There are a lot of problems with comic conventions. Talk to fans who attend them, and you’ll get a rundown: overcrowding, lack of focus on actual comics, overpriced soft drinks, long lines, and that wonderful smell of body odor that is ever present from about 90 minutes in. However, of all of the issues both real and imagined that are discussed as problems, there is only one that is exactly as bad — if not worse — than advertised: the harassment; specifically, the harassment towards cosplayers.
It is deplorable the way the cosplayers, especially female ones, have been treated at conventions in the past. I’ve witnessed this with my own eyes; a few years ago at New York Comic Con, a She-Ra cosplayer was just straight-up groped right in front of me and, thankfully, right in front of a security guard, who removed the offender from the scene rather quickly. This is not as rare an event as you would hope, though – this is a pretty common situation.
It is so common, in fact, that this past year ReedPOP, the parent organization behind New York Comic Con, sought to address this situation by creating a new anti-harassment policy which was summed up in four words: Cosplay is not consent. ReedPOP enlisted the help of the Mary Sue, a website that takes a look at comics culture and, to quote their “about” section on their website, “promote, watchdog, extoll, and celebrate women’s representation in all of these areas and work to make geekdom safe and open for women.” Togther, they drafted a document that better addressed the concerns of the convention goer in general, and the cosplayer in particular.
On Saturday of New York Comic Con, I took to the show floor and spoke to over a dozen cosplayers about their experience at the convention and whether or not they felt a difference in tone at the convention due to the newly revamped policies. I attempted to speak to a wide cross-section of cosplayers, from people traveling in groups to those walking the show alone, from young teenagers to middle aged folks, from those who were dressed in more revealing outfits to those who were almost covered head to toe — all to get a better sense of what the experience was like for them this year.
As a note: all cosplayers interviewed were done so anonymously so that they could feel safe to say whatever they like. All character descriptions are accurate, but no details are given that would indicate which Catwoman or Captain America I spoke with. Also, all cosplay photos in this article were found by searching “nycc 2014 cosplay” in Tumblr, and are not of the interviewed cosplayers.
The opinions on the cosplayer’s convention experience were mixed, but overall relatively positive. However, it seems that the new policy didn’t really affect the people I spoke with. One Harley Quinn cosplayer, approximately 25 years old, said that on Thursday she had two incidents of people being “handsy” with her while taking photos. When asked if she reported the incidents she said that she did not, because she felt that it “wasn’t worth it.” She said that this is par for the course when cosplaying, and therefore she gave a dirty look and moved on. She was well aware of the new policy, and felt that it was a good thing to have in place, yet chose not to take advantage of it.
This sentiment was echoed through a number of cosplayers I spoke with: the idea that human nature + 100,000 people + women in revealing outfits inevitably leads to some harassment. This is not incorrect, per se, but is a bit of a defeatist attitude and still unacceptable. Almost everyone I spoke with complained of being photographed without consenting or of having disparaging remarks tossed their way and, most disturbingly, most of the women mentioned some sort of inappropriate physical contact.
In fact, the only women who didn’t intimate some level of discomfort were the youngest cosplayers I spoke to, who were approximately 15 years old and dressed as Batgirl and Supergirl. This was their first convention, first time cosplaying, and they seemed more or less totally comfortable there. Sure, they didn’t love having their photo taken everywhere they went without being asked, but they explained that the attention they were getting was part of the deal – “I mean, we are dressed up,” one said. I was wondering if their youth was what was keeping them more sheltered from the general experience, if they had simply gotten lucky in their interactions, or there was a different explanation that I had not explored but it’s hard to tell. They were not aware of prior complaints of harassment, of the new policy, or of anything but the fact that they were having a (slightly overwhelming) blast at the con.Continued below
On the opposite side of the spectrum was the oldest cosplayer I spoke to, a Wonder Woman in her 40s. She has cosplayed for many years, at many conventions, and had the most pre-conceived thoughts on the subject. She was aware of the new policies, but felt that at a convention as large as NYCC there was almost no way to avoid some uncomfortable situations. “There are just so many people you can’t help but have some sort of uncomfortable physical interaction, intended or otherwise,” she said. She said that she has been harassed before, but that they have more or less happened at smaller conventions with less trained staff. Her big takeaway was that, to really ensure safety, the entire event staff from security guards to volunteers need to be trained in how to spot harassment, how to stop it when it is happening, and how to remove the offenders from the convention, no questions asked.
