As a feminist activist, ending the prevalence of violence against women has always been of utmost important to me. As a fangirl, the ability to feel like a full member of my fandoms is integral to my fan experience. These two parts of my identity intersect when it comes to gender issues with fandom. As fandoms are simply smaller groups within our larger society, they are not immune to the sexism and misogyny that plague our culture as a whole.
For example, gender-based harassment and violence have been a social phenomenon since women have entered the public sphere. Consequently, women experience sexual harassment in the larger world as well as within fan spaces. Although the fandom community has given some attention to harassment at conventions (Valentine “Bad”) and in video games (Pinchefsky), the conversation has largely minimized the additional layers of complexity that cosplay adds to sexual harassment.
Why Do People Cosplay?
Cosplayers come from diverse backgrounds, and each person who cosplays has his or her own unique motivations for doing so. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to list every reason why someone might want to cosplay. However, many cosplayers share similar reasons for taking part in the practice.
Because cosplaying unites such a large group of individuals, part of the appeal of the practice is the fact that it “signal[s] group identity” (Peirson-Smith 81) and affords members “camaraderie, festival atmosphere, and sense of community” (Peirson-Smith 84). People cosplay because it’s fun, and makes them feel like they belong.
Interestingly, people also cosplay for the opposite reason: to demarcate themselves as different and reject “the parentally or maternally invested and managed program of appearance” (Peirson-Smith 87). Cosplayers transcend the social norms with which they have been raised, preferring to express their individual control of their bodies through costume.
Another reason people cosplay is because it lets them adopt a different persona, albeit only while they are in costume. By cosplaying, they feel like they have transformed their identity and are consequently able to represent themselves in a new, different way. Cosplayers can take on the identities of fantastical characters, like characters who can perform acts of magic and non-humans with otherworldly capabilities, thereby allowing them to “communicate and perform their spectacular individual selves” (Peirson-Smith 85).
Why Do Women Cosplay?
Certainly, most women cosplay for the same reasons as men do, whether it’s fitting into a community, rejecting larger societal expectations, or creating a new identity. However, some women also have more specific, gendered reasons for cosplaying.
Some do so in order to accentuate their femininity and embrace their sexuality. “When I do my cosplays…I try to make myself feel a bit more feminine than usual. It’s a way of putting myself out there to show people I’m sexy in a certain way…If I’ve got it, I may as well do something with it” (McCasker), a woman whose cosplay persona is named Black Cat said. This does not mean that women cosplayers have to be meek or passive; another cosplayer who goes by the name The Vixen Gamer states, “Lots of women love a strong, feminine, female character. You don’t have to sacrifice your femininity to be powerful” (McCasker). Through cosplay, these women are taking traditional (read: patriarchal) ideas of femininity and sexuality and repurposing them into a contemporary, woman-driven definition.
On a related note, Black Cat finds that cosplaying in sexy costumes is empowering because it means reclaiming her body and appreciating it for what it is, without worrying that others believe the way she is dressed is too sexy or slutty (McCasker). An oft-quoted line from the cult classic Mean Girls (2004) says that “Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it” (“Mean”). Perhaps cosplaying at conventions and other fan gatherings gives women and girls the chance to “dress like a total slut” without being vulnerable to others’ judgments.
Women also cosplay in order to claim male-created characters as their own. “Men design these characters, and if I can put it on and look accurate, I think I’m doing something right” (McCasker) Black Cat said. The larger world and society is dominated by the patriarchy, and most of the people in the higher echelons of fandom are men. It’s no wonder that women, even those who don’t describe themselves as feminists, would want to claim characters with whom they identify through cosplaying them.
Harassment and Cosplay
While probing the issue of harassment and cosplay, it’s important to remember that there is nothing inherent in cosplay that encourages harassment; men harass women regardless of what they’re wearing. Western culture has taught men that they may – to fit in, sometimes must – comment on women’s bodies without castigation, so they harass on a general level.
However, anecdotal evidence makes it seem that women who cosplay are particularly vulnerable to harassment. Take, for example, Mandy Caruso’s experience at 2012 New York Comic Con. While cosplaying at the convention, Caruso was sexually harassed by a group of male attendees who claimed to be interviewing her for their blog. Although she did not report what had happened to any authorities at the convention, she posted about the experience on Tumblr. The Tumblr community rallied behind Caruso: the post got 40,000 notes within 24 hours (Pahle), and currently has 50,000 (Caruso).
