Several years ago when I was in my graduate studies for mental health practice, a photographer friend reached out to me. He asked if it would be possible if I do a panel on explaining Asperger’s and spectrum disorders at a local anime convention. The reason being is that there were a ton of misinterpretation of Asperger’s syndrome and related spectrum disorders running rampant on Facebook groups and posts relating to the con. I’ve called this out in the Lolita and J-fashion community after hearing abelist posts targeted towards particular Lolita’s. While I was still learning the book knowledge on spectrum disorders, I honestly did not feel competent enough or confident enough to run a panel that breaks down stereotypes, myths, and sharing resources and ally mechanisms for those on the spectrum. That was me several years ago when conventions didn’t have diversity-related panels.
When Yaya Han did her Sociology of Cosplay panel, I was intrigued. I really liked having discussion panels on the cosplay community and discussing issues such as bullying. Of course, this was before the controversial Heroes of Cosplay series. The idea in theory and practice with the right people seemed like a good idea. In the past few years, comic conventions around the west coast started having more panels about LBGTQIA+, people of color, Black / African American cosplayers, Latinx cosplayers, etc. I was very happy that we had a discussion forum to discuss issues that face certain factions of fandom. I liked that Bent Con had panels on the myth of “it gets better.” These presentations were smart, witty, and informative.
Flash forward to present day, present time.
It is with a deep, beleaguered sigh that I’ve been noticing that the wrong people are running these diversity and body positive presentations. At one con, one cosplayer guest (whom I’ve never heard of) was desperate in rounding up attendee cosplayers for guests during the day of the con to have them for their “body positivity” panel. I noticed only one type of body was selected. Whether or not this was what the cosplay guest had to work with or what was available is up for questioning. The presentation of it does send a wrong message, particularly when it’s focused on one body type. Another anecdote I’ve read is that during a body positive, one panelist was encouraging and giving tips on how to look more Asian with “Asian eyes.” I had no idea that cosplay body positivity had anything to do with changing one’s ethnic make up!
The worst offender of this are the anti-bullying panels. In theory and practice, the anti-bullying panels does sound like a good idea on paper and the programming guide. As someone who has been bullied and harassed (but does not identify as a victim, but rather a survivor), it is absolutely disgusting when I see people who have bullied and harassed others online or in person as panelists for these topics, I feel hurt that these hypocrites are given a platform to speak. They do not practice what they preach. It’s hard for me to write about these in convention final thoughts in our con reports because it feels like we might be singling out someone because of vendetta, but it goes deeper than that
Imagine seeing someone who has tormented, ousted, and encouraged others to exclude you at conventions where you consider these your vacation getaways – a getaway from the real world. Imagine seeing that same person given access to a pulpit to preach about inclusion, cosplaying for everyone, LGBTQIA+ issues, etc when they made fun of you for liking Sailor Moon and Star Wars – they told everyone you were odd and not to be talked to. While I can give people the benefit of the doubt of change, this individual has not once come to me for a truce or to sincerely apologize for their bad behavior in the past. I’ve made nice with people that I didn’t get along with initially in cosplay; we resolved our differences. When it’s someone who still purposely excludes you from participating in these conversations, it’s still bullying.
Additionally, whenever I see panels on “anti-bullying” at cons being run by the wrong people, it’s upsetting and hypocritical. While a few of us can attest to inappropriate individuals running panels, there is one in specific that comes to mind. While no one is perfect and it’s okay to admit to mistakes made in the past, it’s upsetting when I see people who actively troll others given the pulpit. In December, I was harassed by my partner’s ex girlfriend, though they broken up over a decade ago. I learned she made her way to cosplay popularity. I have privately spoke about her with my personal circle and they have attested that they’ve heard that name before in not the most positive of circumstances. When I see her name attached to a bullying themed presentation at a local event, I wonder if they directed her to the wrong panel. She would be perfect for a “How to Bully” session with trilby sporting Twitter trolls, and mentally unfit to run an anti-bullying panel.
Additionally, conventions need to start screening on who they can let in as panelists for these types of diversity and community fandom panels – or just kill them entirely. While conventions are a volunteer run event, many long running volunteer focused events do allow intensive screening. For example, Anime Central requires those who want to do a presentation on Japanese language and culture to write about experience and qualifications. Cons such as Anime Boston and Another Anime Convention have strict vetting policies on what they allow now for panelists because of problems with “diversity” themed ran panels in the past. This was a huge issue at Anime Expo when they held their first ever mental health presentation. A majority of the presenters were there more to shill for their cosplay likes and self promote than to discuss coping mechanisms, resources, and how to help others in the event of a serious issue (ie: panic attacks at a convention, vague social media posts). It was at this con I realized the danger of what these panels can present if ran by the wrong people. While I do believe it’s important to discuss these, I’d feel much more comfortable if it was someone qualified than someone who was popular.
If you are given a platform to discuss cosplay issues, this is not just a mark to your professional cosplay resume or reputation. This is a great responsibility. Your audience attending this panel is very impressionable. It’s okay to refuse and say “no” if you are not comfortable handling the topic material. Bear in mind of what state the world we live in right now. With great power, comes great responsibility.While these are important topics to discuss, one also ask to ask what do they have to do with the convention mission and vision. There have been (anime) conventions that have had to do away with these presentations because of the complaints of how people were running them and the wrong message being given out. I would advise convention organizers to pick their presenters carefully and validate if it’s worth it to have community social justice panels at the con.