[Editorial] Otakon Convention Report

Team AniFem is out and about at anime conventions this month, with multiple members attending Otakon in Washington, D.C.; AnimeFest in Dallas, TX; and the very first Crunchyroll Expo in Santa Clara, CA. Each week we’ll be bringing you our personal accounts and impressions as informal “Con Reports,” with staff members sharing their thoughts and experiences.

We’re kicking things off with our Otakon Report, where a whole lot of us were able to get together for a whirlwind three days of fans, panels, and more cool cosplay than you can shake a stick at. Dee, Lauren, Vrai, and Amelia chime in below.

Dee

Otakon wasn’t my first major con or even my first anime convention, but it was the first one where I focused on the more social aspects of Con Culture, whether that was through meeting cool people I’d only ever talked to online (the rest of the AniFem team is just as awesome IRL as they are on Twitter, by the way!) or by going to fan-hosted panels. While those panels ran the gamut from engaging and informative to frustratingly oversimplified or even flat-out inaccurate, overall that “fan focus” was a positive, as it made the convention feel very homey—a place to hang out and share a passion with others rather than an extended advertisement for upcoming anime series.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the diversity among the attendees as well as the con’s general welcoming atmosphere. I saw queer couples holding hands as they browsed the prints in artists’ alley, fans of color posing for photos while rocking some seriously rad cosplay, AMAB folks cheerfully wearing adorable skirts, and many others from all backgrounds, ages, and identities.

I can’t guarantee there were no problems, of course (please share your own experiences, both positive and negative, in the comments below!), but the overall sense was that people felt comfortable enough to be themselves there. I think the Otakon staff itself has done a lot to help foster this inclusive environment, as there were a solid number of panels focusing on progressive-minded topics like female or queer representation, and the video boards reminding folks about the importance of consent were a consistent, heartening sign.

On Saturday, just a few short hours from Otakon, a hate group terrorized people in Charlottesville, Virginia; and on Sunday a man (not a con-goer) at the corner of the convention center was arrested for verbally harassing passing women. Compared to all that, maybe three short days of geeky revelry don’t seem like much. But to me, at least, in light of the ugliness going on around us, spaces like Otakon become that much more important. They provide people with a reprieve; a place where they can mingle and bond over a shared passion, free to be themselves without constant fear of harassment or reproach.

It’s not uncommon for the anime fandom to be depicted as a bunch of cishet white guys living in their parents’ basements, posting racist rhetoric on Reddit by day and doxxing women by night. And don’t get me wrong, the fandom does have its fair share of bigots and harassers, something we absolutely need to acknowledge and address. But this weekend reminded me that the anime fandom is also a place where a lot of marginalized folks (and their allies) find characters and stories that resonate with them, and communities where they can share that love and extend it to each other.

That community has been vital to me for over a decade, maybe now more than ever, and I was so happy to see that it was just as valuable for many others, too. I hope Otakon, other conventions, and sites like our own AniFem can continue to nurture and grow that community, promoting a variety of voices and creating an inclusive, welcoming space for others.

 

Lauren

More than a decade ago, Otakon 2006 was my first anime convention ever. It was overwhelming to abruptly transition from being a solitary fan to one in a 22,000-strong mass of sweltering humanity—and given Baltimore’s humidity, I mean that quite literally. I grew older and the crowds got bigger, but I never missed my yearly pilgrimage.

This year, however, I didn’t have to make one. The con has moved way, way closer to home for me, and instead of traveling I was hosting travelers myself. Instead of a three-day whirl of sleep deprivation, my own bed was never more than four metro stops away. And after a decade, it felt really weird to wake up in my own bed, eat Cheerios in my kitchen, and then go to the con.

And when I got there each morning, the con had changed—but I was surprised by how often it was for the better. Gone were the long, swampy lines for the Dealer’s Room and the dangerously crowded hallways. Otakon’s teeming masses had finally met their match in the 2.3 million square foot Walter E. Washington Convention Center (twice the size of the 1.2 million square foot Baltimore Convention Center). Lines were brief, and if it weren’t for the blasting air conditioning, I might have mistaken the hallways for the wide open outdoors.

