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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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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.