“Cosplay is an abbreviation of ‘costume play’. It is a hobby whereby people dress up as fictional characters, especially those from manga, animation or computer games,” says Melinda Tankard Reist, writer and advocate for women and girls. Dressing up, whether it’s for a party or just to look nice when you go out, is a fundamentally human thing to do and I daresay countless anthropologists have devoted their PhDs to uncovering the deep spiritual need that binds all the earth’s people. While Melinda does explain what cosplay is, it is only the tip of the iceberg. At its core, cosplay is a combination of social fun and self-expression, literally wearing your fandoms for all the community to see. For some it is a form of escape and liberation, wearing something you would dare not wear in your daily life. But at a convention you can be the character you have always wanted to be.
Another thing that is as old as Gandalf is sexism, and the cosplay community is not immune. The community’s reliance on social media and that life-giving nectar that is the internet only amplifies the issues to a global scale giving cosplayers no safe haven from unwanted attention. Melinda Tankard Reist says “there is nothing inherently wrong with dressing up as one’s favourite character. But because of the sexualised way that women are depicted in many of the manga, anime and games that cosplayers emulate, it can have negative impacts on women.”
Just because you’re wearing an attention-grabbing outfit doesn’t mean you want it (and, inherently, yourself) sexualised. At best it is uncomfortable, and at worst it can make for a very dangerous situation.
Cosplayers, no matter their gender, should be able to enjoy a convention without worrying about lecherous con-goers. Australian Cosplayer and judge of Jakarta’s 2016 Toys & Comics Fair, Kiara Kirameki, is no stranger to receiving sexual harassment. Most harassment is from people calling out of their cars or passing by on the street, people who don’t know or understand what cosplay is. Let’s not forget that the internet, as amazing as it is, allows people to harass cosplayers from the safety of their computer chairs at home. However, while at the convention, the security staff are there to protect all attendees and ensure that no one, no matter how they are dressed, are harassed in any way.
“It doesn’t fly in conventions, the Con’s will actually protect you which is good. So, if you have a problem with someone you can go up to security and they will help you.”
Popular conventions in Australia such as SupaNova, OzComicCon have very strict anti-harassment policies where stepping even a toe out of line can lead to people being kicked out of the event. Dracula’s Operations Manager, Luke Newman, says that they have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment, “sometimes, customers can get a little too ‘into the atmosphere’, and say or act inappropriately towards staff members. It’s rare, but when it does happen, our staff are trained to drop character and address the issue. We want to foster an environment where our customers and staff feel safe to enjoy themselves.”
Sexiness as costuming isn’t an unspoken aspect of the community and it certainly has been tapped into, for better or for worse. Popular cosplayer, Jessica Nigri, is well known for her sexy adaptations of popular characters, most notably her sexy pikachu and has received mixed comments. While some people see her creative approach to characters and making them sexy as the opening of new doors, some people see it as attention-seeking and demeaning.
While PAX, a popular convention celebrating all things gamer-related, has firmly put their foot down against “booth babes,” and have even asked cosplayers to cover up when dressed in a revealing costume. This is fair enough as PAX is a family-friendly convention, but where can the sexily-dressed cosplayers go? Fortunately, Sexpo has given them a home. Their notorious Sexy Cosplay competition is certainly popular and, kudos to Sexpo, the event is run in a safe, sex-positive environment where, by definition, cosplayers are definitely welcoming sexualised attention. Sexpo’s event manager Bentleigh Gibson says that Sexpo’s Sexy Cosplay competition was created “to give the Cosplayers who did want to express a different angle on their Cosplays a safe home in which to do so and express their own passion and creativity.”
And hat’s off to Sexpo, a lot of cosplayers have said they felt very comfortable and welcomed at the event. Melbourne Sexy Cosplay winner and creator of the self-love project ‘I Am F*cking Extraordinary,’ Sharné Mcmurray, said “it was well organised, had a positive and uplifting atmosphere, everyone was supportive and it was an overall great experience.”
The Sexy Cosplay Competition has opened up new doors for cosplayers and allows for more variety when performing a skit on stage, such as pole or burlesque dancing, both of which would not be welcomed at other conventions in Australia.
For many cosplayers, the costumes they decide to wear are not influenced by the “sexiness.” Sharné says “how much skin I show doesn’t come into the equation. I am completely happy with myself and If I want to do something I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks as I am doing it for me and not them.”
A lot of cosplays are sexy (hey, who doesn’t love Batman’s abs?) however, many cosplayers feel unpleasantly sexualised against their wishes. And, thanks to the incredible edible internet, there are precious few places where a cosplayer who is targeted by this unwanted attention can get away from it. This problem is disproportionately directed towards women because women’s bodies are still being commodified like it’s the 1950s. Melinda Tankard Reist is of the opinion that “the sexualisation of women and girls is one of the bedrocks of gaming culture and also of some manga and anime. Until this changes, I don’t think we can expect to see an easy solution for problems like this in the cosplay community.”
Because of this, Australian native (but well known overseas) cosplayer Variable has experienced so much harassment online she has enough material to maintain an energetically busy Tumblr dedicated solely to screenshots of her social media’s inbox. Check out https://niceguystm.tumblr.com/ if you want to scroll through the terrible and random things strangers say to her online. Sure, Variable as Powergirl is sexy. Powergirl is sexy. Hell, the comic character has a purpose-built boob-window. That’s not an invitation to talk to Variable about her own boobs. To suggest that costumes in any way creates harassment from perpetrators demonstrates ignorance of the real-world issues at play.
The cosplay community is a wonderland of creativity but there is an undeniable negative impact on the way both costumes and some cosplayers are perceived. It’s unfair – so many cosplayers are just trying to have a good time and express themselves and their craftsmanship, only to have to check themselves for fear of being thrown under a label they didn’t ask for. In cases that are more extreme but not uncommon, just existing publicly in a costume leads to cosplayers being made to feel unsafe. It would be cool if we geeks could be sexy geeks on our own terms.