Comic-Con of the #MeToo era grapples with harassment

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Comic-Con, the annual gathering of over 130,000 fans, artists, collectors and geek culture savants, has already been changed by the #MeToo and Time’s Up era, with at least one notable figure stepping aside due to sexual misconduct allegations. But questions remain about its atmosphere and whether convention organizers will take any extra steps to address longstanding allegations of harassment issues during the event, which kicks off Wednesday night in San Diego.

The convention has always been a home for comic book and genre enthusiasts, and a refuge for like-minded fans to mingle, but it’s also been a place rife with harassment of women and others, whether it’s cosplayers (people who dress up in costumes), general attendees or even those hawking merchandise (sometimes called “booth babes”).

“I don’t think any convention has historically been a safe or inviting space for women,” says Cher Martinetti, the managing editor of SYFY Wire’s Fangrrls site.

Sexual harassment at fan conventions is a subject that is often raised, but the scrutiny will be even more intense this year with the heightened awareness about misconduct.

Just weeks ago, Nerdist founder Chris Hardwick, a mainstay at Comic-Con and moderator of numerous panels, stepped aside from moderating AMC and BBC America panels amid allegations from an ex-girlfriend, which Hardwick has denied.

And since last fall, a handful of familiar Comic-Con faces have been accused of misconduct as well, like Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles and Honest Trailers creator Andy Signore.

Code of conduct

Comic-Con International told The Associated Press in a statement Sunday that the conference has a code of conduct that was, “intentionally created to serve as a comprehensive measure that makes attendee safety a priority.”

“We want all participants to feel if they are treated in a manner that makes them uncomfortable, that there is a system in place that will respond to misconduct and sexual harassment.” 

According to the code, attendees must “respect commonsense rules for public behaviour” and “personal interaction,” and that “harassing or offensive behaviour will not be tolerated.”

The code specifies that anyone who feels at risk should report it to a security person or a staff member and outlines the location of the show office in the San Diego Convention Center, which is open during show hours. Anyone who violates the code is at risk of losing their pass.

Diana Font, left, and Lisa Saunders dress as Princess Leia during the Princess Leia Star Wars Fan Club Tribute Presentation at the 2017 Comic-Con. Starting in 2014, a group called Geeks for CONsent has been circulating materials reminding conference goers that ‘Cosplay does not equal consent.’ (Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

But as with most big confabs and entertainment festivals, events don’t stop when the convention centre closes, and many attendees will continue their nights at parties and offsite installations, beyond the reach of convention hall security and staff, during the four-day event. And Comic-Con has the unique distinction that many attendees dress in costume, some of which can be revealing.

‘Cosplay does not equal consent’

In 2014, a group called Geeks for CONsent made waves petitioning for a formal anti-harassment policy at Comic-Con. The group organizers carried signs and passed out temporary tattoos that year that read, “Cosplay does not equal consent.”

Since #MeToo shook the culture, other large-scale gatherings have reevaluated their own safety protocols. Some have addressed the issue openly and instituted hotlines for attendees to report instances of harassment. The Sundance Film Festival earlier this year updated its code of conduct and partnered with the Utah Attorney General’s Office to implement a 24-hour hotline.

Sunu Chandy, the legal director for the National Women’s Law Center has observed other best practices emerging in the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up, as well.

I see a lot of organizations taking this moment to be very clear and upfront at the opening sessions about expected behaviours– Sunu Chandy, National Women’s Law Center

“I see a lot of organizations taking this moment to be very clear and upfront at the opening sessions about expected behaviours, what’s off limits and where someone should go,” says Chandy.

“That will go a long way in setting the tone for the event and making sure that all the participants can take part in a safe and enjoyable manner.”

Representatives for Comic-Con International declined to provide specifics about its security measures but said that they work closely with the San Diego Police Department and other law enforcement entities. They also employ several private security companies.

Some attendees expect the atmosphere to be changed this year because of the social movements and the implicit message sent when Hardwick stepped aside from his panels. Martinetti, who is hosting a session Friday about women changing the game in sci-fi and genre with panellists like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creator Rachel Bloom, is one — but with a caveat.

Caitriona Balfe, left, and Sam Heughan, centre, from the STARZ Original Series Outlander, take a photo with a fan at an autograph signing during last year’s conference. (Matt Sayles/Invision/Associated Press)

“I think it’ll be a little different because when you see someone who is a bigger name and a known personality be held accountable for their actions and their behaviour, it puts everyone else on alert,” Martinetti says. “But I think it’s a temporary thing.”

More female-centric panels 

Still, she has seen some positive changes over the past few years, “not just in the makeup of the panels and the topics that were discussed but also in the verbiage that’s used toward cosplayers and being more accommodating toward not just women but anyone who isn’t a straight, white, able-bodied cisgender male.”

There are several female-centric panels this year, including Entertainment Weekly’s annual Women Who Kick Ass panel, ones on body positivity, women in publishing, women of colour in comics, the women of Star Wars and the “fake geek girl fallacy.” The convention is also hosting panels on intersectional Afrofuturism, queer comics for queer kids (and another about being queer and black) and general diversity in comics. There’s even one titled “#MeToo to #TIMESUP: An Action Summit for Comics.”

But like many of these more inclusive panels, the #MeToo panel is programmed in a smaller room directly against a presentation from a major Hollywood studio — in this case, Sony Pictures.

I’m so optimistic, more than ever, that things are going to change from now on– Alicia Malone, TCM Host

Fandango correspondent and TCM host Alicia Malone is returning this year to host a panel called “The Future of Film is Female” with participants like directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Susanna Fogel. She says the enthusiasm from Comic-Con is palpable.

“It started last year with ‘Female Voices in Film Twitter’ which was well-received and encouraged by Comic-Con, but this year I feel like everyone is really excited to talk about Women in Film and celebrate these achievements,” says Malone.

As an eight-year Comic-Con veteran, Malone, is also hopeful that things are evolving.

“There is so much focus on it that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement can’t be ignored,” Malone says. “I’m so optimistic, more than ever, that things are going to change from now on.”


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