As I pointed out in the article on this issue, I’m incredibly grateful that Convention Director Matt Solberg took the time for my interview. Both because it helps to elevate the issue of Cosplay is NOT Consent alleviating the stigma associated with a topic where the only taboo should be on the offenders, and because I never realized until I wrote the transcript how rambly I was, or how many times I said the word “Right” to affirm something.
Excluding some rambling on my part, as well as a couple security related details, here’s the transcript of the interview with Matt Solberg, Director of Phoenix Comicon.
Phone Interview with Matt Solberg, Director of Phoenix Comicon, July 8th, 2014
M: Your question was why Phoenix Comicon takes the issue of Cosplay is not Consent so seriously and was an early advocate of it
M: And the real short answer is, really it’s the right thing to do. And it’s by far easier to be preventative about something than it is to try and deal with an aftermath afterwards. As a convention organizer, my worst nightmare is something significantly bad happens to one of our attendees,
M: You know being able to take the steps to prevent… bad, however you want to define that bad thing
M: You know, just gives me peace of mind, so there’s a reason why we continually step the amount of paid security that’s on site. There’s a reason why we expand the number of off duty police officers that are on site. There’s a reason why you know especially from 2013 to 2014 we put into place a different crowd flow patterns with use of the escalators and which doors you can go in and out and it makes them safer and you know people aren’t going to trip or push or shove
M: So as far as Cosplay is Not Consent, we’ve had costumers and cosplayers at Phoenix Comicon for years going back, going back to the early years, and we especially saw a growth in it in our Mesa years, when we were at the Mesa convention center from 2006-2009. I probably had a unique vantage point as well because I was also involved in Soboten Con, which is an anime convention based here in Phoenix, and with Con-Nichiwa an anime convention based in Tucson. And the cosplay community in the anime community has been much more longstanding than Comicon, the issue as far as Cosplay is Not Consent, we were having discussions around some of those issues before the message really came out. And when there were, I don’t want to say early reports, when people started standing up and saying ‘Hey this is what’s going on at some of these shows, it’s not right’ it creates uncomfortable situations. And we’re aware that the only difference between it happening at another convention, versus the ones that we’re involved in is really, just simply geography. And that’s not to say it’s never happened at our show, um, but there’s really just some common sense practices that we can put into place, to hopefully raise awareness about the issue and ideally alleviate the, any, alleviate any I want to say, alleviate any drama around it, should something come up.
S: Right, Definitely [As a side note… this blogger has learned that she should come up with new words to affirm an interviewee via phone], I have a few follow up questions, I actually have a chart of them… because I’m so organized
M: Ok (some laughter) [before the interview Matt had asked about my job where I described why I have to be organized as an Operations Manager]
S: Because there are a few things you already mentioned, and I wanted to bring up the fantastic partnership between the convention center, security staff and also having Phoenix PD
M: uh huh,
S: Um, they really seemed incredibly on board during the training, especially the last major training, before the con kicked off, were there any times that they actually ended up having to get involved or did it seem like their presence was helping to make the impact that you wanted?
M: Well I’m not sure if I have wanna give a whole lot more information about behind the scenes or like that kind of information, if, as you were kind of asking, you know we’re very fortunate to have the relationship we do with the convention center and with the police department and I’m not quite sure that every convention has quite that relationship, and the same is true even with the fire Marshall and other service partners. So even though we’ve been at Phoenix since 2010, it’s really been in the last few years that we’ve had this relationship with, really with the Police Department and with the security department at the convention center. And in some ways it’s just been serendipitous that the officer that they assigned as the liaison happens to be a lifelong comic book fan, and happens to be somebody who has attended our convention prior to being at Phoenix Comicon. Being a person at our convention center who’s also attended conventions like San Diego Comic-Con and Emerald City Comic-Con. So he gets the genre, eh gets the culture and he gets what costuming and cosplay is all about. And I don’t’ think that every convention has that. Over the last couple of years we used to have sort of an internal security/first response/heroes team that the last couple years that the convention center has wanted to take over, well two things. The first one was Peace Bonding. You know with prop weapons.
S: Mmm Hmm
M: And the other was lost or missing kids that, if that happens if kids get separated from their parents. It’s usually the parents that don’t know where they are. You know the kids know where they are, and the kids are having fun.
