Fan conventions have historically been characterized as safe, even utopian spaces in which differences are embraced. My work on the Twilight protests at San Diego Comic-Con 2009 (Scott 2011), the recent sexual harassment debacle at Readercon 23 (Colby et al. 2012), and comic book artist Tony Harris’s November 2012 Facebook screed against “COSPLAY-Chiks [sic]” who “DONT [sic] KNOW SHIT ABOUT COMICS” (Dickens 2012), all indicate that these utopian characterizations of comic book conventions belie how gendered subcultural tensions manifest in these spaces. Specifically, the hostility directed at the Batgirl of San Diego from fans and publishers alike suggests a sort of panopti(comic)con, in which fan expression is increasingly policed.
Suzanne Scott, Fangirls in refrigerators: The politics of (in)visibility in comic book culture
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I have been trying to write this post for three months. Today, I sat down and typed it all out at once, once and for all, so here goes.
I was angered – though not terribly surprised – to hear about the harassment of Genevieve Valentine by Rene Walling at Readercon this summer, and the decision of the Readercon Board – later reversed – to violate its own policies by only giving Walling a two year suspension, rather than banning him from the con for life. I was disgusted to hear that Walling had later volunteered “incognito” at WorldCon in Chicago. I wasn’t terribly surprised when, while I attended Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits in Minneapolis, I mentioned Walling and his harassment by name to a WorldCon attendee, who responded with total blankness – he hadn’t heard about Walling, and didn’t particularly seem to care. I didn’t need to hear that to suspect that he didn’t spend much time in the parts of fandom on the internet that I frequent, where Walling’s harassment was a popular topic over the summer.
Perhaps I libel that particular person undeservedly; perhaps not. More importantly, although I was angered that Walling’s harassment very nearly went almost unpunished while the safety of Valentine and all other Readercon attendees – and their right not to be harassed – was disregarded, I had another, very specific reason for being angry about the whole thing.
As some readers may know, I spent this summer working with Gail de Kosnik of the UC Berkeley Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies Department on an oral history and data project on fandom on the internet. The lead researchers, of whom I was one, interviewed 53 people about their participation in fandom on the internet, and one thread that I heard come up in a couple of the interviews I conducted was the potential – and, in many people’s case, the actual realization – of conventions as a transformative space. Most of us who do fandom primarily on the internet, as participants and I agreed, is because on the internet it’s possible to create communities and spaces where certain aspects of societal norms are transgressed, suspended, overturned, disregarded. And for many of us, that can be liberatory.
Although I firmly believe – and just this statement can be enough to weird some people out – that the internet is a real place, and what we do on the internet is not isolated from the rest of our “real lives” but an important part of them, since I have become more active in fandom and started attending conventions myself, I have come to realize that conventions can be just as transformative as the internet, if not more so. If the internet allows fans to find a place where they fit in, conventions can be a powerful counterpart to that, by temporarily making that digital place into an actual physical experience. Pants are optional on the internet; they generally aren’t at conventions, and experiencing something as transformative as internet fandom can be for yourself, in your own physical body, can be a wonderful – and sometimes overwhelming – experience.
Having experienced some of that for myself and having heard similar stories from participants, I was doubly angered at the decision of the Readercon Board, because their unwillingness to guarantee the safety of all Readercon attendees meant that for some people, that potential experience was firmly off the table. Readercon would be poorer for their lack of attendance, but so would they, and having never attended Readercon and having no intentions of doing so, ever, I was much more concerned for those people than for the con itself.
I was lucky enough to attend AdaCamp DC this summer, and I was struck by something several attendees said: that they’d almost never been in an all-female or majority-female space before in their professional lives. The majority of my offline fandom interactions are gender-equal or majority-female spaces, and it’s an experience I’ve come to cherish. WisCon and Sirens are two wonderful cons that I am happy to attend every year, both to see again the friends I’ve made there and to meet more awesome new people, and also to talk about books and media and fandom and all our other geeky interests. These experiences, these communities, have transformed and strengthened me, and everyone should feel safe enough to have that kind of experience at any con they are interested in attending.
I should make clear that the Readercon Board later reversed its decision and resigned en masse, and that the con com has shown every indication of sticking to its guns, policy-wise. I wish them well, but I also know that it’s well past time for more conventions to adopt harassment policies along the lines of those recommended by the Ada Initiative. You never know who isn’t showing up until they’re made welcome, and if SFF fandom as a whole is to live up to its egalitarian pretensions, its physical instantiations have a responsibility to take responsibility for making those pretensions reality, instead of empty, hypocritical rhetoric.