Jun 27 2011 2:14pm

This is What a Feminist Science Fiction Convention Looks Like: A Con Report from WisCon

WisCon report


Home of the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Awards. Den of the supposed “secret feminist cabal.” That con that so many female sci-fi geeks mentioned to me in college, an off-hand namedropping between thesis writing sessions and anime screenings. “This would be the place for you.” But I never went. Not because I didn’t believe it was as interesting as WisConers made it out to be, but because it was in Wisconsin. And that’s so far away for a New Englander.

Well, after last year’s enthusiasm from Jaymee Goh after attending WisCon 34, I felt like I had no excuse. If a Canadian thought it was worth the plane ride, then perhaps the distance could be trekked. So Lucretia Dearfour and I booked our flights for Madison, Wisconsin, making it the final stop in our spring steampunk convention hopping tour.

There had been some Guest of Honor controversy in the lead-up to this con, but I won’t be talking about that here. Did it make me concerned about going?  Not really. I know the resolution to that issue wasn’t perfect, but ultimately, it showed that when a convention declares itself feminist, that also means extending equal treatment and respect to all types of people. And I’ve been to enough cons over the years where enough bull has been thrown my way, and so I hoped that, perhaps, this would be something different. 

But don’t let the big “F word” scare you away. This isn’t a group of angry women. In fact, WisCon is one of the most inclusive con spaces I’ve ever gone to, in terms of the different ages, races, faiths, gender identities, and abilities who were present. This wasn’t that steampunk con where I could count the number of fans of color on two hands, or that anime con where I was hit on by that skeevy guy with an Asian fetish, or that gamer con where being female made me feel unwanted. Many people I talked to said that the only convention they go to is WisCon, and after going, I can understand why.

The first thing I noticed was the gorgeous hotel we were staying at, the Madison Concourse, apparently the best hotel in town with the neo-Victorian décor and hot tubs to prove it. A big part of a successful con is location, and its spot right in the middle of downtown Madison made it wicked easy to stop in for a drink or a meal outside of the hotel space, or even work in a little shopping.

One my stuff was dropped off, I got to experience WisCon’s con culture. A couple things stuck out: 1) Kudos to the level of accommodation it provides, especially the telecaptioning at major events, spaces marked off for people with disabilities, and the con suite that provided food for all the guests. 2) It’s all about the panels.

Panels at most cons are just a bunch of fluff to kill time between the masquerade and the musical acts. WisCon started off as an academic conference on science fiction, so panels are a focal point, with separate tracks that focused both on society & politics, writing, and fandom. Panels ranged from talking about revolutions in children’s cartoons to teaching sci-fi in the classroom to academic tracks about steampunk. The topics were so interesting that I missed out on a bunch I wanted to see.

Con-goers are encouraged to speak on sign-up to speak on panels; I was on three for the weekend. Jaymee Goh and I presented our “Steam Around the World: Steampunk Beyond Victoriana” as our mainstay, but Jaymee also got to moderate her “Postcolonial Steampunk” panel, and I got to also speak on “Immigration, Fictional and Non-Fictional.”

The Immigration panel was on Friday afternoon, so I felt like I was thrown into the WisCon spotlight before fully acclimatizing. My nerves were soon soothed, however, when I got to chat with fellow panelist Suzanne Alles Blom in the green room before the panel. We soon headed upstairs, where I joined Amal El-Mohtar and the moderator Mary Anne Mohanraj. I’ve known Amal through her writings and got to interview her for her work in the lesbian steampunk anthology Steam-Powered, but was exciting to finally meet her in person; she rushed in last, flustered, happy and slightly apologetic, which seemed to be a running theme for meeting her throughout the weekend. Mary Anne led the panel well, and we each talked a bit about our knowledge about immigration history and family stories.