M: So, that’s kind of a partnership that exists between us and the police and the convention center and over the last couple years we’ve turned both of those over. The Convention Center and Police Department really already have everything in place, if you know a kid gets separated from their parents. There’s been a good dialogue and really and education that is now in place for you prop weapons and kind of the nature of what goes on in our community. And this now leads into what your question was…
M: Which maybe you can reiterate what your question was, can you repeat it?
S: Sure, yeah it was just, um was their presence there and having that um coordination with them, was it really lending to the desired result, that by having that presence, especially in terms of if any cosplayers were harassed, did it make it easier for them to feel empowered if they needed to reach out to someone? Or by having them there did it seem like less harassment, than what may be happened in years past? Having that stronger bond with either the security staff or Phoenix PD?
M: Yeah and I mean think that the answer to that is probably yes. And that’s part of why you have paid security and why you have off duty police officers in uniform on site. It’s about having a calming effect. You see them and you know that they’re there. And that’s a calming effect in a whole host of issues. You know whether it’s people running in the aisles or in the hallways, whether it’s shoplifting, whether it’s with you know, any sort of altercation that might take place. And obviously whether there are any issues of harassment, or bullying of that nature. For Phoenix Comicon, for us, you know having that partnership with both the city of Phoenix and with having so any off duty police officers on site, it also makes our message surrounding Cosplay is Not Consent a whole lot easier because one of the challenges that we’ve seen when read news reports about other conventions that have had more issues, than we’ve seen is there’s a sense of something happened at a convention, and volunteers didn’t know what to do
M: and they don’t know how to take care of whatever this issue is, and if someone is going to the volunteers and the volunteers don’t really know who to take it to and kind of just throw their hands up then that becomes an even larger issue. And for us, knowing that we have security on site, and trained police officers on site, it makes it a whole lot easier because if something happens, find a police officer. Even if there isn’t someone within sight, the message is very easy that get a police officer, and you’re… not going to be more than a few hundred feet from one for from someone that has the ability to get one. I think that there’s also a benefit to that when Cosplay is not consent came out as a message there was sort of this “Huh, what’s that?!?!” and it’s now been a couple of years and I think that there’s been a greater awareness of it, which makes our job as convention organizers easier. You know there’s definitely more people that talk that are aware of it, that are willing to speak out about it and you know we we put great resources into training our volunteers, and we had the all hands meeting one week before the convention, and we discussed Cosplay is not Consent and we had Sargent Mark Schweikert talking about it, we had close to a 1000 people at that, and we know not everyone is paying attention when we’re on stage, I know that not everyone is always listening to whatever it is that we’re talking about, you know they’re there to get their badge. But if even a portion of them heard the message if even a portion of them understood that ‘Hey if something comes up that I should speak up, you know that I should get that person being impacted to a safe spot and that I know that there’s police onsite and I should get a police officer who’s trained who has experience and the authority to do something’. If even a fraction got that message then I think we’re better off than a lot of other conventions or even organizations that might not have those tools. So, going back to your original question does having off duty police officers on site make a difference, yeah it does and that’s just one aspect on this issue. I’m gonna share more way more than you need, and you’re gonna have to just pick out what you want (laughs)
S: That’s ok… I’d rather have way more info to pull stuff from
S: Then thinking later “Oh, what did he really mean by that or whatever” and that’s part of why I was happy to record this, so you can totally ramble as you go
And I think I can just say that I think most of us, at least the people that were around me, that most of us were paying attention during the all hands meeting because we were usually all laughing at the right moments
S: or because they weren’t boring volunteer meetings, I’ve sat in boring meetings and those weren’t
M: Well, we’ve had a couple of boring volunteer meetings and you know in regards to the meeting in question the one that was the Saturday before, um, I thought what was fascinating, was when we introduced Mark Schweikert, you know I talked to him after, and he got applause and he was like “yeah a police officer getting applause is not something that normally happens”. And I know he talked afterwards when Mike Gurney, the manager of our volunteers was going over the anti-harassment and bullying presentation, which I know is very dry and but it’s important, and Srgt. Schweikert said it did seem like more people if not most people were paying attention.
S: yeah, and I think as you’ve said as the issue has grown that more people are in tune because they’re aware of it. I remember when I first heard about it, and this was just this past year when I heard about Cosplay is Not Consent my first thought was “Do we REALLY need this?” and then when I started researching it, and looking into it, it was, like “Yeah! Yeah we do, actually” and so I think part of what it is is that more people are seeing the value in it, which is awesome.
M: Agreed, agreed.
S: Regarding other conventions, I know that you said that others may not necessarily have the same tools that you have by having the opportunity to do the volunteering training that you do, or by having the security presence on site. Were any of the concerns that some other convention runners had voiced, like David Glanzer of SDCC, um to paraphrase that he said (and I’ll post the actual quote in the article) but to paraphrase, it was basically “Well don’t really want to put up signs because we don’t want people to think that there’s a problem when there’s not a problem and we don’t want to make our policy too specific because then people can get around the specifics”, was that anything that you or others were concerned about when this was discussed or you talked about implementing it?
M: No, yeah and I read the same article and interview that you just referenced and when it was posted. I don’t know anybody who’s in the hierarchy at San Diego Comic-Con and so on one hand I don’t try to speak ill will of other convention organizers, just because I don’t know what challenges they face what tools they have at their disposal or not. In regard to those particular issues that HE raises, those were never a concern or consideration for us at Phoenix Comicon. The whole we don’t wanna… we never took that tact. We took the tact that we want to be preventative about this and to us it was just the right thing to do.
S: Awesome, got it [FINALLY 17+ min into the call and I didn’t say “Right”]
M: And I don’t know really what else to say about it.
S: And I think that’s definitely fair. There was, and if you don’t want to comment on this next question that’s totally fine, because I understand, you know, just as you said, you don’t want to speak ill of other people running other conventions or anything like that. Um, there was an incident recently with Toronto Comicon, and one of their phrases that they actually had on their website, right next to where they were selling tickets, it was strategically placed there, The Mary Sue did an article on it, the quote that they had right next to it was
“Escape the deep freeze this weekend, cuddle a cosplayer”.
And then they were asked about it and according to The Mary Sue, their response in an email was
“We thought about clarifying that cuddles must come with consent, but we thought if we’re always putting the rules in front of the fun – well that hurts the spirit of Fan Expo as much as the people that try to abuse our rule”.
Do you have any comments on this at all?
M: Well I’m not aware of that specific issue, I think that there are times when businesses, organizations can, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the saying “Trying to be cute by half”
M: You I think that they were trying to be cute and you sometimes that can backfire on you and I’m not sure to the extent that that may have impacted them. Can you look at it from a certain objective aspect and say “Ok, I get what they were trying to do” you know they’re trying to be cute. But there’s probably more to it than that. Not really knowing what that is, you know is there anything more about it than what you just shared?
S: Just the quote I have from the Mary Sue
M: I think that my cute response to it here in, where it’s hot in Phoenix is you wouldn’t WANT to cuddle
S: Right (laughs) it’s true in the heat we all kind of want our little bubble around us especially at a convention, and one of the 1st panels I moderated was with a cosplay handler, and she was talking about at warm conventions, more people seem to want their space. Because they’re usually already running out of deodorant by the second day
S: so yeah
M: Well and the larger topic in general is sexual harassment, in society, and you know it’s not even specific to conventions, it’s where it’s having an impact and if you look at it with a large scope as a topic you can say it was really underground, under the radar, nobody talked about it until the Supreme Court Hearing with Anita Hill and that was really first time that this topic of sexual harassment especially in the work place really came out and was starting to be addressed, and with the years that followed you started to see laws that were passed you start to see companies put more emphasis on this some successful some having difficulty getting to that point. SO if you look at it as a very broad topic I’m not surprised at all that we’re now having this conversation about behavior at gatherings such as Comicon. If the topic starts with behavior in the workplace, eventually that topic is going to filter down through all aspects of society. Is is a good idea to sexually harass? No! Is it a good idea to create an environment where people feel that it’s ok to make lewd comments, No it’s not ok. And I think as an overall topic, this is a continuing dialogue taking place in society and it’s a good one. Looking at others trying to run a Comicon as far as having a piece that says “cuddle a cosplayer” cosplayers, does it become ok to ask demeaning questions of cosplayers? I don’t know. Regarding Cosplay is Not consent, just because someone is wearing cosplay does not give you the permission to invade their space, or ask lewd or demeaning questions, or