Look, Don’t Touch, and Don’t Look?: Cosplay and Objectification at Cons

[Caution, this post contains a blend of serious content and satire. If you don’t want to read about the latest hurricane in a petri dish, skip today’s post and I’ll have lighter content later this week.]

So, once again, problems arose at a large Con because of costumes and the, shall we say, overly touchy (both the cosplayers and the observers.) Which lead to cries for written harassment policies, mandatory anti-harassment and awareness training for all Con personnel, and complaints about “objectification” of (mostly) women.

First things first: here’s the original AP article, and I’m certain more will appear around the blogosphere this week, given the size and importance of San Diego ComicsCon. Here’s the official ComicsCon policy. In short – harassment is not tolerated, if someone is harassed, they are to go to Con security and let them know, and the harasser can be tossed out and denied re-admittance. It’s pretty darn clear, as can be read in the link, and it sounds quite adequate to me, especially if Con Security is easy to find and takes their job seriously.  

What’s harassment? I suspect part of the problem lies in the definition. If someone gropes you without express permission, it’s harassment. I don’t care if the gropee is wearing a slave Princess Leia costume or is dressed like Leonidas of Sparta from 300, no touching. And a revealing costume does not imply consent, male or female. If someone makes passes at you, you tell her to stop, and she keeps suggesting that you come up to her room for a little recreational procreation, since you obviously have the equipment for it and so on, it’s harassment and needs to stop pronto. So go to ConSec and . . .

Come on, folks, that’s basic how-to-live-past-age-16 level behavior skills. It’s like airplanes at an airshow: look, don’t touch. Don’t make passes at people who are not interested. If they say no, take them at their word, just as if they say “No, thanks, I don’t like ice cream/beer/WoW/LARPing/whatever.”

BUT, say the protestors, women were subject to harassment through unwanted looks and objectification! That’s wrong and must stop! OK, how do you define “unwanted looking” when you are in costume? Guys (or gals) trying to get up-skirt photos? Yup, that’s unwanted and should be reported to ConSec. Gals ogling a guy with 6-pack abds and great muscles wearing a Conan the Barbarian costume? Not so much. Teenaged males staring at the chest of a gal doing anime cosplay? Possibly, but remind them that staring is not polite and that if they want pictures, they should ask. If they get stupid about it, go to ConSec and . . .

BUT, say the protestors, booth-babes and women standing around for no good reason while a guy talks about the Hercules movie are encouraging the objectification of women! That’s wrong and must stop! I admit, booth-babes anywhere don’t do much for me, be it car show, air show, gun show, tech show, or comics convention. Booth-hunks might be a different story, but I have yet to see many. Let’s face it, guys, and some gals, are attracted and distracted by the presence of females who meet the current standards of physical attractiveness and are wearing somewhat revealing clothes. And they do seem to be willing to part with more money when such women are around, or at least do not complain to the vendors about said women. If you have a problem with booth-babes (or hunks), let the dealers know. Write their advertising people, write the sales manager, tell the person at the booth why you are not buying their thing. Be polite and then walk off. It’s working with gun shows, so it might work in the Con scene, too.

BUT, say the protestors, we should be able to wear whatever we want without anyone looking at us funny. That’s wrong and must stop! Then host a private con, or a costume con-suite, and don’t allow the general public in. Because people come to Cons to see folks in cool costumes, and the majority of cosplayers want to be seen, admired, and complimented. Jane Q Public can’t tell you, the unwatchable, from Shelly who loves being photographed and to talk about her costume.

Before you heap coals of scorn on my head for being a traitor to my sex, yes, there is a problem with people acting like idiots at Cons. It’s not just because of certain aspects of gamer and fanboy culture, either, although most people familiar with the scene will agree that it doesn’t help. Society has shifted in such a way that we’ve lost the traditional restraints on behavior, and some younger people are not getting taught that you don’t stare at chests (or crotches), and that a costume doesn’t equal permission to touch or to make persistent invitations and lewd comments. And some people seem to think that being in costume themselves gives them a license to be stupid. Happened to me at a Con, I told the guy I wasn’t interested and to back off. He did, and that was that. I “used my words,” as they say.

