ON THE FLY: For Girls in Capes founder Feliza Casano, talking superheroes, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones equals Saturday-night fun//Photo by Tessa Marie Images
Sitting in a Bryn Mawr bookstore talking science fiction isn’t everyone’s idea of Saturday-night fun. But just about every month, the women of Girls in Capes trek to Main Point Books to do just that. The club’s members are self-proclaimed “geek girls,” female fans of sci-fi, fantasy, comics, steam-punk, anime and other speculative fiction. Truth be told, Girls in Capes could give The Big Bang Theory guys a run for their money.
Geekdom isn’t as marginalized as it once was. In fact, it’s gone mainstream. The Avengers, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have millions of fans. Girls in Capes members are also fans of alternative authors like Catherynne Valente, Gail Carriger, Diana Wynne Jones, and Patricia C. Wrede, who write for niche audiences of geek girls. They craft strong female characters who—though flawed—won’t succumb to their worlds’ sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, or any other kind of hate-fueled stereotype. These books depict characters who fight to make the world the way it ought to be.
The women of Girls in Capes are mostly millennial and definitely femme forward. They’re longtime librophiles from all over our western suburbs. They were brought together by Feliza Casano. By day, she’s a project manager at Focus Forward, a transcription service in Wayne. By night, she leads the organization she founded in 2013 during her graduate studies at Rosemont College.
Girls in Capes encompasses both the book club and a website. With its roster of editorial contributors, the site posts original content about three times a week—quirky, intellectual, well-reasoned stuff like “Not Like Other Girls: Toxic Archetypes of Young Adult Literature” and “Star-Cross’d Lovers: Romantic Relationships in Sci-Fi & Fantasy.”
Casano also helms the Philadelphia chapter of the international organization Geek Girl Brunch, so she’s the undeniable captain of her geek-girl squad. “We’re the Harry Potter generation,” she says. “Talking about superheroes, magic and other realms is part of our reality.”
There’s no magic to make adolescence easier—and that’s when many of the Girls in Capes formed their proclivities.
“When I was growing up—way back in the ’80s—the word ‘geek’ was pejorative and referred only to boys.”
So says Gillian Neff, a blue-haired Bryn Mawr-based Girls in Capes member. Neff read The Lord of the Rings when she was 10, and although she loved the series, it was tough for her to identify with Frodo’s all-male posse.
Luckily, Neff had Wonder Woman, a character she still adores. That may seem like an unlikely feminist favorite—skimpy outfit, magic jewelry, questionable taste in men. But Neff sees her as a sort of Amazonian guardian. “Wonder Woman is all about justice,” says Neff. “She fights only when she has to—and when she does, she kicks ass. To me, she’s a wonderful symbol of empowerment in a world built for men.”
That sorority is growing. From Hermione Granger and Michonne to Daenerys Targaryen and the bad-ass broads in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a growing number of females in fiction are strong, smart, and not limited by gender. “We’ve come a long way from the stereotypical helplessness of women,” says Girls in Capes member Lillie Hill of Wynnewood. “Literature has changed as society has changed, for the better and the worse.”
As for the latter, there’s no shortage of evil in the real world. “What’s appealing about sci-fi and fantasy is that they shed light on the very real problems people face,” says Hill.
Problems range from bullying to terrorism. “Even things like addiction and LGBT themes are in sci-fi and fantasy,” Hill says. “And it’s great to read about people who are dealing with issues that you and your friends experience.”
Casano struggles with her biracial identity. “Most people think that I’m Latina and even speak to me in Spanish,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain that I’m half Philippine and half Caucasian.”
To be half of anything was not the norm in Toledo, Ohio, where Casano was raised. “It’s literally the middle of nowhere,” she says. “People would openly stare at my parents because they were not the same race.”
That sense of being “other” extended to her predilection for reading. Casano could read by the time she was 3 years old. Her earliest experience with fiction came in sixth grade. The book: Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small.
“It was different from any other fantasy story I’d read because it’s about a girl trying to become a knight as a girl, instead of pretending to be a boy,” she says. “People were really rude to her because she was trying to do something that boys did. It got into the difference between how boys and girls are treated—and that resonated with me.”
Hill was also an early reader. By fourth grade, she was diving into the Shakespeare and other classics that lined her parents’ bookshelves. When she was old enough to go online, she found websites like Goodreads and Amazon, taking advantage of their purchase-based recommendations. It helped her discover books with sci-fi and fantasy themes, an interest she’d developed by watching the Star Trek TV series with her stepmother.
Hill’s interests made her easy prey for the girls in junior high school. “It was bad enough being a girl who liked to read,” she says. “But being a black girl and geek meant I was always being bullied.”
That’s why groups like Girls in Capes are thriving. They provide a haven for women who don’t fit the societal norms they have no interest in anyway. Their members are like superheroes, as many are ostracized for simply being different.
Casano spread this message of acceptance when she returned to Toledo to speak at “Women Unbound,” a reading series featuring female writers. There, she talked about the importance of female superheroes in the development of young girls. “Afterward, this girl who was 11 or 12 came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for talking. You convinced me to follow my dream to be a writer.’ That was enough to make me cry right there,” says Casano. “The girl’s dad said, ‘It’s important for me to show my daughter that there are women who like things she likes—that they do what they want and are successful at it. I tell her that as much as I can, but she needs female role models.’”
By the time the father finished, Casano was in tears. “It’s why I do what I do—to make kids, especially girls, feel that they can do what they want, and that it’s OK to be different,” she says. “Deep down inside, everyone is different, even if they are pretending to be normal. There’s a geek inside all of us.”