As an Otakon veteran, it’s tough to see the con through the eyes of a new visitor. But my friends’ appreciation for the convention’s diversity helped me appreciate it anew. Like Baltimore, D.C. is a historically black city with plenty of anime fans of color, and as in previous years, it was easy to photograph cosplay by, attend panels about, and make friends with people who don’t look like me. What was new was seeing D.C.’s Japanese Embassy and Japan America Society (which hosts the city’s Cherry Blossom Festival and provides language classes) getting involved. I’ve always thought D.C. was a great place to be a fan of Japanese culture, and now any Otakon attendee can get a taste of that, too.

In light of current events, I can take a few guesses as to why people might not be keen on visiting my city right now. But Otakon is thankfully in August—when the House and Senate are on recess—allowing some of the cities’ more charming elements to shine. It was neat to hear about con attendees’ museum visits between fan panels. A new location breathed new life into Otakon, and I expect it’ll win over even more people next year.

 

Vrai

This marks my second-ever convention visit, and the first that was both as huge and anime-focused as Otakon. My feet still hurt. It was a great time, but what I came away with was a profound sense of the gap between the fan and professional elements.

Walking around the con was an amazing experience—I saw cosplayers of all body types, races, and gender expressions (and in three days, only heard one person being kind of an asshole about it), overheard meet-ups the con had made possible, and was generally super impressed with the positive atmosphere helpfully facilitated by the size of the new convention center. Artist’s Alley also wound up being way more appealing than the Dealer’s Room; it was great to be able to support talented, passionate artists on an individual scale, even if the whole affair is arguably of dubious legality.

The panels were a lot more hit-and-miss. I walked away feeling like I had struck out gambling in Las Vegas. The only semi-sure bets were the Q&As with professionals from the industry (and even then, there was occasional attached weirdness, such as some casually homophobic comments from one visiting writer), while submitted fan-panels were extremely hard to gauge the quality of just from descriptions. A well-written and extensive description didn’t necessarily yield a well-thought-out performance, and vice-versa.

The result was I ended up sitting through panels with interesting core ideas that either presented factually incorrect information, failed to develop their theses, or were generally insubstantial, while I heard a lot of secondary accounts from fellow team members who were attending a great talk somewhere else. In addition, a lot of the screenings and events I’d been looking forward to attending were out-and-out cancelled with no warning or explanation. The social experience wound up being far more rewarding than a lot of the provided content, which I imagine would be disappointing for anyone not attending with an already established friend group.

 

Amelia

In the UK we have two types of convention: comic cons, which are more like omni-geek industry shows anime fans just happen to cluster at in cosplay, and the smaller, regional cons run by fans, such as this weekend’s Kitacon. Otakon 2017 was my first U.S. con, and an education in what a convention can be. The UK just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the kind of event I saw last weekend, but now that I’ve experienced it I truly wish we did. (And if any UK-based people with industry connections and leads on this want to talk about setting one up, I would genuinely like to be involved in any serious conversations around that.)

I was overwhelmed and deeply impressed by the diversity of panelists and attendees. People of colour, disabled fans, queer couples, gender non-conforming people – it was beautiful and awe-inspiring to be immersed in the kind of environment that we as intersectional feminists are so invested in building in the real world. The poignancy of being just miles from the events of Charlottesville has been noted by others of the team. It’s something I felt less, partly because I have no sense of the scale and geography here, partly because my internet access has been so limited. It’s given me a new appreciation both for social media as a way to stay informed about the ugliness that so many people have no choice but to experience, and also of spaces like the one Otakon created, which were largely free of these dynamics.

After a mostly incognito life in the UK, it was my first time introducing myself in person as being from Anime Feminist, something that has scared me since I first brought this site together. Unsurprisingly in this environment, I needn’t have been worried. Feminism underpinned a number of the fan panels I went to, with panelists using terms like “genderqueer” or “POC” that I just don’t hear in everyday life.

That said, I also encountered people paying lip service to the ideals of feminism in one breath only to undermine it with inadvertently tone-deaf commentary in the next. We actually submitted a panel to Otakon which was rejected at the latest stage, and now I wish more than ever it had made it through. Feminism was ever-present but largely unaddressed, as is so often the case in fandom, and I believe Anime Feminist could have contributed to a constructive conversation around that.

The highlight of the con for me was actually not related to the con itself. For the first time ever I was able to meet some of our patrons, a humbling experience, and almost all of the incredible people who keep AniFem running day to day: Caitlin, Dee, Lauren, Peter, and Vrai. I don’t know how I lucked into working with such an amazing group of people, who not only work hard and do an amazing job on the site (and their own sites!) but are also REALLY FUN to hang out with!

Activities included exchanging snarky commentary, being the last ones standing at an industry room party, and watching Gravitation and Galko-chan over an ill-advised mix of alcohols plus pineapple pizza. These are the experiences I’ll remember, and not at all exclusive to Otakon. I had forgotten how social conventions can be, and now I can’t wait for the other two stops on my trip: AnimeFest and Crunchyroll Expo. If you’re planning to be at either of these events, get in touch here or on Twitter! I’d love to say hello.

 

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  • SiennaS

    I’m also a DC local who has attended Otakon on and off over the years. I was quite surprised by just how many panels ended up being cancelled mega-last minute this year. I mean, dozens of panels across all three days were cancelled – fan, industry and video. Not only that, there were last minute cancellations in the dealers hall and artists alley. I had friends that had put in for tables, lost, then called by the con a few days before the event to see if they were still interested. That was a bad sign that I hope won’t happen next year.

    Also, the water pipe burst in artist alley led to an artist losing a lot of their work and some others getting sick, unfortunately. I’ve been to a number of events at the Walter E. Washington convention center over the past decade and had never seen something like that happen there. I hope it doesn’t mean that infrastructure maintenance is lagging or being neglected. It could very well only be related to the severe storms in the area that day.

    As far as panels go, hit or miss for me as well unfortunately. Disheartening because the last con I attended, BlerDCon, all the panels i attended were diverse and amazing – but that con is more multi -pop culture and not anime based. I just wished more cons had panels like that.

    I’m not sure if I will attend Otakon next year. I had fun this year, but that was due mainly to the group of friends I attended the con with.

    • Holy crap, did not hear about the pipe burst. I’ve been to the Walter E. Washington center a number of times (mostly for Magic: The Gathering) stuff and the building has never been a major player in my memories of the event. Even if we had storms, DC is always humid and well, damp, and infrastructure needs to be prepared for that.

  • The UK just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the kind of event
    I saw last weekend, but now that I’ve experienced it I truly wish we
    did. (And if any UK-based people with industry connections and leads on
    this want to talk about setting one up, I would genuinely like to be
    involved in any serious conversations around that.)

    Don’t sell the UK short! A fine World Science Fiction Convention was held at ExCeL in 2014, and you’ve got Nine Worlds Geekfest, which is feminist-friendly and appears to be trying to grow into something like the larger US conventions.

    • rugose-appendage

      I’d love to see AniFem do something at Nine Worlds. The organisers put a lot of effort into giving marginalised voices representation, so an AniFem panel won’t be rejected at the last minute.

  • Gorion

    It was a great con! I thought the extra space made the dealers’ room way less claustrophobic. Panels were hit-or-miss as usual but the anime backgrounds panel ended up being surprisingly insightful/informative. The AMV panels and Iron Editor were a blast as always. Since the culture matsuri was folded into the Fri-Sun events it was a great opportunity to attend events like the Shinto shrine blessing that I normally would miss since I can’t join on Thursday. I hope they keep the format in the future.

    My main criticism was that walk-ins’ registration went from 5 minute lines to 1.5 hours so I missed the Friday morning panels. Next year I’ll join the pre-registration group instead.

    As far as the atmosphere, I’ve thought that Otakon has been very open/accepting in the past and I didn’t see anything different in that regard from the staff or topics. I heard some grousing from some attendees since the men’s bathroom in the hallway was labeled as ‘all genders’ but that’s their own problem I suppose.