Cosplay harassment is a many-headed hydra

The harasser rarely admits that his or her behavior constitutes harassment. A plethora of excuses is often produced, ranging from harmless flirtation to social justice. Yet, an apology means more than an excuse. A change in behavior means more than persistence under the guise of noble intentions. As it so happens, the social arena where petty excuses continue to breed harassment is the performance art of cosplay. It is imperative that we break down these excuses and expose harassment as the many-headed hydra that it is.

Cosplay is a contraction of the words “costume” and “play.” It’s fairly straightforward as to what that involves. People dress up as characters from games, shows, movies, comics, history or their own imaginations. They attend events like Senshi Con at the Dena’ina Center or holiday parties at friends’ houses. Cosplay is intended to promote a fun and creative social environment. Unfortunately, harassment corrupts these social gatherings and contributes to a feeling of vulnerability or shame among targeted cosplayers.

Sexual harassment is one of the pervasive forms that disproportionally affects female cosplayers. In a survey of 3,600 attendees at the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, an astonishing 25 percent reported experiencing sexual harassment in cosplay. This is what the Cosplay is Not Consent campaign directly responds to. Some outfits may be sexually provocative, and inconsiderate people have interpreted that as an unspoken invitation to leer, grope or make vulgar comments. The harassers here provide typical and unconvincing excuses, ranging from the annoying “I was just flirting” to the offensive “I figured you were asking for it based on how you’re dressed.” It should go without saying that sexy attire does not warrant a violation of someone’s comfort. Sexuality can be a welcome and celebrated part of cosplay. There is nothing wrong with that, but everything wrong with a lack of consent.

Another form of harassment is accuracy dogma. Imagine the following. You feel very passionate about a particular character. You spend time and money building your costume to represent that character. Maybe you pursue accuracy, or maybe you just want to put your own spin on it. The beauty of cosplay is the expression of your individuality. You have the creative control here.

Alas, harassment rears its ugly head. Accuracy dogma refers to the crowd of pretentious snobs who “uhm actually” every creative spin on a character. They’re typically more vocal on the internet than they are in person, but that doesn’t mean their denunciations are any less hurtful. These grubs are also quick to criticize gender-bending. This is where a cosplayer portrays a character of the opposite sex. As uncontroversial as that may seem, the accuracy dogma crowd never miss an opportunity to sermonize on fictional lore. These harassers penalize creativity while sprinkling themselves in imagined hubris.

The toughest form to fight against is the cult of racial harassment. These people often intersect with accuracy dogma, especially those who berate cosplayers for portraying a character of a different ethnicity. Racial harassers often perceive characters as being proprietary of the ethnicity that they are officially attached to. For example, Superman’s 20th century origin contributed to his portrayal as the majority demographic in positions of power: that is, white and male. However, cosplayers realized an important truth: he doesn’t have to be. No ethnicity or sex owns a fictional character.

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Racial harassers would have you think otherwise. Under the guise of social justice, they torment cosplayers who are of a different ethnicity than the character they are portraying. Their excuses do not conceal their actions — harassment is harassment. For example, cultural appropriation is cited as the reason racial harassers will chastise a white girl who cosplays Disney’s fictional character Moana. The argument here is that Moana is the property of Polynesian culture and using the character constitutes abuse. The problem with this line of thinking is that it enforces barriers between cultures, and therefore deters the immersive exchange that social justice claims to strive for. If cultural appropriation is understood to be an abusive power dynamic where a dominant group seizes elements of an oppressed group, then cultural exchange should be distinguished as the free and equitable borrowing between groups. Cosplaying a fictional character does not amount to lampooning a culture. If anything, the neutrality of characters breaks down barriers and fosters immersion among groups.

It’s important for people to maintain a positive and healthy environment so that cosplay stays safe and fun. A healthy environment is one that respects consent, creativity and individuality. It’s especially important for people to intervene in the defense of victims and call harassers out for the lousy excuses they shield themselves with. Cosplay is what we make it to be. Let’s make sure it’s as inclusive and fun as possible.