Female cosplayers like Amy* see Comic-Con as a place where you can — and should — be whatever you want. But, while plenty of women feel comfortable enough to wear little more than body paint to play shape-shifter and X-Men character Mystique, many women (including Amy) modify their costumes to deflect unwanted attention.
Amy says she typically doesn't feel harassed at cons, but she attributes some of that to having male friends and her father in tow. However, when she was alone for a moment waiting for her friend near a restroom, a line of 20 men appeared within minutes to take pictures with her, which she found overwhelming.
Over the past few days, I've spoken to half a dozen women, all of whom shared stories of their experiences with varying degrees of harassment at conventions, as well as Geeks for CONsent, an anti-harassment group that posted video interviews of women at this past weekend’s con in San Diego, many of whom highlighted photographers as a particular source of anxiety.
But, what exactly is harassment in this context? And, how do organizers and participants of conventions police something that can be defined differently depending on the person?
“People are like, ‘whatever, you didn’t get raped,” she said.
This is the latest hurdle women face as they increasingly become involved in comic books, science fiction, anime, and video games. Women now make up about 40% of Comic-Con’s 130,000 attendees. And, many women cosplay at these events. But, what kind of protection is provided at major conventions?
Comic-Con’s code of conduct has a short paragraph detailing the harassment policy. Basically, people should follow “common sense rules for public behavior, personal interaction, common courtesy, and respect for private property.” People who don’t follow “common sense” can be ousted. (Comic-Con couldn’t be reached for comment.)
I spoke to Keyhan, who said policing harassment wasn’t as simple as common sense.
“If all this was was some people sometimes crossing the line and saying something about my butt, I wouldn’t create a movement over it,” said Keyhan, who started the group after attending her first convention in 2013 with cofounder, Erin Filson. “But, after the third time you don’t know the difference between who will cross the line and touch you. Last time, the guy actually did smack me [on the behind].”
“It's an important part of enjoying your cosplay,” said organizer Darlene Marie. The panels discuss “safety at the con, breaking down racial barriers on who can cosplay, and trying to make it [easier] to have fun and concentrate.”
She said that while cosplayers dress as a wide range of genres — steampunk, sci-fi, renaissance — the most sexualized costumes tend to be in comics. Marie was adamant in pointing out that most of her group's cosplay experiences have been positive, but that harassment still happens.
That's why the panels, which she says happen at most conventions, “will help encourage women to go and be safe and be careful; to have confidence in who you are and know how to stand your ground.”
Keyhan, meanwhile, said her tour of cons across the country has been a facilitator for conversation on this issue. She and Filson started Geeks for CONsent after shopping around a comic book about street harassment from their other organization, HollabackPHILLY, which works to educate people about the issue. The two realized that geek girls faced a more nuanced kind of harassment at conventions, and began touring and speaking on panels about the issue.
Since then, the group has received media attention, along with tons of supporters. Keyhan said many women came to tell stories of their harassment from as long as three years ago, and saw men step up to support the booth and discuss the issue.
“There is strong awareness, and by no means are we talking about the entire community when we talk about harassment,” she said. But, “with a solid policy, people know if you stand up against harassment, the staff is going to have your back, and it emboldens people to say something.”
Keyhan says the group has also been criticized by both men and women, who say the booth makes Comic-Con seem less safe and makes the community look bad. But, its purpose is to facilitate discussion, get a clearer policy from organizers of events, and also to even help police harassment if the need arises.
“I may sexualize some of the costumes, but I do it in a neat way so I don't feel like I get approached too often,” she said. “But, a lot of my friends, they have people take pictures of their back or try to get up the skirt.”
Vanderveer, who is part of Marie's local cosplay organization, said that she has learned how to pose and self-direct photos to avoid this kind of conduct.
“You know how to pose, you don't let people who hold cameras tell you what to do,” she said. “And, you don't have to pose for photos.”
Marie added that she tends to only work with photographers she trusts, since people can be misleading about what the photos will be used for and their actual identities.
Sexualization of women in comics, video games, anime, and other staples of geekdom is nothing new, nor is it unexpected at this point. But, as more women move to participate in the space, the rampant misogyny of a lot of these mediums is both intimidating and disturbing.
And, while people have been more and more outspoken about the type of harassment they've seen and have become critical of organizations who failed to enforce common sense rules, we still seem to trivialize the issue. Keyhan pointed out that in a lot of previous media coverage, major outlets have used atypically sexualized photos of women at conventions without alerting them, including one of a 15-year-old girl, opening them up to judgmental Internet commenters. Keyhan, along with some of these women, have received hate mail and sadly predicatable derogatory comments.
It's important to note that women (and men) cosplay for all sorts of reasons: to feel empowered, to create elaborate and realistic costumes, to channel sexuality, and yes, to have pictures taken of them. But, implicit at a con is the mutual respect fellow geeks should have for one another's mode of expression.
While groups like NY Cosplayer Network and Geeks for CONsent work for more direct anti-harassment policies, it seems like comic creators themselves have become more aware of their female fans.
“A lot of comic companies have done a lot to do more contouring and making costumes more covered up,” Vanderveer said. “And, a lot of independent comics are coming out where women are nicely clothed. A change is coming, but it's slow.”
*The name has been changed on request.