When you attend Arisia, a Boston-based sci-fi and fantasy convention, the first thing that strikes you is not the props or the costumes, it’s not the red, blue, and purple hair, the bubblegum pink wigs, and it’s not the green and gray full-body makeup. Through the automatic revolving door of the Westin Waterfront Hotel erupts the sound of people talking—a lot of them. These attendees talk excitedly, clumping into eclectic groups of aliens and elves, samurai and steampunk stilt-walkers. They talk with each other personally, amicably, and perhaps surprisingly, about issues of social consequence.
And the talking isn’t limited to the lobby. Around 5:00 on a Saturday, a group of thirty or so people shuffled into a conference room to discuss feminism. Before the panel began, I witnessed an elf with red hair talk casually with members of the panel, and slowly the usual formal awkwardness melted into a conversational familiarity between the panel and the rest of the audience. Arisia is filled with these panels, covering topics as diverse as asexuality, polyamory, and BDSM.
“I spend a lot of time on Tumblr,” says Melissa Kaplan, a psychotherapist who volunteers her time as a conference chair for Transcending Boundaries, an event dedicated to gender and sexuality. Kaplan is referring to the online community of feminists and sexual rights activists who use Tumblr as a space for constructive dialogue—a dialogue that overlaps greatly with conventions and fandoms, particularly Arisia.
Even though the panel began by defining third-wave feminism, the discussion had begun even earlier, prompted by the demographics of the speakers—four women and one man. When the sole male panelist commented on feeling nervous, Melissa Kaplan responded by saying that the topic of feminism merits a larger influence of women’s voices. The conversation was not weighed down by anxiety, however, as each panelist contributed respectfully to topics as diverse as gendered children’s toys, discrimination in the workplace, and intersectionality. (The intersection of different systems of oppression.)
Going from definitions of feminism to the criticisms usually lobbied at feminists, the panelists maintained their sense of humor and levity. Asked about the definition of cis-white privilege, the male panelist, Alex Jarvis, described it as “playing the game of life on easy.” As a computer programmer working with RailsBridge, a grassroots organization that fosters the inclusion of women in his field, he used an experience he had at a party to illustrate the weaknesses of the argument typically heard from men’s rights activists. When asked by a friend why men’s issues weren’t talked about as often as women’s, he proposed an experiment: make a list of the most limiting aspects of having a male identity and then compare it to a second list filled with the things women have to deal with. After removing from the male’s list “everything that gave them access to women’s bodies,” he and his friend found out that the typically cited men’s issues, in the words of Alex Jarvis, “couldn’t even crack the top five women’s issues.”
After a while, the conversation turned towards children. “I want us to stop gender programming four-year-old behaviors,” Kaplan said in a comment that elicited applause from the audience. The panelists elaborated on gender programming, using the example of a young girl in a toy store being pointed towards the“girl’s toys” by a stranger. The basic message of the panel was clear: third-wave feminism is about uncovering gender bias in unexpected places and creating a more leveled playing field for people of all gender identities.
Still, the convention community faces unique challenges. On a panel addressing the sexual harassment of cosplayers (those who dress up as characters), one woman described the problem of “glompers”: “They’re the people who see someone dressed as one of their favorite characters and decide to hug them without permission.” And the glompers come with the creepers. Some female cosplayers have had to deal with fans following them and, sometimes, taking inappropriate pictures, which has prompted conventions, such as Dragon Con, to release updated sexual harassment policies.
After bringing up these issues, a panelist cited an excuse often heard by con-goers in relation to sexual harassment: “We’re all fans here.” These statements are the convention equivalent of “If she didn’t want me to comment on her [insert body part here], then she wouldn’t have dressed so provocatively.” Even at Arisia, where feminism is discussed openly and critically, there are those who extend rape culture to all aspects of their lives, and all events they attend. If anything, the one thing we should take from Arisia’s sexual harassment and feminism panels is that there’s still a lot of work to do.
When Meagan Marie, a popular cosplayer, wrote a post on Tumblr about her experience being harassed at the Pax East conference, others began posting similar stories online. Recently, this trend and the “Cosplay is not consent” movement have been spreading through conference circuits and the Internet. Much like the “Who Needs Feminism?” movement that posted pictures of people answering the question with whiteboards, con-goers are heading to the web to contribute their unique strain of feminism and anti-rape culture, one colored by the subtleties of “geek culture.”
Despite these setbacks, panels like these are continuing to address an educational need. As unexpected as it is to witness a girl with a pink wig and bedazzled cheeks discuss feminism, it’s clearly necessary. Within Arisia, and the greater convention culture, there seems to be an overlap with those willing to analyze and apply potential solutions to these issues. Many attendees identify as geeks first and want others to see them that way.
From “Chainmail 101” to “Addressing Sexual Harassment in Our Communities” and “Coming Out” to “How to Survive the Nerd Convention Apocalypse,” the panelists and con-goers at Arisia have fostered a unique blend of serious dialogue and tongue-in-cheek humor. Near the end of the feminist panel, as the audience members prepared themselves for their next event, panelist Alex Jarvis put it this way: “Of course, if women have an equal standing with men,” he says with a smile, “then society will crumble and lesbians will marry dinosaurs.”