Does Comic-Con Condone Rape Culture?

Sexual harassment and assault are prevalent everywhere in our culture, including at public events. In some cases, though, the atmosphere of particular events actually seems to promote, or at least tacitly condone, harassment. San Diego’s Comic-Con, the biggest convention of its kind, is one such event.

In my piece, “Comic-Conned: Gender Norms in a Carnivalesque Atmosphere” at The Society Pages, I note that Comic-Con can act as a barometer of gender consciousness (or lack thereof). As I argue in the piece,

Though women are now far more present as both producers and consumers at the Con, the representation of females in the media featured still overwhelmingly fits in with normative codes of femininity, particularly in relation to the sexualization of women that frames them as ‘to-be-looked-at.’

Further, the prevalence of “cosplay” at the event, much of which involves “sexy costumes,” combined with a carnivalesque atmosphere, results in an environment that makes some attendees feel entitled to gawk, grope, grab and take lewd photos (such as “upskirt” photos) of fellow Con enthusiasts. The Con was a “male bastion” for many years and females were rather reluctantly “allowed” in, just as comic book and gamer culture has often been reluctant to fully include women. All of these factors, I contend, are what make the event so rife for not only misogynist comments and behavior, but also sexual harassment and assault.

Bitch magazine conducted a social media survey and found that 25 percent of women at such conventions report being sexually harassed, and another 8 percent report being assaulted or raped. A piece from The Daily Mail similarly notes that a quarter of women attendees report being sexually harassed, and another report claims that “13 percent of people attending comic conventions report having unwanted comments of a sexual nature made about them at conventions, and 8 percent of people of all genders reported they had been groped, assaulted, or raped at a comic convention.” Regardless of the fact that statistics vary, sexual harassment and assault are undeniably a problem at such events.

At this year’s Comic-Con, a teen cosplayer was sexually assaulted and left unconscious, bloody and bruised on the side of a road near the event. As reported by LAist,

The alleged crime happened at 1:15 a.m. on Sunday morning. San Diego Harbor Police say they have arrested a 29-year-old man in this case, and he is being charged with “sexual contact with a minor and contributing to the delinquency of minor [sic].” The man was arrested at the Marriott, where Comic-Con is held, and he was booked into the San Diego County jail at 11:20 a.m. later that morning.

Another incident was reported on Twitter, describing a man who grabbed a woman cosplayer, pulling down the bottom of her costume. The incident garnered quite a bit of press coverage as Adrianne Curry (from America’s Next Top Model), who was dressed as Catwoman, intervened and physically attacked the male. Curry revealed on Facebook that she “beat the shit out of his face with the butt of my whip …..which is a real bullwhip.” Though I do not wish to promote more violence as the solution to sexual attacks, the fact that such harassment occurs is evidence of the gravity of the problem.

To be fair, the atmosphere at Comic-Con also buzzes with excitement, fun and glee (and massive crowds). Much like the carnivalesque theorized by Mikhail Bakhtin, the Con is a topsy-turvy world of excess, escapism and revelry. What I call a “carnivalesque” atmosphere, Rebecca Keegan of the Los Angeles Times calls “Bacchanalian,” arguing that the “dense crowds … and mask-wearing anonymity make it prime territory for misbehavior.” Given that taking part in various non-consensual acts such as groping, taking “upskirt” photos, stalking, grabbing and attempting to remove clothing/costumes is so common that it has a name, “creeping at a con,” it is high time that event organizers take responsibility for the uglier sides of their “carnivals.”

This is exactly what the awesome HollabackPHILLY crew have called on San Diego Comic-Con organizers to do. Part of an international network of activists dedicated to ending gender-based harassment in public, HollabackPHILLY created a video about the issue last year, and followed up this year with a petition aimed at San Diego Comic-Con, creating Geeks for CONsent to focus specifically on Comic-Con harassment. They submitted a petition with 2,500 signatures calling on Con organizers to include sexual harassment training for workers and to post signs at the Con detailing anti-harassment policies. While the Con organizers refused to comply, the good news is that Geeks for CONsent is getting quite a bit of press coverage (as in the above piece as well as here and here.) (For the excellent HollabackPHILLY video and post from last year, including information about what you can do to get involved or add your voice to the cause, click here).

