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.”
According to Lance Fensterman, the Senior Global Vice President of ReedPOP, the organization behind many high-profile conventions, this kind of behavior boils down to a lack of understanding. “I wish I had a definitive answer for you because if I did I could help to change things. I think the simplest answer is ignorance. We have a lot of poor behavior in society and in nearly each instance and can be traced back to a lack of education and empathy – ignorance.”
Education efforts (such as the one ReedPop has initiated with Cosplay Is Not Consent) might help to reduce the problem, but this situation is not entirely born from men not realizing that unwanted touching, leering, and language are wrong. For many, it’s less ignorance than backwards thinking and a willful disregard of a woman’s right to determine her own boundaries. It’s not that those who behave this way are helpless to stop. They don’t want to, and that’s why, as Fensterman acknowledges, we also need accountability backed up by actual repercussions. Because if good sense, clearly posted warnings, and people’s consciences don’t stop them, maybe the threat of being outed as creeps or prison time will.
While some dismiss stories of abusive behavior as isolated incidents, the experiences of many cosplayers suggests otherwise. While not every woman has been assaulted, every woman probably knows someone who has been and joyous as cosplaying can be, this issue just isn’t going away. Wherever your Black Widows and your Khaleesis gather, a few creeps will always be waiting in the wings.
On The Convention Floor
Many of these women walked the halls of Dragon Con, a popular sci-fi, comics, and pop culture convention in Atlanta, Georgia, this year. While some conventions often seem to be designed to appeal to news outlets, breaking the latest news about each geek franchise and television show, Dragon Con has traditionally been for the fans. The cosplay and fan events serve as the centerpiece of the weekend, as 77,000 convention-goers pour into downtown Atlanta, heading to panels, merchandise booths, and autograph signings. But even as cosplayers strut down the street in the costumes they worked hard to make or acquire, they do so realizing that some watching them may lack a respect for decency and boundaries. Despite the best efforts of convention organizers and signs discouraging harassment posted around various hotels and hubs, the stories that many women tell are all too familiar to observant members of the cosplaying community.
For Megan Raine, who has attended the con three times and was cosplaying as Christopher Nolan’s take on Catwoman this year, the presence of catcallers is the only downside to the convention. “I get a little uncomfortable,” she says. “That’s the one thing about it, when I’m looking forward to Dragon Con. There’s always going to be the creeps.” That feeling of unease proved to be apt this year, as the harassment began before she even made it to the convention. “On the way over here — I’m staying in a hotel about five blocks from here — and I was walking by myself, there was actually one guy who was here last year and he found me again, and was all up in my face, right here [she puts her hand far too close to her face], and was telling me that I would be a ‘good wifey’ and it was really creepy.”
One professional cosplayer, Last Second Cosplay, who was a spot on classic Harley Quinn this year, has to deal with harassers on a regular basis while in costume. “I was dressed as Black Cat and was in a big crowd and couldn’t see behind me, and I felt this guy come up behind me and slap my ass. I turn around and see him a few feet away, pointing at me and laughing with all of his friends. I was like ‘OK. Thanks for that.’ I’ve also had a security guard at a different con sexually harass me.”
Sassy DaVinci, another cosplayer (dressed this year as Daenerys), is used to being both physically intimidated by men at conventions and witnessing her friends have to endure the same thing. “Last year, at Dragon Con, my friend dressed like sexy pinup Captain America, and a couple of cosplayers dressed as robots walked up to her and said ‘I’d like to stimulate you’ and started saying very inappropriate comments to her.” The chance to get inebriated on the show floor at many conventions doesn’t help matters when people can’t keep a handle on their impulses, either. “I’ve had guys come up to me and say ‘Your costume is too inappropriate,’ [while] standing very, very close to me and staring downward, towering over me. They were obviously intoxicated, but that is no excuse.”
Megg Washington and Haley Keim are both longtime cosplayers — Washington made both of their costumes, Marvel’s Rogue and Agent Carter — who have seen plenty of harassment in the community. “I usually do Disney princesses, so people are a lot nicer about it. Like, right now, I’m in a skintight jumpsuit, so you’re going to get a lot of ass grabbing and whatnot.” Washington is hopeful that it can get better over time, though. “This year has been better so far. Cosplay Is Not Consent has been spread out enough that it has gotten a bit better over the years.” Still, Washington isn’t sure how extensive the change can be, because of the culture at large and because of how some female characters are portrayed. “It’s kind of the society that we live in. There are so many people and you can’t micromanage them all. You can put your signs up and you can speak about it, but you can’t control every single person. And unfortunately, especially for women, most of the characters for us are drawn… I don’t know how much fashion tape they’re using, but I could not fight crime with my boobs hanging out. In heels.” Keim, however, makes it very clear that no matter how revealing the costume, that isn’t an open invitation. “When we do this, it’s for us. We don’t do it for the male gaze. It’s not for someone to come up and comment to make a gross gesture or reference. It’s not for them.”