The problem with harassment policies and training is that they won’t work as hoped, and they may backfire. How many people will volunteer to help with a Con if they have to go to 8 hours of required anti-discrimination and harassment training? And what happens when you get someone who decides to use the anti-harassment policy to punish those they disagree with? It’s already happening, and is turning well-meaning folks off the Con scene entirely. Providing a laundry list of “harassments” will just encourage the sleaze to be more creative, and trip up the socially-unaware (which tends to describe a LOT of the folks who go to Cons). And the true harassers will still do their thing. Predators are like that – paper doesn’t stop them. H-ll, they’ll probably use the “Thou Shalt Not” list as a checklist!

Alas, given the legal and political climate around a lot of Cons, what I foresee happening is something like this (mildly exaggerated for effect):

“Welcome to PlainsCon. Please be aware of our policies. Looking at people in costume is not allowed without written permission. There are permission forms in your Con packet, and more can be obtained from volunteers with the paperwork trolleys. Looking permission does not equal photography permission, and those forms (blue) are to be filled out and signed by all parties. Posing permission forms are pink, and poses with physical contact need the orange form.

“If you wish to speak with a fellow Con attendee, please look at their name badge. Red badges mean the individual does not wish to be spoken to by anyone. Yellow badges mean they only wish to speak to people of their prior acquaintance, while green badges signify a willingness to speak with strangers. You will find yours in your bag. We recommend putting your badge on a satchel strap or similar place so other Con attendees will not need to obtain prior permission to look at you in order to ascertain your desired level of verbal contact.

“If you are reported as a harasser, you will be ejected and banned for life. We have a zero tolerance policy, and if you are reported to Con Security, you will be escorted out. Appeals may be filed with the ConCom starting one week following the last day of the Con, and must include at least five witness statements. Harassers appealing the ban are not permitted to confront the individual who requested their removal, in order to protect the rights of the victims.

“Thank you, and have the kind of time you hope to have at PlainsCon.”


Updated to add: Welcome to all new visitors! I’m sometimes a little slow approving comments, but don’t worry, it came through and I’ll catch it as soon as I can. 



27 thoughts on “Look, Don’t Touch, and Don’t Look?: Cosplay and Objectification at Cons

  1. At Disney World, and other theme parks, the characters in costume all have keepers to help with crowd control and such like. Perhaps if the people are that concerned about their safety and being harassed, they should take a cue from Disney, and arrange for someone to accompany them and watch out for them?

    • I’ve seen a few people, mostly professional cosplayers with fragile costumes, do just that. A less formal buddy system would probably work just as well.

  2. Pingback: Nocturnal Lives » A rant, a link and the need for coffee

  3. Pingback: What is Harassment? | Cedar Writes

  4. I’ve started and deleted multiple comments. The issues are volatile, and everything I’ve tried to say lends itself to being twisted into pretzels.

    So, good post!

  5. We’re also not teaching our young how to be careful and aware of threats and dangers in society. This isn’t to say that our society is dangerous. It’s not; it’s certainly less dangerous than most other places on the planet, to include most times. That said, it would behoove us to instruct our children on how to be situationally aware, and how to avoid unwanted attention. Perhaps if you wish to avoid human contact, any of the various ComicCons around the nation aren’t for you. On the other hand, why not get a group together, and work out a cosplay. Then you’ve got a dozen eyes keeping a lookout. Or, do a take on one of the traditionally more … revealing costumes. A Steampunk Power Girl with a stylized mechanical breastplate, or a medieval Wonder Woman in plate: something that doesn’t give the opportunity for inappropriate access. (I’m probably blaming the victim, and as such am an evil male. But I’m white and straight, and I’m told it goes with the territory.) Yes, you should be able to wear whatever you want, wherever you want. That’s not the world we live in, however. I, as a fit, masculine, white man can’t go certain places without generating significant ill will. So I don’t go there. *sigh*

    There’s got to be a better way, but screaming for unenforceable policies ain’t it.

    • A useful take on this can be found here, where a well-know cosplayer “defended” another cosplayer during a sexual assault. It sounds, going by what’s presented, that the defender committed a couple of problematic actions. Assault and battery, for a couple. And calling the assaulter (who should go to jail for his actions) a molester and a rapist. Molester? Yes, most definitely. Rapist? Not by any definition with which I’m familiar. Overzealous defense could end up being worse for the community than no defense at all. I get that it’s hard to make this work right, but substituting an overreaction that swings opinion too far the other way is not going to make people safer, better, or happier.

    • I’ve seen steampunked and formal-wear versions of Wonder Woman, Poison Ivy, Storm, and a few other characters that were well done, flattering, and shall we say, less conducive to misunderstandings. And themed group cosplay is a great way to have fun while discouraging the foolishly feely.

