In the beginning
Having spent most of my life enjoying science fiction and fantasy with little if any awareness of ‘fandom’ and the science fiction and fantasy community, I started attending SFF conventions and expos in 2009. My first ever con or expo was Armageddon in 2009, and I didn’t attend any guest panels. I just wandered around, took lots of photos (what can I say? I’m consistent :P) and almost met Seth Green. I hadn’t bothered to look into guests or panels or anything because I was really concerned about attending a panel, hearing an actor speak only to have it spoil a cherished TV show or movie. So I enjoyed Armageddon just as a spectator sport wandering around the main hall and then…
At one point I saw a remote controlled R2D2 heading out of the hall, rolling along swiftly, with a sense of purpose. I followed. Armageddon was held in the Melbourne Exhibition Centre (Jeff’s Shed); R2D2 rolled through the huge foyer, around the corner to the stairs up to the main stage, where he met a lot of other people in Star Wars costumes. I couldn’t quite believe this gathering. I didn’t know if this was open to the public or not, so I told the minion not to speak to ANYONE. I figured if we didn’t talk to anyone, if we didn’t ask any questions, but if we looked as if we knew we had a right to be there, then we wouldn’t be sent away. I took loads of photos. At one stage there’s this really short guy near me, so close I could have reached out and grasped his shoulder. I’m looking at him thinking he looks really familiar. Just as he’s called in to have his photo taken, I realise – it’s Seth Green. BUT HE’S SO SHORT!!! Seriously, he comes up to, like, MY SHOULDER.
After realising Seth was there, I started thinking about panels and this whole ‘guest speaker’ thing, but I was still apprehensive. I want to enjoy my TV and movies without it being tainted by a negative experience. I hadn’t HEARD of any bad experiences at this stage, I just thought: ‘What if they have no personality without a script? What if they’re arrogant? What if…’
In 2010 I attended the MSFC MiniCon with a vampire theme and some great speakers (even if it was nearly impossible to actually HEAR some of it). This minicon featured a debate about vampires, whether they’d been done to death. I argued for the affirmative, basing my arguments largely on Twilight and the fact that now we have Dexter. My team won! Yay! I digress.
I’ve always been the kind of person to get involved, so the first step for me was getting involved in the presentation then getting involved by editing Ethel, a club newsletter then, when my tenure as editor was over, I decided I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do my own fanzine… TA DAAAA! Dark Matter was born. This, of course, meant that I became steadily more involved in the science fiction and fantasy scene from the unusual perspective of someone within the community acting as an observer. Thus my convention and expo experiences began in earnest under the guise of reporting on the events for Dark Matter.
Over the past 3 years I’ve gradually been sucked into this whirling vortex of conventions and expos, attending more events and covering more of the action.
The sometimes not-so-pretty reality
As I’ve listened to people, interviewed people and followed the SFF community online, I’ve heard some horror stories about guests at conventions: sexist, racist, arrogant or otherwise inappropriate guests speaking at various events as well as misbehaviour from participants (the general public attending). The first time I’ve ever sat in an audience and been horrified was last weekend. All things considered, I think it’s amazing that I’ve seen and heard so many speakers and it’s taken this long for me to be disappointed in a speaker. Kudos to the organisers who have such a good strike rate for organising good speakers.
But on Sunday, Sebastian Roche knew he was speaking to a ‘family friendly’ audience including minors and that he was being live-streamed. He kept up this – banter? – that involved repeatedly asking girls their ages. When they were under 18, he told them they’re too young and made comments about corrupting them. Even with his acknowledged awareness, he kept going with the sexual innuendo, putting a kiwi fruit down his trousers, doing the Haka and talking about doing it naked, miming his penis hitting his face… Some of his humour was potentially funny for the right audience but some was just inappropriate and disrespectful.
Sebastian was generally funnier than some of the acts I’ve seen at the Comics Lounge. However, that is an OVER 18 AUDIENCE. This was NOT an over 18 audience and he knew it. Some of Sebastian’s dialogue was straight-up offensive. I have strong feelings about protecting the young because innocence lost cannot be regained. I also believe the Maori culture is due far more respect – I’m still absorbing the fact that these tribal cultures united in the face of white invasion to ensure that New Zealand wasn’t considered Terra Nullus. Respect!
I’m wildly enthusiastic about conventions and expos live-streaming content. I’ve been lobbying for this whenever I have the opportunity to speak to a convention organiser; it provides more access opportunities for people who, for many reasons, may not be able to attend. Maybe they have little kids, can’t afford airfares and accommodation, maybe they have other commitments so could only attend a small portion making personal attendance infeasible… I’m HUGELY supportive of live-streaming. MAJOR KUDOS TO ARMAGEDDON.
How to deal with Sebastian Roche and his ilk? What should convention and expo organisers do?
