This is the first of two editorials from me regarding the PAX East story and other related aspects. I felt I had so much to say on these subjects that splitting them was the best way to convey my thoughts. This part will cover the ideas of ‘Cosplay = Consent’ and ‘Humorless Feminist Geeks’, the next will cover my thoughts on Safe Spaces in Geek culture.
A pretty disturbing story came out of PAX East this past weekend. In a Tumblr post by Crystal Dynamics’ Community & Communications Manager Megan Marie, a self-identified journalist approached a group of Lara Croft cosplayers who had gathered at the CD booth to help promote the latest Tomb Raider game and requested an interview with them. Instead of conducting a professional interview, he chose to ask the group of young women (some as young as 15!) ‘How does it feel to be at a convention where none of the men could please you?‘. When Ms. Marie became aware of the issue, she confronted the ‘journalist’, only to have him hurl insults at her before invoking that grand idea of creepy convention-goers everywhere: ‘The girls were dressing sexy, therefore they were asking for it’. Once he skulked off, Ms. Marie informed higher-ups at PAX East, and they removed the man from the convention. From there, the story hit the internet, and reaction to it has run the typical gamut of reactions to a story like this: For every ten people supporting Ms. Marie and her actions, there are at least one or two who attempt to silence her and judge her negatively for her actions. I’ll be covering those silencing attempts in my next article, which deals with safe spaces and geek culture. This article will focus on the ideas of ‘Cosplay = Consent’ and ‘Female geeks can’t take a joke’.
It never fails. Anytime a story comes out over the blogosphere about female cosplayers being harassed at a convention, the first defense from many male geeks is some variant on ‘Well, she was cosplaying. Shouldn’t she expect that sort of attention?’. It doesn’t matter what the original complaint was; it could have been a creeper stalking them throughout the convention, it could have been a photographer taking inappropriate pictures…this reaction will inevitably come up at some point or another. I’ve even engaged in it on my personal FB when I’ve posted article links and said that no, conventions are not free-for-alls for behavior that makes others uncomfortable. It’s funny how people believe that, just because a woman might choose to attend a convention dressed as Dark Phoenix, Emma Frost, Yoko Littner, or Lara Croft (or practically any other female character, really), it means she automatically abdicates the right to her own bodily autonomy. Instead, she is reduced to merely being an object to be leered at, creeped at, and generally harassed and made to feel uncomfortable. When she complains because she is (rightfully) uncomfortable, out come the tired ‘She was cosplaying, she should be used to/flattered by the attention’, ‘She’s just hysterical/a humorless feminist/doing it to grab attention’, and ‘Maybe women shouldn’t dress in such sexy outfits if they don’t want attention’ excuses that are always trotted out in response to these complaints.
As I often say in regards to any long-running string of recurrent incidents, ‘That horse was dead and buried years ago, has been resurrected by necromancy, and is now out on the streets looking for brains. Will you kindly stop beating it?’
Put more bluntly, Women in cosplay Are. Not. Sex. Objects. They are not at conventions simply to satisfy your Male Gaze and star in your late-night wank fantasies. They are there to have a great time and connect with others who share their hobby. Y’know, kinda like you? If I have to create ‘Convention: The Musical’, make that the show-stopping number in the first act, and make it mandatory pre-convention viewing for all attendees, then so be it. I am so sick and tired of women facing harassment when they choose to cosplay characters they love, especially considering the individuals who create those same characters are the ones giving them the revealing wardrobes cosplayers are objectified for wearing.
Let me put it this way. Let’s say you look out your window one day and see a gorgeous woman wearing a sexy outfit walking down the street. What do you do? Go outside, introduce yourself properly and ask for a photo/a coffee date/etc. without taking offense if she declines? Or will you stalk her from a distance, take inappropriate/nonconsensual photos of her, and scream ‘Humorless!’ or ‘It was a joke!’ when she calls you on your behavior? I seriously hope you would choose the former interactions over the latter. I would also hope that you would take those interactions with you to conventions and not try to make women feel uncomfortable or harassed for engaging in a beloved hobby.
Now, I’m pretty sure most of you have heard some mention of Rape Culture. There’s already a zillion articles out there defining and discussing it, so I won’t retread that ground. However, I will say that harassment of female cosplayers and geeks is a very dangerous aspect of Rape Culture. See, geeks already consider themselves to be a persecuted second class by some within the community. You would think this would give them a larger dose of empathy and understanding about how to treat other marginalized groups who share their social sphere. Instead, they revert to the same sort of behaviors as their non-geek brethren, with a healthy dose of ‘Oppression!’ whenever their behavior is called out. We already have a serious issue with taking rape and other forms of harassment seriously in society at large, why must the geek culture further distill and manifest this behavior, regardless of intent?
And that brings me to the second topic for this part: The old ‘Humorless Feminist/It was a joke!’ defense. Whenever I hear this excuse lobbed at me, I often counter with ‘How was I supposed to know that?’. It’s such a ridiculously tired defense. See, women (like most people) are generally not psychic. We cannot read your mind, sift through your thoughts, and automatically deduce whether you’re serious or not, especially when we literally just met you about two minutes earlier. Also, why are you joking in that manner with strangers? Generally when I want to joke or play around I relegate it to my group of friends and/or people I didn’t just meet five minutes ago. Lastly, just because you think it’s a joke -and attempt to excuse it as such- it does not automatically make it a joke. Intent is not a magical ‘Get Out of Trouble Free’ card you can use to weasel your way out of consequences. To quote Melissa McEwan from Shakesville:
‘Intent does not, in fact, magically render us unaccountable from the effects of our communication, no more than not intending to step on someone’s toes magically renders us unaccountable from the effects of our movement. Pain caused unintentionally is still authentic pain.
And, although it’s true that sometimes our communication is simply misunderstood, more frequently, the (mis)communications that led to the invocation of magical intent are the result of implicit intent not actually matching what is being explicitly communicated.’
In other words, the excuse ain’t working. We still see right through it, and we see it’s a pathetic attempt to get away with bad behavior without acknowledging the effect that behavior has on others. So just don’t do it. Treat women who attend conventions as you would want them to treat you. Don’t harass them, don’t stalk them, don’t take pictures they don’t give the okay for you to take. And if you misbehave and your behavior is called out, don’t act like it’s their fault for complaining. Try taking responsibility for your own behavior, and be a decent human being to your fellow geeks.
(To Be Continued in Part 2.)