When I asked Jessica Krose, who was attending Atlanta’s Dragon Con this past September dressed as Black Widow, about the most recent incident of harassment that she had been made to deal with, she didn’t have to think back too far. “It happened about five minutes ago,” said Krose. “A guy came up and tried to touch my face. He didn’t say ‘Hi,’ he didn’t introduce himself, he just came up and tried to touch my face. When I asked him what he was doing, he said ‘Oh, I saw you from up above and saw you dabbing your sweat, so I came down to wipe your face.’”
Cosplayers, like Krose, are the heart and soul of fan conventions, spending hours upon hours and considerable amounts of money perfecting their costumes. Done well, cosplay can be one of the most joyous expressions of fandom, and a huge part of fandom is feeling like something special belongs to you, that a specific part of pop culture spoke to you so deeply that you wanted to wrap yourself up in it, mentally and physically. It’s a harmless bit of escapism, one that can inspire creative, emotional, and physical expression that many can take part in and enjoy. But it’s not without that dark side that Krose experienced at Dragon-Con, one that prompts those in the vicinity of cosplayers to gain a boldness that can make those in costume uncomfortable or unsafe. Oftentimes people forget that there is a human being beneath the costume, leading to inappropriate situations that add an unfortunate, even frightening, element to the convention experience.
Sadly, this is another example of what it’s like to be a woman within geek culture. Even as women become more and more active at conventions, online, and in the industries that support the culture, many still create a feeling that women “don’t belong.” When comic book artist Tony Harris went on an unhinged rant in 2012, he shared a view that many men have expressed in more subtle ways: Outside of the enjoyment that they can provide men at conventions, women have no place there.
“I appreciate a pretty Gal as much as the next Hetero Male. Sometimes I even go in for some racy type stuff ( keeping the comments PG for my Ladies sake) but dammit, dammit, dammit I am so sick and tired of the whole COSPLAY-Chiks. I know a few who are actually pretty cool-and BIG Shocker, love and read Comics.So as in all things, they are the exception to the rule. Heres the statement I wanna make, based on THE RULE: “Hey! Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl, you are more pathetic than the REAL Nerds, who YOU secretly think are REALLY PATHETIC.”
Misogyny is, of course, nothing new, but it’s begun mutating into new, disturbing strains and cosplayers often find themselves on the front line even while trying to momentarily escape a world that seems, at times, to be unrelentingly fixated on pushing back against the notion of equality.
Locker Room Talk
Ask any woman, in or out of nerd-dom, and she’ll have stories. Call it the trickle-down effect that comes from treating boasts about sexual assault as mere “locker room talk” to be shrugged off as “one of those things.” While the scandals surrounding Donald Trump (and the ways he’s tried to shame Hillary Clinton for her husband’s past sexual misdeeds) may have dragged that behavior into the spotlight, the kind of entitlement when it comes to women’s body’s and personal space it exemplifies has long been an issue. If women continue to be blamed for the bad behavior of their abusers — “Were you alone? What does your costume look like? Were you flirtatious?” — and aren’t believed when they report their assaults, the problem will persist. In response to the sometimes hazardous climate at conventions, many cosplayers and convention organizers are working to make these events a safe space for everyone. But while things like Cosplay Is Not Consent, a viral online campaign that is working to fight harassment at conventions, have found traction, the issue remains.
“If you look back through all the female characters within genre, a lot of these characters — be they anime, video games, comics — were hyper-sexualized when they were created,” says Cher Martinetti, managing editor for Blastr’s Fangrrls, a female-centric vertical of the popular geek site.”So when women choose to cosplay these characters, regardless of why they are choosing to, I think on some level some guys are still associating those characters and outfits with sexual thoughts and fantasies, even if it’s subconsciously.”
That some con attendees are unable to differentiate actual human women from the characters that litter their fantasy lives, might help explain how this sort of bad behavior has become common. “So when that happens, and I’m speculating that it does,” Martinetti continues, “they may start dehumanizing the girl in the outfit a bit. They don’t see a ‘person;’ they see a fake character. And honestly for any type of assault to happen, be it sexual or physical, the person being assaulted has to be dehumanized for the assaulter to act on that.”
Martinetti adds that the “geek-o-sphere” is varied in terms of sex and sexuality. “There are fans that may be misogynistic, so the way they treat women leaves a lot to be desired. Then there’s a group that is just really socially awkward to begin with, so when it comes to how to appropriately behave around people they’re sexually attracted to it’s even worse.”