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Cosplay, Consent, and Complacency

Cosplay, Consent, and Complacency


Chances are that if you’re reading this article, you’re involved in the convention scene.  Chances are just as likely that you’re also familiar with cosplay and costuming, whether as a cosplayer yourself, a photographer, or a fan.  Thus, it stands reasonable to assume that you, too, have seen the online movement most commonly referred to as “cosplay is not consent.”  This movement has been gaining momentum for several years, and for the last few months, has been a common topic on social networking sites like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.  Videos, articles, and anecdotes abound about the too-common issue of harassment that cosplayers face at events.

The point of this article is not to belabor an already much discussed and highly important topic to those of the geek community, but just in case you’re not entirely sure what the movement is about, here is the quick summary.  Essentially, cosplayers for years have been the victims of various forms of harassment at events, ranging from what some may see as innocent-intentioned hugs or glomps to offensive comments to inappropriate photo requests. Even more severe forms of harassment include groping during photographs, stalking, and exploitive photos taken without the cosplayer’s consent, and there have been multiple allegations of cosplayers being assaulted at events.  Considering the widely varying forms of harassment that a cosplayer may encounter, it is not really all that surprising that the community is taking notice and trying to make positive changes.  Many conventions have explicitly outlined their harassment policies within the con guide, demonstrating that many convention organizers take this issue just as seriously as the cosplayers and other geeks do themselves.

However, the concept of cosplayers facing inappropriate behavior from others is not a new one.  It is not uncommon that a veteran cosplayer or costumer may share an experience dating back to 2007, or 2004, or even earlier.  If this is not a new phenomenon, why is the community only now speaking up?

There is a wide variety of theories, the most frequently cited being that the popularity of conventions has increased, and as popularity of events increase, so too does the number of attendees including both cosplayers and creeps.  Cosplay is growing more popular as a hobby and the community has transformed from a small, tight knit group to a massive movement of its own, complete with its own set of internet celebrities and all the drama associated with anything involving popular opinion and public personas.  Be that as it may, it is this geek and cosplayer’s  humble opinion that the problem is more than just numbers.  Sure, it stands to reason that if more people attend an event, at least a few of those people are going to be less savory individuals. There is a bigger issue though, one more insidious, more hidden, and unspoken of.

That problem is complacency.

Make no mistake—this is not a case for victim-shaming.  There is no case in which “she asked for it” is ever a viable or valid explanation for the deplorable behavior of a perpetrator.  It does not matter what a cosplayer is wearing, what character they are dressed as, or who they are with; beneath the costume, they are a person like any other, and are entitled to the same respect that should, but unfortunately does not, always govern the actions of how people treat one another.

The complacency that has allowed these creeps to continue is multifaceted, but I think it can be broken down into three categories: conventions, witnesses, and cosplayers.

Conventions have a responsibility to attendants to assure a reasonable degree of safety while at the event.  Conventions are required to abide by fire safety codes, and so they (generally) do.  This is evident in lines that form hours before events like costume and masquerade contests, dances or raves, panels, and dealer rooms, not unlike nightclubs that must keep count of those that come in and out as to remain within the occupancy limitations.  Some conventions have already adopted clear zero-tolerance policies regarding harassment of cosplayers (and any other guests), and do not hesitate to eject attendees that violate these policies.  While these efforts are worthy of commendation, not every convention has adopted such policies, and even those that have are not always equipped to deal with situations as they arise.  It may be that the convention staff and/or volunteers do not know what procedure to follow when an issue or complaint is reported, there may be insufficient staff to field reports, it may be unclear to whom a report should be made in the event of harassment…the list is almost endless.  Perhaps most difficult to handle, from the perspective of a convention, is the question of validity of a complaint or report and what exactly to do when faced with one.  Should the convention eject and/or ban the offender or accused?  Did whatever the accused person do really happen the way the victim claims?  Has the story been exaggerated?  Are there witnesses that can corroborate the events reported?   From the perspective of the casual observer, this is one colossal headache, and it sure is a lot easier to promise that something will be done about the situation without any guarantee of follow through.  From the perspective of the victim though, this complacency is worse than a headache.  Complacency on the part of a convention presents the image that harassment is tolerated at the event, even though this harassment may be humiliating, dehumanizing, violating, embarrassing, or down-right dangerous.    

Convention attendees likewise cannot fairly claim ignorance of the fact this harassment happens.  Chances are you’ve seen it happen, or have certainly seen evidence of it. Not all forms of harassment necessarily occur with the cosplayer’s knowledge.  If one browses online forums, it is not at all difficult or uncommon to encounter photos of a cosplayer’s backside, cleavage, or the infamous up-skirt shot.  These creeps may waddle after a cosplayer in a crowded dealer room, specifically holding the camera low with the intention of getting such a photo; they may also sneak behind a cosplayer while they are posing for photos with others, once again taking pictures that the cosplayer has no notice of, and has not consented to.  

What has that to do with complacency?  

If you see a creep doing this, and you’re in any position to do something about it in a way that is safe, you’re sending the message loud and clear that this is okay.  YOU are being complacent.

