Confessions of a Comic Book Guy is a weekly column by Steve Bennett of Super-Fly Comics and Games in Yellow Springs, Ohio. This week, Bennett talks about a dark side of cosplay at cons.
Cosplay has become a staple of American comic book conventions. I used to think that was only at the big East and West Coast ones but there were cosplayers aplenty at last month's Cincinnati Comic Expo. There was recently a piece on the subject in the New York Times; "Superheroes, Stitched Together in Spandex" by Bianca Consunji. It dealt primarily with the preparations the New York Cosplay Network went through leading up to New York Comic Con and offered such lightweight observations as "the convention offers people the chance to be a celebrity for a day;" and "theirs is an expensive devotion, costing hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars a year." Though the piece does gets points for actually acknowledging while "costume play" is a Japanese phenomenon the practice actually evolved from the costume parades at American science fiction conventions.
I genuinely admire people who cosplay but don't participate myself due to the one and only time I dressed up as kid outside of Halloween. Here's a real confession for you; when I was twelve I loved the comic strip Peanuts and my mother, God rest her soul, made me a Snoopy costume--the nose was a Clorox bottle. Wanting to help the cause I decided to make an unscheduled appearance at a Muscular Dystrophy Carnival being held in a neighbor's back yard. I was only there five minutes before (a) a teenager asked me whether I was a boy or a girl and (b) a younger kid ripped my tail off.
As someone who saw his share of comic book convention costume parades I'm constantly amazed at just how good American cosplay has gotten over the years; I never imagined we would ever be able to compete with our otaku cousins in Japan. But in the last decade the level of quality of the costumes has just been amazing and, given the demographics of comic book fans, equally amazing is it's now increasingly the province of women. There's no cosplaying reality show (not yet, anyway though to me it seems like the Syfy Channel is missing a sure bet), no big cash prize,yet they spend enormous amounts of time, energy and money on their costumes. And they do it, mostly, for fun.
But there always someone who wants to have fun at someone else's expense. It was in the piece "Black Cat Cosplayer Draws Attention to Comic Con Sexual Harassment. So What Can We Do About It?" by Rebecca Pahle on The Mary Sue website I first read about the incident. Artist and professional designer Mandy Caruso, while dressed as Marvel's Black Cat, was interviewed by someone who said they were filming a feature on fans for their video channel but was more interested in her measurements. You can find out exactly what was said easily enough, as the story has gotten a certain amount of traction online on sites ranging from Jezebel to Think Progress to the UK's The Daily Mail. But rest assured it was definitely demeaning and inappropriate.
We don't know who this guy was because Caruso won't say; she told the Daily Dot website she'd rather not name the organization she was interviewed by because "they would get a lot of publicity/youtube views/site hits." But this wasn't the first time someone from the mainstream media decided to descend upon NYCC to have a little "fun" at the expense of cosplayers, like last year when Men's Fitness ran a piece called "NY Comic Con: Flabby Versions of Your Favorite Superheroes", subtitled "Ever wonder what Batman would look like fat? Read on, true believer!" (see "Confessions of a Comic Book Guy--Welcome Back, Miranda Mercury"). Of course making fun of a bunch of fat guys isn't the same thing as sexual harassment, except it kind of is.
I don't think I'm trying to create a false equivalency between bullying and sexual harassment, seeing as how both cover the same territory of unwanted intimidation. I understand there are important distinctions between the two and by calling it "bullying" I am in way trying to minimize what happened to Caruso. But by calling it something we've all experienced guys might be more willing to relate to her situation, because of course it wasn't just the guy who interviewed her who was being a jerk at NYCC. Cosplayers hear all sorts of stupid, ignorant comments at cons all the time.
The piece in The Mary Sue asked "So What Can We Do About It?," suggesting some kind of "awareness campaign" or posters in comic shops, but I think it might be a lot simpler than that. Maybe we just need a meme; "Don't Be a Jerk, Don't Be a Creep, Don't Be that Guy." But that's only the first step.
All reports indicate Caruso took good care of herself; she left when she got fed up and no one physically tried to stop or intimidate her; she didn't need anybody to come to her rescue. But what she did need and didn't receive from the men around her was for someone to object, to speak up and call out those guys on their behavior and language. Somebody needed to say "Dude, that's uncool" and nobody did. And somebody should have, not because she needed anyone to chivalrously jump to her defense, but because bullying stops when people stop tolerating it.
Before it started humiliating innocent people for no real reason the piece at Men's Fitness actually had a couple of smart things to say, "Comic book conventions are among the few remaining refuges of sincere, unaffected fun" and "It's a bully-free zone in which underwear is in no danger of violently wedgie-ing its wearing and freak flags are free to fly." I want cons to remain that way and I think we do that by realizing that Mandy Caruso isn't "other," she's one of us and was at NYCC for the same reason everyone else was.
Because she's a fan.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Column by Steve Bennett
Posted by ICv2 on October 31, 2012 @ 1:14 am CT
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