Cosplay. The general public might not understand what I mean by this, but in the world of fandoms it’s a way for people to express themselves by dressing up as their favourite characters from TV, film and comic books.
Cosplayers come in all shape and sizes, from your bog standard store-bought Iron Man costume to the intricately detailed homemade designs. This is a community where people come together for one purpose, to celebrate their fandoms. Unfortunately, what comes hand-in-hand with the fun and excitement of portraying your favourite character, is a darker side. Bullying and sexual harassment.
Google cosplay and harassment and you will find many stories from conventions and online communities of people bullying someone because, for example, their body type is not suited for the character they are portraying.
Why do people in the cosplay world receive such negative attention?
As a cosplayer myself, I attended the MCM Comic Con Expo in Glasgow at the end of September. What is that? Well, it’s a two day convention where fans can gather to appreciate the TV shows, comics and films they adore. You may also see a few actors, authors, directors or producers and ask them questions, get a photograph together and may be an autograph. Essentially it’s a weekend where you can geek out to your favourite things. That is 29,442 of us gathered to geek out at this year’s convention, MCM Scotland’s biggest event to date. But personally I wasn’t too worried about whether or not I would be harassed because of my costumes since I was there with a good group of friends.
I grilled other cosplayers to find out their consensus; how were harassment and bullying addressed at conventions?
A young group of girls dressed up as the main cast of the anime Free! explain: “We get funny looks but no one has attacked us. We generally have fun at conventions but I do imagine harassment happens.”
Others, however, weren’t so lucky. One young woman from Fife said: “Oh yeah, last year I came as Tank Girl and folk were like you’re not skinny enough to be her and all that rubbish.”
Talking to a more seasoned cosplayer, she explained that: “Someone made a comment that I’m slightly larger and I was dressed as Black Cat from Spider Man. They didn’t say it to me but they were standing next to my boyfriend when they said ‘Oh my God, did you see the Black Cat? She was a bit chunky’.”
After speaking to a whole host of unusual and wonderful cosplayers, the general consensus was that mainly skimpily dressed, lone females are targeted at conventions.
One male cosplayer from the west of Scotland said: “I feel it’s more likely to happen to female cosplayers who dress up as female characters from the big two, DC and Marvel. [comics]. There is an old boy’s club mentality with some people.”
A 17 year old girl from Paisley explains: “I was harassed in the sense of getting a photo with someone and they’d grope me. It happened at comic con this weekend. I wasn’t even wearing a ‘revealing’ costume.”
To get a deeper insight on the word of cosplaying and harassment, I spoke in depth with two seasoned Scottish cosplayers. Known by their fans as Aranel and Henry Woo.
Henry has been cosplaying for two years. Talking about the reactions he receives he explains: “I get a lot of massive reactions of people complimenting my costumes and I’m like ‘really?’ I do get really nervous when I step into conventions.
“You never know what response you’ll get from fans or friends. Even people you’ve never met. It feels good though.”
Aranel who has been a cosplayer for nine years says: “All the reactions are generally really positive. Lots of compliments and multiple people wanting to take pictures.”
PHOTOGRAPH: The Kirky Studio
Despite the positive reactions, Aranel attends many conventions a year where she has experienced harassment: “One of the worst for sexual harassment was when someone with a ‘free hugs’ sign groped me. I’ve also had pictures and even a video taken without my permission.
“For bullying, there have been several instances of people spreading rumours behind my back and purposely going out of their way at events to make me uncomfortable.”
Henry hasn’t dealt with sexual harassment or bullying and expresses that it’s down to having great friends who attend conventions with him. But some of his friends were not as lucky.
“A few of my friends have been, you can call it harassment or bullying but it’s the same thing. One is still at school and was being harassed by some of her classmates. She’s really young and passionate and I try to be supportive of her. All my friends are supportive of each other.”
In some cases, a few believe it’s because of the type of costume you wear that you may receive unwanted attention. Henry suggests that may be the case but expresses that: “Depending on what costume you are wearing and what character you really want to go for, they should make sure they have someone next to them or close by. Don’t go to conventions on your own because it can get really awkward.”
On the other hand, Aranel explains: “I wouldn’t say so. Many people tend to believe women, especially those wearing revealing costumes, are targeted. I think those are the ones that are reported and made public the most. I’ve heard pretty much every reason for someone to pick on someone else.”
It appears that anyone can be harassed for anything when cosplaying. MCM’s Community Manager Joe Black – the man responsible for keeping harassment and bullying out of conventions – agrees. He explains: “We have had girls harassing guys quite physically. There had been several incidents where girls had circled guys, spanked them with paddles and refused to leave them alone until they had made out with each other.”
On this Aranel explains that: “It is completely unacceptable, in the same way that harassing female cosplayers is. I honestly don’t know or understand what goes through people’s heads that would make them think that is an appropriate way to act towards someone – regardless of gender.”
At conventions it can be hard for security and staff to see everything that happens. Aranel states that: “I’ve started seeing ‘cosplay is not consent’ signs at some conventions which is great, yet pretty horrible that this is a thing that needs to be pointed out.”
When asked what words of wisdom they can pass on to ‘newbies’, both Aranel and Henry could not be any more supportive. Aranel says: “Don’t change a single thing you are doing. You are doing nothing wrong by going out and wearing whatever cosplay you want. Just remember not to take anything that is said to heart, it is usually said by bitter people with nothing better to do.”
Henry expresses: “Make sure you’ve got great friends to back you up, continue to cosplay and be who you are. Chase your dreams. You’ll have good experiences and friends.”
Please don’t let these or any other horror stories deter you from dressing up and going to your local convention. It’s a fun time to be had and harassment is tackled every day by convention organisers, goers and cosplayers who want to make the experience a great one.