Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Cosplay gets complicated

I love cosplay. I am a great big, unashamed nerd, and I fucking LOVE cosplay. I love the creativity, the DIY craftiness of putting together a costume that creates the illusion of an outfit that is often actually impossibly impractical. I love the opportunity for commentary that comes with things like gender swap cosplay. I love the experience of pretending to be your favourite character, I love the basic principle of putting on an awesome costume just because.

I LOVE the Gender Bent Justice League. I love everything about them. Photo via Of Foxes and Hedgehogs
I'd never been to a convention of any kind until heading to Supanova Sydney for the first time a couple of years ago, and I've not missed a year since. Here in Australia we don't have a big convention "scene" as such. While there is apparently a convention somewhere in the US just about every weekend, we get Supanova, and every now and then a competing convention. The competitors don't usually come back for a second year though, so it's more or less Supanova or nothing. I've met some really awesome celebrities at various Supanova conventions - I had an awkward moment where I confessed to Noah Hathaway that my pre-pubescent obsession with his character Atreyu in the Neverending Story was probably the origin of my fetish for guys with long hair. He very kindly didn't freak out, and instead apologised for having cut his hair off the year before. I've been THIS CLOSE to Karl Urban, who is astonishingly tall in real life. I've heard  Jennifer Hale (the female voice for Commander Shepherd in Mass Effect) say, "I'm coming for you", and talked to Patricia Tallman (Lyta Alexander in Babylon 5) about her Twitter account. But the part that really energises me about the convention is the cosplayers - every year I set myself the goal of getting a photo of every costume I like, and every damn year I fail, no matter how creepily I chase the cosplayers. One year I saw a family in full Alien outfits, with 50's style domestic outfits over the top - there was a mother Alien with a frilly apron, and a dad Alien with a little fedora on top of his carapace, holding a facehugger with a little pinwheel hat. AND I DIDN'T GET A PHOTO. Gah, I'm still kicking myself about that.

I've even tried my hand at cosplaying myself, despite the fact this means I don't have a chance of getting all the photos I want because I'm too busy posing. On the whole, it's been great fun. I played Lilith the Siren from Borderlands one year, and happily I was with my boyfriends who played two other characters from the game, so we were pretty recognisable. Also, we were all holding big Nerf guns, which is always pretty attention getting.

"Mordecai" got SO tired of holding that gun.
Another year I went as Death from The Sandman, and had a lot of fun getting pictures that look like outtakes from comics that never happened. This one, for example;

If you DON'T want to read an issue of Transmetropolitan in which Death is a temporary
filthy assistant, I don't even know what to say to you.
You might have noticed these two outfits have several things in common. Firstly, they're both relatively modest for a cosplay outfit. I deliberately chose the most covering outfits I could think of to put together. Why, you ask? It's not like I'm a particularly modest person. I've been known to get my tits out on much flimsier excuses than a cosplay. I chose these outfits because they are both skinny characters in the original material, and I am not skinny. It was scary enough to put together an outfit knowing so many people would be looking just because I was in costume, I simply couldn't face the idea that I might be grossing people out by showing too much flab. Even in these modest outfits, I was incredibly self conscious. I was painfully aware the whole time that Lilith isn't fat, and I am, and ended up deleting a TON of photos from the event because I was too shocked by how FAT I looked. Death was a little easier, simply because there have been a bunch of different versions of her drawn, so the idea that there might be a chubby version isn't so...shocking, I guess, for lack of a better word. The visual archetype of the character is more flexible, so I felt more comfortable portraying it in my chubby skin. Also, not as many people actually recognised the outfit, so I felt a little less like I was in a spotlight. While not entirely negative, these two experiences did however make me self concious enough that I haven't had the courage to do it again.

