What’s behind the Mask? – Fan Expo Review
This was my very first ever Fan Expo, and not only was it my first expo, it was the first time I ever had the absolute pleasure of pinning on my very first press badge. That is right: I’m officially press. I am officially a part of the entertainment world. A dream that less than a year ago seemed impossible.
Many of you who listen to CJSF radio will not know this, but I lived many years filled with misery, depression and drug abuse. I lost a child, I lived with the shame and guilt of sexual abuse while trying to figure out how to deal with the guilt and shame of crimes I did not commit. I was trying to figure out who I was while simultaneously trying to make those around me happy, by being what everyone else wanted me to be.
Which is why I was so beyond thrilled to meet the cast of Degrassi.
Okay that is a lie, I was excited to meet Pat Mastroianni (A girl never forgets her very first celebrity crush., and oh my god does he give good hug), Stefan Brogren (who has been in every single Degrassi episode ever filmed and also gives really, really amazing hugs… I’m still at a loss for breath), Stacie Mistysyn (from whom I take my name "SynDolly"), and Kirsten Bourne (who played the shy geeky girl who was a total bad ass when she needed to be).
Many of you will not know who these people are, and for that, I feel truly sorry and miserable for the existence you live. This is the group of people that revolutionized television as we know it, and not just television, but mainstream media as well as mainstream culture. These characters were so vivid and alive, so honest and real, and they gave the very first true portrayal of teenagers on television.
Before there was 902010, before there was Sex and the City, there was Degrassi. The kids who just wanted to act could not possibly have known that thirty years later they are the reason that so many of us, whether you want to admit it or not, are now following our own dreams. It took a while, but I’m finally here, standing in front of the boy whose pictures hung on my walls. Standing in front of the girl who broke my heart by being his one true love.
Sex, drugs, rock and roll, punk rock, teen pregnancy, teen homelessness and even sexual abuse: all of these were conversations that Degrassi opened up before it was the cool thing to do. These people changed the world, and I had to meet them. These people made me who I am.
Not only did I get the chance to meet with them and discuss the effect they have had on quite literally the entire planet (Don’t believe me? Just ask Darren Star!), but I HAD to hug Pat Mastroianni, which was beyond amazing. To have waited more than twenty years to meet my very first celebrity crush (Sorry Chris Evans, you’ve been replaced by the original) was one thing, but to be able to talk to him and say thank you to all of them for the effect they have had on me was a moment I will take with me for the rest of my life.
Much like the cast of Degrassi I lived in poverty, I suffered from early childhood abuse and I struggled to find the person I wanted to be, versus the person that the world was constantly trying to turn me into.
As I stood there among this group of amazing people who responded with quiet nods, refusing to show off any form of ego, (AMAZING!) I realized that for the first time in my life, I had the chance to say an honest and true thank you to these people.
The person I am today is a direct result of the characters these men and women brought to life on the small screen. As I look back at my life, the drug addiction, the loss of a child, the pain and suffering that I went through I realize how much my life was mirrored on that show, and now finally I finally understand the celebrity fan culture.
It is an amazing thing to be able to say thank you to the people who inspired you to be better, to realize just how much in that moment they inspired you, and to see that they have literally zero ego about it.
I asked questions, I tried to pull answers from them, and repeatedly I got smiles and nods and “yups” and I choose to believe it is because they are allowing the work to speak for itself and it does in spades. I can tell you however, they give the best hugs in the entire world of hugs, and although I’m still not sorry that Joey Jeremiah will forever be my favourite character crush, I am genuinely grateful that even though I could not record it, I had the chance to shake hands and hug these people who inspired me to believe that I could be more then what the world expected of me.
I spoke to at least fifty fans, many who had never heard of these people and while that broke my heart a little bit, it made me smile. I smiled because even though there were many people who had no idea, that the reason they have the kind of freedom they now have, is this cast, I know, and the cast knows and that feels enough.
I have been paying close attention to Fandoms lately, for no other reason than I am always curious about the communities I have never been a part of, and I have to tell you, what I see online cannot possibly be more different then what I witnessed in real life.
Online there is a lot of hatred and vitriol, bullying and selfishness, but in real life everyone was so kind and generous. So many adults brought their children so they could say, “this is who I grew up with.” The kids did not care about fame, they do not care about egos, all they care about is that they got to take a picture with the next great cosplayer. Some of these kids were full blown Cosplayers in their own right!
Speaking of Cosplayers, can we pause and talk about how amazing these women are? These women who work hours upon hours creating costumes and identities that fans can relate to; who come to these events on their own dime for no other reason than they want to be a part of a moment that makes someone smile and feel good about themselves. The men who dress up not because they are hiding from anything, but because they want to be a part of something. Watching all these men and women dressing up as their favourite character made me wonder who I would choose if I had the courage to let go of my predetermined identity: I would choose Degrassi’s Spike!
Played by Christine Nelson, Spike had punk rock hair in a time when girls were supposed to have flowing locks, Spike did not give a *&%$ what you thought about her, she lived her life the only way she knew how, and she inspired millions of little girls who wanted that kind of confidence. Spike was the original Hollywood Bad Girl.
