If you haven’t heard of Cherry City Comic Con, you can be forgiven. The new convention, which launches in Salem, Oregon, on May 10 and 11, is the first of its kind in the region, and it promises to bring together Oregon’s comics, gaming, cosplay, movies and tv fandoms for an event that emphasizes local talent and community. By that description, it sounds like a net positive for both fandom in general, and for the city of Salem.
Unfortunately, an initially unintentional hostile reaction to a customer inquiry about the ratio of male and female cosplay images has shined a bright light on the convention, with the ensuing and very public controversy now threatening to overshadow Cherry City Comic Con itself. What follows is an enormously convoluted story that almost defies belief, but one that offers important lessons about unexamined sexism in the geek community, or at least thinking before you speak.
Strap in, readers. Headaches ahead.
On April 27, with just two weeks to go before the convention’s start, several cosplay images were posted to the official CCCC Facebook page. While the images were a cross section of costumes and cosplayers, female cosplayers were more heavily featured than male. A CCCC attendee named Chana, concerned about the imbalance as well as the potentially un-family friendly nature of the photos – the convention expressly advertises itself as family friendly – posted a comment requesting more male cosplay images.
Normally, this would be where the story ends. Whether or not one thinks the complaint had merit, it’s an easy matter to acknowledge the concern and address it to the customer’s satisfaction. That is… not what happened. Someone managing CCCC’s Facebook page, likely convention owner Mark Martin, responded to the inquiry defensively. At first attempting to diffuse the matter with humor, the exchange quickly descended into a curt, but unmistakably sexist dismissal of the concerns, and Chana quickly decided to ask for a refund. You can see the exchange here in this screenshot:
Chana then privately contacted CCCC through the organization’s Facebook page in order to request her refund. While not the best outcome, the matter could at this point have remained private, but unfortunately, Martin took to his personal Facebook page, where he quoted Chana’s refund request, including her first name, and proceeded to mock her complaints angrily. Making things worse, Martin’s friends joined in.
At this point, Dallas-based cosplayer and burlesque artist Black Mariah became involved. While she does not know Mark Martin or other persons associated with the convention personally, as a prominent cosplayer she received and accepted a friend request from Martin at some point prior to the posting of Chana’s refund request. When Mariah saw this post, she left a comment that, in her words, was “a non inflammatory, non offensive reasonably languages (sic) response about how this post looks to other women cosplayers”. She was subsequently blocked by Martin, and the comment was deleted.
Mariah had taken a screenshot of Martin’s original post, however – you can see it here – and brought it to the attention of friend and fellow cosplayer Taffeta Darling. Darling, known for drawing attention to instances of sexism in the geek community, quickly shared a screenshot of the post with her friends and posted it to her Facebook. Martin, alas, contacted her personally and responded by calling Darling a sexist, then began posting to her Facebook page using multiple aliases (also known as “sockpuppets”), in which he created a sock puppet – he pretended to be someone else – to speak in his defense. (Proof of this here.)
If these actions were designed to defuse the situation, they failed. Taffeta Darling had also talked about the incident at length via social media, and after the slew of wall posts now attributed to Mark Martin, she also made public their private exchange. With the matter garnering increasing attention, the website Strong and Free spoke to a CCCC representative, who claimed to be named “Cassie.” “Cassie” was as dismissive of the incident as Mark had been both as himself, and using his various aliases. Indeed, “she” had even used identical language in some instances. More complaints followed – you can see many of them still posted to CCCC’s Facebook wall. Whatever Martin’s original intent, he and his organization were now becoming widely seen as hostile to cosplayers, and dismissive of the concerns of women.
By Tuesday evening, what began as a trivial disagreement about cosplayers in a photo gallery had turned into a full blown PR crisis for Cherry City Comic Con.
Martin finally issued a brief apology late Tuesday evening. This was an important first step, but it was critically undermined by subsequent actions. First, a protracted effort was made to scrub Facebook of much of the communication associated with the issue. Martin deleted comments made using his aliases, which was bad enough, but then attempted to impugn Strong and Free, outright denying that anyone named “Cassie” worked for the organization and accusing the site of fabricating the entire conversation. If you’ve been reading this far, then you can probably guess that Strong and Free took a screen shot of the conversation in question. And you’d be right.
