Emily S. Whitten: This $#!% Makes Me So Mad
When I started writing this column, I was also in the midst of excitedly making plans for Awesome Con, which took place this weekend in Washington, DC. Plans for seeing friends I hadn’t seen in months; plans for meeting up with people I’d only talked to on the Internets; plans for dinner with awesomesauce con guests; plans for what panels I wanted to try to see; and plans for what costume(s) I was going to wear. My head was full of happiness and excitement and anticipation for a local convention that focuses on so many of the things I love.
And then as I was catching up on general geeky news, I read this. It’s something everyone should go read in full, along with this second account of the incident, and with this account of an earlier incident that’s even worse. Seriously, go read it. I’ll wait.
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Now that you’re back (and just in case you didn’t follow my instructions to go read those posts) what is recounted in the most recent links is yet another account of female cosplayers (a group of Tomb Raider cosplayers in this instance, ranging in age from fifteen to thirty-one) being treated inappropriately at a con, which is the short-hand or mild way of saying that they were, with a single question from some random male “reporter,” embarrassed, dehumanized, harassed, discomfited, unwillingly sexualized, and disrespected (at the very least) because they chose to wear costumes at a convention.
The best part of this (and by “best” I mean absolute worst. Worst!) is that when this asshole was confronted by Meagan Marie, Community & Communication Manager at Crystal Dynamics (developers of Tomb Raider) about his inappropriate behavior, he had the gall to call her an “oversensitive feminist” (forget the fact that she was there as a professional, representing the actual, official product; she’s a giiirrrrrl so it’s okay to dismiss her words and actions) and then to say that “the girls were dressing sexy, so they were asking for it.” (Otherwise known as the “cosplay is consent” argument.)
Seriously, this stuff makes me so mad it takes away my coherency, leaving me spluttering things like, “What the – Where do these guys come from? Were they raised by wolves?? Lecherous wolves???” Or, slightly more coherently: What goes through a man’s mind that makes him think it’s acceptable to treat a total stranger as an object, and make her uncomfortable like this? And to think that it’s actually funny, or clever, or…whatever? And do these men want to be perceived as terrible, sexist jerkwads? Because that’s how it works out, though I can’t imagine that’s the goal. What is the goal? I don’t know.
I’ve actually seen some of these guys post online in response to women speaking out about such behavior, saying, “But how can we knowwwwwww what someone will take offense to? It’s like all the ruuuuuules have changed since yesterday when it was the fifties. And nobody told me!!”
Well, I can’t speak to every situation, but I can provide a set of general guidelines. Everyone has their own level of comfort with sexual behavior, but when you don’t know someone, you can’t assume their level of comfort. Therefore, if you want to be “safe” and not harass strangers (a fairly simple-seeming proposition to me, but apparently many people don’t know how not to harass strangers), then here’s a basic flow-chart style guide you can use to ensure you’re not being a harassing jerk to strangers, and more particularly women, you don’t know:
(1) Do you know the woman you’re about to speak to or interact with?
–> Behavior you should not engage in:
(i) Do not touch the woman. No, not there. Not there, either! And not there!! Don’t. Just don’t. (Addendum: if the woman touches you, e.g. for a photo they’ve consented to where they put an arm around you or something, do not touch the woman anywhere that they are not touching you, or in any way that they are not touching you.)
(ii) Do not make specific comments about (or stare lecherously at) the woman’s body, body shape, body parts, etc. (e.g. “You have such a great ass!” *leer*)
(iii) Do not comment on the woman’s looks in a general sexual way. (E.g. “Daaaamn, you’re hot.”)
(iv) Do not make sexually explicit or suggestive comments about you and the woman or what you want to do to or with the woman. (e.g., “All I can think about right now is fucking you.”)
(v) Do not take inappropriate photos of the woman. (e.g. “upskirt” photos or other things that are voyeuristic and often actually illegal.)
(vi) Do not act like something is “all in good fun” or pretend it’s okay when the woman is clearly uncomfortable or unhappy about it or has asked you to stop whatever you’re doing. Stop what you are doing, and apologize if you can see or have been told that you’ve made the woman uncomfortable.
(vii) Do not put a woman on the spot while doing any of the other things listed here, e.g. by doing any of these things while recording the woman on camera or voice recorder or while talking to her in front of a crowd of other men who you know and/or who are paying attention to the conversation.
(viii) When in doubt, pretend your grandmother and/or mother and/or someone with actual manners is standing next to you. Adjust your behavior to what it would be in the presence of your female family members or someone with respect and consideration for other people. Stay in that zone.
–> Behavior you may engage in:
(i) Compliment the costume itself! (e.g. “That is a fantastic Spider Woman costume! It looks so authentic! Where did you get it? / Did you make it?” and similar.)
(ii) Talk further with the woman about your mutual love of the character/comic/show/etc. if they initiate further conversation or show interest in it.
(3) If answer is (b):
(i) If you know the woman slightly (have just run into them at a con before, or exchanged a few sentences, or chatted briefly about generic topics), see (2).
(ii) If you know them fairly well and/or are actually friends, stick with (2) until you’ve gauged their comfort level with comments or compliments that have a sexual component, based on their actual interactions and conversation and statements. When in doubt, see (2), and bear in mind that not only do women have different comfort levels, but that these levels also vary based on the person they’re interacting with, factoring in things like how well they feel they know the other person, whether they trust them, whether they are comfortable with them, etc. (e.g. a woman may feel comfortable joking around about sexual topics with, or receiving a physical compliment from, one person and not another.)
(4) In all situations, remember to treat women as people, not objects.
Well, there you go! This may not be a perfect guide, but for anyone out there who desperately needs a clue about this stuff, it is a good place to start.
On a personal note, the stories shared by cosplayers who have been harassed resonate with me, because I have been harassed, too. I have had experience with examples (i) through (iii) of my guidelines for things not to say or do to total strangers/women you’ve just met at a con, and I was actually the recipient of the exact example statement I used in (iv). Years later, I still remember how dehumanized and uncomfortable I felt at that moment, and I doubt I’ll ever forget it.
I also identify with the point Meagan made in her post regarding how differently she reacted when harassment was aimed at her versus at another woman, and how when she was the recipient of harassment, she often laughed it off or let it pass. For my own part, while I have told people off for acting inappropriately towards me, sometimes I am so shocked at what’s just been said to me, completely without justification or permission, that my brain literally doesn’t process it until it’s too late to react as I should. I’d imagine I’m not the only one this happens to. This is when it’s good for others to step in if they witness the situation, and when it helps to be “prepared” (sadly) for things like this by thinking ahead as to how you would want to react.
And now, on to something slightly “positive” regarding this topic; which is that the unfortunate incidents linked above, and others like them, have spurred a neat idea, the Cosplay =/= Consent (“Cosplay does not equal consent”) photo project, as outlined here. Essentially, the blogger is collecting photos of people in costume at cons holding a whiteboard that says, “Cosplay =/= Consent” and then posting them as part of a photo . I think images like that and comics like this one are a great way to distill the points that I’ve made above regarding the treatment of cosplayers at cons down to a simple rule that everyone can remember. And the idea is already catching on! While at Awesome Con (which was, indeed, awesome) I actually ran into someone who had one of these signs (yay!) and took some pictures to share here. I encourage people to continue enforcing these ideas about behavior through the signs or any other means they find effective.
Maybe if enough people do that, we won’t even have to talk about this anymore, and can instead just focus on awesome convention things, like, e.g., the fantaaaaastic interviews with Phil LaMarr, Billy West, and Nick Galifianakis that I did at Awesome Con and will be sharing with you over the next few weeks.
Until then, keep promoting the idea that cosplay does not equal consent, and Servo Lectio!
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis
WEDNESDAY MORNING: Mike Gold