“Postcolonial Steampunk” was spearheaded by Jaymee and also featured Amal, Tor Books editor Liz Gorinsky, and Guest of Honor Nisi Shawl, who had declared her goal to write a steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo. She also donned a lovely crystal crown, a gift given to her for being Guest of Honor. Shiny!

The panel tackled much more intellectual stuff here more than my last panel, and we debated the role of postcolonialism (and neo-colonialism) in steampunk works, how we personally identified with these terms and applied that aspect to our own projects, and how steampunk subculture’s questions about the aftereffects of colonialism is reflective of the role of global politics today. Here’s a picture of us after all this invigorating stuff, sans Nisi, who was running around all weekend and had to dash off to her next event.

While also at the con, I tried to attend as many other steamy panels as possible. One was moderated by Liz—“Of Course You Invite Your Wife and Her Boyfriend: Modern Etiquette as a Steampunk Prop,” featuring Lisa Blausersouth, Ruthanna Emrys, and Bill Humphries. They questioned the positive nostalgia for a ”love of manners,” starting off with comments about how manners was a sign of social class of the Victorian era and was used as a system to control others who couldn’t “act according to their station.” Then, they moved on with how etiquette can both support a safer space for mutual respect for all in the steampunk community, and as a tool of oppression to silence people from voicing their discomforts. It was fascinating, but it also ran very late at night! At 10 PM on Friday, the exhaustion of traveling on the first day started to get to me, so myself and Lucretia Dearfour had to call it quits early and headed back to the room.

The other steampunk panel I attended had quite the scandalous title: “The Steamy Side of Steampunk: Sexuality and Eroticism in Steampunk Culture and Literature,” an academic track headed by Professor Lisa Hager of University of Wisconsin and her students Julia van Susteren and Jennifer van der Wal. Lisa talked about Lady Clankington and Steam-Powered, in conceptualizing female sexuality, while Julia talked about steampunk and cyberpunk while Jennifer handled representations of steampunk fashion as mechanical and erotic.  

A few other panels I enjoyed: “How to Respond Appropriately to Concerns about Appropriation” handled that big question that’s been hanging over SFF, “Princess Boys” was about male femininity and how its treated in society (also featuring Lucretia Dearfour as a speaker from the transgender & steampunk perspective), and “Policing the Boundaries of YA Literature” addressed how parents, teachers and librarians try to control what kids read (emphasis on try). I managed to remember to take notes for the “Steamy Side of Steampunk” and “Policing YA” and will be posting my transcripted notes soon on Beyond Victoriana for interested folks.

And of course, I attended the infamous “Not another F*cking Race Panel” led by K. Tempest Bradford, where fans of color chatted about what dessert planets Doctor Who should visit, what My Little Pony they’d like to be, and sang the theme song to Jem and the Holograms.

But while people think hard during the day, they play harder at night.  Parties at WisCon meant a free and impressive spread of alcoholic choices at every single room on the party floor, and drinks to accompany any sort of nightly event, whether it is a book launch for a “haiku & earring” party (you write a haiku about a pair of handmade earrings. Creativity on all sides!)

At the con, I also got to meet the Tokocon delegation from Tokyo, a group of fantastic women who are also regular WisCon attendees. They were fundraising money for Japanese relief aid, and I gave them a portion of the Rising Phoenix buttons I had so they could sell them for their own cause too. These women also had great outfits on!

The Genderfloomp dance party on Sunday night was another highlight for me. Organized by Liz and Megan McCarron (DJ Buckminster Fuller), the Genderfloomp encouraged people to express their gender blurring in any and every way possible. Even Viceroy Chang got into the spirit and acquired a gentleman’s moustache for the event.

Nisi’s Guest of Honor speech was the other highlight of the con. She had a few surprises at WisCon, including a flash mob chorus that would appear to sing “Nisi is our Queen,” taken after the “Weasley is our King” song in Harry Potter. In her speech, Nisi talked about recognizing and fostering genius in all of its forms, and even serenaded us with her singing at the opening and closing of her speech. Jaymee, Lucretia, and I also had the pleasure of having lunch with her and several other attendees over the weekend.