Worst of all though, is the fact that the cosplayers themselves have become complacent.  Let’s face it; we’re in this hobby because while we (hopefully) love the aspect of crafting, we also love the attention.  This is of course a generalization, but one useful in understanding the complacency that has crept into this hobby, and not for the better.  We expect to be photographed while we’re in costume.  We crave it.  Being photographed is recognition that our work is noticed and appreciated.  If the character a cosplayer is portraying is a fan favorite, the probability of being asked for photos is increased all the more.  In our quest for recognition, it is flattering to be asked to pose for a picture, and it’s just as flattering to ask to pose with a fan.  Most fans are just as excited as we are to be posing with their favorite characters, and conduct themselves like any normal human, smiling, saying thank you, and just generally having a good time.  We think nothing of it when an arm is slid around our shoulders or waist.  And that hand that grazed a little too low?  That was just an accident.  And that request to pose a specific way?  Maybe it’s a little strange, but nothing bad…right?

Too often cosplayers will allow things to slide that we wouldn’t if we were in normal street clothes.  Part of the Cosplay Is Not Consent movement is to encourage cosplayers to speak up when they face this kind of demeaning behavior at events.  Many of us would have no problem speaking up if someone approached us in any way that made us uncomfortable if we were on our way to work, the store, a movie, whatever.  Many of us would humor no attempt by a stranger to touch us, so why do we put up with in costume?  

I attribute this back to complacency.  Sure, some things that make us raise a brow may be completely innocent or accidental; vendor rooms can be crowded and getting jostled around happens no matter what.  However, every person knows where their comfort line is, and when it has been crossed.  Are we so eager to be recognized or have our talents lauded that we will allow ourselves to be made uncomfortable?  Though not likely to admit it, the sad answer for many cosplayers is yes, we will.  

Once again, I am not victim-shaming.  A victim is a victim, and a victim is never to be blamed.  Nothing we wear or say or do is permission or consent for anyone to victimize us.  

This brings me to the crux of the issue: just as we do not give consent to be made a victim, we likewise do not need to be complacent and let the victimization continue.  We, all of us—conventions, fans and friends, and cosplayers—must step up, and take action.

Conventions and events must not be afraid to eject those people that try to victimize other attendees.  There needs to be a clear zero-tolerance harassment policy at every event.  Staffers and volunteers need to have and follow a procedure when and if harassment is reported.  

Fans likewise need to be unafraid to step in when they see something fishy happening.   If you see someone being photographed and they appear uncomfortable, speak up. Facial expressions are quite telling as to whether a person is at ease or not.   Ask if you can also take a photograph—a lot of times, these creeps only have the courage to exploit someone when no one else appears to be aware of it, and will straighten up quickly when they realize they are being watched.  If someone is attempting to take an inappropriate photo, get the cosplayer’s attention—the act of turning or moving will often ruin the shot and once again remind the creepers that they are not alone.  If you’re feeling exceptionally bold, I am in full support of photo-bombing attempted up-skirt or bum shots.  Taking a photo of the creep in the act is likewise effective, providing evidence to convention staffers and others.  If you are a friend of a cosplayer, do not let them wander off with a photographer that they do not know and/or if your friend seems the slightest bit uncomfortable with the situation.  Make whatever excuse you need to if you feel it necessary to have one—you’re holding their phone, they have the hotel room key, whatever.  Be a good friend to them, just as they would hopefully do for you.  Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if an awkward-seeming photo or pose is the result of friends at play or a creep attempting to take advantage.  Watch.  Observe.  You don’t need to be a caped crusader out to foil every potential creep; you only need to take reasonable action to stop offenses when you witness them.  

As a cosplayer, remember that the person with the most powerful voice is you.  Only you can decide if you’re uncomfortable, and you are the person with the most responsibility to speak up.  YOU have something at stake—your self-respect, your confidence, your safety, your privacy.  Do not let anyone take those things from you.  

Realize that what you wear can and does send a message to others, and while it never gives anyone the right to molest you, some idiots will consider a skimpy costume as an invitation or permission to act inappropriately.  Be prepared to deal with photo requests in ways that you are comfortable, whether that means refusing certain poses, or wearing dance tights and extra undies for those high-kick shots. Whether you comply or deny a photograph does not matter in the grand scheme of things, so long as you are at ease with your decision and were not coerced into doing something you would rather not.   If someone is making you uncomfortable, remove yourself safely and immediately from that situation.  Walk away.  Tell the offender that you are uncomfortable in simple terms—and do it loudly.  Again, refuse photos or poses.  If the problem is serious and/or continues, REPORT IT.  Find a convention staffer immediately and report what happened.  If the convention staffer appears hesitant to take action for whatever reason, find a law enforcement officer (most conventions or events have uniformed security and/or police officers on site) and ask them for help.  But most importantly, do not relent.  Stand firm in your decision, and remember that nothing you did invited the offender to make you into a potential victim.  

Cosplay is NOT consent.  Cosplayer complacency, however, creates unnecessary obstacles in the establishment of a safe, fun environment for costumers, guests, and every attendee.  

Eleanor Roosevelt was quoted to say “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Do not give creeps that consent by being complacent to do or say nothing. You’re too good for it.  

Article by: Cagliostra

Comic by: Karine

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May 16 2013

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