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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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism