The subject of fangirls in comics and video games is not a new topic of discussion, but it's one that demands the spotlight. As the geek world becomes more welcoming of fangirls—who make up 47 percent of comic book readers and 48 percent of gamers—the stigma surrounding females in this genre has not yet gone away, and sexual harassment is a major concern as a growing number of females cosplay at conventions.
According to Lance Fensterman, vice president of ReedPOP, New York Comic Con saw an increase in sexual harassment in 2013, prompting the new zero-tolerance anti-harassment policy that was put in place this year. NYCC organizers also made it easier for victims to report sexual harassment directly to the convention's security through the official NYCC app.
It was a valiant effort to combat sexual harassment, but a stricter policy is just the beginning. Dressed in a blue Gameboy outfit on Thursday, Rafi detailed her latest incident: "It was a resting day before the next 3 days, and I saw an old friend so we stopped to take an innocent selfie. During that selfie, some guy walked by me and cupped my ass. I said out loud, 'I felt that, jerk! Nice try, no game!'" The rest of her weekend included cosplaying as Poison Ivy, Daphne from Scooby Doo, and Callie from Ugly Americans, attracting much media coverage.
The large Cosplay Is Not Consent signs that were displayed throughout the Queue Hall of the Javits Center was a bold reminder to NYCC's 151,000 attendees, however, sexual harassment in cosplay is far from an isolated incident; it stretches to conventions globally and throughout the Internet.
Just fewer than 3,000 women signed a petition created by Geeks for CONsent demanding San Diego Comic Con (SDCC)—where women made up more than half the audience—adopt a formal no-tolerance policy, coining the slogan "Cosplay ≠ Consent." The sentiment didn't go as far as planned, as SDCC has not made any changes in their policy, but it certainly has stirred the pot.
According to ComicBookResources, David Glanzer, director of marketing and public relations for Comic-Con, WonderCon, and Alternative Press Expo, stated that the show already has an anti-harassment policy in place that is intentionally nonspecific to cosplayers, saying, "I think we're comfortable in the policy we have." Taking a firm stance against sexual harassment, Emerald City Comic Con posted flyers all over the convention center in March to specifically address harassment of cosplayers, reading, "Costumes Are Not Consent."
Not surprisingly, the cosplay community creates a sense of escapism and builds an outlet for fans to enjoy bringing their favorite characters to life with others. Yet in such a community that is so accepting, no one is immune to the Internet, which has become a battleground between praise and hate.
A considerable amount of attention is given to female cosplayers, commenting on overly revealing costumes or criticizing their body types, while others comment on blogs to argue over whether they are "true" geeks. Female characters in comics have always been unrealistically drawn to over-accentuate their figures to appeal to the male-dominated audience, which brings controversy to female cosplayers who dress in "sexy" costumes such as Slave Leia from Star Wars or who cross-play a male character and turn them ultra-feminine by wearing a corset and heels. Video games do not differ in their portrayal of women, either, but with the growing trend of superheroes in film and television, it's only recently that women characters have finally been getting less objectifying costumes. Still, no costume gives others the right to make the wearer uncomfortable, especially in a community that is built around a common interest.
Recently, a German cosplayer received major international heat for her screen-accurate portrayal of Michonne from The Walking Dead. Kira Markeljc, who goes by the name Purple Candy Cosplay on Facebook, posted a photo of her cosplay that featured brown body paint to achieve Michonne's skin color. After the photo went viral on Tumblr, it opened a deluge of comments calling her "racist" and lashing out at her for doing "blackface"—the culturally degrading form of theatrical makeup that was once used by performers to represent a black person before they were allowed in theater. [FYI: racism is defined as the belief of another race being inferior to your own, NOT cosplaying.]
While Michonne wasn't the only character from the Walking Dead she cosplayed—she also did Beth—the major debate in this was the fact that she is white and portrayed a black character. The post has since been removed, but the issue brought up in the comments still remains: Are we really only allowed to cosplay within our race/gender? [That's a whole other topic, and I fully disagree, but let me know what your opinion is in the comments.]
Hostility toward fangirls has deterred many cosplayers from doing certain characters and forced many women out of the gaming and gaming journalism industries, according to TIME. Some have even received death threats; game critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech on women in video games at Utah State University after someone sent an email threatening the "deadliest school shooting in American History."
"A lot of women in our industry exist in a constant state of fear," wrote indie game designer Elizabeth Sampat in her blog on her thoughts of women in the industry. "Women who make games and would never dream of connecting their face or real name with a Twitter account, just in case. Women who would never go indie. Women who are terrified of starting a crowd funding campaign but who can't get their dreams funded any other way, and so their dreams just die. Are you okay with this? Is this the industry that you want?"
Will Wheaton spoke out against harassment in both cosplay at conventions, urging people via Twitter to "Be polite. Be respectful. Don't be a d***," and of women in gaming. "I have never, in my life, been ashamed to call myself a gamer. Until now," he wrote on Tumblr. "These misogynist little s***bags are a disgrace to our community. All of us who care about gaming need to step up and save our community, while there is still something about it that's worth saving."
To embrace females in geek culture, NYCC featured a plethora of panels that included "Women of Marvel" and "The Mary Sue Presents—Strong Female Characters: The Women Shining in Geek Media." Other female-focused panels addressed issues such as harassment and bullying in "End Bullying! Responding to Cruelty in Our Culture," "So They Say You Shouldn't Cosplay," and "#YesAllGeeks: Let's Talk About Harassment in Fandom."
The shift of these panels exploring "an explosion of enthusiasm and visibility for women in comics," as described in Vulture's panel on the future of female fandom, talked in depth about the diversity and equality of women in comics and creating characters that women and women of color can relate to. During the panel, which included Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer of Captain Marvel), Gail Simone (writer of Red Sonja), and Sana Amanat (editor of Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel), Simone said, "If you stand up for one minority and not believe in one minority and not believe in diversity and equality for all, that doesn't even make sense to me." Further coverage of the panel can be found here.
Even with Thor's hammer now wielded by a woman and the variant cover art of Spider-Woman #1 comic that caused an uproar, women still only make up 29.3 percent of DC characters and 24.7 percent of Marvel characters, according to calculations by FiveThirtyEight. As fangirls become a visible untapped market, however, industry execs are beginning to realize they can majorly profit by reexamining the diversity of characters, which will hopefully land Wonder Woman in her own film.
We need to acknowledge the number of fangirls that exist and make this a safe environment for everyone, so that all current and future female comics writers, game developers, cosplayers, and fans can join in on the conversation. Positive change in the industry is coming slowly, and now that more females feel comfortable enough to report sexual harassment at conventions, it's a large step in the right direction. The gaming industry needs to take its cue.
Are you a fangirl and have a story to tell of your experiences in the male-dominated fandom?
Let us know in the comments below.