Soooo, Feminist Frequency (link to official web site here) put up their latest video yesterday (link here), on women as background decoration, and totally failed to make good use of the material they showed. They also managed to alienate and objectify an entire group of women by using the phrase “prostituted women” over and over again in the course of the video and only using the preferred and neutral term “sex worker” in reference to male workers. This is not okay. Absolutely, categorically not okay. And while I mostly want to provide a brief overview of the points that could be made about the games shown in a better, more understanding discussion of sex worker representation in games, I will also get a bit into why the video’s language and handling are such a problem.
Before I begin, I want to emphasize that harassment at cons and directed towards cosplayers, both in and out of costume, at a con or out in the world, is ‘not’ women only. This post is about intersections between harassment received by and directed at female con-goers and female cosplayers and cultural scripts, expectations, and standards around women’s bodies, women’s clothing, their ability to desire attention for themselves, and how they are expected to act and react when they receive attention from others. It is not meant to erase or downplay the experiences of others. Remember that.
Over the weekend, I was getting settled in and enjoying a bit of personal internet time and saw that a well known female cosplayer who I follow on Facebook had posted a new cover photo showcasing five of her many cosplays. I intended to just click like on the photo and continue scrolling but the top comment that showed up when I clicked like stopped me. A well-intentioned man, and I truly mean well-intentioned because he honestly thought he was being helpful and kind in what he said, commented: “Interesting. While aesthetically pleasing to look at, I cannot help but note that most of the costumes emphasize… certain aspects of your physique, perhaps overly so. Maybe in the future there might be some worth exploring certain costume choices that have less emphasis on fanservice?” I was unsettled in part by the fact that the man believed he was being helpful and a “good guy” by suggesting that the harassment the cosplayer is known to receive is her responsibility (thus engaging in victim blaming, no matter how politely worded and well intended his comment), but also by the ensuing discussion. Not only was there a continuation and strengthening of the victim blaming but there were also elements of body shaming and a sense that a woman could not possibly want to dress in certain ways out of her own desire and for her own reasons (including because she herself actually desires attention). This was shared even by people ostensibly trying to defend against the original comment and is not something I find restricted only to this well known cosplayer or only to a specific few people who view her individual work. Their comments and feelings are genuine and I cannot emphasize that enough but they are indicative of larger problems and patterns that I want to explore and bring to light here as part of the continuing discussions on cosplay, congoing, and consent.
As nicely worded as that original comment is and as concerning as it is for the victim blaming implications, it and subsequent comments are also bothersome for what they say or imply about female choice and female desire, as well as the perception of female bodies and their relationship with clothing. The well meaning sentence about exploring costume choices that have less emphasis on fan service seems to imply that the cosplayer is or could only be choosing to design and wear costumes based on certain characters because she wants to serve and please fans. The desire is not hers, just the body which is there for (presumably) male enjoyment and which she has attired and shaped just for them. This is quite frankly infuriating and ties back into ideas about “fake geek girls” and women only going to conventions and dressing up in costume in order to get attention from, meet, and impress men. Somehow it is inconceivable that women are interested in “geeky” things and like to dress up in costume for reasons that have nothing to do with men (although, as I will get to, wanting attention is not an inherently bad thing and of course there are the male creators and contributors to geeky content that geeks, male and female, like and also like to cosplay as) and instead relate to personal passions, interests, and desires. And also businesses and brands and marketing. Which are reasons shared by male con-goers and cosplayers and for which they are not subjected to tests of geeky authenticity on the basis of being male. But a woman who loves Batman can not necessarily expect but be unsurprised by quizzes covering the character’s 60+ years of comics (and other media) continuity and judgements that she is just a pretender to geekdom if she gets a question wrong. And a woman who dresses as a favourite female character (or a fem version of a male character) can almost expect inappropriate comments about her body that she is then expected to graciously receive or ignore (although ignoring them is also a punishable offence which may be met with verbal abuse or worse), attempts at inappropriate contact and photography, and comments about attention “whoring,” as well as potential body shaming (including body shaming about a busty appearance and/or large breasts, both in the vein of “cover yourself up”/make them less “obvious” and of accusations of surgically augmented breasts ‘and’ negative judgments based on that).
This is not isolated behaviour restricted to a single, well known cosplayer and a few people commenting on her Facebook page, or even to the many people engaging in such conversations about her, her body, her career, and interests across the internet. Nor are the comments solely directed at women by men. There are also women offering “helpful” advice to others on how to (presumably) not receive negative attention from men, offering defenses of female cosplayers that consist of statements about how men want to see x character more than y character anyways and to direct ire at the male artists who draw the characters instead, and also engaging in openly hateful, slut shaming and victim blaming commentary (which I differentiate from women who think they are being “kind” and “helpful” and speak gently as the original male commenter and comment I mentioned did). All this does is further enforce the heavy victim blaming implications and narratives around harassment of congoers and cosplayers and ideas around female desire and women’s bodies that are neither healthy nor helpful.
A woman’s breasts are no one’s but her own and are not sufficient cause to expect or demand that she receive any attention directed towards them positively, graciously, or gratefully. Or to suggest that if she does not like a “benign” comment about them that she should change what costumes she cosplays in and to view only “serious” comments that relate to sexualized violence as ones that she is allowed to take a stand against and refuse to change her costuming choices because of. However, that is exactly the nature of the thoughts offered by one commenter in response and in an attempted defense against that original, also male commenter and those types of beliefs are neither extraordinary nor isolated. People may understand that harassment of con goers and cosplayers is wrong but only see certain types of harassment as wrong or as harassment at all. The line may start at physical contact or at what they deem sexually suggestive comments and/or threats (such as “I want to fuck you!”) and they may see wolf whistles or comments like “Nice breasts” as ‘inherently’ benign, all the while absolutely believing that harassment is wrong. And also that a woman should be appreciative of those comments that they deem “benign” and that she is being unreasonable, overreaching, is being a “bitch,” etc if she does not do so and that she is asking for it by dressing in a way where her breasts are visible (or “obvious” or however they choose to word it). Those boobs are not for you and not dressing in a “sexy” outfit, cosplay costume or not, is not a magical or guaranteed protection against and fix for harassment and threats.
Harassment, including street harassment, is something that happens to women all the time, in all different kinds of clothing and levels of coverage and ages and weights and body types and dressing as Dr. Pamela Isley in a standard lab coat and slacks is not inherently safer than dressing as Poison Ivy in a leotard and tights. As well, no two women wearing the same outfit or costume (or costume design) are going to look exactly the same, including in how the outfit or costume lays over and is filled out by the bust, so well meaning (and not) suggestions about reconsidering costume choices in order to avoid harassment are not going to achieve their aims and comments about a costume’s provocativeness (and thus whether a cosplayer has “deserved” harassment or not) are not actually going to be about the costume itself. They are going to be about the body inhabiting the costume and the worth and merit of the person it belongs. Cosplay is not consent and large breasts do not constitute grounds for harassment or a basis on which to judge a person’s personal and moral worth, professionalism, or their reasons for participating in an activity or attending an event (hypothetical or actual events centered around bra making and marketing and the experiences of busty women aside).