“She never tried to be anything other than who she was, what you saw on the show was exactly who Christine was” – Stacey Mistysyn
I have to tell you, there is a comfort in knowing that, so thank you so much Stacey for sharing that with me, with everything happening in Hollywood today, it’s nice to meet heroes who are exactly who you need them to be: they are exactly who they are behind the scenes. I identify with her not because I was anything like her, but because I wanted to be. I desperately wanted to have that courage, to have that self-confidence, it took about twenty-five years but here I am now, my very own version of Spike and I have to say I am proud of how far I have come.
I think, had I been friends with the cast of Degrassi back in the day, they would be proud of me too. And that, I now realize, is what Fan culture and Conventions are all about: connecting with the characters and the actors, the writers and the artists that inspired you to come out of your shell, to walk away from the darkness, to evolve and ascend into the amazing creature you are meant to be.
Fan culture and Cons have a long way to go however. Speaking with Nancy Grummett, the amazingly beautiful, strong, and gorgeous woman who happens to be married to Tom Grummett – he is the man who killed Superman (The first time, in the comic books for those of you who don’t know). We spoke a lot about fan culture; we spoke a lot about the death of Superman but mostly about how much Con Culture has changed over the last forty years.
“When we first started coming back in the eighties, it wasn’t like it is today. There were no “stars” there was just the artists coming and sharing their art with the fans, connecting with the fans. People from the press really did not care and they certainly did not care about the women. Today you see men, women, and families, they come to say thank you, to dress up and to share their stories and it feels pretty good. I remember meeting William Shatner once, he didn’t speak to me for the entire Con, not until the Sunday, finally on Sunday after two days of saying hello and being as polite as possible he finally acknowledged I existed.”
Now you know I could not stand in front of Tom Grummet and not ask him how it feels to have been the one to not only kill, but also revive Superman:
“It feels amazing. It feels $#@%ing phenomenal to have been a part of something that changed the way the world thinks about Superheroes.”
I really did not think about it that way until now, but he is right. The way we see superheroes has changed: now anyone can be a superhero. Captain America was just an ordinary person who wanted to do what he could to defend his country from bullies.
As far as Cons have come however, many fans recognize that there is still a long way to go. I spoke to a couple of girls (whose names I actually forgot to ask in my nervousness) who said “It’s really cool to see all these women coming out, but you know, as a Comic fan sometimes it’s really hard. Even just going into a comic store to buy stuff, we get glared at, we get asked where our boyfriends are, it can be really frustrating to be constantly told you don’t belong, which is why we come here, because everyone’s welcome.”
Another said “It’s hard when you walk by all the booths and all these amazing artists, you want to see people who look like you but fat girls, overweight or pudgy girls are not part of the comic world, and that can be a little hard to take.”
One of the many male fans I spoke with told me “What gets me, is they have these amazing opportunities to change the way that men look at women, more so then any other industry they have the ability to say something about how women are treated and they don’t. Like who is really going to believe that Wonder Woman is going to fight in a fucking bathing suit? It is just silly and really, it is not something I’d want my daughter looking up to. I want her to know that she does not have to wear next to nothing to be a superhero. I want her to know she can be fat or skinny, strong or physically weak or whatever she wants to be, and that her looks are the last thing she ever needs to worry about and right now we’re just not seeing that in our world and we need more of it.”
Fandoms are interesting places; they can be incredibly beautiful or utterly terrifying. I have now seen the both sides. When speaking with Artist Max Dunbar (Gears of War: Rise of RAAM (IDW), First Strike (IDW) Micronauts (IDW) Slash and Burn (Vertigo) Dungeons and Dragons (IDW) I got schooled a little bit in how Fandoms really work.
“Fandoms can be really amazing, but I think the trouble comes when people confuse the characters they love with the actors – they get so attached that sometimes they forget these are real people behind the scenes, and those real people make mistakes, fuck up and they aren’t perfect. There needs to be a happy medium and if you can’t find that then you tend to get a little too attached which can be really awesome or really dangerous, it’s all about where you take it. Some people take it to a healthy place, others…not so much, it’s a very careful divide.”
In short, it was an amazing day of meeting fans and making new friends, a lot of gratitude on my part for the people who inspired me, who educated me and I will be forever grateful to for the experience. I definitely look forward to going back next year and to meeting a completely new batch of new fans. Fan Expos are a place for people to come together and celebrate the wonderful, the weird, the strange and the beautiful in a way that the world is not yet fully ready to embrace. Part of that stems from the fact that the comic world has a lot of work to do within itself on accepting that female super heroes, much like their male counterparts, come in all colors, sizes, and orientations.
One day I hope to see fat and overweight LGBTQ female as well as male characters that can be sexy in any size, color, creed, nationality, orientation, or identity. I realize now, more than ever, that we are all super heroes, that we are all hiding behind masks just trying to find a place to belong and Fan Expos provide that for millions of fans every day of the year all across the globe.
If fans want the comic world change, however, to evolve and to grow, it has to begin with you. The fans have the power to dictate the way these communities evolve, and as Uncle Ben once famously said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” So use it wisely fans, because this is your world the rest of us are just living in it.
All my love and gratitude,
Devon J Hall
Devon is fascinated with all things human. No matter where you come from, or where you’re headed she believes that your story matters and has the power to influence the world around you, it’s her life mission to amplify voices that have long been silenced. If you would like to find more of her work you can visit her on Twitter @DevonJHall or visit her website at www.syndolly.wordpress.com.