Stories like Caruso’s encouraged Hollaback!, an international organization dedicated to ending street harassment, to run a campaign with the motto “cosplay is not consent” to reinforce the idea that women must be treated with respect no matter what they are wearing. Several Hollaback! chapters have attended conventions to spread this message. (Keyhan) In 2013, Hollaback! Boston made its presence known at Boston Comic Con by walking around the convention with signs inviting women and men to talk about being harassed while in cosplay. Hollaback! Boston cofounder and site leader Britni de la Cretaz reports that many of the Comic Con attendees who saw her sign actively shared their stories or smiled in appreciation of the support and solidarity. (De la Cretaz).
Why is it that men seem to have even less respect for women’s right to their own bodies while they are in cosplay? Caruso points out that in her experience, “many people at these cons expect women cosplaying as vixens (or even just wearing particularly flattering costumes) to be open/welcoming to crude male commentary and lecherous ogling” (Caruso). Male convention-goers, like men in most other situations, assume that women dress for men’s edification and not for their own sake, so they feel free to share their opinions, wanted or not.
Men harassing women at conventions could be a form of gatekeeping. Men who are fans may feel threatened by women’s presence in fandom, so they (subconsciously or not) marginalize them in order to feel dominance. These men want to claim fandom spaces as exclusively their own, so they try to squeeze women out via sexual harassment.
It’s also possible that men harass women because they have not received a sufficient amount of punishment to their behavior. If a man acts in a certain way towards one woman and doesn’t receive any or enough negative feedback, he may think it’s acceptable to act in the same way again. “You’ve gotta step up and be assertive, otherwise nobody’s gonna learn” (McCasker), Black Cat opined. Caruso concurred: “I encourage cosplaying women everywhere to be blunt and vocal with their rights, their personal boundaries, and their comfort level at conventions” (Caruso).
Cosplaying is an activity that many fans participate in. Although they have various reasons for cosplaying, many do so to feel like they are part of a community, to reject larger mainstream society, or to adopt a new identity. Women who cosplay may have additional motivations to dress up, including a desire to embrace their femininity and sexuality, to feel empowered, or to claim male-created characters. Unfortunately, despite activists’ efforts, many women who cosplay or simply attend conventions have been subjected to harassment. Sexual harassment is a societal trend that is symptomatic of the patriarchy, but men who harass women in cosplay and at conventions may have more specific reasons for their behavior: they believe that women are cosplaying for men’s attention, they are gatekeeping the fandom, they just don’t understand that sexual harassment is problematic. Overall, the issues of gender, cosplay, and harassment have a complicated but fascinating intersection. It is my fervent hope that one day in the near future, women will no longer have to worry that they will be harassed at Comic Con, or that if they are, there will be easily accessible channels to report the harassment and punish its perpetrator.
Caruso, Mandy. The Grind Haus. Web. 24 October 2013. <http://beautilation.tumblr.com/post/33538802648>.
De la Cretaz, Britni. “Hollaback! Boston at Boston Comic Con.” Hollaback! Boston. Hollaback!, 5 August 2013. Web. 23 October 2013 <http://boston.ihollaback.org/2013/08/05/hollaback-boston-at-boston-comic-con>.
Keyhan, Rochelle. “Comic.” Hollaback! Philly. Hollaback!. Web. 25 October 2013 <http://philly.ihollaback.org/comic/>.
McCasker, Toby. “Women of Cosplay Talk Sexism, Femininity, and Cookies in the Mail.” IGN. 23 June 2013. Web. 25 October 2013. <http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/06/24/women-of-cosplay-talk-sexism-femininity-and-
“Mean Girls Quotes.” IMDb. IMDb. Web. 25 October 2013 <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0377092/quotes>.
Pahle, Rebecca. “Black Cat cosplayer draws attention to comic con sexual harassment. So what can we do about it?” The Mary Sue. 21 October 2012. Web. 25 October 2013 <http://www.themarysue.com/black-cat-cosplay-harassment/>.
Peirson-Smith, Anne. “Fashioning the Fantastical Self: An Examination of the Cosplay Dress-up Phenomenon in Southeast Asia” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 17.1 (2013): 77-112. Print.
Pinchefsky, Carol. “Sexual Harassment in Videogame Culture.” Forbes. Forbes, 3 August <http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolpinchefsky/2012/08/03/sexual-harassment-in-Romano, Aja. “Black Cat cosplayer sexually harassed at Comic Con becomes Tumblr hero.” The Daily Dot. 16 October 2012. Web. 25 October 2013 <http://www.dailydot.com/news/black-cat-cosplayer-nycc-harassment-tumblr/>.
Valentine, Genevieve. “Readercon: The Bad and the Ugly.” LiveJournal, 16 July 2012. Web. 23 October 2013 <http://glvalentine.livejournal.com/340623.html>. Valentine, Genevieve. “Things You Should Know About the Fallout.” LiveJournal, 16 July 2012. Web. 23 October 2013 <http://glvalentine.livejournal.com/346102.html>.