NOTE: This post is primarily concerned with gender and cosplay. Its limited scope does not allow for a meaningful examination of the ways in which gender and cosplay intersect with race, sexual orientation, disability, body image, and class. I would, however, like to acknowledge that intersectionality is vital to understanding social inequality as a whole and this post in no way stands on its own as a comprehensive examination of social injustice as it pertains to cosplay or nerd culture.
On Stereotypes and “Fake Geek Girls”
This July Vince Brusio, Diamond Comics’ Previews World editor, shared his misconception that women are “getting into geek culture for the fashion sense,” a view that is disappointingly common, and certainly problematic. For one thing, it suggests that women are not actually interested in geek culture except insofar as it allows them to wear cool outfits, reinforcing the stereotype of women as clothes-obsessed, shallow, and materialistic. For another, it implies that men do not cosplay, which is absolutely false.
Brusio is not the only person in the comics industry who has expressed such views. Artist Tony Harris, who has worked on such series as Ex Machina and Iron Man, caused quite a stir in 2012 when he posted a rant on his Facebook page about how female cosplayers don’t know anything about comics or the characters they cosplay. While there was a lot of pushback from male and female nerds alike, there was also a great deal of support for Harris’ comments, and though he did respond to his detractors, it was only to say that he stands by what he said. This sort of language encourages the belief that women who cosplay are trying to manipulate the men at conventions, who are largely implied to be lonely and lacking in confidence (another unfair stereotype that runs rampant in the nerd community).
This also gets at another interesting double-standard of cosplay: that only women are able to make a living as professional cosplay models. It is a fairly common complaint among men who cosplay that there are no men at the same level as Yaya Han or Miracole Burns, however oftentimes the people making these complaints fail to acknowledge that professional cosplay is built on objectification. Before I continue I want to make it clear that I am not judging or attacking the women who make money off of cosplay modeling, or suggesting that their careers are invalid. These women are every bit as valid as any other cosplayer (whether they make their own costumes or not). Read this post for a more nuanced exploration of the objectification of female cosplayers.
This problem with male cosplayers feeling unequal to female cosplayers is not limited to professional cosplay, either. Male cosplayers often express frustration at being seen purely as amateurs or being passed over at cosplay contests in favor of a scantily clad woman. While, again, this does have a lot to do with sexist objectification of the women involved, it is also unfair that a man with a superior cosplay in terms of construction might lose because the judge was biased toward a woman. On the other hand, there are so few spaces in the nerd community where women are considered equal that women having carved out a niche in one area may not be such a big deal.
At this point, you may be asking what can be done to change these trends and make the cosplay world more accessible to everyone. Well, there is no simple answer. It’s a very complicated issue and the problems are coming from outside of the nerd community as well as from within it. One major way that these problems can be combated is for more women to to be creating the media the costumes come from. If women are writing and drawing the comics, directing the movies, and animating the games then the people who work with them are less likely to view women as ‘fakes’ who don’t actually care about the medium or characters. They are more likely to be taken seriously by their co-workers and by fans. They are more likely to write material that appeals to female fans. Thus, the women on the convention floor are more likely to be taken seriously as fans, and less likely to be harassed.
Something everyone can do to help is to vote with your wallet. If you want to see women in leading roles, buy the stories that have women in leading roles. If you want male cosplayers to be able to make money through cosplay modeling, buy their prints. If you want to see fewer superheroines wearing nothing but leotards and high heels, pass over the comics that portray them that way. The fastest way to make any industry change is by spending your money in alignment with your values.
On Crossplay and Transphobia
In America, crossplay is usually women portraying male characters. When men do cosplay female characters, they are often playing it for laughs – masculine, bearded men wearing very feminine costumes in an attempt to be humorous. There is a sort of cosplay ‘subculture’ of men who (warning: this link is sometimes NSFW) cosplay female characters seriously, but they are rarely given attention and are often ignored by the cosplay community at large. This is problematic for several reasons.
For one, playing the “man in a dress” trope for laughs is highly transphobic and contributes to the continued stigmatization of transgender women both in nerd culture and society at large. It posits that a man who would put on makeup and wear heels is hardly a man at all, but is certainly not a “real woman” either, and further supports a gender binary that excludes people who don’t identify as either male or female. It also makes it difficult for masculine men who want to dress up as female characters seriously, but are afraid that their inability to “pass” as women will make them nothing more than a joke to their fellow convention-goers.
Transphobia isn’t limited to male crossplayers who do not “pass,” as those who do possess feminine features are often accused of being “a trap,” the same sort of language that is used against transgender women when heterosexual men discover their biological sex and claim that trickery and manipulation were involved. This can be dangerous for male crossplayers if fans discover that they are not biologically female and become angry and even violent.
While discrimination based on prescribed gender roles (or the subversion of them) is certainly not exclusive to the cosplay community, its existence within it is symptomatic of larger sexist and transphobic/transmisogynist views in nerd culture, which is notoriously behind the times in matters of social equality.
It bears mentioning that while elitism and discrimination do exist in the cosplay community, in my experience the majority of cosplayers believe in creating a supportive environment in which everyone can participate regardless of their gender, their character’s gender, or how revealing their costume is. Oftentimes the discrimination is coming from outside of the cosplay community, and/or is supported by a vocal minority within it. Thus, the onus is more on conventions, industry professionals, and cosplay fans to themselves be supportive of a more inclusive cosplay culture.
On Harassment and Hope
Harassment of cosplayers at conventions is such a widespread problem that it has motivated several movements. Geeks for CONsent, for instance, created a petition encouraging San Diego Comic-Con to adopt an official sexual harassment policy which gathered over 2,600 signatures. 16-Bit Sirens created the Cosplay =/= Consent movement, which focuses on raising awareness about the harassment that cosplayers experience and allowing cosplayers to share their stories without risk of shame or judgment. These and similar campaigns have had mixed results, particularly when it comes to the largest geek culture convention in the US, San Diego Comic-Con.
Despite mounting fan pressure to adopt a sexual harassment policy, including the Geeks for CONsent petition, San Diego Comic-Con insists that their Code of Conduct is enough. Organizers have stated that to publish a sexual harassment-specific policy would be to suggest to the media and potential attendees that sexual harassment is a problem at their convention (ignoring the fact that it is a problem at their convention, as demonstrated by the personal stories shared by people who have attended the convention in the past). As the premiere comic convention, this sets a bad example for other similar conventions which have the same problem.
Emerald City Comicon is not the only major convention to listen to the demands of cosplayers. Recently, New York Comic Con, the second-largest comic convention in the US, asked popular geek feminism site The Mary Sue for help in drafting their own anti-harassment policy.
The support from these popular institutions suggests that there is hope for continued positive change in the convention circuit, and likely in geek culture at large, where cosplay is concerned. Cosplayers are standing up for themselves and the community is taking notice. While the policies do not get at the root of why the harassment takes place, or in particular why it is so often gendered and sexualized, they will do a lot to combat it and make nerd culture a bit safer and more inclusive for all cosplayers.
While there is no obvious path to the end of cosplay harassment, there are a number of things that any concerned cosplayer or fan can do to help. Sign the petitions, support the movements, call out harassment when you see it. Don’t buy tickets to SDCC until they adopt a harassment policy, and make sure they know why you are doing it by posting on Facebook and Twitter. When industry professionals make statements about cosplay that you don’t agree with, respectfully let them know why what they said is harmful. Support female creators with your words and your dollars. Make your voice heard and tell your friends to do the same. Be part of the solution.