Cosplay and CONsent

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WORDS Avery Phillips

“Can I have a photo?” is a phrase that I am used to hearing whenever I attend Supanova Sydney. Australia’s most well-known pop culture convention, Supanova is the Aussie version of San Diego Comic Con, complete with people dressing up as their favourite characters. I am one of those people, this year attending as Vaporeon (from Pokemon) and Pyramid Head (from Silent Hill) on the Saturday and Sunday respectively.

It is a very satisfactory feeling to have people ask if they can take your photo while portraying a character you love, and part of the fun is going through all the photos people have posted online later in the week to try and find those of you and your friends. In the three years I’ve been cosplaying I have never had a negative experience, a few overly critical costume commentators aside. I wish I could say it was the same for everyone, but alas, that is not the case as I came to realise this time.

If you’ve ever been exposed to any form of entertainment media, then you’ve undoubtedly noticed that it’s common for female characters to wear costumes that are fairly revealing in one way or another, whether it be Sailor Moon’s short skirt, Power Girl’s infamous cleavage window or Rikku’s overall skimpy outfit in Final Fantasy X-2. While some women will modify the costume or come up with their own variant that they feel more comfortable wearing, many are willing to wear the original costume for both reasons of accuracy and the simple fact that they are happy to do so.

As I trawled through hundreds and photos and videos of last weekend’s event I came across a number of creepshots: photos taken of women’s chests and behinds without their consent. These photos were not relegated to the possession of those clearly identifiable as being perverts but were being distributed as part of cosplay albums and compilation videos, with comments posted commending both the photographer and the photos. My immediate response was fury and mortification, feelings which only grew stronger when I read the defences given when others began to complain.

One person said that women should expect to be photographed if they chose to wear such costumes. Someone else said that the woman should be flattered that people thought they were worth photographing. Another derided all the women complaining as ‘feminazis’ who wanted to spoil people’s fun. None of these arguments ever considered the women’s consent as something of importance.

The idea that women don’t expect to be photographed when cosplaying is ridiculous. Throughout the weekend I saw hundreds of cosplayers enthusiastically posing for photos and videos, many of them doing so in ways that highlighted the sexier nature of their costumes. As I said previously, part of the fun of cosplay comes from seeing the photos that people take. The issue is not that women don’t expect to be photographed, or that they don’t want to be. It’s that they don’t expect to be photographed without their consent, or in any way objectified and reduced to a set of body parts.

While the photos and behaviour I have seen online this past week have all been relating to female cosplayers, it would be wrong to claim that they are the only ones who have to deal with harassment when it happens to people of all genders. Earlier this year 16 Bit sirens started the CONsent initiative to raise awareness of the sexual harassment faced by cosplayers. People posed with a sign reading “Cosplay =/= Consent” and shared their stories of harassment and inappropriate behaviour. The initiative, which quickly gained online popularity, was educational and informative. It emphasised the responsibility of all people to create a safe community for cosplay, including those in charge of hosting the conventions themselves.

While it would be almost impossible to completely prevent inappropriate behaviour and creepshots, the implementation of an easily identifiable behaviour policy for all convention attendants would make it clear what sort of behaviour is not acceptable and make it far easier to identify those acting in inappropriate ways. People wouldn’t be able to defend creepshots as part of a normal convention experience because it is explicitly stated to be inappropriate behaviour.

Seeing those photos and comments has been an eye opener for me. While I’ve always been aware of the fact that this happens at conventions, this is the first time I’ve seen it occur at one I’ve actually been to. I’m not going to let a few contemptible people stop me from doing something that I enjoy, however I will be a little more aware of what is going on around me when I attend SMASH! later on this year. If I see something inappropriate happening I hope that I will be able to do the right thing and speak up. I hope that you would too.