Content Warning(s): Consent issues, online bullying and harassment.
On March 22nd 2018, Kotaku, an (in)famous video game site, posted a series of photographs of a Mipha gijinka cosplay by Sorairo-Days (Sarah) that was taken at Katsucon 2018. According to Sarah, they did not ask her permission to post this photo, and while they did credit the photographer, they did not initially give credit to the prop maker or costume designer involved with the shoot. While those details are now visible on the site, it doesn't make up for the fact that the article was published without this information.
The comments section on Kotaku quickly filled up with people disparaging various elements of her cosplay. This is nothing new; every time they feature a cosplay, the person who is posted—regardless of skill level, body type, race, orientation, or gender—will find themselves the target of body shaming, as well as sexually harassing comments.
This is particularly distressing because there's an approval process for any comments to be posted on an article. Someone is deciding that these things are okay to be posted in a format that encourages 'dogpiling' (meaning: once one person starts saying negative things, others quickly follow) and a place that the person targeted will inevitably see. Because bigotry is never an 'opinion,' it is inexcusably irresponsible to give it a platform, especially when the supposed goal is to share and celebrate someone's cosplay.
Sarah immediately responded with a series of tweets describing what had happened to her, and I noticed that this incident represented an issue I wanted to bring up to the community at large. It's not the first time someone has featured a cosplayer on a popular website without their consent. It's not even the first time it happened to Sarah! And unfortunately, unless we speak up about how we'd like to be treated and the way to respect cosplayers online and in real life, it won't be the last.
I met Sarah at Otakon in 2010 when she was cosplaying a character from a series I liked. We bonded briefly in the open space of the atrium. Sometime after that convention, I found photos of me displayed on a popular forum where people often trash talk cosplayers. Lo and behold, people were saying nasty things about me. I didn't consider myself a "serious" cosplayer at the time, so those comments really got to me, and I quit cosplaying from 2011 to 2014--something I don't typically admit until asked. But over the years, I watched as Sarah grew as a cosplayer and cosplay photographer, and admired her work from a distance, unsure if I'd ever return to the hobby.
I asked Sarah if she could answer a few questions about her experience, and she graciously responded below. We're honored by her sharing her story with us.
1. What changes do you think need to be made in the nerd community for it to be safer for cosplayers, both online and in real life nerd spaces such as conventions?
Online, we need to feel more comfortable about speaking out about things that are morally wrong. Issues can't be fixed if they're not brought out into the light. I've become a lot more vocal about things that need improvement in the the cosplay community and it's been amazing to see followers say things like "I've experienced the same thing!" or "I thought I was the only one who has dealt with this." Just like anything in life, when we realize we're experiencing similar things from those around us, we become more comfortable to discuss those things.
For conventions, staff needs to take the viral posts you see on Facebook and Twitter more seriously. I've seen people literally campaign to either keep certain people from attending a con or to not attend a convention entirely because of their poor practices. [Editor's note: We at CSSN see organizations similar to Boycott Anime Matsuri.] I'm not sure what WE can do specifically since we get into legalities for some of these issues so honestly the best thing to do is stay vocal. Be loud. Don't be afraid to speak out against something you think is wrong!
2. What etiquette is there in the cosplay community that non-cosplayers might not understand?
Cosplay does not equal consent. I think this is commonly misunderstood as sexual consent only but at the end of the day, it boils down to people feeling entitled to do and say explicit things just because a person is dressed up.
Wearing cosplay in a public area does not mean you can take my photo without my permission.
Being featured online or in a magazine or on someone's social media does not mean you have the right to say things that could be deemed as hurtful.
Dressing up as my favorite "sexy" character does not give you permission to touch my body without consent.
How and why I choose to cosplay is my own decision and not yours. There is no right or wrong way to cosplay as long as at the end of the day you are having fun.
People both within and outside of the cosplay community forget that we are all humans at the end of the day. Cosplay just happens to be a part of our lives. Yes, we're dressing up as fictional characters, but that does not mean we should be treated like one. Unlike fictional characters, we are living, breathing humans who can be hurt both emotionally and physically.
3. How do unsolicited comments make you feel about the cosplay that was featured? What about cosplays that you're planning for the future?
Honestly? It felt pretty degrading. It becomes a different ballpark when you're featured as solo content on a high traffic publishing site. It's one thing to post something on your own accord, on your own platform, but when it's a feature from someone else, you're essentially being put on a pedestal for everyone to look at you, which oftentimes results in unsolicited criticism.
