Cosplay is a big part of the Fan Expo Vancouver experience, but talking to cosplayers brings up issues that need to be addressed by the Fan Expo community at large.
The past weekend’s Fan Expo Vancouver marks the third edition of the BC Lower Mainland’s premier annual pop culture convention. It doesn’t seem like it was too long ago when news of the first Fan Expo Vancouver broke and I was as excited as I’d ever been for a comics convention (yes, I know Fan Expo is about more than just comics, but the chance to listen and talk to a variety of established, published comics creators in person without having to travel across provincial or international borders will always be Fan Expo Vancouver’s number one draw for me). Yet here we are, in Year Three of the Fan Expo Vancouver era.
Since the first Fan Expo Vancouver held in 2012, the venue has moved from the West Building of the Vancouver Convention Centre to the East Building and then back again and the Expo’s ultimate ownership has passed from the Toronto-based Hobby Star Marketing to the UK-Swiss concern Informa. Despite these changes, the Expo itself remains largely the same: A social and commercial showcase for an eclectic blend of comics, anime, TV, film, and popular fiction fandom as well as cosplay culture with a local, somewhat laid-back, occasionally improvised feel.
As I had done in the prior two Expos, one of my earliest stops on the con floor during my first day at the event was the table of Vancouver-based comics illustrator Steve Rolston. I’ve admired his distinct art style ever since first encountering it in the Eisner Award-winning, Greg Rucka-penned, Oni Press-published spy thriller comic Queen & Country. I asked him about the status of the TV series adaptation of his and writer Joe Harris’ Ghost Projekt miniseries (published by Oni Press in 2010), which was reported to be in development last year at NBC. Unfortunately, progress on the series has stalled, and it is now being shopped again to other networks. With the success of comics-based shows like The Walking Dead, Arrow, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I hope it won’t be too long before the Ghost Projekt television series is a reality, especially with recent real-world developments in the former Soviet Union perhaps giving the comics—whose story revolves around a failed Soviet Cold War weapons program utilizing the spirits of long-dead Russian warriors—an increased buzzworthiness. Before moving on from Rolston’s table, I picked up a copy of Emiko Superstar, the graphic novel illustrated by Rolston and written by Mariko Tamaki, published in 2008 by DC Comics under its unfortunately-named, now-defunct Minx imprint for female readers. (How the DC Comics braintrust thought that naming an imprint designed for female readers “Minx” was a good idea is beyond me.)
As big as the Vancouver Convention Centre’s West Building is, it can still feel mighty cramped with the size of the Fan Expo Vancouver crowds. After spending some 40 minutes roaming the con floor taking in the sights and making a mental map of where things were, I decided to head out to the waterfront area for some fresh air and a little peace and quiet. While sitting on one of the waterfront back-to-back benches, I overheard a teen girl dressed in a Lady Loki costume telling her friends about how she had been subjected to some very rude comments of a sexual nature from an adult male Expo attendee. After a few minutes of debating with myself if it was any of my business, I figured my press pass conferred some sort of responsibility to bring these sorts of stories to public light, and I approached the group with a hastily drawn up set of questions in my head.
“Cat,” as the young woman in the Lady Loki costume chose to be identified for this article, is no novice cosplayer, having already invested some years into the hobby (although that much was obvious from the quality and craftsmanship of her outfit). She isn’t naive either, despite her youth: She told me that she had friends who had been sexually harassed while in their cosplay outfits at other conventions and she knew that objectification and sexual harassment were real issues faced by those who choose to engage in cosplay. Still, knowing all that did little to blunt the effect of the hurtful, even threatening words cast her way. When asked what she thought could be done about the issue of the harassment of female cosplayers, she replied that perhaps “parents just need to teach their kids better growing up,” an insightful response which suggests that the problem of leering men casually and publicly hurling inappropriate comments and verbal abuse at women dressed a particular way is one with deep familial and even cultural roots.
I thanked Cat and her companion for their time and went back inside the West Building. In the broad hallways in front of the entrances to the Expo exhibition space were numerous clusters of cosplayers resting tired feet, checking messages on their phones, taking pictures of each other, nibbling on snacks, making quick-fixes to a rip here and a tear there, laughing, talking.
Perhaps more than comics and more than the TV and film celebrities and anime voice actors, Fan Expo Vancouver is most identified by the general public by its cosplay aspect. But Cat’s experience really bothered me. Was it a relatively isolated incident? Is the Expo a sufficiently safe environment for cosplayers, reasonably free from sexual harassment, public bullying, and so-called slut-shaming?
I talked to Merce, a cosplayer lounging with her friends on the hallway floor. She admitted to feeling safe and secure within the confines of the Expo area, but less so in more public spaces. And while she hadn’t personally been the subject of cosplay-related harassment, like Cat, she was only too familiar with the phenomenon from stories related by her cosplay peers. A young cosplayer whom I helped with her costume—one of her black opera gloves had developed a tear, and I fortunately had a roll of black electrical tape in my bag that served as a quick, if unsatisfactory repair tool—offhandedly mentioned that “some guy” had been following her all day on the convention floor. I left her in the company of one of her friends and bade them to have fun and stay safe, but all the while, in the back of my head was the story of how a cosplayer was drugged and sexually assaulted at last year’s Aki Con, only a few hours south of Vancouver in SeaTac, Washington.
On the ballroom level of the building, I met Emmie and Kia, attending their second Fan Expo as cosplayers with their friend Meg, a first time Expo attendee. Emmie has been a cosplaying in conventions for four years, and while her Fan Expo experiences have so far been free from harassment, she does say that she has had troubling encounters in other events. Overly-aggressive amateur and professional photographers too, occasionally pose a problem, intruding on privacy and demanding too many poses and pictures, although she says that the majority of them are accommodating enough when she declines requests to be photographed. (Emmie deadpanned that “[she] can generally tell how many pictures a photographer will ask for based on the size of his camera.”)
Despite everything, all the female cosplayers I talked to maintained that they haven’t allowed harassment at conventions, firsthand or otherwise, to ruin the hobby for them and that in the main, most con attendees are genuinely respectful.
I did try to engage non-cosplayers in a conversation about attitudes towards female cosplayers. One guy I talked to at the Convention Centre food court said that it was “only natural” that straight men would stare and maybe let loose a potentially offensive comment or two at the sight of an attractive woman in a revealing costume.
His reasoning, of course, was risible. That type of behavior would be frowned upon in a gym, a public park, a public pool, or any other public space where women (and men) might wear outfits that expose significant sections of their anatomy. Why should it be any different in a convention area? By that point, it had been about ten hours since I’d last eaten and I was famished after being on my feet for some four hours. Somehow, I doubted that the apologist sitting across from me would think it “only natural” if I grabbed his plate of mini-donuts and scarfed them down in front of him.
Another guy said that anybody who dresses for attention shouldn’t be surprised when they get all manner of comments, even negative ones. Is this what we’re doing now, blaming the victims of bullying and harassment and saying that they deserve whatever they get for publicly engaging in cosplay, instead of censuring those who engage in bullying and harassment?
Cosplay is for everyone
The topic of photographing amateur cosplayers is something I wrestled with last year in my coverage of Fan Expo Vancouver 2013. As I wrote then:
… cosplay coverage carries with it some potential problems. Last week, Penny Arcade Report‘s Ben Kuchera wrote an article that got Internet tongues wagging. In his piece, Kuchera brought up the notion that “sexy cosplay” picture galleries are a necessary evil in games journalism, one that he would rather do without if only the economics would allow for it. And yes, on one hand, it is a little skeevy and exploitative taking and posting images of amateur female cosplayers in the occasionally revealing outfits, knowing that the appeal of seeing “sexy cosplay” is bound to drive up page hit counts and bring in advertiser dollars. But on the other hand, documenting them live, it’s impossible not to sense the feeling of pride cosplayers have in their work and the sheer enjoyment they get in interacting with their peers and basking in the attention and pageantry of it all… … and I have no problem whatsoever with encouraging their sense of community by sharing images of consenting cosplayers online.
