Not playing around

By Greg Stevens on August 12th, 2013

This past June, anime fans (anime is a style of Japanese animation) converged on Dallas, Texas, for one of the longest-running annual anime conventions in North America, called A-Kon.

The crowd was excited. A long weekend of events was lined up, ranging from video screenings to gaming and swap-meets. There were also a number of events designed especially for people doing “cosplay”: dressing up as their favorite anime characters and participating in competitions, photoshoots, and skits.

But it wasn’t all relaxed camaraderie among fellow anime fans. On Twitter, a group of people calling themselves the “grope crew” had been trolling for photos taken of female cosplayers. They would comment on the women dressed in “sexy” outfits, make crude comments about their bodies, and even brag or threaten on Twitter that they would find and molest these women at the convention.

People have a tendency to interact with costumed performers as though the performers were somehow less than human.

It was hurtful, and it was frightening. All bullying is demoralising: to have a crowd of anonymous strangers mock you or make crass comments about you is demeaning. But when name-calling is combined with the promise of physical violence, it can be terrifying.

So the women who went to the convention in order to enjoy the companionship of fellow anime fans, and to enjoy the escapism of going to the convention in character, ended up constantly looking over their shoulders. Most of them made sure that they were always with a friend or boyfriend, so that they could never accidentally be cornered by themselves.

Of course, sexual harassment at conventions is nothing new. The anonymity of websites like 4chan and Tumblr, or social media services, such as Twitter, are very appealing to would-be harassers. But this is no mere problem of “cyber-bullying”. Nicole Wakelin, blogger at fashionablygeek.com and totalfangirl.com, says that so-called “creepers” at conventions are a long-standing problem, far pre-dating social media, especially for women.

“Inappropriate behavior has always been an issue, and sadly it will continue to be an issue simply because there will always be that guy,” says Wakelin. “You know, the one who gets rowdy at bars with his friends and gets out of line with the waitress, whistles at the woman in the bikini, and lets his eyes focus on a woman’s chest when he’s talking to her. That guy is the bane of every woman’s existence.”

According to Wakelin, that guy makes his appearance at anime, comic book and science fiction conventions, just as he does everywhere else. Is it a surprise that that guy focuses his attention on attractive female cosplayers? Absolutely not. (Of course, “that guy” isn’t always a guy, and the victims aren’t always female, but men harassing women is the most common configuration.)

People have a tendency to interact with costumed performers as though the performers were somehow less than human. Whether at an anime convention or a carnival, costumes and masks create a psychological barrier between people. There is a feeling of distance, space and anonymity, even for the person who is not masked. It emboldens some to behave in unpleasant ways.

Of course, some bullies target cosplayers simply because they think cosplayers are weird. Even within communities of geeks, nerds, and other self-defined outcasts, the people who “costume” at events are considered to be fringe. After all, it’s one thing to be a fan, and go to a convention to get an autograph or buy some swag. It’s another thing entirely to spend days or even weeks sewing detailed costumes and making themselves up in order to run around and act out the role of their favorite characters.

The cosplay community is a minority within a minority, and there is no shortage of armchair psychology about them on the internet. They are obsessed, people say. They have no lives. How much time do they spend on on it? Isn’t it a waste of money? Are they psychologically disturbed? Do they have sex like that?

Extreme fandom

Cosplay is a portmanteau of “costume” and “play”. Although the term itself was coined by a Japanese reporter, Nov Takahashi, cosplay did not begin in Japan, and it was around long before he coined the term in 1984. People were dressing up in costume as early as the very first science fiction conventions in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.

Then, it was a spontaneous expression of creativity and passion by certain fans. By the 1950s, it had become popular enough that larger conventions began scheduling official events: contests and masquerades to feature the best costumes seen at the event.

Yakahashi was sent to report on the 1984 WorldCon, a worldwide annual science fiction convention held in Los Angeles that year. He saw people dressed up in costumes of their favorite science fiction characters running around, sometimes play-acting the part and sometimes simply mingling in the crowd. That convention also featured a masquerade to exhibit some the best and most elaborate costumes.

Takahashi reported back in Japan, and sparked a fad that has since spread like wildfire. Now, cosplay is perhaps even more common and mainstream at anime conventions in Japan than it ever was in the United States.

Because of the level of crossover among fans of different genres, costuming also spread out to include a very broad swath of fictional styles: comic book superheroes, cartoon characters, television and movie characters, and pretty much any character involved in any science fiction or fantasy universe. Today, the term “cosplay” can be used equally to refer to people dressed up as Dobby The Elf at the premiere showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in the movie theatre, and to those dressed up as Storm Troopers at a Star Wars convention.

