Column: Cosplay does not mean Consent

Photo Courtesy of Tribune News Service
Erin Filson, from left, Anna Kegler and Rochelle Keyhan are representing a group called "Geeks for CONsent," at Comic-Con, July 23, 2014, in San Diego. The trio will be handing out anti-harassment paraphernalia at the convention.

Jacob Jardel
Managing Editor
@JJardel_Writing

Content warning: This piece addresses topics of rape, sexual assault and related forms of sexual violence.

“I had to physically stop two people from putting hands on me. One stopped after I pushed him away; the other asked permission to put his head in my cleavage, and I said no … He went to take a picture and did it anyway.”

Alana Leilani had told her story to Mashable in 2014, describing an experience she had at New York Comic Con (NYCC). In many cases, sexual assault rarely happens outside of drunken transgressions or acts of perversion.

In Leilani’s experience, two people found the behavior acceptable because she was in costume.

Make no mistake, the actions Leilani experienced constitute assault, no matter the attire. But, for some reason, many feel as if costumed status negates this sentiment, an extension of the false concept that a person’s state of dress “asks for” certain actions.

But, once again, that could not be any more untrue.

There continue to be instances of cosplay-based harassment at conventions, where individuals dressed as their favorite characters receive some sort of derogation or unwanted contact based on their dress. According to the show organizer for NYCC, there were 20 reported cases of sexual harassment at the 2013 con.

But those 20 reported cases (and perhaps the potential for many more unreported cases) were enough for NYCC organizers to start a “Cosplay is Not Consent” campaign at the 2014 convention, emphasizing appropriate (read: non-harassing) convention behavior.

The campaign is one of many that convention organizers across the nation have been working on implementing at their cons. Panels at places like Anime Expo in Los Angeles shed light on the problem of assault and propose solutions. Organization HollabackPHILLY has been in the works with cons nationwide in hopes of establishing programs to prevent cosplay-based assault.

Yet, this harassment still poses one question: What makes cosplay so different that people seem to forget socially-accepted norms for how not to harass someone?

One of the reasons could be the fact that conventions – and, by proxy, cosplay – are rooted in a place outside typical reality. Mashable’s Andrea Romano, who chronicled Leilani’s story, said this diversion from real life is the point of cons and costumes.

“Cosplayers attend events like NYCC to build a sense of community in a place where their passions and their joy can be appreciated,” she said. “It’s a fantasy world, where people can dress as their favorite characters — no matter how exposed — and feel safe and supported.”

Note that last sentence, particularly the phrase “safe and supported.” Nothing about harassment is safe or supported. Nothing about it is appreciative, either – despite the assertion that catcalls and similar physical manifestations are complimentary.

It harkens to something stated in “Toxicity in Modern Nerd Culture” in a February 2017 issue of the Collegian. The article addressed gatekeeping and an inflated sense of entitlement associated with protecting nerdy domains.

A similar mechanism is likely in play when it comes to cosplay and harassment, an odd mix of the patriarchal concept of male entitlement and nerd entitlement to characters being a certain way. And it all traces itself to the origins of certain character designs.

With characters like Poison Ivy, Catwoman and Supergirl, costumes range from mildly provocative to skin-tight or minimally-clothed attire. Power Girl has an unnecessary cleavage window in a costume that, for all intents and purposes, looks like a one-piece bathing suit.

And these examples are just a few of the many depictions of artists conflating femininity with skimpy clothing.

Mind you, there is nothing wrong with women choosing to wear revealing clothes. It’s their bodies and their choices. However, the fact that many early costumes were revealing for the sake of being revealing gives pause to many aspects of cosplay.

Though crossover costumes and other modifications exist, many enthusiasts of costume arts enjoy faithfulness to original attire. This adherence to canon is, in a way, part of that nerd-related entitlement.

But the entitlement itself does not breed sexual assault or harassment. Part of it also occurs throughout certain parts of nerd culture, where creators highly sexualize many of the feminine characters – sometimes for no reason other than fanservice. Whether or not it’s right is a topic for another opinion piece, though personal sensibilities lean toward not.

The part that is wrong, though, is how this sexualization leads to treatment of fans who just want to portray the character. But it’s not the creator’s fault or the cosplayer’s fault.

The fault is on the people who violate the social contract where you don’t grope or harass someone for what they’re wearing.

Even with highly sexualized characters, there is still some way to find empowerment – at least with some of the stronger heroines who break through and save themselves. And people can and should wear what they please without fear of negative social ramifications.

But there needs to be a better enforcement of this mindset, especially when it involves people in costume. Just because someone portrays a character you have fantasized about meeting does not mean you have all right to act out as you wish without consent. Anything outside of a (hopefully enthusiastic) “yes” is not consent. It applies to any other situation.

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