Around this time, Martin also resumed posting to Taffeta Darling’s Facebook page, using screenshots (this time with Chana’s name blocked out) to plead his case. At the same time, someone – it is impossible to determine who – reported a screenshot of her original conversation with Martin, which Darling had posted to her Facebook wall, as threatening or inappropriate, and it was briefly taken down. By Wednesday afternoon, an online consensus was emerging that Cherry City Comic Con was a hostile space for cosplayers and for women in particular. A nightmare situation for a fledgling convention that hasn’t even celebrated its first event.
By yesterday, the full extent of this nightmare was apparent. Spurred by this, Mark Martin, for his part, now seems genuinely sorry about the matter, and has taken full responsibility for it. While he declined to be interviewed for this article, he provided The Escapist with a statement, posted here in full:
My name is Mark, the individual in question. I own the CCCC and It was my actions that lead to this unfortunate event. I posted on my personal profile my frustration over the situation. When one has invested their time, money and heart into something- when you feel like it is being attacked, you don’t always handle it the best way, and I did not. It was not my intention to cause harm but I did and for that I’m truly very sorry.
We are trying to create a convention where we all can share our interests, passions, and loves.
We do have a privacy and harassment policy located here: (this page is being updated as I write this but should be live by 9pm this evening)
As a convention we are prepared to review, as a team, harassment policies and to ensure that myself and others on the team will never act in such a way again. And we welcome further suggestions on how we can make our convention a place for everyone to enjoy!
I say that I completely apologize for the way I behaved. It was not the best way to handle it and I am ashamed of my actions and how it affected people’s opinion of the convention and myself. At this point all we can do now is show people how our convention is a place to bring their families to all share their interests. On a personal level all I can do is show how my outburst was a singular act that is no way a statement of my character.
This statement may not be enough for cosplayers and fans put off by the whole affair, but at least, as of this writing, it seems the convention intends to make amends. That alone may be enough reason to give benefit of the doubt.
The question we’re now faced with is just how did things get so bad? It’s easy to conclude, once you’ve managed to wrap your head around the confusing and often inexplicable behavior, that this is a textbook case of institutional sexism and a strong argument in favor of nonattendance. The sad thing, however, is that as conceived, Cherry City Comic Con has attempted to create the precise opposite atmosphere.
The convention’s rules lay out strict guidelines for attendee behavior very much on par with what is expected in order to maintain a safe and inclusive environment. Among proscribed behavior is sexual harassment, “Offensive or rude behavior toward anyone,” heckling, and “lewd sexual contact or behavior” which is expressly defined as “groping or inappropriate touching,” a clarification that seems to be aimed squarely at people who don’t understand that, as the female cosplay community has worked so hard to make clear, cosplay is not consent.
So what happened? I suspect there were two things at play. First is the simple matter of a first time convention organizer whose emotional involvement in the success of his venture got in the way of thinking carefully about how one’s behavior as a public figure is seen by people who do not consider you a peer, but as somewhat of an authority. A review of the initial reaction to Chana’s concern over the gender balance of cosplay photos seems, to me at least, to demonstrate that whomever responded to her complaint was, at least at first, attempting to diffuse a potentially troubling situation with humor. Frustration over being misunderstood led to what amounts to a petulant emotional outburst, and a combination of frustration and fear led Martin to, for lack of a better way to put it, double down on foolish behavior until he shot himself, and his nascent convention, in the foot.
But second? I don’t pretend to know Mark Martin, but I will point out that many men in the geek space, including myself at various points in my life, who consider themselves feminists or feminist allies, have not managed to examine their own prejudices and preconceptions deeply. It’s easy to assume that because you agree with and support equality, you yourself are not part of the problem. Without that kind of introspection, it’s easy for tendencies you weren’t even fully aware of to emerge in horrifying ways when you’re emotionally compromised. Just for one example, as a very arrogant 18 year old, I discovered to my shame that I had it in me to bleat out a hugely racist epithet after being beaten up. Until that moment I hadn’t even considered that bad cultural instruction had managed to affect me in any substantial way.
That isn’t to say I deserved anyone’s pity for how I behaved, only to point out that sometimes, you need a particularly harsh wake up call to realize you’re wrong. Once you realize it, you can change for the better. And that aspect of all this is good news. This episode illustrates the way in which geek culture, and our culture generally, has rapidly changed. While it can be tiresome and frustrating when new instances of bad behavior emerge, part of the reason they do emerge is that they are no longer ignored, but instead confronted openly by the people such instances affect most intimately.
“I think the issue with sexism in any genre, not just geek culture is increasing,” Taffeta Darling told The Escapist. “But luckily there are people, women AND men, who are ready to smack that down. And that’s all myself and my friends were trying to do.”