Saturday, June 10, 2017

In Defense of Sexy Cosplay

In spite of my status as an internet sex icon (albeit a pretty niche one), I'm a nerd. Don't believe me? While I've never watched much Star Trek, or participated in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, I do own copies of the Despecialized Edition of the original Star Wars trilogy, have read The Silmarillion cover to cover, recently reviewed all 200+ episodes of the original run of The X-Files, am currently developing a VG RPG in tribute to SNES-era (that is, pre-3D) Final Fantasy, and I consider my annual attendance to an anime convention (for which I always dress up) one of the highlights of my year.

So, as a nerd, I'd like to make what should be a non-controversial statement about cosplay culture. One of the great joys of cosplay - to me, and to many other people - is seeing people dressed up (or down) in sexy, skimpy outfits. (And this includes both men and women, even if, due to cultural and statistical reasons, it's more often women - although I'm working, as much as one person can, towards leveling that playing field). It should be no secret that this is part of the fun. For some of us. You may or may not be one of those people, or particularly appreciate this aspect of the culture, but I'd like to ask you to refrain from shaming other people for engaging in it, please.

If somebody cosplays a character you don't like, or a character from a show you don't like, you may not appreciate it, but they're not doing anything wrong. Nor are the people who do appreciate that cosplay. It doesn't hurt you in any way. But, of course, we're not just talking about choosing specific characters or franchises here (unless it's one of the many characters already depicted in a "sexualized" manner in its original media), we're talking about a particular approach to a character. Maybe you like the show, and even the character, but you don't appreciate it being "sexed up". Fine, that's your opinion. But what makes sex shaming okay when other forms of harassment are rightly vilified?

Think about it. If this were any other subject than sex appeal, this wouldn't be an issue. Black man cosplaying a white character? Call him out and you're racist. Woman cosplaying a male character? Call her out and that's sexist. But call someone out for making a character look sexy, and you're "fighting the good fight". Tell me I'm wrong to blame feminism for making prudishness part of the social justice curriculum. Sex is a fundamental and pervasive part of the human experience. I get that it makes some people uncomfortable. You don't have to participate if you don't want to. But can you let us have our fun? Tell me how acknowledging the fact that people are wired to find bodies sexually appealing harms you in such a way that we're better off pretending this part of us doesn't exist. That keeping it locked away behind closed doors and facilitating a societal program of self-denial and hypocrisy is in service to the greater public good.

I suppose that by legitimizing what you might call a culture of "perviness", we are fostering an environment where sexual harassment can flourish. I'm not naive. But let me stop you right there. Our brains are sophisticated enough to see the world in more shades than just black and white. You can be pro-sex, and still be anti-harassment. The dialogue on what constitutes harassment should certainly remain open. But who's harassing who when you call someone "creepy" for thinking that somebody in a crowd looks sexually appealing, or for wanting to create a photographic memory of that moment in an environment where taking pictures to remember costumes by is not only permitted, but encouraged?

Are you afraid of what someone might do with that picture in the privacy of their own home? What does it matter? How can you even predict that, when I can guarantee you that there are surreptitious perverts walking amongst us whose private behaviors you would never guess by their outward demeanor? I'm sorry to be so blunt (I'd hate to discourage anyone from taking this chance to step outside their comfort zone, but I have to draw the line here), but if you don't want anyone seeing you in an outfit, don't wear it in public. And if you want to reduce the possibility of anybody taking a picture of you in it, don't wear it to a convention where cameras are snapping fast and loose. The last thing I'd want to see is the convention environment - which is already, in my experience, an exceptionally welcoming atmosphere, just the way it is - become a "no photography" zone like every nudist property (I presume) in this country.

I want you to feel comfortable at a convention. Comfortable to stretch your nerdy wings in an atmosphere of mutual fandom. I want to feel comfortable, too. And part of stretching your wings, in a cosplay context, might include wearing something outrageous that you'd never wear (or could never wear) out there in the "default" world. Maybe you think the presence of cameras threatens your ability to do that. As a photographer, that saddens me, because I see photography as a mainly harmless pursuit, and one that can bring great pleasure to a great many people. Much of the fear is overblown, and fostered by sensationalist news media, who love to run stories about how pictures can ruin lives. That's an exaggeration, at the very least. I have pictures of myself (in sexually compromising positions, no less) plastered all over the internet, admired by adoring fans (not vindictive bullies, whose power relies on your complicity in hanging your head in shame, instead of owning up to your behaviors), and it hasn't ruined my life. A picture of you in a costume that was impressive enough that somebody wanted to take your picture (whether it's because of the work you put into the costume, the work you put into your body, or both) isn't going to ruin yours, no matter what might be done with it in private.

