Cosplay is Not a Permission Slip: A Rant

Women in cosplay are treated as pieces of meat, on display to satisfy a man's fantasy of that character.
Publish date:
October 26, 2012
sexism, cosplay

It was a gorgeous sunny day in San Diego. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and spandex clad superheroes paraded down the streets. A Dark Phoenix stumbled along, squinting in the brightness, fishing in her purse for the swag sunglasses she has received from Google the day before. Finding them, she shoved them onto her face and groaned, adjusting her skintight costume.

That Dark Phoenix was me, and I was hungover on the last day of San Diego Comic Con, 2012. But, with perseverance pulled from the wellsprings of my intense geekery, I stumbled into the convention center and immediately prepared to pose as people approached me, cameras held out. I fiercely popped my hip, put on my best Dark Phoenix "smolder," and put up with many a hover hand as man after man did a thumbs up next to me as their friend snapped a picture.

I've been cosplaying for many years now, but it's only been over the last couple of years (coinciding with my acceptance of self as a sexual being -- not feeling awkward in my skin anymore, essentially) that I have stopped wearing floor-length robe cosplays and moved onto superheroines with costumes that are like a second skin.

These were always the characters I wanted to cosplay, but as a socially awkward geek my entire life, it took a lot of maturing in order to become comfortable enough with myself to embody these pinnacles of badass femininity. Characters that I had grown up with -- characters that taught me to not take shit from anyone.

The first time I donned spandex, I cosplayed Knockout from the Female Furies. I will admit -- I was not entirely comfortable as this character. She wears a leotard with a thong, but she is a complete badass who makes Superboy's knees weak and can punch the lights out of anyone.

I say I wasn't comfortable -- well, I wasn't comfortable until I donned the costume. The IDEA of wearing a thonged leotard was disconcerting -- but as soon as I slipped into that costume and the paint of my face mask dried, I transformed. I became the embodiment of raw feminine power. I WAS this character, this intensely kick ass woman who had life by the balls. So what if I was wearing a thong? Knockout has a GREAT ass from all the butt kicking she does! YEAH!

I pranced out of that hotel room and into the convention hall (San Diego Comic Con 2011) feeling entirely empowered.

"THIS is what cosplay is about!" I thought as I high stepped my way across the ugly carpet. As I clenched my fists and furrowed my brows for hoards of photographers. As I searched for a Superboy to kiss.

But then it began happening. A rogue camera flash from behind, a skeevy looking dude slinking off to the side, trying not to make eye contact with me. At first I was oblivious. But my "bag bitch," my dear friend Chris, started getting the sort of look that a mother bear would get if someone was messing with her cubs. He straightened to his full height and began to stand behind me, glowering at unknown forces behind my back. I continued to pose until my legs shook, aware of a growing issue -- but I was uncertain what it was.

Finally, in a break of flashing bulbs, Chris informed me that all SORTS of guys had been snapping photos of my ass. While I had been posing for the wall of photographers in front of me, apparently I had also been posing for the ones behind me. He had positioned himself in the line of fire -- and he had had men wildly gesturing for him to move. He actually had to put his hand over one man's lens who wouldn't take no for an answer.

OK, look: I know I have a nice ass (thanks mom!). It's round and plump and I can shake it like Nicki Minaj if I want to. I went into the convention knowing I was displaying it for every mouth breather in the world to get an eyeful of. It's not my FAULT that the character that I love so much and wanted to portray was drawn as wearing a thong -- that is not a decision I had a hand in.

But the fact that not one, not two, but DOZENS of men thought it was okay to covertly snap photographs of my ass? That does not sit well with me. That does not resonate well with me. That makes me uncomfortable. If a man approached me and said: "You have a nice posterior. Allow me to photograph it," you know what I'd do? I'd pop my booty with a smile.

But what gives people the right to line up behind me and snap photographs of my butt, unaware to me? To me, this is the sort of creepy that upskirt Reddit forums tread upon.

After the convention, photographs of my butt started popping up on forums and weird aside Tumblrs. "I'd slap that ass so hard," one anonymous man said.

"But that's my butt!" I thought, feeling violated and strange.

This year, standing in the entrance of the convention center as Dark Phoenix, destroyer of planets, I felt the familiar intense excitement of cosplaying a strong female character. Surely no one would be on ass snap missions for me in this costume, right? It has full coverage. And it was DARK PHOENIX. She'd fuck you right up with some telekinetic energy.

I excused myself from a group of photographers and began making my way into the dealer's hall, hoping to run into some friends I still hadn't seen on this last day of the convention. A man stopped me -- he was fat, nervous, sweating profusely. He asked me if he could have a photo with him, and naturally I agreed. I am happy to let men pose with their childhood crush or personal fictional character hero.

He handed his camera off to his equally awkward friend, who fumbled with it for a moment as I doggedly held my stance -- toe up, hip popped, hands clenching imaginary balls of pure crackling energy. The camera wasn't working, so it was handed back to the man at my side so he could fix it. As he pressed buttons randomly, the previous photographs popped up -- and to my disdain, there was a photograph of my ass as I had been walking ahead of these two men.

I didn't say anything. I didn't do anything. A shot of adrenaline hit me like a freight train, but instead I stood there for a moment until the photograph was taken, the air thick with awkwardness. He thanked me, trembling, and ran off as quickly as his pudgy legs would allow.

I kept the costume on, refusing to let that one man ruin my day, but the feeling of empowerment was gone. I felt deflated and drained. I felt sad, and confused and angry, and a whole mixture of nonsense emotions that didn't belong in a girl who was in her equivalent of Disneyland. I felt objectified.

It took me awhile to get angry. For someone who has been outspoken about the misogyny I have encountered in the geek subculture, this just seemed to go along with everything else I've always had to deal with. But then I started thinking about it more -- why on earth WASN'T I angry? Why was I just shrugging this off as a "convention thing"?

Would I be okay with guys taking photos of my butt and then posting the photos online for other creepers to fap to if it had happened to me while I was waiting for the bus? At my day job? Waiting in line for a movie?

Several people have tried to make this argument to me: If you didn't want people photographing your butt, you shouldn't wear the costumes that you wear.

FUCK. THAT. That's like telling women not to wear short skirts if she doesn't want to be raped. These characters are drawn in very little clothing due to art direction and wanting to make sales -- and I love them and want to portray them despite what they are drawn wearing. I don't want to be burqa Wonder Woman -- I want to be Wonder Woman in all her sexy hot pants glory.

We as a geek community have some of the most rampant sexism and misogyny I have ever seen. Women in cosplay are treated as pieces of meat, on display to satisfy a man's fantasy of that character. We are without personality or interests, and there's no way people will believe that we actually know ANYTHING about the character we're dressed up as (especially if we are hot). I don't know the reasons for this -- I have theories, but that's for another time entirely. But the behavior I have witnessed over the years is abysmal. And it's not okay.

I know this argument is redundant - these are things that have been said a million times -- these are things even I have said before! But if by writing about my negative experiences makes at least ONE person change their behavior, makes ONE person become aware of these issues, then I have done my job.

Reprinted with permission from The Geeky Peacock.