Cosplay Is Not Consent: A Reminder to the Photography Community

It’s that time of year again: New York Comic Con is upon us.

Along with New York Comic-Con comes the fandoms, the celebrity signings, and as we know all too well, the plethora of cosplay costumes. What could be more fun than dressing up as one of your favorite characters from a comic book, video game, or cult classic film with other avid appreciators who love them as much as you? Well, for women, it also brings a new window through which they are objectified, sexualized, and have our bodily autonomy infringed upon. And that isn’t nearly as much fun, let me tell you.

“Cosplaying and non-consensual engagement has too often gone hand in hand, like peanut butter and jelly, or milk and tea, for you Brits out there.”

What’s this got to do with photography? Creating visual imagery of cosplayers goes hand in hand with these events, and with good reason. The level of detail, craft, and creativity are more than deserving of documentation. That said, too often, this seemingly innocent artistic pursuit becomes a way in which to further harass women. And if you’re looking for a guide, our other article by Paul Ip about how to not be a creep photographing cosplayers is a great place to start. Cosplaying and non-consensual engagement has too often gone hand in hand, like peanut butter and jelly (or milk and tea for you Brits out there). So, needless to say, there was a great deal of concern and backlash over Another Anime Con’s plan to allow an 18+ photoshoot component in its arena, which would have allowed lewd/suggestive poses, topless/exposed rear images, and shibari, among others. Thankfully, due to the backlash, the idea was scrapped and replaced with a simple, short apology. That said, this discussion is far from over, so please indulge me while we delve deeper into the mindsets, issues, and sexist mentalities that even allowed such an event to be considered.

To really understand the heart of this issue, we have to get to the real, starting sources that initially fed this sexualization and objectification machine. Given that, where I’d really like to begin is with the creation of video games itself. I’ve read story after story (and if you don’t believe me, just google #1reasonwhy, you’ll find hundreds of examples without any struggle, I promise) of women who were either forced out of gaming developer positions or found the environment and culture too toxic and chose to leave the profession. Subsequently, and predominantly, our video-game content is being produced by men, for men, in a diversity-absent vacuum. More often than not, this, of course, lends itself to creating female characters that are hyper-sexualized, objectified, and often just serve as titillation and fantasy fulfillment for male players. Accrding to this article from June, female representation in video games themselves still hasn’t improved to the point where we can stop having these discussions. We never have to search long to find busty chests barely contained in strappy/torn shirts, barely-covering booty shorts (Tifa from FF7, Lara Croft, etc.), or bikini-clad characters more qualified as human sex toys than actual, real representations of women. I mean, just look at the header image in this article, or how this one highlights the unrealistic, unnatural beauty standards perpetuated in these programs. And, as is always the case when men find their subtly sexist mentalities confronted, the women who speak out are threatened, vilified, and even quite literally turned into memes that encourage physical violence against women. Anyone feeling the need for a refresher on Gamergate yet? Sadly, the same thing happens in photography. Look at advertising, retouching, Photoshopping, etc. It’s rampant.

The point I’m trying to make is that women are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Remember all those scandals that came out with highly sexualized women on photo sets? I mean, do you remember Terry Richardson? Their favorite characters are frequently hypersexualized, and they still want to dress up and embody the persona of someone they admire/respect/aspire to be like. Just to be clear, a woman’s ability to consent is not determinant on her outfit or desire to wear said outfit. There’s nothing wrong with a woman wanting to wear a sexy cosplay outfit, and it certainly does not give implicit permission to grope, assault, or violate. The unfortunate need for the “Cosplay is not Consent” campaign came from the idea of wardrobe somehow representing permission to grab was heavily relied upon in the grossest ways. Similarly for photographers, when the woman is dressed this way on a shoot you still need to respect her.

So this is where we also need to hold our community accountable. A frequent complaint seen from women who’ve experienced this sexism on site is that photography is used as a means to pursue interest/attraction. Asking for numbers, trying to touch them, you know, that kind of stuff. I certainly wouldn’t consider anyone doing that a professional in our community. That said, when they can pass off as one of us and use our tools in such predatory ways, we need to call that shit out when we see it and put a stop to it.

Couple this with the double standard of geek guys complaining that women don’t want them, while concurrently testing and rejecting the “fake gamer girls” who are the furthest thing from. Then mix in the Hentai culture, which clearly can’t be separated from a con specifically geared towards anime, and we have a concoction of toxic masculinity, rife with awful possibilities. This is why so many found the 18+ photo shoot concerning at best and deeply problematic at worse. That’s not to say there’s not a time or place for that kind of photography – only that it should be done in safe, comfortable environments with people you know and trust. AnotherAnimeCon, being a public event, can’t really ensure that safety, through no fault of their own, and it is why so many people protested the event. We may have the #MeToo movement, but we also still have a self-admitted predator for President (& accused pedophile/rapist), Brock Turner only spent 3 months in prison, and again Terry Richardson is still out there shooting, selling his garbage in The Strand. So, as a society, we need to be careful and conscientious as we learn to be more respectful, and I appreciate AAC’s listening and reconsidering.