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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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge