DashCon Discourses: Through a Feminist Lens

July 16, 2014
By | 5 Comments

This past weekend (July 11-13), I attended DashCon, the first con exclusively devoted to Tumblr users (although not affiliated with Tumblr). Because of poor management by a staff that was well-intentioned but inexperienced, young, and lacking in resources, the con suffered a couple of major public calamities, including a desperate mid-con plea for emergency cash on their Tumblr site (which they received) that immediately became the target of contempt and ridicule by primarily non-con attendees on Tumblr and other social media sites.

DashCon logoThe hostility of this rhetoric often conflated the organizers with the attendees, who were primarily female and queer teens, many of whom were local and attending their first con. The largest concentration of this rhetoric is the Dashcon tag and user reblogs spread it quickly; one early Tumblr post – reblogged over 67,000 times – characterized con-goers as “white kids in flower crowns rioting for the anti-sexualization of women in media while holding panels about homoerotic subtext.” Comments on other social media sites like Jezebel swiftly adopted this derisive tone, describing attendees as “dorks who live in their parents’ basement” or “hormonal teenagers who enjoy drama way too much” in contrast to the “mature” fans on Tumblr “who discuss theories.”  Such misinformed and misogynist discourse was accompanied by paternalistic horror about the possible exposure of teenagers to an informational 18+ BDSM panel.

As a counter to this discourse, I want to highlight some of the more productive social and cultural aspects and implications of the con. For attendees, it is a vital safe space for self-expression and community bonding, intellectual engagement, counseling, and social empowerment for attendees. In turn, the implicit discomfort and hostility directed at them reveals how this space threatens social hierarchies regarding, in particular, female sexual pleasure and knowledge, “feminine” cultural production, “mass” tastes, and non-normative sexual/gender identities and practices.

I attended DashCon because I am interested in the way social media sites, particularly Tumblr, and their related cons provide young female and queer fans the opportunity to fulfill social, emotional, and educational needs that more traditional institutions do not. Last year, I participated in a series of articles for Antenna about LeakyCon, an established convention with a similar demographic. The advanced publicity of DashCon indicated a related agenda, with a “social issues” track of panels devoted to overlapping concerns of Tumblr users, including feminist politics and mass media representation, LGBTQA support, social justice concerns, mental health care and, ironically, ways to combat online hate and bullying. I enlisted a couple of con-goers who were also media studies students, and we shared the coverage of various panels and activities (although these observations are mine alone).

DashConPhoto Cosplay

The most visible way DashCon created a safe space for female self-expression was the community’s respectful treatment of its many cosplayers. In cosplay, attendees dress as their favorite media characters, often spending days creating costumes. Because attendees respected the maxim that “cosplay is not consent,” they did not touch or take photos of cosplayers without their explicit permission. Veteran cosplayers often noted with relief how unmolested they felt at DashCon compared to mixed-sex cons where they are often groped.

In addition to cosplaying, the activities of this con followed others of its type, and included games, singalongs, autograph signings, fan art sales, as well as panels. The “social issues” and media analysis panels frequently overlapped in content and politics. Media fans, especially in this demographic, are often already engaged in trying to locate alternatives to dominant ideologies through media texts, and DashCon attendees were eager to analyze the social aspects of media culture. My colleague Paul Booth has called fandom, “the classroom of your life” and it certainly had that role at DashCon, where attendees were able to learn about topics that are still largely not covered in high school or even college classrooms, where gender and queer studies are rarely integrated into the curriculum as a whole.

The panelists, a combination of academics, activists, and/or social media specialists, embraced more radical rather than liberal political positions, drawing on many aspects of queer theory and critical race theory as well as media studies. Media analysis panels emphasized the importance and lack of strong female characters, queer characters, and characters of color, and the discussion leaders were able to personally speak to these issues as well as offer strategies to advocate for more diverse representation. Straight and queer women’s investment in male/male “slash” pairings was addressed in nuanced ways tied to, for example, the lack of equivalent development of female characters.

The panelists crucially tied media production to larger social structures, noting that “people blame the media, but these are institutional problems, social hierarchies that get represented by the media. There is no villain in the tower.” Instead, they emphasized the importance of education, an understanding of historical context and change, and an appreciation of the intersectionality of identity. Panels about contemporary feminism offered both scholarly analysis and an opportunity for young women to share their stories and concerns.

The rape culture panel, for example, began by asserting that instead of telling women how to avoid rape, we as a society should instead be focusing on teaching men and boys not to rape, a message that is prevalent on Tumblr but rarely appears in the mainstream.

All the panelists, while critical of DashCon’s management, have noted how impressed they were – as was I – with the engagement and thoughtful questions of the attendees. They have also tried to debunk misinformation, noting, for examples, the racial as well as gender/queer diversity of panels and attendees, and protesting their misrepresentation and the attacks on them.

This con provided young people with an opportunity to further expand the alternative communities that Tumblr offers them. While its larger problems are disappointing, DashCon’s grassroots project should be appreciated for what it did accomplish despite its organizers and attendees’ lack of social power and resources. Other attendees felt the same. Panelist Brin posted a video of her participation in the LGBTQ&A panel (below) and another con-goer posted that he found its cost was “a small price against my first time truly feeling in a community of people who would love and understand me with almost no effort at all.”


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5 Responses to “ DashCon Discourses: Through a Feminist Lens ”

  1. anna on July 17, 2014 at 6:04 PM

    What exactly is misogynistic about “white kids in flower crowns rioting for the anti-sexualization of women in media while holding panels about homoerotic subtext”?

    • Allison McCracken on July 22, 2014 at 1:03 PM

      Hi Anna–

      Thank you for giving me the opportunity to elaborate (these word limits are difficult).

      First, the idea that young women are “rioting” about their sexualization in media a] suggests that sexism either doesn’t exist in the media (and therefore in society) or is being wildly overstated by them, neither of which is true b] diminishes and ridicules young women’s activism on their own behalf as “rioting,” specifically their genuine and rightful concerns about this sexism (the old trope about “hysterical” women and “angry feminists”); c] it also does not acknowledge the importance of safe and informative spaces like these Cons where their concerns are taken seriously, an area where the organizers should be rightfully applauded for making possible.

      Second, this statement equates sexism in the media with women’s erotic fantasies. Panelist leaders made clear that media sexism was tied to larger institutional structures of gender/sexual inequality in the United States as opposed to “blaming the media,” which is generally the easier approach to discussions of sexism, even from “liberals.” Young women’s particular romantic and sexual fantasies, like anyone’s, are their own, and not subject to critique. These spaces provide young women the opportunity to find community with others over their shared fantasies without being subject to just such ridicule by the larger sexist culture. The fact some of this fantasy is gay or queer according to current social mores, suggests that our heteronormative society is still primarily serving the romantic and sexual desires of (white) straight men and does little to acknowledge the variety of romantic and sexual identities and practices that exist in the culture. Young women’s “homoerotic” fantasies (often featuring two men) also reflect their own agency in creating work that will serve their desires; these are important acts of self-determination that are generally marginalized and ridiculed by a larger culture that dismisses “feminine” cultural production as not artistically valuable or worthy of genuine appreciation and serious study. I have seen more careful, nuanced analyses of media texts on Tumblr and more interesting creative thinking — often in opposition to dominant mores regarding sex and gender– in fan fiction than I have in most mainstream “high culture” products.

      Finally, referring to all these girls as “white” erases the actual racial (as well as not acknowledging other distinctions such as religious, sexual, and class) diversity of the attendees. Many young female and queer fans are also people of color, yet are continually erased in discussions of female fandom–in part, I think, because it’s easier to dismiss them as not socially relevant. As one of the panelists I linked mentioned, such a generalization is actually racist because of its erasure of young women of color, as well as misogynist.

      Thanks for your question!

  2. anna on July 17, 2014 at 6:46 PM

    Also, the concern about young children getting into the 18+ BDSM con had more to do with the rumors of a live sex show demonstration, which would have been illegal for children to be present for. Every complaint I saw about that was a legal complaint.

    There were some great things about the LGBTQIAP and perhaps some other panels, but the execution of this con was a mess.

    • Allison McCracken on July 22, 2014 at 1:29 PM

      The discourse about this particular subject has been truly fascinating. On the one hand, the responses have trivialized and ridiculed young women’s romantic and sexual fantasies while at the same time expressing a paternalistic concern that a handful of young women and queer kids under 18 might be in some way exposed to alternative sexual practices (this is where the “hysteria” comes in). There is nothing in the panel description to indicate a “live” sex performance, but rather an informational panel; this panicked rumor/response only affirms to me that such concerns were more about women having sexual knowledge at all — particularly regarding alternative sexual practices that may, in fact, be more empowering to these young women than the normative sexual practices that, in any event, of which our society seems committed to keeping them ignorant. We have very little, very uneven sexual education in this country compared to every other western industrialized nation; it is truly shameful, as well as dangerous, that young women (as well as young men) do not have access to the sexual education that they sorely need for their psychological as well as physical well being, to say nothing of their health. And, of course, those young people who do get sexual education are generally more socially privileged.

      When young people do receive some sex ed, it is entirely focused on preventing sexual disease and does not address issues of sexual pleasure, desire, alternative sexual identities, or consent. I have been teaching a college course in the history of sex in the U.S. for many years now, and most of my students admit having learned about sex from online porn, not from the educational system (in contrast, one panel about BDSM relationships included discussions of consent, pleasure, communication between partners, ect). My studnets who are the most sophisticated about consent issues, varieties of sexual pleasure, and the multiplicity of gender/sexual identities in society today have learned about those subjects on social media sites such as Tumblr, and Youtube (such as the “sexplanations” series), and by reading fanfiction produced by their own communities. The people who are so up in arms about young people being exposed to BDSM should be more focused on the fact that young people are not getting the basic information they need to protect themselves and to find pleasure. If they sneak into an informational BDSM panel to learn something about what we seek to keep from them, good for them.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Sarah on July 21, 2014 at 4:52 PM

    Thank you for this spot on analysis. As someone who was there, I’ve been stunned at how sexist the early critiques were, and how they lead to putting Dash Con under a spotlight that was completely driven by that sexism.