Nerdland Diary: Three Days in the Tropics of MegaCon

Sci-fi and fantasy conventions are typically a sensory overload of cosplay, celebrities, merchandise, “geek-themed” entertainment, and overwhelming crowds. This Memorial Day Weekend, I attended MegaCon 2017 in balmy Orlando, Florida for three days. During my first forty eight hours, I spent enough money to impress a stock-photo model, befriended Rogue of the X-Men, and watched the original Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show storm offstage. On the third day, I had a photo op with geek goddess Felicia Day. It was quite a time. The following is an account of those three days. All of the photographs are my own. No names have been changed to protect anyone. But in all truth, I didn’t try to learn everyone’s name, either.

International law requires that Sci-fi/Fantasy conventions must have at least one Slave Leia present at all times (this Leia was also a very nice person).

Day One: I arrive late in the morning, and mill around the vendor room. Friday is one of the slower days at MegaCon, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t crowded. With all of the people—many of whom are decked out in colorful, and occasionally distracting, costumes— the scene is overwhelming and hypnotic.

How’s this for colorful and distracting?

The amount of merchandise in the vendor room is staggering in both quantity and variety. I wander around this maze of commerce all morning. Initially, I planned to catch Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter movies) in an audience Q&A session, but instead I keep browsing this cavernous space that MegaCon’s website calls “400,000 square feet of shopping madness!”

Early in the afternoon, I run into my friend, Saida, who I had not seen in almost a year and a half. Her friend, Angie, is dressed as Rogue of the X-Men. She’s made the costume herself, and has done a hell of a job with it. As Angie and I chat, it turns out we have both recently ended a relationship and are respectively trying to debug our romance coding. Adding movie references and jokes to the mix makes for nice conversation as the three of us head to the Rocky Horror panel.

We take our seats in a hangar-sized conference room, and a few minutes later Barry Bostwick, Patricia Quinn, and Nell Campbell walk out onstage. If you know nothing about the classic 1975 film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or its cast, well, where have you been for the past forty two years? Anyway, when Bostwick greets the room, “Hi! My name is Brad Majors…”, a large contingent of the audience rebuts, “Asshole!” The exchange echoes one of the more famous pieces of counterpoint dialogue that fans shout at midnight screenings of the film.

All three actors have aged well. Bostwick appears healthy but, in but his dapper white suit, bears a strong resemblance to Kenny Rogers. Quinn and Campbell aren’t trying too hard to hide their age, either, and they look good. In mesh stockings that complement her long, muscular legs, Quinn exudes the vibe of a retired Rockette. Campbell, with her gold-spangled jacket, looks like someone you’d see buying snacks for her grandchildren at Dean & Deluca.

As they take questions from the audience, Campbell and Quinn’s chemistry apparently begins to sour. Campbell frequently interrupts Quinn, or mugs to the crowd when Quinn is talking. Before long, Quinn stands up and turns to her, saying “Stop it! Stop it now! You’re really annoying me!” Bostwick gamely tries to keep the peace, and Quinn sits down again to take another question from the audience.

Patricia Quinn, really annoyed.

But Campbell keeps trolling her. After a final interruption—this time to say “Patricia Quinn has lost her girlish charm”—Quinn stands up and walks off stage without a word. Campbell sidles into the now-empty chair next to Bostwick and leans back with glee. For his part, Bostwick looks a little flustered. Was this a contrived fracas? Some manufactured drama to excite the crowd? I can’t tell, but my gut says probably not. Otherwise, fans of Patricia Quinn aren’t going to get their money’s worth. Either way, the mood lifts when an eight-year-old boy dressed as Peter Pan says Rocky Horror is his favorite movie and Bostwick brings him up on stage to do the Timewarp.

When the panel finally lets out, I decide to head over to the five p.m. Sci-Fi Speed Dating session. And God bless her, Angie agrees to come with me. Saida, who has a live-in boyfriend, opts to see a live shadowcast of the movie, Clue, instead. When Angie and I reach the hallway outside the designated conference room, we’re greeted by an imposing, sandy-haired thirtysomething dressed as Obi Wan Kenobi (from the prequels, not the original trilogy). He looks up from his phone, “Are you here for Sci-Fi Speed Dating?” Angie and I nod. He looks at Angie and says, perhaps as a warning, “Oh wow, you’re really good looking!” Then he asks me for twenty dollars.

While I’m digging through my wallet, a dark-haired woman in a cool-looking top hat compliments my t-shirt. Suddenly, I feel less skeptical of the whole enterprise. But before I can talk to her, Obi Wan directs me to a copse of diffident-looking men, most of whom are in their early to mid-twenties.

As I approach the other suitors, a man dressed as Darth Vader doffs his helmet to reveal that, in addition to his slight stature, he has heavy jowls and a lazy eye. “Is this your first time speed dating?” he asks. I reply, “Yes,” and he shrugs. “All you have to do is just be yourself.” If this guy’s idea of being himself is showing up to speed dating dressed as the one of galaxy’s most infamous Sith Lords, then I have a sincere respect for him. That kind of Jedi-grade dilligaf almost makes up for the time he double-crossed Lando Calrissian.

Obi Wan corrals the women into the room and, after a stern warning for the men to be respectful, sends us in after them. The next hour is a blur of coquettish grins and earnest, hurried small talk. Like clockwork, Obi Wan moves us to the next person every three minutes. I have never shifted from being intrigued to bored with such rapid frequency in my life. I meet one woman I really like, who’s a photographer. I confess to her that I live in Atlanta, but can’t help saying that I’ll travel to Orlando more if I really like someone. In the end, I only get one phone number, but not from her. But I took Darth Vader’s advice, so all I can do is shrug.

Angie seems to have gotten a number from practically every guy she’s talked to. I’m not surprised. She gave her number to no one, which doesn’t surprise me, either. After we compare our experiences, and talk a little more deeply about improving our relationship habits, we agree to become friends on Facebook. By then, it’s almost seven o’clock, and I’ve been at MegaCon since roughly 10:30 a.m. It’s time to go home, and Saida is kind enough to give me a ride.

Day Two: This is MegaCon’s biggest day. Friday was plenty busy, but Saturday is a crushing glut of sheer humanity. Exact figures are hard to come by, but roughly 100,000 people attended MegaCon in 2016. Its organizers expect a similar level of attendance for 2017. But you don’t need a precise count to know what a metric fuckton of people looks like.

Most of today’s attendees are packed into the vendor room, and aggressively visible cleavage flaunts at almost every turn. Here in the endless exhibition hall of the Orange County Convention Center, an immense mammary moon has coaxed the necklines of at least one third of the attendees and half the vending staff into low tide. There are two reasons for this surfeit of ample pride: 1) most Con-goers congregate in the vendor room, and 2) even before Gene Roddenberry put Nichelle Nichols in a little red dress, the purveyors of what we now call geek culture knew that sex sells.

The unabashed capitalism of MegaCon should surprise no one. Cons are expensive, and this one is no exception. A runty gyro and a bottle of soda cost me thirteen dollars. T-shirts you can buy online for about fifteen dollars cost twenty five here. Many of the collectors items and handcrafted goods available in various booths are even more expensive.

Nerd gear by the bucketful.

The best part of the vending area is Artist Alley. Here you can bask in the warm glow of indie commerce as individual illustrators and artisans cheerfully display their work. Their gift for small talk and evident passion make it easy to forget that they, too, want your money. Yet it is still exciting to talk with someone who created what they’re selling, and much of the artwork is genuinely engaging. 13X Studios, for instance, makes custom-painted Friday the 13th masks. The proprietor, a friendly giant with tattooed arms, describes his work with a moving sense of pride. I bought one of his masks as a gift for my friend, Michael. He’s an avid horror fan. Plus, he and his wife Heidi are being nice enough to let me stay at their home in lieu of a motel.

Saturday is also the day when the bigger celebrities most often appear, one of whom is Eliza Dushku. It may surprise you that, on her own, this kind-of-famous actress draws as big a crowd as three cast members of the original Rocky Horror Picture Show. For those who have no idea who she is, or only remember her from the cheerleading flick Bring It On, you should know that Dushku was once a prodigy of Joss Whedon. If you are now asking, “Who’s Joss Whedon?”, well, I’m glad you’re reading this.

In 1997, Joss Whedon created the TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.[1] Even after twenty years, the show is renowned for its witty, stylized dialogue and sophisticated character arcs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a.k.a. just Buffy to fans) was also a pioneer of feminist television. Whedon was one of the first showrunners who deliberately set out to challenge the medium’s conventions of gender. Characters like Archer’s Lana Kane, or even Ziva Davis on NCIS, owe a debt to Buffy Summers’ canny blend of womanly toughness and high-to-low brow sensibility. Persona-wise, Whedon is warm, funny, and laser-focused. Watch this parody commercial he made during the 2012 election. Whether or not you jibe with the politics, you’ll still laugh.

More recently, Whedon wrote and directed Marvel’s Avengers and its sequel, Age of Ultron. But he is not just high geek royalty, or merely an articulate, charming spokesman for geek culture. Joss Whedon is a perfect example of the highly specific, occasionally insulated, genre universes that geek fandom tends to accentuate. Disciples of Joss call their fandom the Whedonverse.