Ty Larson has been costuming for ten years. It started when he was 15. “Cosplay provides me with a great creative outlet,” he says. “Figuring out how to make a pattern for an odd or eccentric clothing item, searching through rooms of fabric to find one that will have the right sheen and flow for a specific costume, and researching different materials and methods for prop building may seem tedious and frustrating. And, admittedly, it can be at times, but the payoff is fantastic.”

Now, Larson and his friends have formed Detail2Perfect, a cosplay group based in Dallas, Texas, that organizes large groups and produces competition skits at conferences. “It’s a hobby that emphasizes celebrating whatever fandoms you belong to and having fun,” he says.

Larson often spends a month or more on each costume. Because he makes all his garments by hand, he has to find the right fabric, create and sketch a pattern, and then pin, cut, and sew. After that, it is not uncommon for him to dedicate a week to cutting and styling the right wig.

Who are some of the characters Larson has portrayed? He was easily able to rattle of an incomplete list of just a few of his favorites: Zell from Final Fantasy VIII (a video game), Cloud from Final Fantasy: Advent Children (movie), Tamaki from Ouran High School Host Club (anime), Shinou from Kyo Kara Maoh! (anime), Ryoji Kaji from Neon Genesis Evangelion (anime), James of Team Rocket from Pokemon (anime), Tohma Seguchi from Gravitation (anime), Blank of Tantalus from Final Fantasy IX (video game), Death the Kid from Soul Eater (anime), Las Plagas infested villager from Resident Evil 4 (video game), and Link from Legend of Zelda (video game).

When you take cosplay to this level, you clearly have to be more than simply “a fan”. You have to be an extreme fan, with creative flair and theatrical tendencies.

But as eccentric as cosplay might look to the outside world, dressing up as a cartoon character really isn’t that different from any other hobby. When talking to Ty about his favorite anime series, or his next big project for the next convention he will be going to, it’s easy to get drawn in by his enthusiasm and his dedication. At its heart, it is no different from the intensity of a football fan who goes to games dressed in his team’s colours, or the audiophile who can rattle off the acoustic specifications of the top three high-end speaker systems on the market.

Moreover, Larson believes that acceptance for cosplay’s quirky community has been increasing in recent years, at least in part due to the rise of the social web. “I think geeks, nerds, dorks, whatever you want to call them, are a much more accepted part of society these days,” Larson explains, “Big Bang Theory is a very highly-rated TV show that centers around a cadre of über-nerds, video games are much more mainstream, and people explore their fandoms more openly through Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.”

SOLIDARITY

The media gives a lot of attention to the negative effects of social networks: the way that anonymity can lead to cyber-bullying or the way that online interaction can cause alienation by replacing real-world interaction. But, at least within the cosplay community, the effect of social media has been quite the opposite.

Cosplayers and cosplay groups have Facebook pages, Tumblr blogs, and DeviantArt accounts to show off their costumes and performances. Online stores make it easier for cosplayers to buy high quality wigs and accessories that were much more difficult to find only five or ten years ago.

Costumers have been able to use social media to band together through sites like Twitter and combat the sexual harassment and abuse that has plagued conventions for decades. “People used to find out about the creepers only after the conventions,” Larson explains, “But now a cosplayer can take a photo of them, and post it on Twitter with a hashtag to let others know to be wary.”

Female cosplayers in particular have been raising awareness of harassment they face while in costume, spurring an online movement called “Cosplay ≠ Consent” (“Cosplay does not equal consent”).

Nicole Wakelin agrees that the internet and social media have improved conditions for cosplayers by giving a voice and sense of community to people who will speak out against harassment. “I think the cyberbullying of cosplayers is becoming less common, or at least less accepted. All it takes is one vocal geek girl or geek guy to put it [on] their Twitter and support for the cosplayer comes rushing in to help.”

“On the web, people are very quick to point it out when an individual or organisation is treating cosplayers poorly. This encourages people to speak up in the real world,” she explains. “They see the support cosplayers have online, so when they see bad behavior they’re more comfortable speaking out with the knowledge that some of those people online are likely in the room, too.”

This isn’t to say that cosplayers don’t get bullied. But many cosplayers are able to shrug off the “small stuff”. Paul Charles, a friend of Larson’s who has been costuming for over eight years, says: “I do know there are sites and blogs that are dedicated to hurting the costumers out there, to put us down. These are usually the sites that are looking for cheap laughs at other people’s expense. I don’t think it hurts us, but it does point us in the direction of people that we’ll avoid.”

Maybe this is simply a skill that comes along with being a self-identified “geek”. When you live your life embracing the label of the outcast – because you are a “Trekkie”, or a “comic book geek”, or a cosplayer – you have to learn how to let the stupid jokes and mean comments go. Sure, they can sometimes still hurt. But you learn that the people hurling insults ultimately don’t matter.

There may be a lesson here for the rest of us. Instead of obsessing about online name-calling, cosplayers use social media to make positive changes to their community, their connections, and their craft.