Thursday, April 30, 2015

Are Mega-Conventions Even Worth it Anymore?


Back in 2009, when passion about the Twilight saga (both positive and negative) was still running wild, a massive queue of its fans known as "Twihards" (a pun off of "die-hards"), or as detractors came to call them, "Twitards" (a pun off of "die-hards", "Twihards" and "retards") camped out outside of a convention center, all to see their idols who starred in the film adaptation of their beloved books, who had a panel at that year's Comic Con.  It was just one of many panels, and just one of many groups of fans, but the sheer size of the specifically Twilight-centered line, with the amount of inconvenience it posed to other attendees of other interests, prompted a backlash.  Cinemassacre made a video about it, and that one was just an after-the-fact, dubbed in commentary.  Some people went much further; forming anti-Twilight gangs, making signs, attending Comic Con and protesting against Twilight and its fans when they got in; at the time, videos of these protests were available, though they've since been made private.

Since Twilight and its hateful backlash ended, I hadn't thought about that unique moment in convention history for quite some time, but recent events related to the GamerGate debacle have prompted me to look at it in a new lense; one in which fandom has become politicized, and the schism between how people approach it, and the degree to which they alienate and irk each other, prompt the question: Are Mega-Conventions Even Worth it Anymore?

To recap the relevant events that occurred this April, the Honey Badger Brigade, an organization affiliated with GamerGate and known for advancing the often little-known voice of women who are skeptical of feminism, was kicked out of the expo after one of them politely disagreed with a speaker at a feminist panel.  The backlash against the expo for its overreaction has since come to dominate its Twitter conversation, and the Badgers are preparing to sue its staff.  More recently, attendants have been kicked out of Denver Comic Con for wearing GamerGate shirts.  To its credit, this event's staff has been much more communicative and reasonable; making arguments in their Facebook conversations that seem rather fair and do provide what looks like a compromise under which people can all get in.  To tell people they can support GamerGate and still come in, so long as they don't wear their beliefs on their shirts, sounds reasonable, and it might indeed defuse a conflict this time.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure the DCC understands the broader context out of which the GamerGate debacle arose, and if one understands that, it should be obvious to them why things really aren't that simply.

The GamerGate conflict was not spontaneous.  It was, rather, an outgrowth of pre-existing (and still ongoing) ire and controversy regarding the nature of our popular culture.  The issue of whether culture influences behavior, bad behavior included, and whether it is thus time to look at it critically and fix it, is at the center of this all, and that means that events specifically devoted to culture en-masse; getting its many subsets together, together with its fans, together with each other, are inherently prone to cultural controversies. 

It would be nice to live in a world where we could just abstain from wearing a few controversial items of clothing and make everything go well, but to the right person, anything can be controversial, and again, culture concentration exacerbates that.  The rash of sex-negative feminism sweeping places like universities and game critiques, which has also frequently targeted the very form of literature that Comic Con takes its name from (increasingly inaccurately), and which GamerGate has come down hard against, means that those things that offend GamerGate's foes don't necessarily stop at GamerGate paraphernalia; a woman dressed up as Kasumi from Dead or Alive or Power Girl from DC Comics might offend such people--to a level greater than Comic Con has likely experienced before.  Since last August's infamous rash of articles blaming the mindsets of, in essence, culture-crazed nerds for a few anti-woman mobbings online, have ignited a wave of hysteria that also fueled the growth of GamerGate, complaints about "sexualized" women in the media aren't just limited to "This is annoying to women" anymore; they now sometimes advance the questionable argument that the creators of such things are inspiring actual crimes against women.  Nor is this limited to sexualized women; as in the case of Leigh Alexander's particularly infamous article, attacking autistic people in all-but-name, which somehow saw fit to draw an association between mushroom hats and misogyny.  Considering that, quite a huge job may be cut out for the fashion police who are worried about making an event feel safe for those offended by GamerGate!

Or really, anything.  How far will one bend over backwards to ensure all feel safe?  Ought they to ban fans of The Expendables from wearing costumes that include (obviously fake) assault rifles, if they offend people whose loved ones have been shot overseas?  Or furthermore, ban the film's panels on the basis of critics who complain that they encourage a harmful militaristic attitude and touch a chord with people who've lost loved ones in war?  What about banning people from wearing turbans into the events, for reasons not even related to cosplay?

