Bullying in the U.K. Cosplay Scene: What Can Be Done?

The Wicked and the Divine; Author: Kieron Gillen; Artist: Jamie McKelvie; Colorist: Matthew Wilson; Image, 2014

Cosplay in the UK has been going on for long time, and I have found myself being involved in it, to a greater or lesser extent, for the last decade. I love cosplay. I love making it. I love wearing it. I love seeing what other people do with it. It has helped me become a much more confident person, and to dive into the career as a writer that I always wanted. It has some great social advantages and you can see people have a real joy for what they do.

Unfortunately, however, I, and many others, have had to disengage from the cosplay community at large. There have been many widespread occurrences of bullying and trolling throughout the community, ranging from very serious issues such as body type, gender, and race, to almost petty issues to do with cosplaying the same character as someone else or someone’s images going viral. But no matter the root cause of the abuse, bullying is still bullying, and it seems to be getting worse.

As a little experiment I asked on my social media and public cosplay pages if people had experienced cosplay bullying either themselves or seen it happening to a friend. 100% of the replies said that they had. I didn’t get one comment, message, or email saying that cosplay bullying wasn’t a thing. Of course this isn’t particularly scientific, but it does at least show that the majority of cosplayers have been affected by bullying. Considering how big the community just in the UK is, that’s worrying. What is it about cosplay that has created such an atmosphere where such vitriol and abuse can flourish?

I have included many of the quotes and stories that I received in this article, though each source wished to remain anonymous.

There appears to be two strains of bullying within cosplay: bullying from inside the community and bullying from non-cosplayers who have come to cosplay with a certain thing in mind. And this certain thing? Sexy cosplay girls.

There is nothing wrong with “sexy cosplay”, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is a large part of the cosplay “community” who are purely there to creep over girls and women and troll any who they don’t deem “attractive”, or because they are “whores” or, well, any reason honestly. With one hand they want to jerk off over fantastical, photoshopped images of cosplayers, asking them to take their tops off, and with the other they are calling these cosplayers sluts, bitches, fat as a pejorative, ugly and so much worse.

“My best friend did an amazing costume for one of the cons in the UK. She got some lovely photos, everyone loved it and she got some great comments etc, felt really good in it. Found out later that same con that she’d been posted on a 4chan board and people were anonymously ripping her apart. It took get a year to get the confidence to cosplay again and she’s never worn that costume since.”

With cosplay becoming more mainstream, it has opened up the community to more and more people who aren’t necessarily cosplayers. Even large scale media like national newspapers and international news websites are covering cosplay events and conventions. And the majority of these media outlets, be they large or small, seem to be obsessed with talking about the “racy outfits” and the “Super-raunchy” girls. It’s feeding the public this idea that cosplay is a sexualised thing, and that is fueling the people who want to degrade, bully, or even groom cosplayers.

We need to protect vulnerable cosplayers against this sort of harassment, whether it comes from a single person or from a large group.

Online harassment of women, and those perceived as women, is ridiculously common but in the cosplay community it ends up with this dark twist of treating the cosplayers almost as fictional characters purely because they dress up as them. People act as if they aren’t real and so it’s ok to do and say certain things, even when you come offline into the real world.

Over the course of me writing this article I lost track of the amount of times I saw reports of cosplayers being hugged without permission, groped, and straight up assaulted by people at conventions or events. These people seemed to think that because someone was wearing a costume it was ok to violate their body and personal space. One such occurrence was at a 501st Garrison event (“official” Star Wars cosplayers, for those who don’t know), when a woman grabbed a cosplayer from behind and bear hugged them to show her child that the cosplayer wasn’t scary. This was done out of the blue, not asking for permission and completely freaked the cosplayer out. The idea that because someone is in costume means that they are ok with you touching them is completely unacceptable.

As for groping, this is something that conventions are trying to tackle. The “Cosplay is Not Consent” movement has been seen at cons around the world, making sure that people know–because somehow they don’t–that it is not ok to touch a cosplayer when taking a photo, let alone anything else. But still, this behaviour persists.

So just in case people aren’t getting it: do not put your arm round a cosplayer unless you have asked and they have said yes, do not try and cop a feel, do not grab their arse, do not try and take a photo of their boobs or up their skirt, and do not sexually assault cosplayers. Got it? Good, moving on. Bullying and harassment from the people outside the community may be awful, but I think it’s worse when it comes from the community itself; the people who are meant to have you back and share your passion.

The cosplay community almost acts as a microcosm for the rest of the world; there are ever shifting groups and hierarchies, as with every part of life. But sometimes it can all get a bit Lord of the Flies. There are often people causing problems and drama to be on top or simply bullying and bitching out of jealously. I’m going to be honest, there are lot of egos flying around in the cosplay community, and that can and has caused serious issues.