Overall, WisCon was a delightful sci-fi con to wrap up my recent convention-hopping. Will I go next year? Most certainly; I think they’ve now gotten themselves a future lifelong attendee.

Jazz hands!

Ay-leen the Peacemaker is the founding editor of Beyond Victoriana, a blog on multicultural steampunk. Currently, she is a graduate student studying performance in steampunk subculture at NYU.

Susan Davis
1. sue
"Panels at most cons are just a bunch of fluff to kill time between the masquerade and the musical acts."

I knew there was a reason why I'm not a congoer. (Congo-er?) I have a lot of friends who regularly attend WisCon. It's a bit of a wrench to spend one of the first really nice weekends after a long winter indoors, but I'll have to give it a try some year.
Emmet O'Brien
2. EmmetAOBrien
"Panels at most cons are just a bunch of fluff to kill time between the masquerade and the musical acts."

There are many other conventions for which this is emphatically not the case, Readercon being the first example to spring to mind, and presenting this as a generalisation seems to me unlikely to be helpful in making people who might enjoy conventions with content-rich panels aware that such things exist other places as well as Wiscon.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
"Panels at most cons are just a bunch of fluff to kill time between the masquerade and the musical acts."

You've been going to the wrong cons. This isn't the case at any of the cons I go to, or I'd be pretty sure never to go to them again.
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
I agree with Jo. Panels are a large reason of why I go to cons.
Rose beetem
5. Rose beetem
I have to vote with the people who have not found panels at all cons to be fluff--though I do think for panels that aren't aiming to be academic are also worthwhile and enjoyable as well.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
6. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
A general comment about my take on panels at cons: I don't mean to include presentations, demonstrations, and workshops into the mix. Those tend to be more structured in my opinion and I definitely go to more of those at cons than just straight up panels (aka discussion-based panels or open topic fan panels). In my experience those have the potential to be very disorganized or run by inexperienced people who don't know how to facilitate a conversation very well.

In the past, I've usually gone to anime conventions, where the focus would be more on the masquerade, the dealer's room, and demonstrations (like kimono-folding, tea ceremony, etc). At gaming cons, the focus is, well, at the tables. Steampunk cons tend to have a good mix of panels, but the focus is more on other things like crafting, presentations (like on histories or literature), demonstrations, and musical bands.

@EmmetAOBrien Funny thing is that I've never heard of ReaderCon until after I left Massachusetts; I should really go to that one some day.
Cait Glasson
7. CaitieCat
*hates being too poor to go*

*enjoys report anyway*

*envies great gobs of friends who do go every year*

*considers more active form of comment*

*rejects as unsuited to own sense of humour*
Ruthanna Emrys
8. R.Emrys
Ayleen: I'm glad you liked the panel. It was a lot of fun to prep for, although inevitably we didn't get to everything we'd been hoping to cover. Maybe in next year's follow-up--one of the cool things about Wiscon is that conversations continue from year to year, rather than just repeating same the 101 material.

On panels: Cons seem to vary wildly in how meaningful the panels get. I've never been to Readercon or Fogcon, but heard good things about both. Fourth Street is small but the panels are amazing. Arisia used to have worthwhile panels, though I haven't been in several years.

@bluejo And it will never be the case at any of the cons you go to--it's your superpower. As evidence, I point to the con where we met you. That year was our first attending, and all the panels were interesting and informative, even the ones you weren't on. I have been to the same con since, and the difference was alarming. In 2011, two panels looked worth attending from the program descriptions. One turned out to be merely disappointing. The other consisted of one guy, who had been to one panel at one Wiscon, talking about how awful Wiscon was.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
R Emrys: If that's my superpower then it's the one I would have chosen above even teleportation or flight.

I must have been bitten by a radioactive Ace Double!

I should write a book about -- no, wait...

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