  6. Reblogged this on The Worlds of Tarien Cole and commented:
    You know, there was a time when going to a CON was pretty much on my bucket list of things to do. I’m not *nearly* as motivated to attend them as I used to be. “Unwanted looking” in costume? Ok…no really. Outside of lewd attempts to take pictures, there’s nothing there that shouldn’t be fixable with, “Please allow me some space.”

    But people don’t go for manners anymore. Nope, now it has to be sensitivity training and sapping the soul out of everything fun.

  7. Hey, Dear Husband was a Booth Hunk for the Air Force at one com–recruiting duty. Got tons of complements on his “costume.”

    • 😀 Did he sign their programs as the guy from “I Dream of Genie” or as a character from “Wonder Woman?”

      • Thanks to the digicamies, they all thought it was based on video games, and they then tried to catch him out as not really a geek. (Which, of course, didn’t work– that recruiting office had such high rates because they were smart, which is why they asked someone who wasn’t even a recruiter to go to this show. EVERYONE was either a geek or had such a cool job that it didn’t matter.)

  8. I’m just wondering how many of the commenters (here, and everywhere else) have actually worked security at a con. I have — it ain’t as easy as all that.

    First, the obvious: Security ain’t gonna do nothin’ if’n no one says anything to us. I’ve been to far too many cons where I had no idea who I needed to talk to if I saw something hinky. When I was doing security, our group had Uniforms — not “costumes”, *Uniforms*; someone needed to know where Security was, they knew immediately what to look for (in our case, “the guys in the black jumpsuits with the US Colonial Marine patches”). Even worse: In too many cases, even Con Staff doesn’t know who to talk to if stuff gets real; care to guess how well that works?

    Second: Security doesn’t know you. I hate to be this blunt about it, but there it is — I don’t know you from Adam; for all I know, you’re just trying to humiliate someone you don’t like by getting that person tossed. So if I seem to be not on your side, you’re right — I’m not on your side. ‘Course, I’m not on the other person’s side, either — I’m blind like Justice; my job is to see for myself what’s going on, *then* make a call. Y’all *do* know what it’s called when people are assumed guilty by the authorities, right? (The emergence of handheld video is a bit helpful — being able to see instant-replay of Herr Gropenfuhrer in action is really useful, esp. considering the Smart Creeps will know where Security is, and will alter behavior when a target makes for the badge.)

    Good rule of thumb when talking to Security: Friday’s Law — “Just the facts”; it’s difficult, but keep personal feelings out of it as much as possible (“that guy has been following me all con long” gets more attention than “that guy creeps me out”).

    Third: I know talking to Security might be intimidating, or seem like some sort of failure.

    IT ISN’T.

    We are there for a reason — if you won’t talk to us, we can’t help you (at least not until Creeper does something really over-the-top-rope-DQ-worthy, and by that point it’s too late). If it’s nothing, hey, Learning Experience for all. If it’s Something, tho’….

    And the whole “being intimidating” business is part of the job — most troublemakers see any kind of organized opposition, they go somewhere else. (Most — we do get the odd Hardcore, and that’s when the NSTIW stories occur…. 😛 )

    • Hi CF,
      Thanks for stopping by and giving us the security side. I’ve done airshow security but not Con security. You make great points, and I wish 1) more Cons would make their security people easy to spot and 2) more people would be willing to say, “Hey, Creepy McCreeper’s trying to get up-kilt shots of my husband, and here’s a picture I took of her in action.”

    • I’ve mentioned elsewhere* that the LASFS has a committee working on a harassment policy in the wake of a rather nasty blow-up back in April. Cooler heads have prevailed, and I think we have a reasonable policy. Now to get it implemented.

      There have been a couple of issues that I don’t think are going to be handled to anyone’s satisfaction. We don’t have the issue of fragile costumes at club meetings, but we do have an issue with fragile people. These are people who show up at the club, run into someone who is “creepy” in one way or another, and never come back. Unfortunately, by the time it gets into any sort of reviews, it’s morphed from “there was a guy who bored me to tears and wouldn’t go away” to “I was harassed at LASFS”.

      I’m fine with a policy of “no means no, stop means stop, and go away means go away”, but I’m insisting on a parallel policy of “not saying no means not saying no.”
      I’m sorry, but if you’re just a girl who cain’t say no, then you’re in a terrible fix.

      * over at According to Hoyt.

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