There was a fair amount of self-imposed blame as well, which was frankly shocking. Two cosplayers, a Zatanna and a Black Cat, both told me that they “somewhat expected” to be harassed based on what they were wearing. They seemed to see this as an unchangeable side effect to their decision to dress this way. When asked what they would do to change this situation, they had no clear answer. A group of anime cosplayers (sorry, anime fans – I’m not skilled enough at my character recognition to place their identities) said that they fully expected to get more comments than they did – although they still had their fair share – because of one member’s particularly bare torso.
One of the more fascinating discussions I had was with a Predator cosplayer who, at the very minimum, was six and a half feet tall and was strapped with a large gun. He would be very hard to miss, and even harder to avoid if trying to get in and out of a tight area, which is what he said is where the biggest form of his harassment took place: from people yelling at him to “get the fuck out of the way” just about everywhere he went. His attitude was one of good humor, however – “People are just trying to live their lives, and then a huge Predator walks in front of them. I get it.”
Overall, the cosplayers felt safer in groups, specifically groups with men in them, which was a bit of a disturbing thing to hear. “When a guy is with us, we get less photo requests that involve getting an arm around our waists, and people are generally a little more respectful” said a Batgirl cosplayer in a group of 7 other Gotham-centric characters. It is sad that some female attendees don’t feel safe without a man nearby. This is a breakdown of basic safety regulations, and needs to be addressed, and honestly? I don’t really want to be part of an event where women feel at risk for simply expressing themselves.
I reached out to both ReedPOP and the Mary Sue for comment from them about how they felt the policy was enacted. The Mary Sue did not respond to my emails, but Brian Stephenson at ReedPOP and I spoke about policy and its impact. Stephenson had this to report:
I’m happy to say that the actual number of reported incidents in 2014 was less than half of those reported in 2013, so the new policy did have a measurable impact. While that is fantastic news, there were still a handful of incidents reported this year. Given that we have 151,000 people attending NYCC, I am really proud of the fact that we had less than ten reported issues of harassment this year – but we would really love to have zero reported incidents in the future. Overall we are extremely happy with how the new policy was received and it will definitely be in place for all of our future shows. We will continue to work with The Mary Sue and other thought leaders in this area to make sure that the policy stays current and evolves as needed but the policy as it currently stands will be the standard that we use going forward for all ReedPOP shows.
It is hard to argue with those numbers – less than ten reported incidents out of 151,000 participants. However, that doesn’t mean that there were less than ten incidents; it simply means that less than ten people reported them.
Stephenson also mentioned the importance of the “Cosplay Is Not Consent” signage and how they wanted a “visually arresting” image that would catch the eye. I noticed the signs when I entered the convention on my first day there, but in part because I was looking for them. I am not saying that the signage should replace some of the big ticket advertising, but I will note this: there was a couple hundred square foot Constantine poster that graced the hallway on the way to Artist Alley. This was, literally, impossible to miss. The “Cosplay is not Consent” signage, on the other hand, wasn’t even close to as prominent. Plus, the signs (while well designed and well intentioned) gave no indication of how to report a problem should one occur. In fact, on the NYCC website, the most detailed instructions for how to report a problem doubled as an advertisement for their app.
I’m not trying to beat up on ReedPOP here; they are in an untenable position. Policing the population of Springfield, MO under one roof is nearly impossible. However, the implementation of the policy leaves a lot to be desired. If the above sign had instead said “Violators will be removed from the premises and, if necessary, turned over to law enforcement authorities,” that might put some fear into the potential offenders and help eliminate some infractions. If there were signs that said “Harassment is not OK – let our staff know if you are being bothered,” it may empower people to take a stand.
But I do have to say that NYCC seemed to be as successful a convention of that size in terms of harassment, as we have documention for. I know there are a lot of caveats there, but it is so hard to make blanket statements on anything like this; the full number of incidents will never be reported, nor will incidents ever fully be eliminated. However, by having policies in place and by looking carefully at how exactly the convention makes its attendees feel, ReedPOP is doing its best to make all 151,000 people who came through the doors at NYCC feel comfortable and safe. While the results could still be better, it is at least a good first step to truly making our community an even stronger and safer place for all.