And if it's just the attention you receive at a convention that makes you feel like you're being "ogled", and singled out in the crowd, that makes you uncomfortable, then let's focus on teaching people how to observe basic manners, even in the presence of overwhelming beauty (whether of an erotic nature or otherwise). I fully support campaigns to encourage potential "creeps" to treat others with respect, regardless of their level of arousal. We can police the way people behave - but not how they feel. And we can't restrict certain behaviors that are otherwise perfectly permissible only because we perceive them to be stemming from an "impure" motivation. How, for example, can you justify criticizing a "creep" for even wanting a picture of a skimpy cosplayer, if there is nothing wrong, on principle, with asking people for photos? The issue is how a person approaches (and treats) a cosplayer, not whether or why they want a picture. We cannot shame human beings for their instinctual sexual impulse, only certain ways they may choose to respond to it that are destructive or antisocial in nature. But society must provide alternative outlets that are deemed appropriate. Because denying this fact of nature, or trying to prevent it from happening at all, is a recipe for failure. And it leads to a sex-negative, misandrist culture of shaming men for having involuntary sexual thoughts about women they are not legally or socially binded to.

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I'd like to believe this is an over-inflated issue. On the one hand, you can find a lot of "con horror stories" online about cosplayers being "creeped" on at conventions. Personally, I've never encountered this behavior in all the years I've been wearing skimpy cosplays*, but I understand that that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Maybe I'm lucky. Maybe it's because I go to a relatively small convention in a relatively nice city. Or maybe it's because I'm not a girl (although I'm sure I've fooled a few people). But I can't help feeling like the right attitude goes a long way. When I wear a skimpy cosplay, I expect people to look. I also expect people to want pictures even when they don't know jack about the character I'm cosplaying**, and I don't mind. I don't interpret every sideways glance as a soul-crushing expression of sexual objectification. Rather, it flatters me.

(On the contrary, I have anxiety, so I'm more likely to interpret those glances as people judging me, but I have the maturity and self-awareness to know that in the vast majority of cases, that's probably not true, and the few in which it is don't really matter in the grand scheme of things. If I can recognize this about my own feelings of anxiety, then why can't others who are afraid of people "checking them out" - which, again, in most cases, is really a harmless and even complimentary gesture - do it, too?).

Now, maybe a lot of cosplayers are young and inexperienced and don't know how to handle this kind of attention, but that's a failure of our [conservative, fundamentalist] education system to prepare them for the reality of life as a sexual organism (which does not follow social standards of propriety - like never finding anyone under the age of 18 attractive - no matter how much we might want it to). None of this excuses the truly creepy behavior that (I'm sure) goes on (although I'd hope it's not as common as it is remarkable, leading to it being talked about more often than it actually happens), but this isn't an indictment of sexy cosplayers or the fans who admire them on the whole.

*The closest thing I've experienced to "sexual harassment" at a con is when I was wearing a cosplay that basically consists of a speedo, and a woman that was visibly drunk asked me if she could see what was underneath. But I wasn't offended. Why on earth would I be? I was actually on the verge of showing her before her friend apologized and dragged her away. If that kind of thing bothered me, I wouldn't attend conventions dressed as if I were headed to the beach.

(I'm not saying I - or anyone dressed like I was that night - was "asking for it". Although we should clarify what "it" is that is being asked for. If you dress in an eye-catching outfit, you are asking for attention - don't be surprised when you get some. That does not, however, mean that you are asking for harassment or assault, or giving your consent to be touched or anything like that. At the same time, you don't have the right to not be photographed in public. Looking and touching - we really need to keep these things separate).

It occurs to me that this anecdote could contribute to the notion that men can't be sexually harassed, because, unlike women, they enjoy it by default. I understand (and agree) that this is a toxic notion. I've been catcalled on the street, even propositioned once by a man who mistook me for a prostitute. And while I don't think it constitutes a major problem (you think it's scary when a burly man thinks you're attractive? Try being the "faggot" that walks into his field of vision), it is an offensive display of rudeness that I could live without. I'm not inhuman - I have boundaries. I agree that there are lines that people shouldn't cross. I was once cornered in the men's bathroom at a nudist camp, by someone who clearly had an interest in me. I don't know if it was intentional, but he was body-blocking the exit, and that's not okay. He turned out to be pretty harmless, but that's beside the point, isn't it? What I'm saying is, I don't believe that anything goes. But I do believe that we should take a reasonable and objective stance on this issue, and not let our emotions cloud our vision. Simply put, not every expression of sexual admiration constitutes harassment. The devil is in the details, and those details are what we should be focusing on - not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

**Although something that's surprised me is how few people want to take my picture when I do a sexy cosplay of an obscure character, which doesn't really mesh with the view that there are tons of photographers just taking pictures of every sexy cosplayer they come across. I actually want to be that photographer, but I've never had the guts to do it because I'm concerned about making people feel self-conscious (see, "pervs" can be considerate, too; it's just that you only ever hear about the few who misbehave), even though I've never experienced anything other than gratitude for admiring a cosplayer's outfit and asking for a picture, no matter how tame or wild the outfit happens to be. This shouldn't be a revelation, but people really don't wear these outfits because they want to be ignored.

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