well, to be an ass. So you know I think having the dialogue is good, and conversations is good and I think even interviews like this is good. As a convention organizer we want to put on a fun event for many people to attend and part of that is being able to dress up and have people in cosplay, and if we can have this dialogue and that can make the event better, then that’s a good thing. For us, and this isn’t specific to Cosplay is Not Consent, but it ties into it is when it comes to volunteers is to provide as much training as we can and they’re getting some experience and some skills that they may not be getting in their normal career and I’ve heard of numerous people who’ve put their volunteer experience, their volunteer experience with phoenix Comicon on their resume and for some of them it’s been the thing that’s gotten them and interview, or something that they can talk about that within the convention and I’ve had training I’ve had volunteers approach me and say that because of having supervisory or management experience with Phoenix Comicon that it helped them get a promotion at work
M: So you know we provide leadership training and we provide communication training and something like Cosplay is Not Consent, and anti-harassment and it’s additional training like that, because there are people who volunteer with the convention who may just be out of school or they may not have a professional job or career and being able to get their training may further help them in that. And have them know here’s what’s acceptable, here’s what’s not. And if volunteers can get that experience with us and parlay it into their regular life. And so being able to talk about Cosplay is Not Consent and to help people behave within real life, and I think that’s also kind of what’s at heart as well as we would hope that people would bring their same level of decorum to a convention that’s they’d exhibit in their regular life. But you know when you go to a convention like Phoenix Comicon, you’re basically going on vacation for a weekend, and like going to an amusement park for a weekend and you get this convention mentality. You’re hanging out with your friends, with likeminded people all weekend long. Most likely you go to Disneyland and you buy the mouse ears to wear. You would not be wearing those mouse ears any other place except Disneyland. And It’s kind of the same thing going to Phoenix Comicon, and sadly people do leave their better judgments at home when they attend and they get caught up in the spirit and it’s afterwards that they think that they shouldn’t behave like that, and being able to have these conversation ad and have promotional campaigns and signage and dialogues and other things in place, like the off duty officers, ideally it just creates a better environment for everybody
S: Awesome [apparently at this point I had shifted from “Right” to “Awesome”] this leads to one of my last questions, because you’re pretty much answering all of my follow up questions
S: DO you thin hearing more about, not necessarily Cosplay is Not Consent, the campaign itself, or about the dialogue, but that it may seem like it’s on the rise, because unfortunately it might be happening more often, or
S: Or as we’re dialoguing, more people feel more empowered to speak up about this
M: That’s exactly what this is. I think that you can bury your head in the sand and then be surprised that this stuff is happening, but I think that especially with sexual harassment, as far as the topic is, we can point to many different stories in either the business world, or the political world where there will a woman who will come forward with allegations about harassment toward a politician and to use a recent one, former San Diego Mayor, Bob Filner. Saying “This guy harassed me. And at first people will wonder if she’s telling the truth or not. Then what happens is other women will come forward and say, “this happened to me, but I thought I was alone, I thought it was just me.” And pretty soon you begin to have this cascade of 6, 7 women who come forward to say there is a pattern of behavior here and that’s typically what you see. Now because one woman comes forward, until a second one comes forward does that mean that Bob Filner, does that mean that Bob Filner was harassing more women in the meantime or does it mean that for that for those women to come forward, that they could do it without fear of retribution. And that’s MY own belief, that when one comes forward, that it becomes easier for others to come forward. And I think it’s not necessarily happening than before I think people are much more aware of it, and are then much less likely of turning a blind eye to it. I remember reading an article and I think it was on Bleeding Cool, and it was a cosplayer and she had just gotten into the community in the last 6 months or so and started going to conventions and she not only saw but was witness to the harassment, and the bullying of lewd and inappropriate questions and I might even be getting my stories mixed up, but her first reaction was just to kind of dismiss it I think her comments were along the lines of “I’ve had guys compliment me on my looks and I can kind of dismiss this” even as it veered into the lewd nature. But then she saw other women in the same situation and she realized it’s not her right, it’s not her fault, it’s larger than her, and something that needs to be addressed. So do I think it’s happening more? No. I don’t. People are much more aware of it.
S: Awesome, well and I’ve read a couple articles over the past weeks and I think that I read the article in Bleeding Cool, and of course part of the big issue about it, was no one was doing anything about it.
S: Thanks for helping in bringing up the awareness of Cosplay is Not Consent, that’s it for my questions
M: Really? (Laughs) Come on!
S: No really I had like 5 different follow up questions for each question, and you were just answering them as you went!
M: (Still laughing)
S: So this was a really really easy interview and it flowed, it felt more like a dialogue than just me firing questions. Are there any questions or other comments that you have? And by the way, I just have to say Phoenix Comicon was so friggin successful this year, and I’m not just saying that because I’m doing the interview, but I went as an attendee to Phoenix Comicon last year and I definitely noticed, compared to last it was in general so much easier to move around and get places, especially if I was moving from one panel in the South Building to a panel in another building and there was only one moment when I felt like “AHHHH I’m not going to get somewhere in time!” but it was literally at the busiest point of the day when everyone was going into the North Building at once. And if I could have super powers, at that moment it would have been flight
M: (Laughs) Well and what’s amazing about your comment is I’ve heard other people talk about “you know it didn’t feel like there were 78,000 people there”
S: Right?!?! Yeah!
M: well and we do the survey where we ask attendees questions and the last question we’ve always asked since 2008 is “I want Phoenix Comicon to know:” and we get EVERYTHING from “You’re such an amazing event” to “You guys are screw-ups and I’m never going to attend your show again!” We get everything. When we read through them and there are thousands and we can notice different trends. And we see stuff like “You guys need more anime programming” to then getting “You guys have too much anime programming”. Some of the comments I saw is people weren’t understanding that it didn’t make sense that we had all the escalators all going in one direction, and then again, the comment “It just didn’t seem like you had 78,000 people” and if you put those together to understand that, because we put certain escalators going down only and certain escalators going up only and that it made the traffic all flow so much easier that it’s like a river current so you’re just moving along with the other fishes and the turtles and get to where you need to go. Last year we didn’t have that in place so we had crosscurrent of the same number of people all trying to go against each other in opposite directions. I’m not sure if I have any other comments. I’m trying to think if there’s anything I didn’t address.
S: Well you definitely answered all of my questions. Again this is pretty much all I have. Both as a volunteer and an attendee I thought that Phoenix Comicon knocked it out of the park this year, not just in terms of the crowds
S: But yeah not just the panels I got to moderate but in the ones I got attend, and I LOVE one of the first things I was REALLY excited about was that little Cosplay is Not Consent Card, to go right in front with my badge.
S: I thought: this is RIGHT there, this is good. And I’m not going to name any names, but compared to other conventions I’ve been to this was probably the BEST Experience I’ve ever had at a convention, the only exception was Loki showing up in Hall H at SDCC last year
S: But that had nothing to do with how the convention was run, but more to do with Tom Hiddleston.
M: Right, right. Well there is one question that you haven’t asked and which “Matt to your knowledge has there ever been any harassment of cosplayers at Phoenix Comicon”
S: Has there, and I thought about asking it, and then also not, because more than anything I want to highlight how proactive that you’ve been about it, because I hadn’t heard of any.
M: I’m sure it has happened, there’s an aspect, from me, there’s no way with 70 something thousand people this year, 50 something thousand last year, and 35 something thousand the year before that there hasn’t been some sort of issue. I’m not about to try and mislead people and say “If you do what we do, you’ll never have issues” but it’s really about trying to reduce the incidence of it happening. There’s stuff that will reach me as Convention Director, and some stuff won’t and since we’ve been at Phoenix, and in years before in terms of harassment of cosplayers has never reached me. That doesn’t mean it’s never happened and been handled, and sort of dealt with by the parties involved and security. It’s possible it’s happened and never been brought to our attention. And part of my hope, even in doing this interview that if someone reads the article and goes “Hey I’ve been to Phoenix Comicon and I didn’t have someone to talk to and I didn’t know what the response would be” that someone knows that they can come forward, and if that means if one comes forward that others come forward. And if people come forward that will benefit the cosplayers, it’ll benefit the convention, and it’ll benefit the city. So yeah.
S: Awesome, that like a perfect way to close out the article, that it’s good for the cosplayers, for the convention and for the city. Thanks SO much for article.
Basic rambling and chatter at the end didn’t make the transcript. THANKS A TON to Matt Solberg and Phoenix Comicon!