Unlike some of those with whom I affiliate, I'm not entirely against the concept of "safe spaces".  As I have written before, they have their uses, in providing unique, tailor-made experiences for those with a special set of tastes, values, and (I will even concede) needs.  Yet I consider the idea that "safe space" policies can create a massively-diverse, all-inclusive gathering, to be a quixotic delusion.  As I also wrote in that linked post, and as has, in fact, been proven multiple times when the "safe space" has been put into practice; it can only work at catering to certain people by throwing others out.  There is a desire, probably stronger in some people, but ultimately probably common to all, to group with those who share one's own interests and values, but what is not common to all people is what those interests and values actually are, and that's why one person can come at the expense of another.  A safe space for Democrats is not the same as a safe space for Republicans, a safe space to preach Islamic doctrines is not the same as a safe space to lecture about feminism, a safe space to talk about sex is not the same as a safe space for people triggered by the idea of sex.  Hence, safe space ideals can thrive in a limited, clubhouse setting, but massive, media-spanning conventions attended by thousands?  Hardly. 

That isn't good news for Comic Con and similar events.  They're built upon the belief that there is a sort of like-minded camaraderie between all segments of modern culture; that fans of anything can come together with fans of anything else and be merry together.  The advent of what appears to be a bonafide new culture war undermines that foundation, perhaps dangerously close to breaking point.  Yet looking back on the Twilight Line of Doom, I ask controversially, is that really such a bad thing?

I may be treading on sacred ground here, opening fire on what has come to be seen as an important part of my city's identity. (Then again, so has SeaWorld.)  Yet from the moment you choose to go to Comic Con, here in San Diego or anywhere, you've entered into a whole host of unpleasant conflicts.  You're competing with others for a limited amount of tickets, and hotel rooms, whose prices you know will be jacked up for the event, lest demand outpace their supply.  You fight traffic on the way there, you wait for buses and hope one finally comes by that isn't all full, you desperately search for parking spaces, the one you get you either pay a lot for, or you walk a long way from, or both, you stand in lines full of people who may or may not have anything in common with you, bombarded by the insolence of protestors that quite possibly are there not because of opposition to the event so much as desire to be heard by as many people as possible.  When others make you wait and clog you out, how far does this pan-fandom camaraderie really go?

It's one thing when you're one of a manageable number of people who think alike, going to a specialized event.  For example, if a brony doesn't get the last ticket to a brony convention, he'll by upset, but not necessarily irked at the other person who got it.  He, too, is a brony, he wants the same things, and they'd probably get along.  There's also likely to be less competition.  Yet Comic Con has grown and grown, becoming the place for everyone who's anyone in popular culture to be.  It's long been remarked that it shouldn't even be called Comic Con anymore; more like "Media Con", and that is no mere petty semantic gripe.  In Comic Con, every other subject competes against your favorite subject, every other group competes against yours, panels compete against each other for time slots so you might even have to pick between your interests, and the inconvenience of the clutter plagues you all.  Why do we put up with this, exactly?  Why, when we could be going to cheaper, smaller-scale, more interest-coherent, less time-conflicted, all-around more convenient events to pursue what we like individually, do we submit to cluttered morasses that shove everyone and everything in so tightly that they're on edge and on the verge of triggering each other; pre-existing rivalries bringing them near to blows?

I don't know.  I admit I've never been, and maybe something genuinely socially-stimulating happens when one connects with like minds, but again, there are better ways to unite with like minds without having to wade through people one doesn't care about.  Bigger isn't always better, and more unified, as I have written, is often worse, as when compromises have to be made so as not to put off anyone who might be bothered, a lot of many people like is also sacrificed.  Maybe it's time to scale back on our convention sizes, break them up into smaller, more manageable and more specialized events that give everyone separately more of what they want, and maybe a culture war, prompting Comic Con to logistically unsolvable concerns about safe spaces, is just what we needed to consider this.  It's worth a try, at least.

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