I must have missed the memo about March being the month for cons to stick their feet in it, but we’ve had no less than three cons making highly questionable marketing choices and in at least two cases, responding in less than ideal manners. It’s especially disappointing that the latest gaffe is on the part of my favorite con, the Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo (C2E2), which takes place at the end of April.
A few weeks ago, Fan Expo Canada thought it would be a brilliant idea to run a promotion encouraging attendees to “escape the deep freeze this weekend – cuddle a cosplayer.”
“An organization which has been putting on conventions for twenty years couldn’t possibly be this oblivious to the implications in their statement, could they? Especially not after the last year or so in which harassment at fan conventions has become a growing public issue in the community.”
When attendees of the convention emailed the organizers to express concerns, the reply they received was cringe-inducing:
“We thought about clarifying that cuddles must come with consent, but we thought if we’re always putting the rules in front of the fun – well that hurts the spirit of Fan Expo as much as the people that try to abuse our rules.”
The con’s response to criticism, particularly Pantozzi’s above linked The Mary Sue article, was for Fan Expo communications director Shelley Mantei to plead being too busy to properly respond to attendee concerns and claim Pantozzi’s article contained “false statements,” “inflammatory journalism” and that it could “hinder a company from working with the community.”
Pantozzi’s article was updated several times and a follow-up article, co-written with The Mary Sue weekend contributor Sam Maggs and Geekosystems Associate Editor Victoria McNally further elaborates on the issue, noting a slightly more positive interaction with Mantei, but still no acknowledgement of how problematic the con’s initial response to criticism was, much less acknowledgement that the promotion itself was a poor decision in the first place.
Swiftly on the heels of FEC’s stumble was Capital City Comic Con in Austin’s decision to promote their convention by slapping the tagline, “Everything is BIGGER in Austin” on a close-up shot of Power Girl’s chest.
DC Women Kicking Ass put it succinctly:
Given the progressiveness of Austin combined with women growing as a demographic in comics, one would think that someone would think twice before spending money to put this stupid idea to paper. But they didn’t.
As with FEC, the response to criticism of the flyer was arguably more frustrating than the initial gaffe. When an attendee posted about the promo to the event’s Facebook page, the response by the official con Facebook account pulled out the “If you were a REAL con attendee, you’d know this is how things are done and it wouldn’t bother you” canard:
I’d link to the original exchange but it’s apparently been deleted and the employee who made the above response has been fired. CCCC released an apology, which is mostly good, except for this bit:
“We were contacted by a few female fans who wish to support the distribution of our initial flyers, to which we respectfully declined. As for our future plans, we will no longer use the image of superheroes (or any character) in such fashion. We wish to apologize to anyone we may have offended with our initial promotional campaign.”
If you’re going to apologize about a mistake you made, it’s really best to do so without trying to slide your way out of taking full responsibility for (in all likelihood) unintentional sexism by pulling the “Some women thought it was ok, therefore it’s not sexist,” bingo square, and then petulantly declaring that you’re taking your ball and going home, never again to use ANY superhero or character images on your promotions, so there you big meanies! Which of course misses the point completely that the initial gaffe had nothing to do with a superhero or character being used in promotional material and everything to do with using a highly sexualized image of a superhero or character (that didn’t even show the whole character, just her breasts, as an example of how things are “bigger” in Texas) to promote a convention which the organizers want people to feel safe and welcome at.
[Edit: It’s been pointed out that CCCC’s statement that they won’t use superheroes or characters in “such fashion” could be interpreted as “won’t use them in a sexually objectified manner”. My original interpretation was that “such fashion” meant they wouldn’t use superheroes or characters at all in any promotions, but I’m willing to concede that my perception of that could be incorrect. I’d like it to be, in any case.]