There needs to be a declared code of conduct, both for guests and attendees, with rights and responsibilities including repercussions for misconduct. With a declared code of conduct people know what to expect and can decide on whether to attend or not. For example, I attended a New Year’s Eve party organised by Amanda Palmer. When I purchased the tickets there were warnings about the age requirement (over 18), foul language etcetera and walking inside there were several notices on the walls declaring that there would be nudity and foul language. Whatever was going to happen, people were warned! If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. If you don’t like the content of MA+ TV, don’t watch it then write in to the station complaining, don’t watch the damn stuff! The warnings are there for a reason – to inform you so that you can take responsibility for what you’re consuming. If you’re allergic to nuts, don’t buy a packet of mixed nuts and eat them.
In contrast, if a convention or expo has declared it’s family friendly, then content should be appropriate.
If a convention or expo has a declared code of conduct, then attendees can make an informed decision about whether to attend.
Which brings me to my next point: Consistency.
If I’d had a child with me on Sunday I would have been out of the room or the live-streaming switched off so fast you’d hardly need to blink. Even Sebastian commented a few times on the number of people who walked out during his performance, and yet he didn’t moderate himself. Someone needed to get Sebastian off the stage, preventing an over 18 performance in front of an audience that included a significant portion of minors as the event is intended to be family friendly. This is no small thing: organisers have spent a shitloads paying Sebastian (I have no idea how much but he came out for a week or so touring), paying airfares and accommodation and who-knows-what-else. Plus Sebastian is an internationally-renown actor – it takes guts to stand up to someone like that and get him off stage. It’s no mean feat.
Earlier this year there was a scandal over the pond. A Big Name in Fandom (BNF) attended a certain convention – Readercon – and sexually harassed a woman who made a complaint. There were witnesses, other victims came forward, there was no doubt. Readercon had a ‘zero tolerance’ policy that stated perpetrators of sexual harassment would receive lifetime bans. There was no doubt in this situation but the perpetrator was a BNF so he was given two years’ ban by the board. The outrage that ensued woke the SFF community up from its restless slumber, re-energising conversations about equality and safety, bringing this conversation into the limelight. The board resigned. ReaderCon banned the BNF as per its zero tolerance policy and apologised. I, for one, felt like giving ReaderCon a standing ovation for complying with its own rules and for the apology. This is an example of a convention developing a rule and, in spite of fierce support for the perpetrator, taking controversial action to comply with its own stated policy, ensuring that attendees know what to expect in the future. (I’m keeping this discussion within a limited framework therefore I’m limiting my comments to specific points. If you’d like to discuss the broader issues, feel free to comment: no personal attacks.)
If you’ve made a declaration of a code of conduct, stick to it like glue.
Another event dealt with this issue differently. A large LAN party held in Texas to celebrate the launch of Battlefield 3 decided to ban female gamers as a way of avoiding issues of misconduct. Organisers said:
“Nothing ruins a good LAN party like uncomfortable guests or lots of tension, both of which can result from mixing immature, misogynistic male-gamers with female counterparts. Though we’ve done our best to avoid these situations in years past, we’ve certainly had our share of problems. As a result, we no longer allow women to attend this event.”
So this event decided to punish women for immature misogynistic male-gamers’ misconduct – that’s like sending the battered victim of an assault to jail instead of the mugger. (See Women banned from a LAN party and Kotaku’s report.) As a woman I object to being banned from any event due to others’ misconduct, however an alternative is to declare that the organisers will not take any responsibility for the conduct of the participants and participants attend at their own risk. Thus a choice is given, an informed decision may be made although the organisers refuse to enforce respectful conduct. This will deter some people, but others may choose to take a risk knowing that it is possible to call the police and a lawyer to deal with illegal behaviour. In my opinion this is better than returning to the days of segregation.
Last weekend brought home to me some issues and the need to have policies and strategies in place. I urge all convention and expo organisers to prepare for the worst case, to plan for the guest or attendee whose behaviour is wildly inappropriate. (I’m not talking about dropping the occasional swear word!) Have a contingency plan to deal with even the most prestigious BNF or guest star. Have people on hand who have the authority and the ability to take action if necessary. It’s not easy – probably the understatement of the year – but it will be worth it. I figure Murphy’s Law is on your side: if you plan ahead, then there it’s less likely that you’ll need that contingency plan. And even if you do, the situation won’t be as dire because you have the contingency plan and you’ve acted on it.
I need to work on this too. As part of my show of support for live-streaming, I ran a twitter commentary. After Sebastian began his presentation I was in a quandry. What do I do? I wasn’t prepared for this. Do I continue? Is continuing to twitter commentate supporting inappropriate conduct or would silence be seen as cover up? I still don’t know.
I tweeted some stuff that, in hindsight, I wouldn’t repeat again even though I believe my audience is adult. I edited my tweets – whatever was in my stream, believe me, the live performance included more of the over 18 content and more explicit material than my tweets. Finally I decided to stop. In hindsight I should have stopped earlier, however I feel that Sebastian’s behaviour justifies my decision to stop and my comments now. I’m going to spend some time thinking about content and limits in Dark Matter and what to do in situations like this as well as in general articles on the website. Clearly I need to work out expectations and boundaries that I hadn’t thought were necessary. I’m interested in hearing people’s thoughts – where should boundaries lie? What action should I, as a reporter, take in these situations? I’m interested in hearing a range of opinions so I can permutate possibilities to develop the best possible policy.