The spiritual companion of the Geek Girl Con panel “Changing Culture in Mainstream and Alternative Spaces” was a discussion of the problem of bullying in the cosplay community and possible solutions.
“A Community Divided: Bullying within the Cosplay Community and How to Solve the Problem”
From 4chan to Tumblr, the Internet has created an anonymous forum where belittling and trash talk have become the norm, and standing up for someone isn’t noble. In this panel we will be discussing the types of bullying prevalent in the cosplay community, the concept of “white knighting,” our own personal experiences with bullying, and how bullying is affecting attracting potential cosplayers. With panelists Christopher Vance, Erin Gose, Katie Murphy, Lauren Crosson, and Son Young Yu; moderated by Stephen Wilson.
The panelists came up with the panel idea precisely because they weren’t sure how to solve the problem of bullying. There’s a lot of shaming that goes on when pictures are released into the wilds of the Internet, and the panelists discussed their and their friends’ experiences with being ridiculed and harassed in person by other cosplayers and online on 4chan, Cosplay Fuck, and comments from social media.
Yu spoke about starting to cosplay in the late ’90s, when she started participating in the Trekkie community. She and the other panelists spoke about how the fan communities were warm and welcoming places for fellow geeks to geek out about their favorite media without having to worry about judgment from non-geeks, the “mainstream” culture, or their own cultures at home or at work. Chris Vance (and Chaka Cumberbatch, in the “Race in Costuming and Performance” panel) both brought up how being geeky and Black alienated them from both groups.
Why is cosplay so rife with bullying? Gose and Yu hypothesized that cosplay is vulnerable because fans are visually and physically displaying theirr love of fandom. Yu spoke about the competitiveness of other cosplayers, who might pick on those who “aren’t doing it right”–whether that’s because they aren’t good at sewing or don’t look exactly like the character because of size, skin, gender, etc. Also, when a fan is bullied within the fandom, it hurts more because the fan community is supposed to be a safe place.
Vance discussed his experience with going viral on the Internet after someone photoshopped a wet spot into his costume. Being a closeted anime fan in the Army, going to cons was a way to be with others like himself where he didn’t feel like an outsider. However, some people, perhaps subconsciously, replicate popularity hierarchies within the fandom, as if they were better than other fans/nerds. There are cliques of cosplayers who are amazing costumers, but sometimes they are rude to less-skilled, more-casual, or newer cosplayers.
Furthermore, Murphy added the idea that the insulation of online culture and the ability to anonymously hide behind a screen contributed to bullying. A person in a costume is not considered to be a person, and we need to understand that all cosplayers are people.
To delve into the cause of the problem, the moderator asked why bullying happens in cosplay, and subsequently, what we can do to stop it. Gose indicated the culture of violence and lack of learned empathy as greater cultural contributors. Yu noted that it’s sad and ironic that we all come together to be weird together and bullying still happens–and others stand by and do nothing to help.
“You have to start with yourself,” Yu said. With the normalization of some aspects of geek culture, we are seeing more mainstream bullying behavior because becoming the norm means having the problems of the norm. Part of empowering herself is empowering others. Hate takes effort, and “if you have fun being a jerk, you don’t belong here.” Furthermore, silence is not support, and other cosplayers need to call out bullies. We love these characters we cosplay, and we want to become them in a way, or we identify with them. Every cosplayer is a human being.
Murphy’s suggestion to end bullying is to turn criticism on its head–for example, if someone calls you out because your body shape doesn’t match the character’s, “I know” and a grin is better than breaking down. Trolls want a reaction and will keep searching for it. To defend others, you have to defend yourself. Her biggest piece of advice: “they’re wrong.”
Crosson added that the adage of “get thicker skin” isn’t helpful at all. We as a geek community need to be vocal about bullying and proactively stop it by standing up for each other.
Questions and Answers
Other suggestions brought up in the Q&A:
- Never say “I hate”: do not start or encourage negativity. If you have something unkind to say, say it to friend instead of writing it online.
- Older cosplayers need to act as leaders and enforcers to stop bullying.
- Love all levels of cosplay from duct-tape to hand-stitched, and appreciate your fellow cosplayers and geeks. It’s not just all about defending others. Be a positive force.
- Cosplay bullying is linked to misogyny: if women are “not sexy enough” for the male gaze, misogynists feel they somehow “deserve” to be trashed; but if you’re “too sexy,” then you’re a “fake nerd girl” doing it for attention. [This is rape culture.] We have to fight misogyny at all levels of society as well as in cosplay.
- Cons need clear statements about anti-harassment policies, which need to be enforced for attendees and media alike. Cosplay is NOT consent.
Like “Changing Culture,” this panel also identified the normalization of geek culture as part of the problem in bullying with regards to body-shaming, racism, and misogyny in geek culture. Yet, instead of trying to make geekdom into some kind of geekboys-only club and excluding perceived “non geeks,” being more inclusive and focusing on ending bullying will make the community a better place. We can still reject that part of mainstream culture even–especially!– as we become more visible in the media and on social media, and we have to work to fight against these problems in the mainstream culture, too. Boldly go!