RICC 2018 and Harassment

Where do we draw the line between socially awkward and creepy? How bad does something have to get to be considered harassment?

When I think about my experiences at Rhode Island Comic Con last weekend, there is no point where I felt unsafe or feared for my physical presence, but there were several points where–had things gone any farther or had I been a less confident person–I would have felt unsafe.

The first thing you should know is that this year marks the first time I’ve moved out of my cosplay comfort zone. In years past, every day was a Kaylee day, wearing different coveralls (or her cupcake dress) for the majority of my weekend with other, smaller projects  (like Katniss from Hunger Games and Lydia Martin from Teen Wolf) on minor days or not at all. The constant barrage of “You know who you look so much like?” and “You know who you should cosplay?” made it so I stuck to Kaylee until April of last year. I love Kaylee but I want to have fun with other characters like the other costumes I love and want to wear. So I said to hell with it. My most ambitious show was Chicago Comic Con in August where I wore 4 different characters/costumes over 4 days.

One of these costumes is Zoya the Destroya, a character played by Alison Brie on the Netflix original G.L.O.W. She wears a metallic-red, one armed leotard, with a black fur ushanka, leather belt with the hammer and sickle, and black leather boots. I love this costume because of the way I get to experiment with  hair and makeup; these are more extensive than anything I’ve done before. I also love poses that encourage me to move beyond smiling and holding my parasol. Zoya shows more skin than any other cosplay I’ve done and, until Rhode Island Comic Con, I never felt like this was a problem. I still don’t feel like it’s a problem and I’m not gonna stop wearing a costume I feel comfortable in, but what the hell happened?Zoya at RICC 2018

I’ve been trying to rationalize why, at this small convention instead of bigger conventions I’ve been to, two men approached me and made me feel icky and gross. Was this convention different because I wasn’t walking with a friend/handler? Are people in New England just odd? I was able to safely get out of both situations but I felt trapped in the moment and I’m still not sure how to address what happened.

In the first instance while walking the show floor with a friend, a man repeatedly shouted for me to slow down despite the fact that I was not walking fast. When I did, he asked what character I was dressed as, then instructed my friend to take a full body picture of him with me where he wanted to put his arm around me but didn’t verbally ask. I responded,  “I’m not comfortable being touched” (When asked politely for Zoya pics, I actually don’t mind putting someone into a headlock for the photo!)

He handed my friend what looked like an ancient gameboy DS (though I am unfamiliar with handheld video game devices) and my friend did his best to step backwards into surging crowds to snap a pic. My friend and I attempted to leave after the first photo but the man accosted us for not getting a full body picture which we then refused, stating that it was too busy. The man aggressively apologized, saying “I’m sorry I yelled, I’m sorry that I was acting in a way you thought was rude, I just wanted a picture!”

He later found me talking with friends at a booth, got his full body picture, and then showed up to my panel about Comic Con-ing on a Budget where he asked if the costume contest at New York Comic Con was always on Sunday. It’s not, and that’s not even the convention we were currently attending. After the panel, I was chatting with a few folks from the audience who had relevant questions and the man interrupted to ask if his questions were good. I told him they were not.

But that’s the small scale problem dude. The second experience I had at Rhode Island Comic Con was far more insidious.

It started with me walking by myself around the Dunkin Donuts floor, about to head downstairs to check on the autograph lines when an older man with a camera asked me what was downstairs. Since I had walked the show floor in its entirety on Friday, I was pretty good at giving directions.
Me: “The bigger name celebrities and more vendors.”
He: “Where are the smaller name celebrities?”
Me: “Upstairs, near the Star Wars stuff.”
He: “Oh, do you do these often?”

This is where the conversation shifted from me politely offering directions to this man making me uncomfortable. “Yup.” I said, hoping to signal I was done with the conversation so I could get on with my day. But no, he continued.
He: “What are you dressed as?”
Me: “Zoya. From GLOW.”
He: “Loya??”
Me: “Zoya. With a Z.” I motioned with my hands.
He: “Oh Zoya! Do you mind if I get a picture?”

I didn’t mind a picture. I made a snap decision that I didn’t feel unsafe, I was proud of my hair, makeup and costume, and I didn’t mind this guy taking one picture. He held up his camera and took the shot. While he adjusted his camera settings, I took the opportunity to try to get pumpkin seed shell out of my teeth.
He: “Oh are you chewing gum? Will you blow a bubble for me?”
Me: “Nope, I have pumpkin seed in my teeth.”
He: “Oh.”

