New York native Amanda Jade has attended the annual New York Comic Con for years. She’s used to dressing up as her favorite characters, posing for photographs with fans, and weaving through massive crowds just to find a bathroom. However being sexually harassed by another convention attendee is something she didn’t expect.
“While at New York Comic Con a few years back I was actually groped from behind. Someone felt it appropriate to put both hands on my behind, squeezing it so hard they left a mark,” Amanda said.
Amanda, who is known as “Undiesofwondy” online in the convention and cosplay community, was dressed as the popular comic book character Black Canary, and is one of many costumed attendees to be sexually harassed in recent years.
Costume play, or cosplay, is the art of dressing up as characters from comic books, video games, anime, TV shows, movies, and other forms of pop culture. Cosplayers spend months either gathering costume pieces, or hand-making each part of an outfit.
In recent years, cosplay has become a staple in convention culture. A major reason people attend comic or anime conventions now is to display their months of hard work in a costume for other attendees to appreciate and photograph.
Jerry Milani, a public relation’s representative for the Wizard World Comic Convention organization, summed up the growing trend.
“Cosplay is a way for attendees to express their fandom,” he said.
Massachusetts based cosplayer Micro Kitty had a similarly shocking incident occur while cosplaying the character Red Sonja at the popular Connecticut convention, ConnectiCon.
“A man lifted up the front flap [of my costume] and exposed my vagina to about 200 people at ConnectiCon in 2014. When I talked about my experience online, I was overwhelmed with, ‘Why weren’t you wearing underwear? You were basically asking for it,’” she said.
According to Micro Kitty, the perpetrator tried to walk away like nothing happened.
“I chased after him and sort of dragged him into a convention staff occupied room, then demanded that security and the police be called,” she said.
Harassment of cosplayers is not limited to only females though. Male costumer John of “Moderately Okay Cosplay” has been groped multiple times while dressed as anime and video game characters.
“It didn’t really affect me much. It surprised me more than anything, like a ‘Did that just happen?’ type of thing,” he said.
The alleged harassment these, and many other cosplayers, have endured has left the hobby’s community angry and offended.
“It’s really messed up. Cosplay isn’t consent. That should be common sense. If someone doesn’t consent to you touching them, don’t touch them,” John said.
As the number of attendees at these conventions continues to rise dramatically each year, more stories of harassment circulate, leaving many to speculate why attendees may be inappropriately touching cosplayers in the first place.
“I think people are bred to think it’s okay that things like this occur. Because I’m a woman, in costume, at a convention, I’m no more than an object to them. I’m like the toys on sale in the vendors hall,” Amanda Jade said.
John also thinks it’s the mentality of some attendees that is contributing to the issue.
“You have people who can’t keep their hands to themselves. I think it’s a little bit of entitlement, a little bit of lack of social skills, and a whole lot of ignorance,” he said.
Attendance rates to conventions have rocketed in recent years; some 130,000 people attended this year’s San Diego Comic Con, the most popular convention in the world.
Brian Stephenson is the brand marketing director for ReedPop, the organization that produces events such as New York Comic Con, PAX, and Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo.
According to Stephenson, 38 percent of the survey audience attended New York Comic Con for the first time in 2014, with 41 percent attending it for the first time in 2013.
“We saw a higher retention of attendees in 2014,” he said.
Similarly, Milani stated that returning Wizard World Comic Con shows in 2014 had about one third of attendees being newcomers.
The sheer growth of attendance rates at conventions in the past five years follows after Marvel’s massive success with its various movie franchises, and cult favorite shows such as The Walking Dead featuring its actors at many of these events. The growing popularity of anime and manga in the last decade has also weaved it’s way into comic conventions, and led to a spike in anime convention attendance as well.
“The days of silly Adam West Batman type movies are over. Super hero movies are now action, romance, and adventure with characters that are easy to relate to,” Micro Kitty said.
She also referenced the Big Bang Theory, stating that people are influenced by the media’s portrayal of geek culture and “suddenly they classify themselves as ‘nerds’.”
“I think that now that ‘geek is chic’, a lot of people who wouldn’t have been at conventions are now in attendance,” Amanda Jade said.
The sexual harassment problems at conventions are not going unnoticed by those who run them.
New York Comic Con rolled out a new anti-harassment policy at this year’s event that included multiple large signs placed around the convention floor with the words, “Cosplay is not consent” written in large font.
“We want people to feel safe at our show and they shouldn’t have to deal with unwelcome attention or harassment of any kind. We wanted to take a strong stand on the issue of harassment by creating a policy that we hoped would be seen as a standard that other conventions would adopt,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson and the rest of the ReedPop team collaborated with pop culture and geek news website The Mary Sue while forming the new policy. ReedPop even added the ability for attendees to report cases through the New York Comic Con mobile app during the event.
“The anti-harassment policy that we first implemented in 2014 at New York Comic Con will be rolled out to our other ReedPop shows, and this will be the standard for our shows going forward,” he said.
The signage and stricter enforcement of anti-harassment seemed to be beneficial at New York Comic Con. According to Stephenson, eight issues (not all involving sexual harassment) were reported during this year’s event, as opposed to 15 cases in 2013.
Milani states that Wizard World also has signs up at its various conventions around the country.
