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A cosplayer dressed as Harley Quinn from the movie Suicide Squad. (Photo: Gianni Lanza/Getty Images)
A cosplayer dressed as Harley Quinn from the movie Suicide Squad. (Photo: Gianni Lanza/Getty Images)

SocietyApril 3, 2018

Does cosplay in New Zealand have a consent problem?

A cosplayer dressed as Harley Quinn from the movie Suicide Squad. (Photo: Gianni Lanza/Getty Images)
A cosplayer dressed as Harley Quinn from the movie Suicide Squad. (Photo: Gianni Lanza/Getty Images)

Public conventions like Armageddon Expo allow cosplayers to celebrate their biggest pop culture passions. But, as Alex Casey found out, they can also be an opportunity for unwanted photography, groping and harassment.

When I was at university, I did some extremely fun part-time work for a team building company that required me having to dress up and role play for big schmoozy corporate events. For someone who likes wearing costumes a lot, it was a dream come true. One day I had to dress as a spy who had been captured, bound and gagged. I had one clue that the teams needed to get out of me, and all I could do was nod or shake my head. To look the part, I sat on a wheelie chair in an empty boardroom with duct tape on my mouth and hands faux-tied behind my back.

One by one, the sweaty groups frothing with team-building fever would sprint in, their wild eyes settling on me in the middle of the room. Without fail, a man from every team made the situation needlessly sexual. One leered over me, smirking and muttering, “I love a woman tied up,” while another squandered his precious clue-gathering question time to grill me as to whether I was a virgin or not. I’ve never forgotten how horrible it felt to suddenly be treated like a piece of meat just because you were wearing a certain type of costume.

Something reminded me of that same icky feeling last year at Armageddon as I weaved through the teeming crowds of superheroes, Pokémon and Disney princesses. Armageddon is an overwhelming pop culture convention that attracts impassioned fans, collectors, artists and cosplayers to soak in the characters, games, comics and TV shows that they love the most. Among the giant manga body pillows and incarnations of every Joker from Ledger to Leto were confronting signs that said “COSPLAY IS NOT CONSENT”.

An atendee at UK Comic Con 2016 in cosplay as Black Widow in Birmingham, United Kingdom. (Photo by Ollie Millington/Getty Images)

I asked some people in the community what the movement was all about.

“Cosplay is about really loving something, and having the creative impulse to make stuff and wear it,” explained Michaela, a veteran cosplayer since the pre-social media era. “Whatever your connection to the character is, it’s expressed through embodying it.” Over more than a decade, she’s done everything from classic Star Wars fare to 16th century garb. “It’s just like how rugby fans dress in their team colours to go to the game,” elaborated Jessica, moderator of the Cosplay NZ Facebook page. “I’ve always enjoyed making things and I’ve always enjoyed comics and cartoons and video games – cosplay is a perfect intersection of all those interests.”

So for a hobby that is founded on celebration, fandoms and community, why the need for the stern warnings about consent all over the place at Armageddon? “The Cosplay is Not Consent principle is used worldwide by many conventions and events,” a representative from Armageddon said. “It is mainly to inform attendees that they should not take photographs of cosplayers without first asking them. We agree with this principle.” It should be no surprise that being seen and photographed is a crucial element of cosplay, but it is only appreciated when the cosplayers actually know it is happening. “Cosplay is about recreating the character and representing them properly,” said Jessica, “so catching people unaware, or picking food out of their teeth or something, often doesn’t do justice to the look.”

Beyond asking consent for photographs, there is a more serious meaning behind the ‘Cosplay is Not Consent’ slogan. Jessica monitors the feedback threads after every New Zealand cosplay convention, and noted that “invariably” there will be mentions of verbal sexual harassment, groping and even upskirt photography. At Wellington Armageddon one year, Michaela found herself in a crowd that had bottlenecked at the entrance, and was groped by three people around her. “I couldn’t move, I had nobody as a witness, and I was too nervous to confront them about it or find someone who could intervene.”

When she asked the cosplay community to share their stories on Facebook, the response suggested that Michaela’s experience was not unique. “I’ve agreed to take pictures with people, only to have them grab my ass during the photo when no-one can see,” recalled Harley on The Cosplay NZ page. “They’re situations that you struggle to call out in, as it’s such a public space.” Sarah* first cosplayed as Yami from To Love-Ru at Armageddon when she was 14. “Multiple guys tried to put their hands on my ass while taking a photo with me – some looked about 40. I was incredibly uncomfortable and terrified for quite a while to cosplay from animes like that.”

Gabriela has been cosplaying for over six years, and listed multiple instances of inappropriate behaviour. “I’ve been groped, I’ve had my breasts and ass touched without consent, I’ve had sneaky photos and upskirt photos taken, I’ve been harassed for my phone number and I’ve been stalked… It doesn’t seem to make much of a difference whether the costume is revealing or not.” Amanda, was only 15 years old when a man in his 20s followed her around Armageddon taking pictures of her. “He said he’d email them to me, being stupid I gave him my email address. For a few months he kept emailing me wanting me to be his girlfriend.”

Several people cited social media apps like Snapchat making it a lot easier to locate cosplayers at events and in daily life. Georgia* had a man stalk her and her family at Armageddon when she was 16, following them around the convention all day. “Every time I went to look at a stall, he would get as close to me as possible to get me to notice him. I’d see him out of the corner of my eye and just keep talking or walk away. It stressed me out so much that I had to leave way before I wanted to.” Another woman was given a booklet at Armageddon from a man that listed of all the times he had seen her in public over several months. “It was creepy af.”

Cosplayers at the 2017 Comic-Con convention in San Diego, California. (Photo by Justin Baker/Getty Images)

This issue of consent and safety doesn’t just affect women-presenting cosplayers either, or those who have chosen to wear more revealing outfits. “In all honestly, it happens no matter what you are wearing,” said Jessica, “If I can get sexually harassed in a cow costume… it can happen to anyone.” Jor-El was cosplaying as Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy when a woman pushed her face into his crotch and knocked him off his stilts. Michael recalled cosplaying with his infant son, who was frequently picked and cuddled for photos with strangers without anyone asking first. “People see us in costume and they start to treat us more like props” said Michaela. “They forget about the person inside the costume.”

When contacted by The Spinoff, Armageddon said they had strict anti-harassment policies in place and that all their staff and security at the event had been trained to respond when harassing behaviour was brought to their attention. “If people encounter harassment at any of our events, we encourage them to talk to a staff member immediately. All staff members are approachable and trained in how to handle anything. The safety of our attendees is of paramount importance to us and we want all attendees to be able to enjoy our events.”

In fact, it seems that solving the problem of consent has very little to do with the cosplay community at all. “It’s the public that is behind on the times,” said Gabriela on Facebook. “They don’t understand that cosplayers at events such as Armageddon are attendees, not attractions.” Jessica from Cosplay NZ agreed. “The community is well-educated; the issues at conventions are with the general public. Short of a massive societal shift, there’s only so much that can be done. The signs are really great but if you haven’t heard of the movement before, it doesn’t mean a lot. Maybe we need more specific signs.”

A lot of the issues around consent in situations like Armageddon are also true of the rest of society – reflective of a broader need for politeness, respect, and asking questions if you are unsure. “People are interpreting consent in cosplay as the absence of no, when it needs to be an enthusiastic yes,” explained Harley. “Asking does wonders, and everyone’s happier at the end of the day when their boundaries have been respected.” Talking is incredibly useful, as is calling out bad behaviour when it happens. “If people see someone do something that’s not cool, take them aside and tell them they are being inappropriate,” said Jessica.

The general consensus from cosplayers who spoke to The Spinoff was that issues around consent are slowly improving, even as conventions grow larger with every year and cosplay moves further into the mainstream. Many also said that a handful of bad experiences wouldn’t deter them from dressing up in public as the characters they love. “I know of people who have got comments or touching in certain costumes and then never worn them again, despite putting all that work into making them. But I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, and the negative experiences have been vastly, vastly outweighed by the positives,” said Jessica.

“Cosplay is about making beautiful friends and making beautiful art – no amount of creepy people will ever stop me doing it.”

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