At this point he took a second picture and showed it to me. I didn’t care.

He: “Have you ever modeled?”
Me: “Not since I was a kid.”
He: “Are you interested in it?”
Me: “Nope I have a full time job.”
He: “I’ve actually shot some models, you know, BBW stuff, not that that’s you, or there’s anything wrong with being that.”

I now looked for any possible reason in the world to walk away from this man who made me step to the side for his picture and was now in the way of me leaving.
Me: “I have a full time job that I enjoy.” I was actively glaring.
He: “Did you see my hat?” He was wearing a beanie that said ‘Smile.’ I bared my teeth and left.

Did I feel that my life or person were in danger in either of these scenarios? No. In both situations, I attempted several times to verbally and non-verbally suggest my discomfort, but what do you do in a situation like this? It isn’t so bad that I felt the need to go to security, but it makes me second guess even speaking to people who ask directions on the show floor. With first guy, I didn’t feel like he had the capacity to understand the social connotations of harassing someone on the show floor, so my direct (if brusque) language was the best I could manage at the time. With the latter, a friendly gesture turned into me knowing this man was thinking about me in a sexual manner. I felt violated, and maybe I should have told him that what he was asking was incredibly inappropriate given the setting we were in. But I needed to get away. Do you go to security for something like this? Do you leave it alone and let men go on doing the same thing to other people? Do you make a scene to try to attract the attention of anyone nearby? I don’t have the answers, but I do have to rethink how I approach conventions on my own in the future.

To Rhode-ly Go: RICC 2016

AKF in front of RICC backdrop
AKF at RICC 2016

Another year, another Rhode Island Comic Con, the convention which wraps up all of my conventions for the year. This year, it was much less of a hectic travel for me (though I did drive about 3hrs from Albany to the Rhode Island on Thursday evening) compared to last year. Having attended RICC consistently since 2013 (the con’s 2nd year in existence), I have seen changes made for better and for worse.

I have made myself more available as a speaker at conventions this year. I realized last year that I know enough to talk authoritatively about Firefly and other aspects of geekdom, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to apply for a panel. I loved presenting and I want to keep hosting panels forever. At RICC, I debuted a new panel I am really proud of: ‘What Not To Ask at a Celebrity Q&A.’ This panel needs some refinement (but so did my Firefly panel when I first did that back at Chicago Comic Con 2016), but I hope to bring it to more cons in 2017. I also ran ‘The Expanding Firefly ‘Verse’ with Laurel of FuckYeahFirefly.com who happens to be one of my best friends. We streamed the event on Facebook live and it’s on my facebook page.

Though our Firefly panel went really well, we did struggle because we weren’t give a projector. My panels always feature slideshows for visual aid (especially in the Firefly panel, since it’s much easier to show pictures of Firefly merch rather than bringing all the merch with me– I would have been really out of luck if this weren’t a local convention!) AND help those who are hard of hearing or visual learners instead of auditory learners. Plus, I include links to everything to help folks find the merch I promote, which are basically impossible to see without a larger projection than just my laptop screen. Prior to RICC, I had only presented at Wizard World conventions but, for all of the conventions I have submitted to, I am guaranteed a projector for my A/V needs. I hope in the future, RICC can make that happen for panelists or clarify that audio-visual tools are limited so panelists like me can make other plans.

Other than that A/V snafu, the room sizes were about perfect for my anticipated audience size  and receiving vendor badges made it so much easier to get through security faster (which was a big help, when I was almost late to my Saturday panel because the parking was so terrible). However, more folks would have shown up to my panels if we were scheduled a little better and if the schedule was clearer. RICC is the only convention I know of that does not make the  schedule available in the program books you receive at the convention. These program books should absolutely have the schedule in them. The only place to find the programming schedule was on RICC’s website (which is kind of an eyesore and takes forever to load), the very glitchy mobile app, or posters throughout the con that only mentioned events for that day. There was no place with a map that listed exactly what events were where. Instead, RICC had maps on poster boards in random places that had the layout and numbers but didn’t list which vendors correlated with which numbers or where to find the celebrity meet-and-greets.