The first time I was featured on a high traffic website, I was almost instantly put down because of my body type. People didn't see the amazing photos or the cosplays we worked so hard on. They instead focused on how I didn't have the correct body type for the character I was cosplaying. Some of the comments I received were, "her legs are too fat to cosplay this character," "she has no shape to her body, why is she cosplaying?," and, "the one cosplayer is great but I'm not sure about the other one."
I had admittedly never been self conscious about my body for cosplay until that post went up. I remember feeling a combination of hurt and angry. I felt hurt because people felt the need to point out all my "flaws" in a public forum and angry because something I had grown to love over the years suddenly felt unwelcoming.
People don't understand that words can hurt more than a physical injury and last for a lifetime. Just because we're on the internet and we're all hiding behind our computer screens does not mean unsolicited comments like these won't hurt. People of the cosplay community are working hard and it's discouraging to continue when you feel like the majority of the public eye doesn't "approve" of your appearance.
[Editor's note: I see a lot of scathing remarks being made against things about cosplayers' appearances that they can't change. We're so sorry this happened to Sarah. Putting a cosplayer down based on those appearance factors reduces cosplayers to the standard of having to look EXACTLY like a character in all ways in order to play that character; or, in some cases if the character doesn't exist as a human in real life, unrealistic societal beauty standards are applied. In order to encourage a better cosplay community, there are some things we recommend saying instead. Choose a detail you like about their cosplay--maybe it's their makeup, or the way they affixed beads, or how it moves when they walk around. Most importantly, unless a cosplayer is specifically asking for constructive criticism, ONLY give compliments or stay quiet. As you can see, Sarah wasn't asking for anyone to tell her they didn't like x, y, z about her costume. But she'll never forget the cruelty of the people who said rude things about her body. Please work with us by trying the techniques we listed and we can make the cosplay community a more forgiving and understanding place!]
4. I was once published in a repost tweet by [redacted] where I was cosplaying with a group I no longer want contact with. I wasn't contacted by any member of the [redacted] team, nor was I tagged. The tweet resulted in unwanted contact from the same group I was, and have still been, trying to avoid. When I reached out to the team to ask them to take it down, the response I received from the marketing manager was this: "... in the future I would recommend not being a part of any group photo unless you have total control of it or make it clear to those you are posing with that they do not have control of the image you appear in." What do you think we can do as a community to foster an understanding of how companies like [redacted] and Kotaku can do to publish our cosplays on our own terms in ways that don't endanger us?
Hmm this is a tough question and I'm not sure if I have the best answer.
For instances where content publishers make money off website clicks, comments, and general follower engagement and use content made by an outside source, then they should show respect by asking for permission to post that content. In cases like Kotaku, they either feature cosplayers who are photographed by photographers who work for them OR they're pulling content they find on the web through social media whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
Photographers that work for media coverage sites need to make sure they are doing their job thoroughly when photographing cosplayers at an event for coverage reasons. Some of the best coverage I've experienced is when the photographer introduces themselves as someone who is working for someone and then asks if they can take a photo. They then follow that up with asking for the series I'm cosplaying from, who my character is, and what preferred social media site I'd like to be credited for. These are pretty basic Journalism guidelines to follow but are more often than not, forgotten.
[Editor's note: When I was initially interviewed for the Columbus Dispatch, I was interrogated as to what my birth name is, which is a name I don't want to use for my cosplay. I don't know if publishers understand that there are many reasons why a person in the cosplay community would not want their legal/birth name attached to their work, but we have every reason to use a pseudonym without explanation, and we have every right to be asked what Sarah points out an ideal photographer might ask: series, character, and preferred social media site/name for credit.]
When it comes to curating content for posts, curators should always reach out to the content creators. It's a general rule of thumb in the creative community online to NEVER repost someone else's work without their permission. It's common courtesy. This not only makes the content creator feel like they're valued for their work, but it eliminates the chance of an awkward confrontation where something is posted without permission. It's one thing to share something on your personal social media page where you're not monetarily gaining anything, but when a site relies on clicks and engagement to raise revenue and is using someone else's content to do so without their permission, it becomes unprofessional and devalues the content they are posting.
TL;DR, we need to do a better job about not only educating the community about these forms of etiquette, but we also need to be more willing to speak out about things that are just morally wrong. By not speaking out, we are encouraging bad behavior.
To close, I'd like to echo Sarah's last sentiment. If you are in a position where you are physically and emotionally able to step up and speak out about being wronged, disrespected, harassed, or otherwise made uncomfortable by people in or out of our community, we have your back. And if you'd like to share your story with us, anonymously or credited, we'd love to support your voice. You're not alone in what happened to you, and we believe you. Let's make this community a safer, more positive, and more inclusive community for everyone.