Alli Thresher, a video game designer at Harmonix, has a fantastic meditation up at XOJane on how booth babes change the dynamics at conventions. She argues that the presence of women who are hired purely to be attractive—even in cases where they’re knowledgeable about the products and franchises they’re selling—underrates women’s expertise and passion for gaming and sets up situations where women who are conventions for other purposes are at greater risk for sexual harassment because they’re assumed to be booth babes and therefore sexually available:
At last year’s PAX East I spoke to TWO women whose companies were using them as “booth babes” (literally advertising, “take photos with our booth babes”). One of them told me that she was actually the company’s office manager and she had been invited to the convention specifically to dress up and help the company subvert the policy.**
To PAX’s credit, they have been known to reprimand companies who do this sort of thing and have even, in some cases, escorted groups of babes and their product from the con. But still, how uncool to be asked, by your boss, to wear a tube top and miniskirt and pose for pictures with strangers? (The booth in question was run by a community outlet and not a development studio). I certainly don’t blame the women hired to work as booth babes for the bad behavior of a few select assholes I’ve encountered.*** I do, however, blame the culture and attitudes that promote their use.
As Lesley pointed out in her GDC diaries, when the bulk of the women one sees in a male dominated space are there as nothing more than human props or marketing tools, it’s easy to make the leap that all women staffing booths are there for the same purpose. For women like me, who are present to discuss the games we’ve worked on, this provides several challenges and also makes the convention floor an unwelcome space for us.
Thresher also makes what I think is a critically important point, and one that I’ve reiterated in other contexts: that treating men as if they’re dumb creatures who can’t process anything besides boobs and couldn’t possibly enjoy talking to an actual woman is awfully condescending. Thresher writes that for a number of male commentators, interactions with women who are presented to them strictly for visual consumption have been disappointing because they’re at conventions to talk about games and gaming. Seeing awesome cosplayers, or getting your picture taken with an attractive woman, may be part of the convention experience. But it’s a promotional device that doesn’t actually get to the core of why people come to conventions, which is to get more information about products that they love and to have conversations with other people who are as invested as they are in those products and experiences. The lowest common denominator, whether you’re setting up a stall at a convention, or marketing a movie like John Carter as if its core demographic still thinks girls have cooties, is not always actually the most profitable and engaged one.