Cosplay: Lay Off the Babes

Published on September 19th, 2012

Anyone who has had an ear cocked to the comic convention communities recently has probably seen that fans are rapidly taking sides in an argument over newcomers to the geek scene. The question is: amidst the rising popularity of comics, video games and other geeky activities, are lightweights taking advantage of the nerd image in some way? Are they posing as one of us when really they have no interest in putting in the time? Is this a threat to our way of life?

Alice Malice as Ms. Marvel, for

Alice Malice as Ms. Marvel, for

Specific vitriol is being directed at girls – or women – who are perceived to be invading our sacred geek spaces, appropriating our symbols and accoutrements, capitalizing on the desperation of geek guys in their search for attention. Although there are a lot of possible angles to discuss, this particular issue concerns me, as a feminist, the most. Hating a woman for putting on glasses and posing nude with a game controller has implications that might not occur to everyone, and I believe that if we can stow the nastiness for a moment, this can open some really important dialogue within our community.

I recently started a discussion on my Facebook page about the Invasion of the Sexy Poser Geek Girl, and I’d like to share my thoughts on the matter, many of which came up during that discussion.

As comic conventions have grown in popularity, there has been a spike in women attendees and cosplayers, and along with it, a spike in costumes that show off women’s

bodies. There are plenty of comic characters that allow a girl to show off skin – even Wonder Woman bares a lot! – but many ladies have chosen to sexualize other characters, making Wolverine into a pinup costume or Thor into a Playboy Bunny. Character purists are angry at the liberties taken with the characters; conservative attendees are offended at the amount of skin showing; and loyal longtime geeks feel that their precious hobby is being invaded by girls who just want to show their boobs.

Here are my thoughts on the above three complaints:

1) Inappropriate liberties are being taken with characters, their symbolism and their histories.

It’s true that some cosplay choices seem to take a character in directions that the canon version would never tolerate. But this isn’t unusual in the fan world. Fanfic and fanart have a longstanding tradition of making characters do and say things that the original creators would never have them do and say. Slash, anyone? I’m wondering if this complaint is secretly about something else, when used as an argument against “sexy version” cosplays. Why are we picking out sexualization in the form of a girl in a costume, specifically, as something worthless or cheap or offensive?

And when talking about the Marvel and DC Universes, well, they’re constantly being shifted and altered and built upon by ever-changing writers and artists. There barely IS anything canon in comics. Part of the point is the interpretation.

Black Canary, in my head, would totally wear a Playboy Bunny outfit. A lot of readers might disagree with me – hell, Gail Simone might disagree with me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to make that as an outfit, and go outside, and shake my extremely jiggly ass in it besides.

The cosplay girl you’re looking at may have done something with the character that you find reprehensible, but – just like fanart or bad fanfic you find online – you can just mentally click past. It’s not your interpretation, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be hers.

Leona Summers as Robin, photographed by David Ngo

Leona Summers as Robin, photographed by David Ngo

2) Women who show that much skin are sluts, just looking for attention.

Ah, yes. Look up the phrase “slut shaming.” We’re entering a new era, and slut shaming is not okay. If a woman wants to show off her skin, if she wants to show off her boobs or her legs, or heck, even if she wants attention, she has the right to all those things. Yes, even if you don’t find her attractive.

It’s not up to us to judge why a woman is wearing what she is wearing: what her intentions are, how much she knows about the character, if she’s wearing it to feel good about her body or to impress someone else. And it’s not up to us to tell her whether it’s okay to dress a certain way. She doesn’t “deserve” anything because of the costume she’s wearing, either good or bad.

She doesn’t deserve to be called names, to have assumptions made about her personal character, to be fetishized, or to be made to feel ashamed or unwelcome. Further down the spectrum, she doesn’t deserve to have upskirt photos of her taken, or to be touched inappropriately, which happens at conventions frequently. Saying a woman deserves bad treatment because of the way she dresses is on the spectrum of rape apology. You know, the phrase “she was asking for it”? That’s what happens when you go too far with this type of thinking. Not good.

Of course, nobody’s saying you can’t have opinions on the matter, but it shows extremely poor character to be nasty to a girl in person or on the internet because of her cosplay. I’ll leave it at that.

3) My hobby and my “safe zones” of conventions are being debased by mincing girls in sexy bee costumes.

Oh yeah? What is that girl in the sexy bee costume REALLY doing to your hobby? Is she storming into your dining room and sweeping your cards and dice and Doritos off the table when you’re gaming with your friends? Is she ripping the controller or the Ultimate Spider-Man comic book out of your hands?

What is she doing to how YOU experience and love and cuddle your hobby? Anything? Really?

Abby Dark-Star as Playboy Bunny Thor, photographed by Nell Minow

I finally got the feeling, this year, that San Diego Comic-Con really had “gone to the dogs.” But don’t blame the girl in the Slave Leia costume for what the executives and the producers and the promoters and the management and the giant spiked wheel that is American pop culture have done. There are far bigger factors involved in the visible dilution and popularization of geekdom here, people. The chick is not to blame. So don’t, for heavens sake, corner her and quiz her – myself and many of my girlfriends have experienced this at conventions – in detail about the character she’s dressed as, trying to make her prove her credentials as a “true nerd girl.”

Why not give the girl in the minimal Green Lantern costume the benefit of the doubt? Why not assume that she knows and loves the character, instead of assuming she doesn’t? If you know she doesn’t, why not imagine her, in a month or two, coming across a Green Lantern trade at a bookstore and picking it up because of that costume her sister lent her that one time? Why not imagine the babe who works at the video game booth, when she sees the game she represented on the shelf at her friend’s house, picking up the controller and give it a try?

Comic conventions get under your skin. They addict you to the crowds, the colors, the characters. The girl in the sexy Pikachu outfit may decide, if she has fun, that she’s going to try the other convention in the next city over next month. She may decide, if she has fun, to come back next year, and get a better costume next time, or maybe even make herself a costume. And who can help her have fun? We can!

Our community, like all communities, is changing and developing. We may not like the direction it’s going in, but blaming individuals won’t help anything. What may help is keeping a positive, welcoming attitude: for the love of fandom, comics and dressing up in silly outfits! Yeah!

Roxanna Meta