As for the “we apologize if we offended you” bit, I’m just going to quote from John Scalzi’s nifty advice piece on how to construct a good apology (all of which should be required reading, but this is the salient part about “offense”):
“The offense is yours. Own it. ‘I am sorry I offended you’ acknowledges the screw-up is yours, ‘to those who were offended, I am sorry,’ sounds like you’re suggesting the responsibility for the offense should be shared, and ‘I’m sorry if you feel offended,’ is palming off the responsibility entirely on the other person (and makes you sound like an unrepentant jackass).”
Which brings us to C2E2. I’ve made it pretty clear that C2E2 is a convention I absolutely adore attending and look forward to every year. When people have asked me about my experience at cons, C2E2 has been the gold standard I use in describing how fun, comfortable and engaging a convention can be for everyone, regardless of gender, race, if they’re a newbie or con veteran, if they’re hardcore nerds and geeks or people interested in checking out what this whole “geek is chic” thing is about. It’s the con I took my older brother, who is a major geek, to for his first-ever nerd con experience. For three years, C2E2 has provided a fantastically supportive and enthusiastic venue for the panel discussions I’ve held looking at issues of inclusivity, diversity, and discrimination in geek spaces and fandoms.
So I was extremely dismayed and not a little angry when my friend Summer Sparacin posted the picture of her C2E2 Saturday pass she’d just received in the mail with the tagline, “Really??? Got this in the mail today, but feeling rather ick-ed out by the overtly sexual art on my #C2E2 Saturday badge”:
Is that art piece on the badge unusual or uncommon in comic and gaming art? No. Do I think that C2E2 and its parent company ReedPOP approved that art with the intent to discourage women (and anyone concerned by how women are often sexually objectified in fandom) from attending C2E2? Absolutely not. And therein lies the problem. The sexual objectification of women in geek culture (much less mainstream culture in general) is so normalized that I’m willing to bet that whoever was in charge of approving this saw the art and thought there was no issue with it because “that’s what women in comic and gaming art look like.” Which just goes to show how deeply embedded this problem is.
Sexism isn’t just calling women in geek spaces “fake” for not living up to some arbitrary definitions (determined by a perceived male-dominated culture) of who and what a geek is. It’s not just harassing cosplayers for wearing “sexy” costumes or just being women in geek spaces. Sexism isn’t just saying that “women don’t like comics or gaming or hard science fiction.” It’s also microaggressions and systemic use of images portraying women as Other, as objects to be ogled, judged and consumed. The fact that this kind of objectification in comic and gaming art is common doesn’t mean that it gets a pass in discussions about how women are often portrayed in those mediums, how those images affect the perception of women in geek spaces, and how welcoming their usage makes geek spaces for women. There’s a reason sites like Escher Girls, Boobs Don’t Work That Way, The Hawkeye Initiative and Women Fighters in Real Armor exist.
This image on an official badge for C2E2 sends a message about who the convention is for and who is welcome that conflicts with the open and engaging atmosphere that C2E2 has built a (mostly) well-deserved reputation for having, and it undercuts the attempts of the discussions about discrimination and women’s issues in geek culture C2E2 has supported to make cons more welcoming and safe events for everyone. I’ll further note the irony that Saturday is the day that C2E2 has scheduled our “Glass Ceilings, Missing Stairs and Gatekeeping: Geeks Still Deal With Sexism” panel for, as well as the Graham Cracker Comics Ladies’ Night panel on how to create a welcoming space for women in your local comic book store.
I’m still excited about attending C2E2 next month. I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a panelist for the last two years and can’t wait to push the discussions further with the two panels I’m doing this year. I plan on emailing C2E2 and ReedPOP outlining my concerns and disappointment and will post it here when I’ve done so. It’s a shame that my hometown con that I love so much made this poor choice and I really, really hope that they respond to any criticism about this in better form than FEC and CCCC.
[Update 1]: GCC Ladies’ Night member Caitlin Rosberg has cropped the background out of the badge, so if anyone’s inclined to design a sticker with a different outfit for the zombie slayer, have at it! Caitlin has uploaded the files at https://db.tt/uETgjUDp. Anyone so inclined can pass the results to either me or Caitlin and we’ll try to make the stickers in time for C2E2! Thanks, Caitlin!