Culture | CULTURE SMASH

#MeToo allegations roil U.S. anime conventions

by Roland Kelts

Over the past two months, the #MeToo movement breached the American anime convention industry. Most feel it was inevitable. Many say it’s about time.

The first salvo was fired in mid-January in the form of a Twitter thread accusing veteran American voice actor Vic Mignogna (“Dragon Ball Z,” “Fullmetal Alchemist”) of homophobia, anti-Semitic behavior and unwanted sexual contact.

Soon the charges from fans, some of whom claim they were underage at the time of the alleged transgressions, were joined by those from con staff members, professional cosplayers, fellow voice actors and an ex-fiancee.

Less than a week after the first tweets dropped, Mignogna released a public statement rejecting accusations of bigotry, proclaiming the innocence of his intentions and apologizing to anyone who felt violated by his “show (of) gratitude or support.” He has not been formally charged with anything.

Some Twitter users, including those in the actor’s fan club, aggressively defended Mignogna. The hashtags proliferated: #istandwithvic (for) and #kickvic (against), and now, #vickkicksback (anti-against).

The controversy expanded on Jan. 30, when an article appeared on the Anime News Network (ANN) site, one of the largest English-language industry portals. Its headline, “Far From Perfect,” was borrowed from Mignogna’s personal apologia to his fan club members.

Lynzee Loveridge, ANN’s managing interest editor, compiled firsthand accounts, mostly anonymous, from a handful of fans and one cosplayer, all of whom felt mistreated, insulted or physically victimized by Mignogna’s actions. ANN also published photos of the actor embracing young autograph seekers. The article consolidated and at least partially legitimized the social media posts.

“I don’t get a lot of great sleep working on these types of stories,” Loveridge tells me, recounting the hours of research and the ethical quandaries behind her reporting. “You have to almost disconnect emotionally to make sure you’re seeing everything from all sides.”

Within two weeks, two U.S.-based production companies, Rooster Teeth Productions and Funimation Productions, permanently severed ties with Mignogna. Ten of his 14 appearances at future cons were canceled or had their invitations withdrawn. He hired a law firm, he tweeted, “to salvage my reputation and my 20-year career in this industry.” Mignogna did not respond to my request for comment.

Hundreds of thousands attend the annual anime conventions that take place across the United States nearly every weekend. Some cons are over two decades old. This is not the first instance of impropriety.

In recent years, unlicensed photographers taking pictures of scantily clad cosplayers without their permission prompted the now-standard convention hall warning signs: “Cosplay is not consent.” Last spring, one of the organizers of Houston’s Anime Matsuri publicly apologized for his unwanted sexual advances after former attendees launched a campaign to boycott the con. In October, an anime-con regular, who hosted game shows at several cons, announced his retirement after an alcoholic outburst (at his home) resulted in his arrest for beating a cat.

But American voice actors, especially those who play roles in popular titles, have become quasi-celebrities at U.S. cons: pillars of attraction for badge-buying attendees who wait hours in line to pay for an autograph and a selfie with a star.

It wasn’t always the case. In the late 1990s and into the mid-2000s, American voice actors ranked lower on the industry totem. One seasoned U.S. performer, speaking off the record, recalls when they were not even granted “guest of honor” status and consigned to giving autographs in hallways outside the main convention center.

A. Jinnie McManus, founder of We Run Anime Cons, a private Facebook group for con runners worldwide, believes that the Mignogna storm marks a day of reckoning for U.S. convention organizers, who may be guilty of looking the other way to maximize attendance and profits.

Previously, she says, rumors of bad behavior “were just unsubstantiated enough that conventions could look past the ugliness,” or else they were “excused by the adoration — and frankly, badge sales — shown to the difficult guests by the fans. Those days appear to be over.”

Still, selecting and running background checks on every guest may be too much to ask of convention staff, many of whom work on a partially volunteer basis with neither the time nor resources to conduct thorough screenings.

“I think most con runners put the con first,” says Jim Vowles, former director of guests and industry at Otakon, one of the largest East Coast conventions. “They work part time, so the vetting isn’t really going to be as professional as it should be at big companies with teams dedicated to that.”

As with other allegations of misconduct in the #MeToo era, the rhetoric spewing from the Mignogna affair grew ugly fast. In the hothouse horror show of social media, accusations presume guilt without proven evidence or legal proceedings, and defenses turn vitriolic, personal and infantile.

Former Funimation Productions marketing director Lance Heiskell, a con exhibitor for over a decade, says, “The reactions from the pro-Vic people harassing the people who came forward with their story has been severe. This backlash is cruel.”

After two months, the online ire from both sides shows no sign of abating. Conventions pride themselves on being safe spaces for fans, notes McManus. But now, according to ANN CEO and publisher Christopher Macdonald, “every convention is scrambling to figure out how to deal with this in the future.”

Viewed from Japan, the land that makes anime, the relentless attacks, counterattacks, provocations and conspiracy theories on Twitter and YouTube begin to look like Shakespeare’s villainous Iago run amok, spreading rumors and stirring rage in pursuit of mutual destruction.

Japan hosts its own fan events, of course, one of which, the biannual Comic Market, is the largest of its kind in the world. Numerous Japanese voice actors are also revered as superstars. Yet similar tempests haven’t hit home thus far.

That’s because domestic behavioral norms and expectations still hold firm despite globalization, the internet, and transcultural exchange, says Tokyo-based Michelle Le, an interpreter and frequent North American con-goer. “I wouldn’t be surprised if something is going on behind the scenes (in Japan),” she adds, “but it’s not likely we will hear about it.”

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and is a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.

Since the publication of this article, three amendments were made on March 14, 2019.
1. The inclusion of the sentence, “He has not been formally charged with anything.”
2. The addition of “at least partially” in the sentence “The article consolidated and at least partially legitimized the social media posts.”
3. The inclusion of the sentence, “Mignogna did not respond to my request for comment.”
Furthermore, in a response to a query about certain images that ANN reportedly published out of context, ANN’s Lynzee Loveridge pointed out this disclaimer, which it had added to its report: “A previous version of this article published on Jan. 30 included a photo of a minor being kissed on the cheek by Vic Mignogna. The photo and two other photos showing similar behavior were used in the article to illustrate the commonality of such posing by Mignogna with female fans, some underage. Anime News Network at no time claimed those photos were examples of non-consent by the subjects. Due to third party mischaracterization of the photos and a request relayed from one individual in the photo, Anime News Network removed the fan club photographs on Feb. 4.”