“We take the issue very seriously and are committed to providing an environment free of harassment,” he said.
Cosplay harassment has even spurred a movement within an already established organization.
Hollaback!, the international movement to end street harassment, has been popping up in the headlines recently due to a controversial video depicting a woman being harassed on the streets of New York City. The organization has various divisions in places such as Philadelphia and Ottawa that involves itself in the cosplay and convention world.
Most recently Hollaback! Ottawa has taken the plunge into spreading its anti-harassment message to convention-goers.
“This May, we attended Ottawa Comic Con, which was our first foray into formally being in geek spaces. We walked around the convention with large ‘Cosplay doesn’t equal consent’ signs and hosted two panels with cosplayers who spoke about their experiences,” a representative from the organization said.
Hollaback! Ottawa also handed out information on things people can do to be an effective bystander.
The organization’s representative stated that having a visible presence within convention culture helps to create more change.
“As a result, [the convention organizers] issued their own ‘Cosplay doesn’t equal consent’ signs everywhere at the con, which was really great at elevating the discussion,” the representative said.
The sexual harassment of cosplayers has grown into a larger problem since the popularity of the hobby soared in the past five years, with the word ‘cosplay’ making its way into the vernacular of many people.
21-year-old Monika Lee is one of the few who has become widely famous from the hobby. The Georgia Tech student successfully sells autographed photos of her modeling her costumes online, appears as a guest at various conventions around the world, and is asked to work booths to promote products.
“There was a time where I harbored cosplay like a creepy skeleton in the closet for fear of being shunned for doing something that is, to be honest, quite weird. But now that the quality of cosplayers, costumes, and photographers has greatly increased, people see what an awesome art form it is,” Lee said.
John of “Moderately Okay Cosplay” believes the popularity all has to do with how older cosplayers have marketed themselves.
“They took the hobby and made it into a lucrative business, and now everyone wants to cosplay as a job,” he said.
An example of one of these successful businesses is the cosplay empire of Yaya Han.
Han has been making costumes since the 90s, gaining prominence and eventually creating her own business where she sells costume accessories, signed prints, and costume materials. She is also a regular guest and costume contest judge at many conventions, and has appeared on television.
Cosplayer Micro Kitty believes that the media has become “cosplay crazy” recently.
“Shows out there make cosplay look like a constant competition around beautiful people,” she said.
She’s referencing Syfy’s recent reality TV show series, Heroes of Cosplay, which features cosplayers as they craft costumes and enter competitions at conventions. Both Lee and Han are featured on the show.
Because of this growing trend of cosplayers and fanbases, many in the hobby have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts where they can share their work with others, amassing likes and follows. However, the harassment from conventions can now become a part of cosplayer’s social media.
“People will go onto these well-known cosplayers’ pages, and just talk about their bodies and objectify them,” John said.
Lee has more than 280,000 likes on her Facebook page, and receives harassing and inappropriate comments on it on a daily basis.
“There has definitely been an increase of what I like to call ‘cosplay fans’- people that don’t cosplay themselves, but appreciate the hobby and the results cosplaying can produce. That being said, many of these people don’t understand the work and effort that go into cosplay and it’s very easy for them to be judgmental and hypercritical,” she said.
The harassment of cosplayers at conventions is part of a larger controversial topic involving media culture.
James C. Kaufman is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, and sees the correlation between media and society.
“I think that video games, comics, and television reflect and shape our society,” he said.
Lee also commented on the relationship between sexual harassment incidents and the media.
“These actions are reflected in various entertainment media through objectification of males and females as sex icons in movies, comics, and games. It’s kind of a vicious cycle in our society,” she said.
The activists at Hollaback! Ottawa also believe that harassment at conventions is directly related to street and pedestrian harassment.
“It all comes down to the idea that some people’s bodies are supposedly up for public consumption. If someone feels entitled to comment on my body when I’m walking down the street in broad daylight, it makes sense that they would take that entitlement with them in whatever space they go to,” they said.
However, Kaufman doesn’t necessarily agree with that reasoning.
“I think harassment at conventions is more rooted to the perceived anonymity – I think if any convention, such as a dentist convention, allowed people to truly feel anonymous, we would see some people use the anonymity as an excuse for horrible, anti-social behavior,” he said.
John of “Moderately Okay Cosplay” thinks that both issues are mutually exclusive but also have a lot of similarities.
“Convention culture is different than normal society obviously, but people still think it’s okay to say,‘They’re showing skin, they’re a slut’ or, ‘They’re wearing a skimpy outfit, they’re asking for it,’” he said.
While the debate on the relationships between different forms of sexual harassment continue, the ReedPop team have some words of wisdom that are relevant to everyone.
“We always say ‘Be Nice, Be Cool and Respect Each Other’. That is on our signage and in our policy. I think that statement can and should apply to all aspects of culture and society,” Stephenson said.
For more information on initiatives to end sexual harassment of cosplayers, check out these sites:
Hollaback! Ottawa: http://ottawa.ihollaback.org
Geeks for CONsent: http://www.geeksforconsent.org
Check out the cosplayers featured in the article:
Micro Kitty Cosplay: https://www.facebook.com/Microkittycosplay
Moderately Okay Cosplay: https://www.facebook.com/ModeratelyOkayCosplay