Like it or not, it is a legacy that Eliza Dushku must bear. When she was seventeen, Whedon cast her as Faith, a badass vampire slayer with a dark side who was Buffy Summers’ frenemy and, later on, just plain enemy in the show’s third season. Dushku imbued Faith with enough complexity to merit a recurring role in the Buffy spin-off, Angel. After those shows ended, Whedon created the series, Dollhouse, with the explicit intent of showcasing her versatility as an actress. Dollhouse lasted barely two seasons but, like all Whedon creations, it still has its die-hard fans. In other words, Eliza Dushku is kind of a big deal to to a specific breed of nerd.

This is the second time I’ve seen Dushku at a Con. The first time was in 2013, at DragonCon in Atlanta, and back then it seemed like she never quite felt the love. She hit all the right tones—“such a great show,” “the cast was like a family,” yadda, yadda, yadda— but they always sounded more like just notes instead of music. So I’m curious to see how she did this time around.

Four years later, it seems like Dushku has found her Con-groove, appearing at once charming and a little offbeat. Early on, she remarks that “having your adolescence documented on film is really weird.” On playing Faith, she says she enjoyed “setting people on fire without getting arrested.” Dushku also shows a real knack for parrying confusing questions by turning them back onto the enquirer to start a brief conversation. At the end, a young man asks her advice for writing strong, believable women. Dushku says that strong female characters need more than just awesome fight scenes. To work, they need “nuance in facing adversity.” It is a classically Whedonesque answer that draws thunderous applause.

Dushku’s rapport with the audience appears to strike a nimble balance between authenticity and polish, which gives fans exactly what they need. Watching her, a Buffy fan can feel secure that the people who helped shape their cultural touchstone are not only kind and decent, but are also equally attached to it. She is relatable enough to be believable, but just distant enough to not trample the myth. Is this what Eliza Dushku is really like in person? It doesn’t really matter here; she knows how to deliver.

Eliza Dushku: Keeping the Faith.

Afterward, I go back to Artist Alley to pick up some postcards to mail to friends. By the time I’m done wading through the crowd, the day is drawing near a close, and my calves and back ache. I badly need to sit down, and I know just the place to do it: the Buffy the Vampire Slayer shadowcast. A shadowcast is where a group re-enacts a movie or TV episode as the original plays on a screen next to the stage. The original in this particular shadowcast is the musical episode and Buffy fan favorite, “Once More… with Feeling.”

Before it starts, one of the actors announces that heckling and singing along are strongly encouraged. As it gets going, the show takes on a very advertant Rocky Horror vibe. Whenever Dawn—Buffy’s little sister, who many fans despise—says a line, people shout “No one cares!” An inflatable mattress suffices as a few different props: bed, table,coffin. Costume changes are quick, public, and sloppy. Clearly, the actors are having gobs of fun, so the audience does, too. The shadowcast’s scrappy joy buoys my sagging spirits and briefly salves my aching body. I also learn that the climactic number, “Walk through the Fire,” still gives me goosebumps. And I’m not the only one. In unison, a room full of people sings, “I touch the fire and it freeeezes me.”

Uh, guys, maybe we should start caring about Dawn.

Day 3: Sunday begins as my friend, Heidi, and I are carting her yawning four-year-old daughter down I-4. Sunday is MegaCon’s slowest day and, for me, it will be the shortest. Keeping the pace of the past forty eight hours is something that I am no longer built for. Even without a toddler in tow, Heidi, who’s taught me the nifty trick of taking Aleve before your muscles start hurting, is not built for it either. And it’s just as well. I have only one goal for the rest of the Con: my photo op with Felicia Day.

Felicia Day is a very bright star in Nerdiverse. For the past fifteen-odd years, she has done a remarkable job turning geek identity into an effective brand. Early in her career, Day had a recurring role in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She also starred opposite Neil Patrick Harris in Whedon’s internet musical, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. In the foreword to her memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet, Whedon calls Day “a personal hero.” Day also has a recurring role in Supernatural, a series with its own legion of hardcore fangeeks. Her web series, The Guild, won ten awards during its six-year lifespan. In 2012, she launched a YouTube channel called Geek & Sundry, which includes Tabletop, a board game-themed show hosted by geek superstar and Star Trek alumnus, Wil Wheaton. Since April 2017, Day has appeared on the revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000. If Eliza Dushku is kind of a big deal to a certain breed of nerd, Felicia Day is a huge effin’ deal to lots of different nerds.

Once inside, Heidi and her daughter whisk off to Artist Alley. I make my way to the photo op area, where a crowd gathers around a yellow rectangle taped to the concrete floor of the exhibition hall. To the left is a long row of prefab barriers. Inside the rectangle is a man in a matching yellow shirt. He asks everyone who’s come to meet Felicia Day to raise our hands, and then tells us we’ll have to wait. He then waves people who’ve paid to meet Matthew Lewis through the rectangle and past the barriers.