“With cosplay’s rise to mainstream consciousness, it has attracted all sorts, which it is sort of out to do originally, but as with anything, this includes bad seeds, and the entire scene has become rotten to the core with backstabbing and like-hunters, that have abandoned the original sentiment cosplay was all about: having fun.”

I  have dealt with some pretty nasty bullying at the hands of the cosplay community, purely for standing up against the people at the top of the pile when, on multiple occasions, they behaved in ways that I felt were unfair and inappropriate. You don’t expect to be attacked for telling someone they aren’t giving a good example to other cosplayers. And it’s not uncommon.

There are plenty of people at the top of the pile, who for whatever reason, feel a need to make others think less of themselves. They want to stay at the top and use bullying and harassment to do that. Using their power over communities to set their fans/friends/lackeys to attack whoever they have deemed to be a problem. Many people are hounded out of cosplay communities with death threats, people hacking them, fearing to go to conventions and events because they may be attacked by these people in real life, or just through fear of seeing their bullies. Think “Mean Girls”—make them fear you and you will stay on top. Which is honestly pathetic, we are not children on a playground. We should know better.

“People, who for some reason feel that they are so good, they have the right to rip into anyone they see as being of lesser skill, or an outsider to their group. When I was getting started, it was pretty hurtful to be treated that way and it put me off getting too heavily involved with cosplay. I would dress up for cons but avoid other people in costume. Over time, I did eventually make cosplay friends and they showed me that not everyone is like that. Now when someone feels the need to attack me because my costume isn’t up to their “standard”, it’s easier to ignore and remind myself that cosplay is meant to be fun.”

Cosplay is hobby that’s meant to be fun. There are loads of different ways to have fun. You can buy your costume and hang out with your mates, or you can spend hours learning and improving your craft for competitions and every which way in between. If your “fun” means that you sit and bully, troll, snipe or any other type of harassment on or offline then you are doing cosplay wrong. That is only time I will ever say that. Don’t cosplay to get likes, don’t cosplay just because you want internet fame, cosplay because you love it.

“Most cosplayers are nice, but the not nice ones shout louder. Find the nice ones and make friends. Ignore the others, they’ll ignore you and you’ll have nothing to worry about. The best thing you can do as a beginner is make sure you love cosplaying for the art, not for the attention, surround yourself with others that also love cosplaying and work on your skills together. Give it time and one day you’ll introduce yourself to one of your cosplay-senpais and they’ll turn out to be a fan of yours, and you’ll know you’ve made it.”

So what is being done to combat cosplay bullying? Unfortunately not a lot. Like with many forms of cyberbullying, you can go to the police, but it takes a long time and the advice given is always to block, report and lock down your accounts to stop the harassment. This is all very well, but it doesn’t stop the problem. Cosplayers have often gone to the Citizens Advice Bureau and the police in search of solutions and been given very little in response. Many feel that going to the police is an incredibly extreme course of action in the first place.

But then there is a lack of support of bullying in hobbies and social groups anyway. You can find advice for workplace or school bullying, and yes there is a lot for cyberbullying, but it almost all says “tell someone”, well yeah, but who? In something like cosplay, all you can really do is tell your friends, because there is no one who can hold others accountable. With nowhere really to turn, people often end up retreating for the social scene or quitting cosplay all together. This is not ok.

One would hope that there was a cosplay support network in place, anti-bullying groups with advice and ways of dealing with the trolls, but, despite efforts to start such groups, there doesn’t seem to be anything that actually offers a support service, with people to talk to. It’s a big ask to have a volunteer organization that deals with something like serve bullying, but considering how common it is in cosplay, I’m shocked that there isn’t anything.

This being said, there are groups such as the UK Cosplay Community that are trying to provide something of a safe space. However, this is a large community that, despite the best and lengthy efforts of the admins, cannot stop harassment that happens privately or off Facebook, nor should they be expected to.

So what is the solution? Well, education is always a bit of a buzzword, trying to teach people how to behave and what cosplay is about. Campaigns such as Food and Cosplay’s #notacosplayer where cosplayers shared the comments and harassment they received telling them they were “not a cosplayer” for whatever reason, really struck a cord and helped promote anti-bullying awareness, and the “Cosplay is not Consent” movement as I mentioned before. On top of this, a lot of conventions are starting to put anti-harassment policies in place and making sure that cosplayers are safe at conventions, as much as they can be. These sorts of things need to spread and be much more widely known and used where possible to make sure that bullying is stamped down in any way that it can be.

We can’t police the internet and what people use it for, but as a community we can act as our best selves. We can step in when we see a problem; you don’t even have to be a cosplayer, if you see someone harassing a cosplayer online or at an event say something, don’t just let it happen. We can make sure that no cosplayer is left behind.

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