Because of pop culture websites’ fixation on “sexy cosplay galleries” as a cheap source of page views and advertising revenue, those who have never been to a comics convention with a pronounced cosplay element may think that cosplay is all about dressing sexily for attention. But the thing is, the amateurs who engage in cosplay span a wide range of demographics and favor all manner of source material for their costume choices. While many of the cosplayers at Fan Expo Vancouver were teens and young adults, just as many were young children and older adults. There were whole families attending the event in costume and parents accompanying their kids—one of my favorite images of Fan Expo was seeing a young mum and dad with a pair of kindergarten-aged children, the son dressed as Link, the daughter dressed as Zelda.
And because the hobby is of interest to all sorts of people, it stands to reason that their motivations for dressing up for conventions are just as varied. Sure, there are those who really are into the idea of cosplaying as a combination of performance art, amateur modeling, and costuming, intended for the entertainment of the gawking non-cosplayer public and fellow cosplayers alike. The truly dedicated cosplayers rarely “break character” in public areas, and are eager to ham it up for photographers. But for many others, amateur cosplay is about deriving personal satisfaction in an outfit well done, the pleasures of escapism, and the acknowledgment of one’s cosplayer peers.
The thinking that amateur cosplayers only do what they do because they seek the non-cosplaying audience’s attention and validation is the first step in a slippery slope that leads to their objectification and the breakdown of their right to privacy. Because of all the pageantry that accompanies comics conventions, it is sometimes easy to forget that the vast majority of amateur cosplayers have no modeling experience and that they’re not always “in character” even when milling about in costume. Many of them may even be uncomfortable with the idea of total strangers taking their pictures. These hobbyists are dressing up for themselves and for their fellow cosplayers, not for your blog.
The amateur cosplayer community does have issues of its own that it needs to work out regarding appropriate cosplay subjects and criticism of cosplay creative choices. During a cosplay-themed panel discussion held Friday night, Calgary-based professional model and costume designer Kay Pike talked about how a cosplayer friend was derided by some of his peers for dressing as a character of a different ethnicity. Pike and her fellow panelists maintained that cosplay should be open to everybody, and that ethnicity, gender, and body type should not prevent a cosplayer from portraying a character of his or her choice. It’s a viewpoint anyone, even a non-cosplaying observer like me, can support in principle and in practice, but a nuanced understanding of history and cultural context is important, too. Anybody remember the “blackface Geordi La Forge” incident at last year’s Emerald City Comicon?
The Future of the Comixverse’s cosplay coverage
I am considering revising the Comixverse’s internal policy for how we will handle pictures of amateur cosplayers in the future. We’ve made many of the same missteps as other websites in our prior coverage of events with cosplayers and we wholeheartedly apologize for them, but I think we already follow fairly good practices in our cosplayer photography since we overhauled the site several months ago: We make sure to identify ourselves as accredited members of the press before we take photos (or we at least make sure our press badges or press IDs are visible) and we also take care to get photography subjects’ verbal assent or at least their tacit acknowledgment via clear non-verbal gestures before taking the actual photograph. We use our judgment to ensure as best as we can that we do not photograph anyone who appears to be below the age of consent.
All that said, I feel like there is much more we can do to make the process of photographing amateur cosplayers become more transparent and fair without making it terribly cumbersome for all concerned. With professional models like Ms. Pike and established semi-professional cosplay groups like the Ghostbusters of British Columbia, it is easy enough and simple enough for us to direct readers to their websites, social media outlets, online stores, and the charities they support as an improvised, informal fair exchange deal for the use of their images. I don’t know if it’s possible to do that with every amateur cosplayer we will take pictures of in future, and I imagine some amateur cosplayers, for their own reasons, may not want to have a published online article associating them with their cosplay persona and activities.
If you are a cosplayer—amateur or professional—who attends Fan Expo Vancouver or any of the other conventions and events we cover and you have ideas and suggestions for how pop culture websites can better cover cosplay, please let us know of them in the article’s comments section, through the e-mail link below, or through Twitter or Facebook. And if you see yourself in one of the cosplay pictures above and wish to get credited in the caption, don’t hesitate to contact us and we will be sure to add it.
- Leaving Proof 182 | Time Machines, Comics, and the Politics of Cosplay: Reflections and Images From Fan Expo Vancouver 2013