The Importance of Consent at Conventions

“Could I take your picture? I’m collecting pictures of all of the cosplayers and making them into trading cards.”

This was 2006, and I was dressed – I feel very convincingly – as Velma from Scooby Doo at San Diego Comic-Con International. I grew up in San Diego, and for someone obsessed with comics since I was ten it is and was Mecca for the then-growing subversive movement known as “nerds”.

“Sure.” I was delighted. I’d never taken part in cosplay before (I didn’t even know there was a name for it) and was thrilled that even before entering the Con, I was asked to pose. This guy then took down my address and went off to shoot other cosplayers. All women.

Throughout the day (which was irrefutably awesome), my friend and I were approached numerous times for photos, with varying degrees of politeness and pushiness. And through this I began to notice the attitude in which people asking for photos would treat various cosplayers. The only time I saw anyone cross the line it was with women. Putting their hands on them in extremely familiar ways, pantomiming a grope, ogling what they considered a provocative costume.

Spoiler alert. There were never any trading cards. The guy continued to take pictures of women, get their addresses, and pretend that there would be a pay-off for anything other than what was now obvious lechery. And my example is extremely benign compared to many.

Since nerd culture has become mainstream culture, it’s impossible to not address some very basic issues of women’s rights and the intersection of misogyny, when it comes to Comic-Con International (and all comic book and related conventions.

I think it’s important to start with how professionals in the industry (an industry, it’s very important to point out, that is still heavily male-dominated) have felt about female cosplayers. Alright, one professional in the industry. So let’s travel way, way back to 2012 with a conversation that brought the topic of female cosplayers into context.

In an act of nerd-rage, comic book illustrator Tony Harris took to the interwebs to vent his anger (with grammar so poor that it made the educator in me weep). He went directly after female cosplayers. We’re fakers, ladies! I guess all of the years of reading comics during my formative years are an implanted memory.

In summation, here are some of the most salient pieces of the rant, which I am sure many of you are familiar with already:

Hey! Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl, you are more pathetic than the REAL Nerds, who YOU secretly think are REALLY PATHETIC. But we are onto you. Some of us are aware that you are ever so average on an everyday basis. But you have a couple of things going your way. You are willing to become almost completely Naked in public, and yer either skinny (Well, some or most of you, THINK you are) or you have Big Boobies. Notice I didnt say GREAT Boobies? You are what I refer to as “CON-HOT”. Well not by my estimation, but according to a LOT of average Comic Book Fans who either RARELY speak to, or NEVER speak to girls. Some Virgins, ALL unconfident when it comes to girls, and the ONE thing they all have in common? The are being preyed on by YOU.

So many people have responded to this with great acumen (Bleeding Coolthe Mary Sue), and it happened years back, so I’m not going to go very deeply into it. But this is the opinion of someone that is well-respected in the comic book industry inadvertently creating a cultural conversation about the treatment of women at cons. His response to this position is to call out all of the “quasi-pretty-NOT-hot-girl[s]” that supposedly use cons to gather attention from nerds that they’re preying on.

Maybe these women dressed up at a con because it was fun. Because they like the character they’re dressed as. Maybe they do like to look sexy. Maybe they do want attention. How is that different than the men that dress up? How does this indicate that they are unfamiliar with the comic (or whatever)? What has given you the insight to this:


How would he know that? And more importantly how does this – women dressing in cosplay at cons – affect or compromise his work? (Answer: It doesn’t.)

And even after a slew of people responded, this is what the women and men who felt offended at his comments received:

But the one thing I HAVE to address is the use of the word MISOGYNY. So I am a Misogynist? Why? Because I frown upon Posers who are sad, needy fakers who use up all my air at Cons? Sorry, while you Cos”Play” Im actually at work. Thats my office. Fuck you. I actually dont hate women, I dont fear them either.

Thing is, if you say the above and then deny that those statements are sexist and misogynistic, it makes you a misogynist. If you make those statements, if you firmly hold those beliefs pertaining to women, if you put yourself in a position of authority pertaining to the behavior of women, and then deny that you’re sexist after women tell you that your behaviors are, in fact, sexist and misogynistic (because they were) it means that you are. And the sentiment of misogyny is repeated in the blind denial of being so.

If you wanna come at me with accusations of Misogyny and sexism, youll be wrong.

I’m a woman who reads comics that has dealt with misogyny and sexism within the subculture for years, and this attitude toward women existed before this article and hasn’t stopped since 2012.

If this is how popular and influential people within the actual industry feel about women who engage in cosplay, is it any wonder that instances of harassment has risen at conventions?

Comic-Con International in San Diego is the biggest comic book convention; to have a vaguely-put-together harassment policy is no longer enough. The Mary Sue article addressing the necessity to create stronger policies and listen to the complaints started through Geeks for CONsent is important.  (Thanks again, Mary Sue). Your own personal opinions pertaining to how people dress and have fun at these events is secondary to the safety and security of those that attend it. Comic-Con International has the opportunity to set a precedent in terms of creating stricter policies and guidelines on what harassing behavior is, how to address it, and how to stop it. The vague and essentially non-existent generic policies don’t work to stanch the flow of recriminations that women and members of the LGBT community face.

The petition that Geeks for CONsent have put together isn’t filled with outrageous demands, especially after watching the video and being able to put a face to the victims of these behaviors. (If you feel so inclined, the link to the petition and video are here.)

There are, of course, no fail-safe ways to stop all of the abuse. No matter what, there are going to be instances of harassment at cons and in comics. The people asking Comic-Con International to change their policy know this.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been moves to affect changes. Awesome Con in DC has harassment policies in place. And what about when brave comic book writers take a stand? (It was written after the writer saw this tweet of a shirt being sold at a con). And what about when CBR changed its forum to initiate a zero tolerance policy for intimidation and abuse?

These are the changes that are needed in the world of comics, nerds, conventions, and everywhere else. If the above can start to make waves in creating a more welcoming environment, think about the impact that would happen if Comic-Con International finally took a more aggressive stand against harassment?

Here are some arguments I hear against creating a stronger stance at San Diego Comic-Con (and allow me to address these concerns):

Argument: These women want attention, why else would they wear (seemingly) provocative costumes?

Answer: These women are among hundreds of other people dressed up in costumes, many of them men. They all want attention. But appreciating someone’s costume, body, soul, or whatever doesn’t give you the license to treat anyone with a lack of respect. In my many years of attending cons all over the country, I’ve never seen an orc or a stormtrooper get their ass grabbed. It shouldn’t matter what the person is wearing, they deserve respect. That’s someone’s sister, daughter, mother, girlfriend, wife, friend, companion, co-worker. And no one gets to determine that because of an article of clothing, or a lack thereof, that they can be demeaned or devalued. Here is an important lesson for every person believing that because someone is dressed in a certain way that they get to behave in whatever manner they choose: you are in control of your behavior, and manners are free.

Argument: They don’t even know the (insert whatever character pertaining to cosplay: manga, movie, comic, etc.). They’re just doing this for attention and because it’s popular. (I’ll refer to this as the “I need to be better socialized” argument.)

Answer: This is not an isolated club. Comics, subcultures, and nerds aren’t comprised of an elite minority huddled together in the Little Rascal’s clubhouse where girls aren’t allowed. Alright, some of us grew up receiving ridicule because of it, and we’ve been invested in those (comics, manga, sci-fi, whatever) interests for a lot longer than this transition into popular culture has existed. Also, WHO CARES? If your grievances have to do with the fact that you believe women are just recently getting involved in comics, you’d either better be in high school and feel that way about everything, or you need to become a better socialized and well-adjusted person that recognizes that fads come and go. I’ll repeat: nerd culture is mainstream culture now. And maybe more women are becoming involved, in both comics and cosplay, because the culture is becoming less overwhelmingly male driven. There is a wider breadth of creativity and accessibility. It’s expanding and growing, and maybe the smart and intelligent women who always wanted to be involved in what was once a subculture now actually can be. And while I feel like I’ve done a decently good job of refraining from rudeness and focused on edification I’ll give myself this conceit: If this is your argument, then please be quiet. Unless you poll every single person – male and female – in cosplay ever and therefore have widely catalogued the credibility of the wearer, then you don’t have an argument. How would you even know? You don’t.

Argument: But these women are scantily dressed, and I have a kid!

Answer: Have you successfully sheltered your child from every peripheral comic / manga / cartoon / movie that includes a scantily clad woman? Let’s hope that Star Wars and Star Trek aren’t in any rotation at your home. And let’s shelter our children from the seashell bra in The Little Mermaid.

Argument: Not all men do this! What can I do, besides not be the person that harasses?

Answer: Of course not all men engage in the harassment of women. I know that. Everyone knows that. But being intentionally obtuse hurts the cause. My friend shared an example of con harassment and the subsequent actions that took place, so allow me to share that:

I can’t speak to this from a comic con perspective, but one year at Otakon, an asshole player in the LARP “jokingly” made a rape threat to a female player. I’m happy to say that the response was immediate. The other players surrounded him and wouldn’t allow him to leave until security arrived to escort him from the convention. He was, to my knowledge, banned from returning to any future Otakons. I don’t believe the police were involved though I can’t say for sure.

If you see harassment, say something. Or take the opportunity to tell the person being harassed that you don’t share the opinion of the harasser. It doesn’t need to be an overwhelming overture to make a difference; by saying something when you see it, you’ll be making a difference.

Comic-Con International has the opportunity to make an environment safer, and here is what this lengthy diatribe boils down to: When you cat-call a person, touch them inappropriately, intentionally alienate them, or ridicule / demean them, what you are doing is called harassment. Next time you see someone opening their mouths to insult a cosplayer (and, yup, cat-calls are insults not compliments), recognize that what you are seeing is harassment. And if that person is you? You’re a harasser. Don’t be that person. We’re all nerds and we all deserve better.

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  1. Nick Ford says:

    Great article, Jane!

    If the San Diego Comicon refuses to do it institutionally an idea might be to appeal to the *vendors* instead and having them have those notes of “THAT WAS HARASSMENT” on their table or something similar. This could, in turn, create larger systematic pressure on the organizers to go along with the policy. Especially if enough people start talking about it. Or, better yet, if enough vendors start refusing to go to the Con unless the demand is met.

    That’s risky, of course, because it could just backfire and hurt their fans or that hurt from the fans could hurt the organization and thus have the policies changed. It’s risky no matter what though.

    I remember seeing at the Granite State Comicon last year (New Hampshire’s Comicon which happens in Manchester) that there was a table for a petition about harassment or some such thing. And I was fairly happy to see them and had a nice friendly chat with them briefly. It was a great experience and I hope to see that sort of thing in more places.

    • ...J-R Cannarella says:

      Thanks Nick! And it’s really heartening to hear about Cons, like the Granite State Comicon, that are taking a stand, in whatever small or large ways, to ensure that everyone feels like they have a place at Cons.

  2. Amy Maynard says:

    I’ve signed the SDCC petition, and I’ll have a check if Australian conventions have anti-harassment policies. I’m sorry you had a bad experience with the ‘trading card’ guy, that sucks But this was an excellent article, and it will be awesome to read more of your work!.

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