times if I would put Barbara back in the batsuit, essentially ‘curing’ her paralysis. I always said no, it was a terrible idea, for the very reasons you’d expect … I reluctantly agreed to write it, under the caveat that she would continue to be an inspirational character, in this case, a trauma survivor. Unfortunately, after the issues were turned in, they pulled back on the whole ‘reboot’ idea for half the characters. This made it look like Barbara was targeted specifically (among others) to be restarted from the beginning, rather than part of a line-wide plan to start the entire DC story over, and this gets repeated a lot, particularly by non-readers. Dozens of characters got started over, including Barbara.
“It was always my thinking that Barbara would retrace her story, starting as Batgirl, to become Oracle. It still stings. I doubt it was planned — I think it was sort of made up as they went along.”
Simone never got to complete her plan to take Batgirl back to Oracle — she was famously fired from the book and then rehired two days later, before quitting in frustration — and she’s not sure we’ll ever see Barbara as Oracle again all these years later, which she knows is hard for everyone.
“I felt I could at least try to present the story in a way that wasn’t simple erasure,” she says. “I don’t think I succeeded, and those editors are thankfully long gone from the company. I think they would have a more thoughtful approach now; I think everyone gets it a little better. I certainly hope I do, anyway,” she says.
“I miss Oracle tremendously and there’s a gap both in character and representation because of it. I’ve created a lot of other characters with disabilities, but they’re not Oracle, who was always something special.”