Despite the creation of such organizations and pressure from comic book authors and attendees, Con organizers argue that they already have a policy. They do, but it’s not good enough. It reads: “Harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated” and is posted on their website and in the printed events guide. However, this language is far too general and does not make any specific reference to sexual harassment or assault, even though the Con has a history of both.

Yet, we can take heart that at least the sexism, harassment and lack of female representation at the Con are becoming important parts of the cultural conversation. For example, DC and Disney comics editor Janelle Asselin argues that while harassment actually seems to have gotten worse at the Con, it is a good sign that people are speaking up about it:

It seems worse in the last five years or so … But I think a big part of that is that there are more women here, and more women saying, ‘I’m not gonna shut up about how women are treated in comics or how they’re treated at cons.’

While the continuation (or even escalation) of harassment is NOT good, it is a positive sign that more groups and individuals are speaking out about not only sexual harassment, but also the need to include and promote more female writers, directors, artists, superheroines, as well as (PLEASE!) a female-led con-type movie (e.g. superhero, action, sci-fi, horror). Further, more is being written about sexual harassment and assault at such conventions and more actions are being taken by industry insiders, such as sci-fi author John Scalzi. He wrote a post addressing sexual harassment entitled “My New Convention Harassment Policy,” noting he would only be a panelist or guest at a convention that has a clear, visible and enforced harassment policy.

Given that we live in a rape culture, it is not surprising that assaults happen at Comic-Con. However, considering the cultural weight, power and money that fuel the event (and the industry), anti-harassment actions (and statements) could go a long way towards not only changing the Con itself, but also the conversation about such topics in the comic, gaming, movie and television worlds. Alas, both organizers and attendees seem reluctant to make any overt changes. Jeremy Carver (writer and producer of the very popular TV show Supernatural), for instance, was visibly annoyed when a fan asked during his recent panel about the lack of regular female cast members on the show.

After all, when actors such as Jason Momoa (star of Game of Thrones) get cheers for claiming their favorite part of being on a show is that they get to “rape beautiful women and have them fall in love with me,” we clearly have a problem. Comments such as these are not censored at Comic-Con—they may bring groans and boos as well as cheers, but moderators/organizers do not take action. Further, they apparently do not harm the career aspirations of the people who say them (Momoa, for example, has been cast as Aquaman). However, when words like “patriarchy” are mentioned, or topics such as sexism and  racism are brought up, there is a silencing effect that quickly ensues. For example, at the  2013 “Women Who Kick Ass” Comic-Con panel, Danai Gurira (Michone on The Walking Dead) and Michelle Rodriguez (Letty in The Fast and the Furious franchise) used terms such as “white male privilege” and “destructive male culture.” The “Hall H brohive” was not amused, and one man, presumably attempting to suggest a more apt title for the panel, shouted: “Women who talk too much!”

While panel content at the Con is becoming more inclusive, and while the industry itself finally seems to be including more female writers, directors, artists, producers and actors, the prevalence of a misogynistic rape-culture vibe is ongoing and deeply problematic. Look at it this way: If fans at Comic-Con’s Hall H, many of whom wait hours and hours to attend panels, are so brazen as to insult the smart and accomplished women actors, directors and so on who are there to speak, what is likely happening to non-famous females in attendance? If a man is willing to attack the actors who play kick-ass women like Michone and Letty, and if actors such as Jason Momoa get away with “I love to rape” comments, what must we presume happens to female fans and cosplayers in attendance? Sadly, as the incidents detailed at the outset of this piece attest, what happens is harassment and sexual assault.

Photo from San Diego Comic-Con courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Dooley licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.