A group of female webcomic artists and online radio hosts have been ejected from the Calgary Expo, a Canadian pop culture convention, after publicly disagreeing with members of a feminist panel discussion.
Staff at the expo informed them that they had received reports of ‘harassment’ at the panel, but footage of the discussion shows that no such behaviour took place. Consumers accused the Calgary Expo of engaging in political intolerance, and have begun a boycott of the convention’s sponsors.
The ejected group are co-hosts of the Honey Badger Brigade, an online radio show that covers politics and pop culture. It was set up in 2013 by Alison Tieman, creator of the Xenospora webcomic. Both the comic and the show have acquired a dedicated fan base in recent years, and it was fans who helped raise over $9,000 for the Honey Badgers to set up a promotional booth at the Calgary Expo.
Previous guests on the radio show included porn star and activist Mercedes Carrera and science fiction author Brad R. Torgersen, both of whom are prominent critics of the trend towards intolerance and censorship in popular culture. According to the Honey Badgers, convention staff approached them early on Friday and informed them that their group was not just banned from the convention, but from all conventions managed by Fan Expo, which runs a number of similar events across Canada.
For a team of webcomic artists and pop culture commentators, this is a serious professional blow – made all the more frustrating by the convention’s refusal to provide a clear reason for their course of action. I spoke to Alison Tieman and other members of the Honey Badger Brigade yesterday.
According to their account, they encountered no problems at all on the first day of the convention, when they were simply manning their booth. In the afternoon, however, Alison and other members of their group decided to attend a feminist panel event discussing the depiction of women in comic books.
During the Q&A session, Alison publicly disagreed with one of the panelists, and gave a short statement in which she argued that the brand of feminism articulated by the panelists was too quick to embrace victimhood. This appears to have been the catalyst for the expo’s decision to eject the Honey Badgers from their conference.
Alison says that their booth was approached by convention staff early on Friday, who informed them that they would have to leave. Convention staff refused to give a reason for their decision without a guarantee that their conversation was not being recorded.
According to Tieman, convention staff told her “if we tried to record them, they would just eject us without giving a reason.” Once recording equipment had been turned off, the Honey Badgers were informed that there had been 25 separate reports of ‘harassment’ at the panel event.
When pressed, staff were unable to point to specific instances of harassment, but nevertheless went ahead with the ejection. The Honey Badgers captured a full recording of the discussion, which reveals no sign of harassment or disruptive behavior. Although they clearly disagree, both Alison and the panelists exchange their views civilly. Unless disagreement counts as harassment, it is difficult to tell what the problem was.
Karen Straughan, a well known YouTube pundit and co-host of the Honey Badgers says Tieman’s comment was a “classic second-wave feminist” argument, arguing against the casting of “actual, real-life women in the comic book industry as damsels in distress”.
Straughan also emphasised the civility of Tieman. “She engaged in no violations of policy, she used no abusive language. She asked for permission to speak, was granted permission to speak, and spoke her mind – and that’s apparently harassment!” The Calgary Expo released a statement explaining their decision. Claiming to provide a “positive and safe event for everyone”, the Expo said they “had reason to believe that the Exhibitor in question [did] not fall in line with this mandate”.
The expo have yet to highlight a specific example of the Honey Badgers compromising the safety or positivity of the event. By way of contrast, Karen alleges that the people who really felt unsafe at the event were the Honey Badgers’ fans. “They were afraid to talk to us, and we had to reassure them” says Karen. “There was one guy who was basically having a panic attack right there.
He was worried that if he was seen speaking to us then that would be a big problem for him.” I asked the expo if they had any plans to address this in line with their mandate of “safety” and “positivity”, but they have yet to provide any details beyond their initial statement. Backlash The Expo’s response was unconvincing to consumers, who quickly flooded the #CalgaryExpo hashtag with critical tweets.
Many alleged that the convention was using “safety” as an excuse for political discrimination, while others noted the hypocrisy of expelling female creators from a pop culture convention in the name of feminism.
Consumers aren’t just speaking out on Twitter. They’re also complaining to the Calgary Expo’s sponsors, which include CMP Chevrolet, Vue Weekly, Pattison Outdoor advertising, Air Electronics, and ATB Financial. Threads to co-ordinate the email campaign have been posted on Reddit and 8chan. Company representatives are likely to find themselves with flooded inboxes on Monday. One former sponser has already distanced themselves from the expo.
No doubt aware of their PR misstep, the Calgary Expo’s social media team have begun deleting potentially offensive tweets. A tweet linking to an article from the feminist blog The Mary Sue was deleted, perhaps out of fear that the close connection between the blog and the expo would add legitimacy to claims of political discrimination. Another tweet containing an image some found offensive was also deleted, no doubt to avoid further controversy.
None of this frantic PR manuevering has done any help for the Calgary Expo’s credibility, and they now face a campaign from angry consumers. Their convention’s hashtag, #CalgaryExpo, has been completely taken over by their critics, and despite some praise from progressive blogs, the consensus of pop culture fans is turning against them. Thousands of fans are now urging the Expo to retract their decision and own up to their mistake.
None of this is any solace to Alison, the 23-year veteran of the comic book industry, who has suffered the most professional blowback from the incident. Now facing permanent exclusion from Canada’s most popular pop culture convention, she posted a tearful video to YouTube giving her full account of the ordeal.
It will be difficult for the Calgary Expo to maintain their argument that they were trying to create a “safe and welcoming environment” when they have a debacle like this on their hands. Alison’s video is likely to add fuel to what now appears to be the start of long-term campaign against the convention’s sponsors, with the expo’s bizarre code of conduct likely to become a key target.
This story is another example of the continued politicization of pop culture, a trend which shows no sign of stopping. Video games, sci-fi, and comic books have become flashpoints, with creators and companies facing an unprecedented level of pressure. No doubt the majority would like a de-escalation in the conflict, but political intolerance is a poor way to go about it.