Marketing can be a tricky thing; I get it. There has been no shortage of ad campaigns, especially those directed primarily toward men, that have represented women in, let’s just say, questionable ways. Unfortunately, despite the fact that comic book readers and fans are—and always have been—comprised of a large portion of women, comic-books and comic-book related events all too often fall into this trap. When advertisers don’t recognize the female demographic they run the risk of creating ads that inadvertently promote messages that are detrimental to their female audience. FanExpo Canada’s recent “cuddle a cosplayer” ad campaign for Toronto ComiCON did just that.
Now, I’m not suggesting that there were a group of guys huddled around an evil table of evil brainstorming ways to advertise Toronto ComiCon and make cosplayers, especially women cosplayers, uncomfortable in the process. Nor am I suggesting that the ever-present cosplay harassment culture only affects women. I am well aware that men are victims of abuse; that said, I am also well aware then men aren’t subject to the whole “he/she asked for it” ridiculousness as often as women are, and it is this deplorable part of rape-culture that FanExpo’s Toronto ComiCoN ad-campaign may have contributed to. What I am suggesting is that ignorance is not an excuse for contributing to something as vile as rape-culture. If FanExpo’s organizers had women, or even cosplayers in general, in mind this regrettable email encouraging potentially non-consensual physical contact might have never found its way into the inboxes of potential convention attendees.
I’m not a convention or cosplaying veteran by any stretch of the imagination, but I have been to conventions in Toronto (Fan-Expo), San-Diego (Comic-Con), and London (London Super Comic Con) and have noticed a predominant and unfortunate acceptance of aspects of rape culture. Take my own cosplaying experience; I’m a big fan of Green Lantern (the power to create anything you imagine whenever you wear a cool ring? That’s a wanna-be artist’s and writer’s dream right there) and have cosplayed as my pal Hal Jordan. Truthfully, I would have liked to have cosplayed as Arisia or smokin’ Soranik Natu (I already have the hair going on), but I didn’t. I chose to cosplay a male I identify with because the female characters I enjoy (and, now pay attention DC, wish were written in a way that made them easier to identify with as a female) wore clothing that showed so much cleavage that it made me uncomfortable. Now, I’m sure there are a number of factors that play into my discomfort when it comes to showing a whole lot of cleavage, but, without a doubt, the expectation of objectification as a direct consequence of showing cleavage is one of those reasons. I know that in the minds of some convention attendees my choice to show cleavage would equate to their license to stare at it, make crude comments, or even inappropriately grope me. I wish that my fears were unfounded—I would much rather swallow the truth of my own insecurities and paranoia than the truth that what I wear can somehow function as an open season sign on my body. Unfortunately, the experience of many other women (and even men in some instances) point to the reality of an often ignored harassment culture in geekdom that thrives at comic book conventions.
I didn’t cosplay at LSCC last weekend (didn’t have my trusty GL costume on me), but some friends of mine did. Anna S, a London based cosplayer who has managed to gain a substantial fan-base, graciously allowed me to conduct a post-Con interview via email regarding her own experience as a cosplayer who is very involved in the greater cosplay community:
1) How long have your been cosplaying?
I have been cosplaying since roughly 2011, although I have been going to conventions with my friends since 2010, but as a photographer.
2) What led you to begin to cosplay?
I started off as a bit of a cosplay photographer, but I got a little jealous and decided to join in the fun. My grandma used to sew a lot, and I love anything that is a challenge that I have never tried before so it seemed to be a perfect fit.
3) How many conventions have you cosplayed at?
There are several conventions that happen a few times every year, the main ones are London Super Comic Con, London Film and Comic Con, Thought Bubble, and MCM Comic Con London, although I have been to Newcastle Comic Con, Kitacon etc., so I think in all possibly at least 10 a year since I started cosplaying.
4) Where have these conventions been located, for the most part?
Most conventions are based in London in one of the big exhibition centres, like the Excel Centre or Earl’s Court, but conventions are now popping up everywhere—usually in halls and concert venues.
5) Have the actions of others ever made you feel uncomfortable while cosplaying?
I have felt uncomfortable a few times, mostly if it involves having to show skin. I don’t mind showing off my bum and legs, but when I’ve ventured towards showing any sort of cleavage or belly the comments people make can make me uncomfortable. There are also a lot of con-goers and cosplayers who don’t really understand the idea of personal space, so they keep coming in too close or make inappropriate remarks/actions, which can make you feel really awkward.
6) Would you agree with those who claim cosplay harassment is an issue at conventions?
I think that cosplay harassment can be a problem at cons, I haven’t had it as bad as some people because I don’t wear skimpier costumes but I wear spandex and that can cause people to forget that we are people with boundary issues as well. Mostly for girls it’s inappropriate comments or people trying to take photos of boobs and bums. Me and a few of my friends have had people trying to feel us up as well.