This low-tech mode of crowd control vaguely reminds me of a post-apocalypse, as if the Man in the Yellow Shirt got to decide who will eat and who will toil in a salt mine. But maybe I just have an active imagination. Thankfully, it’s not too long before he waves us through, and we all go and stand in another, longer line confined by yellow tape. The front of this line abuts a row black-curtained booths. After about twenty minutes, a woman emerges from the nearest one and starts herding people inside.

A voice booms from behind the curtain. “Ready! One! Two! Three!” The line moves. “Ready! One! Two! Three!” The line moves again. I look at my watch. It’s 2:45. I count the rest of the line and figure that, if every picture takes thirty seconds, I’ll be done in about an hour. Then I start to count time between chants of “Ready! One! Two! Three!” About five seconds elapse between each one. I think, Really? That fast? I’m still trying to do the math when I’m waved through the curtains.

Felicia Day is standing in a tiny stall with an orangish-yellow, Olan-Millsy backdrop. It’s a lot like getting your yearbook picture taken in middle school. Had I had time to reflect, I’m sure it would have felt just as awkward, too. Smiling, Ms. Day looks me square in the eye and says, “How are you?” Starstruck, I manage to reply, “It’s really nice to meet you.” Our exchange feels almost cozy, except for the hulking, bald photographer in a black golf shirt who yells, “Ready! One! Two! Three!” I turn toward the camera. A bright light flashes. Before I can say “Thank you,” I’m being whisked out the back. It isn’t until I pick up a print of the picture that I notice that Felicia Day had placed her hand on my shoulder.

Ready or not.

I meet Heidi at the other end of the vendor room a few minutes later. We wander for another half hour before her daughter starts getting antsy. So we call it a day (no pun intended). Within an hour, I’m sitting at the dinner table with her family and eating hot dogs for dinner. My three days of MegaCon are over.

*          *          *

So much happened in those three hectic days that it’s difficult to process at first. Obviously, I enjoyed myself. Equally obvious is that my own experience doesn’t touch on the multiple fandoms who a) might feel offended that I didn’t talk about them, because b) I have no interest in them. Sorry, anime fans, you’ll have to write your own, Joss-Whedon-free articles.

This was my fifth Con, and I am still left kind of agog by the hypersexuality of geek culture. At MegaCon, or any other Con, it’s impossible to throw a Sorcerer’s Stone without hitting someone in a skimpy costume.[2] And most of these scantily-clad Con-goers are women. Nonetheless, the sexuality of cosplay is very complicated. Cosplayers’ motives are varied, and often difficult to determine at a glance. For some Con-goers, a revealing costume is a body-positive statement, a rebellion against narrow social standards of physical beauty. Also, it is not uncommon for women to dress as their own representation of traditionally masculine characters. Transgender cosplayers add even more nuance to the issue. There are, however, a lot of ‘sexy’ cosplay outfits that seem to be the geek culture equivalent of ‘slutty’ halloween costumes. This kind of clichėd objectification can seem tiresome, but to say I am immune to their intended effect would be a brazen lie. Overall, though, I’d say that such outfits reflect a contradiction of geek culture: a lot of sci fi and fantasy genres empower women, but many of the same also bear virulent strains of misogyny.

Q.E.D.

The sexualized aspect of Cons also illuminates the fine tensile thread that binds fandom to the commodification of identity. Just as sex sells because it appeals to basic desires, fandom sells because people are wired to construct ipseity—and the Con industry extracts a handsome profit from this natural instinct. MegaCon is owned by Informa Canada, whose revenue in 2016 amounted to nearly two billion dollars. Cons also stimulate the local economy. In 2014, Megacon generated some twenty one million dollars’ worth of business for its host city. In anticipation of MegaCon 2015, the Orlando Business Journal cheered, “Rejoice, Orlando! The nerds are coming back with their money.”

Afterwards, the experience of Cons always leaves me with a strange mix of feelings. On one hand, I can’t escape the unsettling sense that I’m watching an illusion. One the other, I embrace that illusion. Cons inextricably blend the pure joy of fandom with run-of-the-mill capitalist trickery, and it makes for a heady concoction. Despite my critiques, I willfully supped MegaCon’s fantasies. I didn’t worry too much whether or not Eliza Dushku was faking it. I spent scads of money in the vendor room. I politely asked women in risqué cosplay if I could take their picture. As I posed with Felicia Day, I quashed my suspicion that she and I were just cogs in an enormous commerce machine. I also never wondered if she was faking it, either. Such is the magic of the Con. And I know I’ll be back for more. I already have my ticket to DragonCon 2017.

William Greer is a Master’s student in public history at Georgia State University and Tropics of Meta’s digital content coordinator.

References

[1] He also wrote the screenplay for the 1992 film starring Kristy Swanson, but the studio changed it so profoundly that fans still debate if it should be included in the canon.

[2] Please do not actually throw rocks at Con-goers, or anybody for that matter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: