Victim Blaming for Fun and Profit - Cosplay & DCC

 The line to enter Denver Comic Con 2017.

The line to enter Denver Comic Con 2017.

            Hi, I’m Roberto. I helped create the Denver Comic Con. I worked with its founders shortly after its conception in 2010. In the years leading up to the convention I helped create fundraisers for the Comic Book Classroom (a charity associated with the con, since renamed the Pop Culture Classroom) and assisted in the creation of the convention’s ever-awesome Team Cosplay. All of this culminated in my serving on the now-defunct steering committee in the con’s second year. During this time the national comics convention scene was being rocked by a precursor to the #MeToo movement in the form of a community-wide backlash against harassment.

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            Before I go further let me paint the scene for 2013: stories of harassment went viral and people in power were being held accountable for failing to institute appropriate measures to protect patrons. Or worse, covering up for known predators. Or worse still, being outed as predators themselves. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, just like in Hollywood and Washington in the years that followed, con harassment had been going on for ages before it was finally addressed. In response, we (Team Cosplay) insisted that Denver Comic Con institute an anti-harassment policy.  I wrote the document with assistance from the rest of the steering committee and approval from Team Cosplay.

            In the intervening five years, the comic convention community has done good work fighting harassment; but going by the numbers there’s still a lot of work to be done. An alarming amount of horror stories still go viral every con season. I think of the widely-reported ones in the same way I think of cockroaches: for every one you see there are a multitude that go unnoticed. As stated by Andrea Ayres in the linked Comics Beat article, “Abusers hide in plain sight. Harassers rely on the silence of those around them and societies prevailing sexist attitudes. They take advantage of weak reporting mechanisms and the culture of shame and fear that surrounds sexual abuse.”  In response more cons are embracing anti-harassment policies, more people are speaking up about what they’ve encountered, and reporting mechanisms are getting stronger and stronger as a result.

            Working on DCC’s anti-harassment policy, I ran into some problems when trying to deal with the steering committee’s prevailing attitudes. It wasn’t just sexism that was a problem (though that’s a huge component), but also an attitude that harassment is sometimes justified. The problem stemmed from some of the older staff who did not understand costuming, cosplayers, or the culture that had made them a force in the geek world.  For the most part this didn’t create much friction because they accepted that they just didn’t understand that part of geek culture – and besides, we had an entire team dedicated to handling the cosplay aspect of DCC, so they didn’t have to give it much thought.

            These same people were on board when we wrote protections against catcalling, groping, and lewd advances; they all agreed these actions were wrong. They wanted to make sure our patrons knew we stood against this behavior and would protect them as best we could. But when we got to the specifics of what we considered harassment, some of the more ugly attitudes accompanying their lack of understanding with cosplay showed up. At one point a person in the upper echelons of convention management laid down their feelings to me on the subject in writing:

People suck and say mean things, and everyone knows this; from the schoolyard to the grave, we have to cope with assholes. Do I like the fact that this is the world we live in? Nope, but I also don't squeeze my fat ass into spandex and walk around a massive convention; if I did, I would expect ridicule because I'm inviting it. And if I chose to do it anyway, I'd have the thick skin necessary to shoulder the criticism. When you dress in a costume, whether it be skimpy or not, you are asking for the attention of everyone around you and implicitly asking the question about how you look. When you ask such questions, you should not expect to hear only answers you like. If you don't want commentary on your body, then don't welcome commentary. Have the backbone to take whatever the assholes will say or wear a tee shirt and jeans and shut up about it.
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            There are going to be some of you who ask, “What’s wrong with this statement?” So I’m going to tackle this one piece at a time.  First and foremost, when you wear anything, regardless of its being skimpy, eye-catching, good looking, bad looking, a costume, or normal everyday clothing, etc., the only time you’re asking for a commentary is when you’re actively saying, “Hey, what do you think of my outfit?”  This applies at all times, even if a person is wearing something to get attention. For instance, if you were attending Swan Lake would you yell “That tutu makes you look fat” from the audience? If you went to Cats would you yell “F**kin’ fake cat-guys, I bet they’re just pretending to like felines to get instagram followers” to the performers?  (If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” please take a good hard look at your life and the choices you have made up to this point.) Obviously performance and cosplay are different[*] but the basic idea applies equally to both art forms: just because someone is in an eye-catching outfit/costume doesn’t mean they’re inviting commentary.

[*] In costume contests the two definitely overlap.  Also, trivia, the term "cosplay" was created by Nov Takahashi and does not involve skits, just dressing up in costume. (Special Thanks to Becca Feiner for that)

            This doesn’t mean that commentary is universally frowned on, of course. Overall I’ve found cosplayers love to talk about their costumes, the characters they’re choosing to embody, and every minute detail of what went into the blood, sweat, and tears of crafting.  If you want to talk to them about that, strike up a conversation by all means. But if you want to say something remotely negative about the costume, it damn well better be polite and constructive -- and I’d still say think thrice before you open your mouth. The only valid excuse I can think of to say something negative without reservation is when someone is literally dressed up as a Nazi or something similarly stupid and/or evil.

            Barring that, if you feel the need to voice your discontent with their costume or with the way it looks on the person wearing it, my big question is why? These costumes are labors of love that the crafter, regardless of skill level, probably put countless hours into. You don’t have to laud praise on a person just because they’re in costume, but please keep quiet if you’re not into it.

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            Going back to the fat aspect, please apply the same logic to commenting on fat people’s appearance both in and out of costumes. If you feel the need to comment on a fat person’s appearance relating to how you think they ought to lose weight, be ashamed, or wear a more modest outfit, kindly keep that shit to yourself and consider that this too is none of your damn business. Additionally, as a fat dude, I’ve got to say that wearing a t-shirt and jeans has never shielded me from unwelcome comments on my body, so I’m not sure why that’s supposed to be a valid solution to dealing with negative commentary. So, with all due respect, I’d like to invite the assholes who are actually the problem to stop vomiting their running commentary on all that they see 24/7 like snot-nosed toddlers who have no concept of what rude is.[**]

[**] You’re not “just being honest” when you just say random hurtful shit to strangers. You’re bullying.

            I hate the idea of someone with these attitudes dictating the con’s policy. I trust damn near everyone at the ground level of DCC to do their best to defend the con’s patrons and deal with any gross behavior they might encounter. But were any incident to require someone higher up the chain of command to pass judgment, I shudder to think what verdict they might render.

            It’s been five years since I received the email I quoted above. I hope that in the intervening time the author has changed their opinions and views on the subject; but I’m not optimistic.  We need to demand better from our leadership in every aspect of American society from top to bottom, in geek life, politics, the entertainment industry, the service industry, the custodians union, the chicken-plucker’s guild, everything. And if the current leadership isn’t willing to learn, change, and do better - then I hope they have the good grace to move aside so we can continue down the roads they’ve blocked for too long.

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Roberto Martinez

Roberto Martinez was born and raised in the city of Denver, Colorado. He writes in a variety of forms including comic scripts, screen plays, stage plays , nonfiction, fiction,  and poetry. He worked to help create the Denver Comic Con and continues to contribute to the Denver Independent Comics and Art Expo.  He’s been active in the industry for eight years, starting with a supernatural western called Boot Hill.  More recently he was in the anthologies Dinopocalypse and  Cryptids and Cogs.  In 2016 he won Sigma Tau Delta’s award for Best Short Play submission for A Quarterlife Crisis Inspired by Connery and Lennon and went on to stage three short plays called Life Lessons which can be viewed on YouTube.