7) Do you believe that convention organizers have done their best to protect you from unwanted harassment?
It depends on the con. Conventions like London Super Comic Con and Showmasters events have staff that look after cosplayers, so if a cosplayer feels uncomfortable they can just go to any member of staff and normally security will get involved. Other cons, which I shall not name, really don’t care, and if you complain about someone harassing you they will pretty much shrug you off and tell you to keep moving
8) Has any sort of harassment (that either you or somebody you know has experienced) influenced your cosplay choices regarding what characters you cosplay as?
I tend to shy away from any costume with cleavage. One of my friends does a Red Sonja costume and she gets harassed all the time and I’ve noticed it with my own costumes as well; I have one costume that shows a bit of cleavage and [when I wore it]I got a lot more unwanted attention compared to when I get my legs out, so I tend to shy away from anything with cleavage.
9) If one of the conventions you attended sent out an email encouraging, however innocent the intentions might have been, convention attendees to “escape the deep freeze this weekend—cuddle a cosplayer” would that email make you feel less safe at that convention in any way?
It depends on the type of convention. I find that comic conventions draw a slightly more mature crowd, so they’re less likely to hug you anyway, but anything remotely anime seems to take it a bit too far; so if I was considering going to a con that had anime that said “hug a cosplayer” I would definitely not go.
11) What steps could the organizers take to allay your fears? (Would retracting the statement be enough?)
Retracting the statement could help, but ultimately the only real way they could encourage me to go would be to have a stronger presence of staff on the show floor to help cosplayers that find themselves in awkward situations
12) Do you think those who the email affected in a negative way were justified in their reactions? Why or why not?
It really depends, I’m not really sure what the reaction was, but I can imagine a lot of cosplayers getting really hot under the collar about someone saying hug a cosplayer. Not only for personal space issues, but for protecting the costumes. A lot of time, money, and effort goes into some costumes and someone hugging them could damage it. I got hugged once without being asked at a con and the person’s watch caught on my sleeve and ripped my entire sleeve open and I had to ditch the costume for the day.
I tend to find that the people who harass me the most are other cosplayers. While some people get harassment from normal con-goers, generally they will just say something snide, take a photo of your boobs, or try to grab your ass while you pose for photos with them. Some other cosplayers seem to think that just because you are also in costume it gives them free reign to be able to harass you, touch you, and all that. I’ve been groped inappropriately on the boobs, ”motorboated,” had my costume zips pulled down, etc. by other cosplayers more than anyone else. And when you complain to them, they usually brush it off and tell you to “relax, it’s just cosplay,” not caring about how it made you feel.
And then there are the ones who cosplay the “significant other” of your character; e.g., if someone is cosplaying Black Canary and a random Green Arrow turns up, they will [sometimes]assume that just because the characters are in a couple it’s totally ok to try and kiss you for a photo or something, even if they are a total stranger. It can lead to some really awkward situations.
Anna’s comments expose just how pervasive harassment culture at cons can be. The fact that Anna, myself, and likely others expect (and are sometimes willing to write off) some minor harassment that we connect to our decision to wear a certain type of costume is alarming—we too, have become a part of perpetuating rape-culture.
I want to be careful not to paint Toronto ComiCON’s organizers as villains; that would be unfair. They’re not villains, but like myself, Anna, and countless others, they are inadvertently (I hope) part of a very large and very serious problem. But their inadvertent contribution to this issue is not as minor as some would like to think it is. By encouraging fans to “cuddle a cosplayer” Toronto ComiCON was adding more fuel to the already raging fire surrounding consent. If potential convention attendees are already prone to take unsolicited photos and make inappropriate comments, Toronto ComiCON’s exhortation to “cuddle a cosplayer” could serve to further and potentially escalate this sort of behaviour. The last thing cosplayers need is an organization inadvertently granting implied consent on their behalf.
FanExpo Canada’s original response to criticism leveled at this poorly planned promotional e-mail was less than ideal; they didn’t immediately retract the e-mail and some social media comments they made were just a tad unprofessional. That said, they have since modified the “cuddle a cosplayer” message by adding “(with consent)” and have uploaded a pdf version of their harassment policy on their website. For many, like Anna, these changes won’t be enough—but they are a start.
What I have taken away from this whole unfortunate scenario, and what I hope you take away from it, is the importance of persistence and the power of individual voices and stories. Large conventions are either unaware of, or are unwilling to recognize, the prevalence of harassment culture and the importance of exposing it and creating policies to prevent it. As women who are a part of the comic fandom community we are not powerless to change this. We can, like Anna did, share our stories. We can refuse to attend conventions that don’t address these issues. Most importantly, we can complain up: we should not be scared to approach big-shot comic book convention organizers directly—they’re nothing without us and they may surprise us with their willingness to change.