My Unexpected Experience at Book Expo America: An Encounter with Booth Dudes

 

In a follow-up to the post last year about exploitation of the female body to sell products and grab attention at trade conventions (part of the Fake Geek Girl series), I have some exciting news from Book Expo America: The elusive Booth Dude (or Booth Bro) has been found, and in a rather unexpected way.

If you’ve been around the internet this last year or two you’d be hard-pressed to miss entirely the debates of women’s lib and women’s equality in American geek industries such as e-gaming, comics, sci-fi, and fan conventions. This covers both the creator side and the consumer side; the argument is that women are, in general, underrepresented in the creative and consumer side and overrepresented (and only represented) when it comes to sexual objectification. But as you may recall, within this conversation, there is also an ongoing debate about the use of “booth babes” to sell products — mainly, around the necessity of them.

That debate goes like this: Is your product weak and unattractive on its own, to the point that you have to have beautiful women (bodies) strut around to catch consumers’ attention in a way completely unrelated to the product itself? Does this demonstration create unrealistic expectations of women — both in overall societal expectation of their appearance as well as toward their expected behavior to the consumer who buys the product? Is this causing an uncomfortable environment for female employees who are not simply objects? Can the beauty and sexuality of the near-naked human form ever be appreciated on gender-neutral, power-neutral ground when it’s paired with selling a product? In short, is objectification ever really a good thing, and should the practice be banned as a cheap and degrading trick?

As you can imagine, then, booth babes were the last thing I expected to find at an industry convention to sell books from both well-known and start-up brands, in an industry with a workforce  populated predominantly by women. But that is exactly what I found at Book Expo America the last week of May in New York City — the elusive creature, the male Booth Dude.

The booth in question was alone in having eye-candy booth attendants in the entire four-day, 500+ booth convention. Who brought this to be? Ellora’s Cave, a small romance and erotica publisher with several top-ten and top-five e-book bestsellers on both Amazon and New York Times weekly sales lists.

The company is not a stereotypical one: it has almost two-dozen imprints and as many theme categories searchable on their website. Being an almost exclusively digital publisher, the company publishes everything from steam punk to LGBT to “traditional,” modern romance stories. But here’s the big, exciting thing: Ellora’s also markets stories specifically to men, and has male authors for both men and women’s titles. And, several of those male authors were the shirtless models manning Ellora’s booth as paid skin.

These are not your average Abercrombie models; they were champion bodybuilders, and one assured me he had the titles to prove it. (That particular man also owns and operates a sports bar — debunking the myth that models have no transferable skills.) The cool thing is that, however giggle-worthy, these men were comfortable showing skin and using it to reel in people to sell their product — and it was their own product, so once you were caught, they gave you the whole sales pitch and author talk rolled as well. (With a bit of eye candy for your trouble.)

There were female authors and editors about as well, but they were fully-clothed, calm, and sitting at the table while talking shop and signing autographs, while the peacocks strutted around. Everyone was smiling and happy, and each was working at his or her own comfort level. I can’t say for sure that it was equal, especially considering only one male body type was on display — that of the hyper-masculine (though it was the men’s choice to shape themselves like that). But it was fun, and everyone was comfortable and enjoying themselves — worker and customer alike. If nothing else, a definite symbiosis was in effect, rather than parasitism.

The rock-candy in attendance when I came by included Justin Whitfield, a co-author of a series of books from Ellora’s that draw from his real-life experiences in less-than-fully-clothed industries. Men writing romance for both men and women; women included in a creative industry and not forced to compromise their bodies; and respect all around — what do you think, reader: positive or negative? Either way, I’ve got to say that my mother much enjoyed Ellora’s nude-model-illustrated book list calendar, including a centerfold and Justin’s personally-autographed page.