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“You’re not a real cosplayer”: since when did dressing up for comics conventions lead to bullying?

Cosplayers – particularly women – report being insulted, groped or harassed at conventions. How did this happen in a community that prides itself on friendliness and cooperation?

Pipi Wolf as Lilith from Darksiders 2. Photograph: Eddie Cheung

Pipi Wolf as Lilith from Darksiders 2. Photograph: Eddie Cheung

Since February, Pipa Wolf and a friend have been stitching, carving, and painting her costume portraying Lilith, a “wraith of war” from the videogame Darksiders 2. She’s a cosplayer, and her hard work transformed her into Lilith at last weekend’s London MCM Expo, a popular convention for comics and pop culture fans. Gorgeously dressed in black velvet, with delicate, alien makeup, horned helmet and ornate armour, Wolf and other cosplayers were often the centre of attention, courted by photographers and welcomed by event organisers. Sadly, by attending she also risked being insulted, groped or harassed.

Cosplayers – particularly women – frequently report being touched or photographed without permission at conventions. In the UK, most conventions have at least nominal policies against harassment, and all have security; according to veteran cosplayers, the London Super Comic Con has the best reputation as a safe space, largely because of its muscular response to a sexist video crew. Conventions run by the group Showmasters are a close second, while the popularity of MCM events may pose a barrier to adequate policing.  “It’s full of too many people – a lot play the socially awkward card and you get guys trying to touch you. . . MCM needs to stop selling tickets on the door,” said one woman cosplayer about the London MCM Expo. Other cosplayers take a different view. “I think conventions really do try their best to stop as much as possible. . . It’s not taken lightly, however it’s something that’s down to the cosplayers reporting it to security,” says one experienced cosplayer.

Also, though the cosplay community generally prides itself on friendliness and cooperation, it can be rife with bullying. “I’ve had several comments from people who are disappointed that I’m not attractive enough to wank over,” says Wolf. Online, a well-known cosplayer’s photos can receive hundreds of nasty comments; interactions with convention attendees, photographers or fellow cosplayers can feel brutal. Bullies attack cosplayers for their weight, sexuality, or attractiveness, or for perceived defects in character portrayal or workmanship. Cosplayers dressed as the opposite gender, or changing a character’s gender – known as ‘rule 63’ – are likely to come under attack. Men don’t escape bullying, either, says Andy Valentine, who is known for his intricate costumes and his immersion in his characters. “[Professional cosplayer] Lady Noctis shared a picture of me, singing my praises, and a guy responded with, ‘You’re a man. Men shouldn’t cosplay. Women look hot, you look like a loser,’” he says.

Photograph: Eddie Cheung from the Food and Cosplay Facebook group

For cosplayers, getting bullied can be particularly painful, given the hundreds of hours of difficult work often required for a costume, including sewing, leatherworking, makeup, and hairstyling. Cosplay can also be an emotionally vulnerable act; in character, cosplayers share rarely expressed aspects of their personalities. “Generally, I’m a very baggy jumper type of person,” says Wolf, who struggles with body image issues. “Cosplay is a chance for me not to be that person. For a day I can be a succubus or an armour-clad warrior. In cosplay you can pretend to be a strong, empowered female with this crazy backstory. . . When people remind me that I’m unattractive or quite large, it really hits me,” she says.

Cosplayers are fighting back; groups like Cosplay Does Not Equal Consent address harassment at conventions, calling for stronger safeguards and raising fans’ awareness. To combat bullying, cosplayer Mojo Jones and photographer Eddie Cheung, founder of the Facebook group Food and Cosplay, started the #notacosplayer campaign. “Someone who I respected told me that what I did wasn’t proper cosplay – his exact words were, ‘you are not a cosplayer’,” says Jones, who creates fantastical, burlesque-inspired versions of her characters. “I didn’t want to go to events. . . it really dented my confidence,” she says.

The campaign was born during a relaxed conversation between Jones, Cheung and friends. “He made it kind of a joke – saying ‘you should post photos of your awesome costumes and hashtag it as #notacosplayer. . . there’s probably lots of people who get told that what they do isn’t good enough, and feel a lack of confidence about the stuff they do,’” says Jones. The campaign has run twice this year; its core project is an ongoing photo series taken at conventions, where cosplayers write one of the hurtful comments they have received on a small whiteboard, along with the hashtag, #notacosplayer. The images of resplendent cosplayers holding insults like “Tits over accuracy” or “Too fat for latex” reproach firmly, but gently; the viewer’s own sense of empathy gives the series its power.

Photograph: Eddie Cheung from the Food and Cosplay Facebook group

The campaign has received an overwhelmingly positive response at conventions and online. Although it was meant to be a one-off project, the infectiously optimistic Cheung has organised #notacosplay shoots at several conventions, and will be hosting it again at this July’s London Film and Comic Con. “Reading the comments, it’s overwhelming to hear that…people have gone through the same experience, says Cheung. “People have gone, ‘you know, I was just going to quit from all of this, but in fact, this is actually going to make me stronger; I’m not alone, I can share my pain’,” he says.

As we debate solutions to bullying and harassment, it can seem disheartening that a culture where people come to transform themselves re-enacts the same oppressions that plague us in the wider world. In its simplicity, #notacosplayer offers hope that solidarity can win out over fragmentation. “The only thing we can do is support one another,” says participant AskaLuna. “By helping another cosplayer through times when they are getting bullied or harassed, you pull them through it and build a better community,” she says.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.