Anti-Harassment Policies and Diversity Panels: How NY Comic Con Worked to Make Geek Culture More Inclusive

One of the first things you see upon entering New York Comic Con is a large sign that unequivocally states, “Cosplay Is Not Consent.” ReedPOP and NYCC 2014, with the help of The Mary Sue, introduced a new policy dictating zero tolerance for harassment (which it defines as including “unwelcome physical attention,” “offensive verbal comments,” and “bathroom policing”). Putting aside the obvious frustration that any of this has to be spelled out in the first place, it’s refreshing to see the anti-harassment policy so prominently displayed. (It’s also in the program and on the official mobile app; in just a few taps, you can report an incident immediately.) Combined with the impressive number of progressive panels in 2014, it’s indicative of NYCC’s growing concern with making the convention safer, friendlier, and more inclusive, especially for women, even if the convention — and “geek culture” as a whole — still has a long way to go.

The anti-harassment policy is unquestionably a step in the right direction and goes beyond just stating rules. In addition to the ability to report harassment via your phone, the policy also promises, “If necessary, we will contact local law enforcement, provide escort, offer a safe place or otherwise assist those experience harassment to make sure they feel safe for the rest of NYCC.” (You can read the full anti-harassment policy here.) It also makes it very clear that everyone must follow this policy, including exhibitors, press, and security.

Amid the ongoing and upsetting #GamerGate saga, and considering the feelings of sexualization and exclusion that many women have always experienced in this sort of environment (not just conventions but also comic book stores and, obviously, on the Internet), this policy was necessary. For all of the jokes that could be made about NYCC (seriously, late-night comedians, it’s time to retire the “virgins” bit), it can actually be one of the most fun and inspiring events of the year — it certainly reminded me of why I first started loving comic books. It even made me vow to get back into them; I went home Friday night with a painfully heavy tote bag full of graphic novels.

At the same time, it can be hard to let yourself have fun and immerse yourself in this very real fantasy world when you’re constantly on edge about being harassed or awaiting shitty comments about your “revealing” cosplay outfit. The anti-harassment policy helped to lessen these concerns a bit. Victoria McNally, an Associate Editor at The Mary Sue, told me that people approached representatives from the site “telling us how much they appreciated the policy” while sharing “anecdotes about it being successfully enforced in places.” One story she relayed: “Someone at artist’s alley was making really gross remarks about women all day so his neighbor disclosed [it] to the con.”

This anti-harassment policy isn’t the only attempt NYCC 2014 has made to include a wider range of attendees and to discuss important issues that are often overlooked. Throughout the four days, there were panels titled “#WeNeedDiverse (Comic) Books — Diversity in Comics,” “‘Marry, Do or Kill?’ What Will It Take to Shatter Female Stereotypes in Comics?,” “Women of Color in Comics: Race, Gender, and the Comic Book Medium,” “Secret Identities — Transgender Themes in Comic Books,” and more. It’s not the first time that NYCC has included diverse panels, but it certainly felt more important than years past, perhaps because of the large amount and the sheer enthusiasm surrounding them. I overheard discussions of people bemoaning the overlaps — “If I go to ‘Damsels in Distress Need Not Apply’ I won’t be able to get in to ‘The Future of Female Fandom’!” — and the line waiting to get into a panel featuring women of color discussing their work were about what you’d expect for panels dedicated to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or The Walking Dead.


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Not all panels were successful. “#WeNeedDiverse (Comic) Books” was, well, less diverse than I was expecting and hoping it would be. An attendee questioned this (to murmurs of agreement from the audience) and the answer from the moderator — “Our missing member is one of our diverse members!” — was disappointing. (They could easily have walked upstairs to the floor and found plenty of diverse comic creators willing to participate.) Most of the panel was disappointing: It didn’t add much to the conversation, aside from a few references to Superman vs. the KKK and the problem with Women in Refrigerators — a trope in which women often exist in comics solely to be the hero’s girlfriend, a prop whose death spurs the hero to go after the villain. Panelists didn’t go into detail about the actions that could be taken to make comic books more diverse. When asked how we can have diverse conversations when the “producers, writers, and the people who get to greenlight all the projects aren’t diverse,” the answers were fairly unhelpful. “We’re working on that…. There’s a diversity committee you should all look up…. Volunteer on our website.”

Friday’s “Marry, Do, or Kill” panel, featuring Enrica Jang, Jennie Wood, and Erica Schultz, among others, was much better and possibly the most enthusiastic panel I attended at NYCC. It was packed — I showed up early and barely got in — and certainly demanded a bigger room (the organizers requested one but were denied), but made plenty of space for honest discussion about the portrayal of women in comic books. There was emphasis on the problems artists encounter when drawing women because, as Dennis Calero put it, “society values physical beauty far more than they should” and there’s also no way to win. Artists get shit for drawing different body types: “average” people are seen as trolls, “non-sticks” are seen as fat, characters are criticized for either having “too big or too small tits.”

The panelists were upfront in admitting that there is no right answer, no specific ideal for a Strong Female Character. There is always a counterpoint — “If I had superpowers, I’d wear high heels all the time” — but everyone was there for the same reason: to break down stereotypes, which Jang pointed out are “lazy storytelling.” Fridging came up once again (if a woman is going to die, she needs to first have a complete story — and a name! — and her death needs to serve a purpose), as did the argument about societal pressures to include a woman character just for the sake of it. One male artist argued that we’ll be closer to equality in comic books and destroying stereotypes once we get female characters who are as “crappy and lame as your average male characters.” The panelists also offered very practical advice to women, both creators and fans, who are working hard at making themselves known in the comic book world: Don’t read the comments.

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 2.23.20 PMThe “Women of Color in Comics” panel was another high point of my two days at NYCC — and actually featured a panel of women of color: moderator Regine L. Sawyer and panelists Alitha E. Martinez, Barbara Brandon-Croft, Vanessa Verduga, Jamila Rowser, Alice Meichi Li, Juliana “Jewels” Smith, and Geisha Vi. Also in the crowd was Helvetika Bold, whose origin story transforms her from a community advocate to a social justice superhero, the “moxiest maven” with a killer afro. Panelists were willing to discuss everything in a straightforward way, quickly bringing up “CON-sent,” general harassment, and the ridiculous notion of “fake geek girls.” (Saturday’s “Let’s Talk About Harassment in Fandom,” by contrast, didn’t even bring up #GamerGate.)

During the panel, we heard truthful stories about growing up with a strong love for comic books and then trying to break into the white male-dominated world, hearing “compliments” as absurd as, “You don’t draw like a girl!” or “You could pass [as white]!” The panelists shared these stories of discouragement in a way that was actually encouraging to everyone in the crowd, and especially to women of color who are aspiring creators. It was perhaps the best representation of what Comic Con should be: an inspiring place that celebrates diversity and differences, and that aims not to erase these differences but to highlight how important they make the world.

There were other great moments to note: Broad City‘s amazingly popular and hilarious panel wherein Abbi and Ilana were rightfully hailed as feminist heroes in front of an adoring and approving crowd; the dozens of Tina and Louise Belcher cosplays (and one pitch-perfect Jimmy Jr.); the countless young children of color dressed up as their favorite superheroes, regardless of what race that hero is in the book; the numerous overheard conversations amid people continuing to discuss diversity even after the panels were over.

There’s still a ways to go — the official NYCC program of featured exhibitors and entertainers was still overwhelmingly white and male, and I’m sure there were still many incidents of harassment despite the app. But there were also so many panels that felt like the safe spaces of Comic Con, where you were free to be yourself whether you were a hafrocentric writer or a stoned comedian doing your own thing on Comedy Central.