Like last year, RICC took place both in the convention center and in the adjacent Dunkin Donuts stadium (“The Dunk”). Most of the vendors and some of the “smaller” celebs were in the main hall at the convention center. I say “smaller” in quotation marks because they considered Brent Spiner (Data in Star Trek TNG) and Summer Glau (River Tam in Firefly and Serenity) – among others! – “smaller” celebrities. These are practically household names for nerds like me! The main hall also featured artists alley, and the entirety was laid out in columns instead of rows, so navigating was incredibly difficult.

RICC Traffic
This was really low traffic, comparatively.

Like last year, other celebrities were in the stadium, though these folks (and their lines) were on the actual rink rather than being in the circle surrounding it (the opposite of last year). One of the vendors in the ring around the rink said that sales had been really good in this area, which surprised me because that area was a pain to get to for convention attendees. Though there is a sky bridge that connects the Dunk to the convention center, it was going ONE WAY, from the Dunk to the convention center. If you wanted to see a celeb or vendor in the Dunk, you had to go outside the convention center to walk to the Dunk. While I walked the main hall floor a whole bunch of times, I only ventured over to the Dunk twice over the whole weekend due to the one-way sky bridge. It makes more sense to me to lay that out the opposite way, and push traffic into the Dunk to make the convention center less busy, which is an issue for RICC every year.

Another issue was photo-ops. Laurel was really excited to get a professional photo with Summer Glau, who has rarely offered them in the past, but was hugely disappointed by what she ended up with, and the work she had to do to get it. Though RICC claimed to offer  photo-op sales online (which could be purchased in advance), Laurel couldn’t find one for Summer so she had to buy it at the con. At the convention, staffers almost wouldn’t let her buy a photo-op because they claimed to have capped all photo-op sales by Saturday morning. At RICC (like most cons) photo-ops and autographs are cash only. Because Laurel didn’t have  any cash on hand Friday, she figured she could get cash first thing in the morning to pay for a photo-op since RICC offered both Saturday and Sunday photo-ops with Summer. Eventually, staff let her purchase one but the result was awful. When the time for the picture came, the lighting was horrible, the photographer framed the picture poorly, and it even came out blurry. When Laurel asked to re-take the photo, they said the best they could do was re-print the same picture in portrait rather than landscape. She decided to cut her losses and roll with the crappy photo she received. Suffice to say, I recommend against purchasing “professional” photo-ops at RICC.

FYF and Summer Glau

The “vendor” vs. “artist alley” organization made very little sense since a lot of the vendors in the Dunk seemed like they would fit really nicely into an Artists’ Alley section. A friend commented that she was disappointed there wasn’t more focus on the artists. We had gone to NYCC together and loved everything in ‘The Block,’ which includes a lot more grunge-y art work and where I spent most of my money on enamel pins. We also noted that bigger cons like NYCC feature panels about diversity and RICC hasn’t caught onto that yet. At NYCC,  I didn’t feel the need to attend many of the feminist/POC/queer panels since we’d seen them in the past, but we both agreed that it’s definitely something that should be present at every convention, RICC included.

Yet again, I don’t understand why RICC splits the celebs and vendors up. The celebrities should all be in one building with the vendors/artists’ alley in another. Every other convention does it that way, rather than arbitrarily splitting up the celebrities. One person argued that putting vendors in one building and celebs in another would result in attendees who were just interested in meeting celebs never visiting the vendor hall, but I really don’t think that’s an issue. If those con-goers want to see a panel, they’ll be in the con hall. If they want to buy a photo to get signed, they’ll be in the con hall. Plus, if they are spending $50-$75 PLUS the price of a photo-op or autograph, they’re likely to walk the con hall just to get their money’s worth. And if they don’t want to see the vendors, that’s their prerogative, as a paying convention attendee.

All that being said, I don’t imagine RICC will go anywhere else anytime soon. The convention center is the largest in RI. Though it screws up traffic in the area for those three days, it’s good to see so much seating & eating available in the vicinity. Being next to the mall is great when you need a break and don’t want to spend $4 on a bottle of water in the convention center. This convention also seemed a lot less busy than last year’s RICC and I think it may have had to do with cancellations from some of the bigger name guests (like Billie Piper). I think it’s a good idea for RICC to feature only 1 or 2 bigger name guests, because it makes the traffic much less horrible and allows the con to focus its energy on spotlighting those special guests. I intend to attend RICC again in 2017 and I hope it continues to grow and change into the con that I believe it can be.

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