There's been a lot of talk lately about how wearing a costume doesn't equal consent. I thought for a moment this principle would have been self evident - but then I remembered this is the real world we live in, and OBVIOUSLY because a woman is wearing tight clothing it means she is "asking for it", whatever "it" might be. Meagan Marie is something of a celebrity in the cosplay world, and has posted an eye opening post  about some appalling behavior from a journalist towards a group of Lara Croft cosplayers. Her courage in standing up and calling out this sort of grossness has gotten everyone talking about the way female cosplayers are viewed, and consequently treated, which is obviously of great interest to me, being female and someone who cosplays as well as someone who likes taking photos of cosplayers. Not only do I want to be treated respectfully myself, but I want to make sure I'm treating others respectfully too, so I've been reading a lot of the discussion. Honestly, most of it has just made me more and more afraid to go to a convention in cosplay - there are some absolutely chilling and vile stories coming out about how other con goers treat female cosplayers sometimes. I'm not going to recount the details of the discussion - suffice to say it's the same old tired rehashing of some male members of the fan community insisting they can judge a woman's availability by what she's wearing, and that women should adjust their outfits according to how they want to be treated. I'm so SO tired of this argument that it makes me sick, and I don't really feel like there is anything to add that hasn't been said better by other people.

There is a part of the discussion about whether women do or do not have permission to dress however they want that I feel hasn't been done to death though. Most of the discussion I've seen so far has been focused on conventionally attractive female cosplayers, because they are apparently the ones who cop the most flack. Now I haven't done any kind of research on this, but I imagine it's true that the conventionally attractive female cosplayers get the most blatant sexual harassment, however being a fat female cosplayer comes with it's own set of challenges. If you're conventionally attractive, you should apparently expect to get groped. But if you're a fat cosplayer, I can tell you from experience you can expect to be ignored and marginalised. Not everyone does this - I've gotten some very gratifying attention while in cosplay. But I never got nearly as much as the conventionally attractive girls, regardless of who had the better costume. I've always felt somewhat on the edge of the whole cosplay thing, primarily because of my size. There are maybe three easily recognisable characters I could play that are "body appropriate" - I'm the wrong colour for Amanda Waller (DC Comics), and Ursula from The Little Mermaid would require full body paint, as would Princess Fiona from Shrek. Apart from these, it would have to be a version of an otherwise skinny character - and people aren't always particularly kind about plus size interpretations of characters they feel should be a certain size. This quote from Doctor Her exactly mirrors my experiences at conventions;

"I’ve been in earshot of people who snicker and laugh at the plus-sized Batgirls or other cosplayers who don’t fit the skinny actresses they’re portraying. Once I asked one of these curvy girls to pose for a picture and genuine shock crossed her face."

Once I realised the bigger cosplayers were so marginalised they were shocked to have their picture taken, I've been putting them at the top of my list to get photos of, because I'm pretty stubborn like that sometimes. I remember last year there was a group of Spartans from the movie 300, and four of them were ridiculously buff. They were naturally getting stopped for photos approximately every three seconds to pose with girls, because girls love a good ogle just as much as boys do. I, however, stopped their chubby, red headed friend, and made sure to get a photo with me draped over him, because he had the chutzpah to show up in a freaking loincloth to a public event, and dammit, that deserves attention whether he's buff or chubby. His "friends" sniggered at him while we were posing, as did some of the bystanders. I suppose two fat kids posing together was just too hilarious, right?

I posed with the buff guys, then noticed the chubby one was standing back,
like he thought I wouldn't want him in the shot.

So I made sure to let him know I thought he was just as photogenic as the others.
You might be wondering what this has to do with really great Lara Croft cosplayers getting asked icky questions. After all, sniggering behind someone's back is not the same as groping them. But to my mind, all these behaviors are part of the same judgmental mindset - the idea that women are only welcome at conventions in order to be visually appealing, and they can only wear what others deem appropriate; otherwise they should expect certain consequences. If you've got big tits and you wear a bodysuit, or indeed anything that doesn't actually strap them down, you should expect consequences for wearing something society deems "inappropriate" for your body type.  People will assume you're sexually available, people will assume you're okay with being touched, people will assume you're happy to discuss sex in general or specific. If you're fat, you can expect the same vicious judgement - it's just what those judging will DO to express their disapproval of your choices that differs from skinny to fat.