Piper Aaron, cosplaying as Mileena from Mortal Kombat, is a realist when considering the roles of security at conventions like this, acknowledging that they can only go so far. “Unfortunately, you can’t expect security to be up on every little thing, so for us to get mad at security for letting it happen is unreasonable. You just have to deal with things as they come, the best you can.”
Jessica Krose makes it clear that cosplayers aren’t going to let harassers drive them away from what is normally an accepting community. “I think cosplayers are pretty good at helping each other out. Like, if someone sees someone being touched or harassed, other cosplayers will come and intervene. I see that a lot. We take care of our own. I don’t feel unsafe because I know other cosplayers have my back.”
Sandra, who was at Dragon Con for her first time (cosplaying as Lucy Heartfilia from Fairy Tale) was tired of both the lack of respect from people ogling at conventions, but also the lack of faith in the testimony of women. “I think some conventions try to minimize what we wear. There is the mentality that ‘Well, if you weren’t dressed this way, it wouldn’t happen.’ Which is never the case. Not matter what I’m wearing, this shouldn’t be seen as consent to touch me. What conventions could do, I think, is that when we go to security they can act. They need to make sure that this is true, this is what’s happening, and not say ‘Well, are you sure this is what he did?’ They need to be more proactive and believe women.”
While words seem innocuous enough, they matter. There is always that fear that words will turn into action and that harassers will make good on their threats. And they do. In 2014, Bitch Media did a study on the percentages of people in the industry who had experienced verbal and physical harassment, and the numbers were staggering: 59% said they felt sexual harassment was a problem in comics, and 25% said they had been sexually harassed in the industry. As far as convention attendees themselves, 13% reported verbal harassment, while 8% had been physically assaulted, groped, or raped. In a society that still blames women for their own assaults or denies that they even happen, there is no guarantee that your distress will even be acknowledged. While it is great that the community takes care of its own, there are still steps that could be taken to ensure harassment numbers go down.
Having The Conversation
Convention floor horror stories make it easy to get bogged down in the darker side of fan culture. It can seem like an impossible task to provide everyone with a safe experience even as conventions have attempted to address the issue. Fensterman makes it clear that while harassment still persists, most conventions are taking practical steps towards eradicating the issue. “We have always had a harassment policy, since 2006 when ReedPOP was born. However in the last four years since we created the Cosplay Is Not Consent campaign and created the reporting feature in our app, I have felt like we were really making an impact.” Despite improvements, he acknowledges that it’s hard to call their efforts a success if there is even one attendee who isn’t safe. “While I’m pleased with the strides we’ve made, I can’t say that we moved fast enough… We can do a great job for 99.9% of fans but if just a small percentage of fans has problems, we have not met our expectations. That’s a huge challenge and an important one for us.”
Martinetti echoes the familiar post-9/11 refrain of “See something, say something” and the power of public embarrassment as a deterrent, but she also believes that the conversation needs to happen outside of the conventions as well.
“I think that there needs to be a far more open approach to discussing sex and sexual assault,” says Martinetti, who adds, “People don’t talk about this with each other so much as they talk at each other, or they are discussing stuff with people who simply share their views or opinions. And that isn’t how change happens.”
Painting accusers as spotlight-hungry opportunists looking to parlay their stories into attention isn’t how change happens, either. Women don’t come forward because of the potential that they will be ignored, denied, and/or embarrassed as they’re made into a villain. They also fear retribution, because it often seems that many are not interested in treating these issues as actual problems.
A widespread acknowledgement that rape culture exists needs to occur before the culture can change. For these issues to ever get better, we have to believe the testimonies of women and respect their autonomy, from the debate stage to the convention floor, and introduce real penalties for those who run afoul of the rules.
“Holding people accountable and having very real consequences are definitely necessary. And not simply arresting someone and throwing a fine at them; there needs to be some kind of mandatory class or therapy to deal with sexual assault,” says Martinetti, who reiterates her earlier point about the need for people to see and respect each other as human beings. “[Maybe] a program where people who have been assaulted talk to people who have committed assault so the latter can really see and hear the former and understand what the outcome of their actions looks like.”
As frustrating and awful as the situation can be, it’s encouraging to know that conventions are working to create a safer space for the people who frequent these events. But as long as society treats women as less than, the overarching issue will persist.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s alleged indiscretions, a critical conversation is being brought back into the mainstream about what sexual assault means, how pervasive it’s become, and how often it’s dismissed as acceptable and expected behavior. It’s become an unavoidable subject that’s forced many to confront their own notions of what consent actually means in all spaces — be they on a date, at work, or at a convention. This isn’t just about someone shouting lewd remarks at a woman or an unwanted round of grabass. It’s women taking back their agency from a world that wants to steal it from them. The problems that cosplayers face is a small part of a larger problem, but the strength they find from their heroes and from each other as they express themselves is the beginning of change.