If you're fat and you decide to wear something society deems "inappropriate" for your body type, you can expect people to snigger, to point and laugh. You can expect people to physically push past you in order to get yet another shot of the gymnast dressed as Chun Li doing high kicks. People like Tony Harris will accuse you of being merely "Con-hot", which seems to be his way of implying you have big tits but you're not as skinny as you apparently think you are, and this is a crime against all those people who are there to ogle you. How dare you put on a costume and not even be hot!? What a rip! It's bad enough that all these hot women are there, blatantly begging to have people invade their personal space, but to have someone fat lumber into the middle of that is just disorienting. And when people get confused, they get mean. It's pretty easy to find whole pages devoted to hating on fat people who cosplay - with a quick search I found this and this and then I decided I was tired of looking at this crap. Imagine what they're saying to each other where there ISN'T a public record of their opinions. Aie.

This is Tony Harris. He writes comics, and hates cosplayers, particularly girls.
So, what do we do about all this? It's all very well to complain, but I always feel better when I'm doing something constructive. I think making sure I give love to the bigger cosplayers as well as the smaller ones is a good start - but being too afraid to join in myself is just bullshit. So this year I'm taking Meagan Marie's advice, and thinking about what I would do if I wasn't afraid. I've put together a vintage Catwoman outfit, which is tight and revealing, and will be stretched over my plus sized ass, and I'm going to put myself out there.

Yup, this is actually going to be my outfit.
I would be lying if I said I wasn't scared to death - I really am. I'm terrified people will laugh, I'm terrified people will snigger, and I'm terrified of that up and down appraising look that ends with a toss of the head and a derisive snort. But I'm going to do it anyway, if only to help contribute to the visibility of fat cosplayers. After all, if we're around and we refuse to go away, the haters are just going to have to get over it eventually.

I hope.


  1. Replies
    1. You know what's a bit sad? I haven't finished my costume, but I already have my nail polish and eyeshadow all planned out.

  2. Great post! You will look awesome and there better be a photo. :-)

  3. I saw your lilith i thought it looked great, i'm not a fat arse but i am a big women and strong (with a fat arse :P) and i am so glad someone fucking pointed out, i have had costumes in the pass were i'd paint myself fully and wear a body suit and a corset to hold it all in and still get passed up for some little pretty thing. That is a size 6/8 with perfect boobs, and her costume isn't the greatest (but has tried) gets more attention.

  4. I'm sorry you missed out on a pic with us (aliens 1950 style) but it was a very quick cosplay as I can't stand that costume as its awfully uncomfortable lol! Hope to catch a photo with you this year :-). Pred atorette x

    1. EEeEEEEeEeee, I was so ridiculously excited to see this comment! You guys ROCKED those outfits!!

  5. Thank you for a thoughtful and important piece, and for working to change the convention culture around cosplay. I am certain that you will look amazing!

  6. I know little about cos play, I do know awesome courage when I hear it, you are going to look fantastic and strike a blow for all of us whose bodies do not conform to some mythica ideal.

  7. Great post! I cosplayed twice. I once purposely cross-gendered because my size wouldn't be an issue. The other time I was a fairy and someone asked for my picture and I swear I jumped like a little kid because no way someone would want *MY* picture. After that, I promised and planned to do more costumes but I was just too afraid because of my size. Again, great post!

    1. It's so hard to ignore that little voice in your head that tells you people are laughing behind your back - but stubbornness can win out!

  8. Thank you for writing this article! I've wanted to cosplay for years and years but never really got the courage to really go for it until now. I'm completely inspired by you and looking forward to your Catwoman costume! <3

  9. This large woman who likes to cosplay as skinny men or female versions of said skinny men salutes you.


Thank you for taking the time to comment! I live for comments, good or bad.

Anonymous commenting IS allowed on this blog, but in order to reduce the amount of spam, comments on posts more than 14 days old will be moderated.