When Did Cosplay Stop Being about Fun? (Spoiler: It Didn’t)

Boy, cosplayers sure are dramatic, aren’t they?

Aren’t they a bunch of elitist bullies who would rather tear each other apart than go out and have fun?

I guarantee that if you’re active in the cosplay community, you’ve either run across a post that has said something along these lines . . . or you’ve had these kinds of thoughts yourself. I’ve even written about the bullying that happens in the community. A lot. I’ve given panels about the bullying I’ve dealt with, the harassment that’s happened to my friends, and the general bad behavior that happens in the community. So yeah, I get where you’re coming from. At times it can feel like our cluster of geeks is a colossal mess and our Judgey McJudgey Pants are buttoned a bit too tightly.

So when did cosplay stop being about fun?

Spoiler: It didn’t. It’s still fun.

(See what I did there? With the title being worked into . . . all right, let’s move on.)

Me and my partner of 15 years. Elyse Lavonne Photography

The question at hand is when did cosplay get so, well, unfun? It doesn’t take long to find a story about someone doing something completely uncalled for in the community. This year was full of countless tales of people who had an issue with diversity, assuming that it divided the community. There were plenty of stories about competition drama and accusations of unfair judging. There are the constant popularity contests and, new to the mix, whether or not cosplayers should use Patreon. Then, of course, there are the classics like slut shaming, harassment, bullying, and even people stalking or threatening cosplayers.

I bet if you used that nifty Facebook memory function, you’d find all sorts of statuses about all this stuff from previous years, and within all that noise lies my point: these kinds of things have been happening for a while. That certainly doesn’t make it OK; I’m just saying that the combination of drama and cosplay is nothing new.

I’ve been going to conventions since 2002, and there are plenty of others who have been going to conventions for much longer. I have clear memories of drama within the community going back to my early days. I’ve been privy to some catty comments. Not online, oh no—social media wasn’t the titanic force it is today when I was starting out. These comments were said without the anonymity of a computer screen.

“My cosplay is so much better than theirs.”

“That person shouldn’t be wearing that.”

“Ugh, another cosplay of that character.”

“What’s that character doing here? This is an anime convention, not sci fi.”

“That costume is inaccurate. It’s not the right shade of blue.”

“That person is just popular because of X, Y, and Z.” (Note: those letters are usually breast related).

“I’ve heard so-and-so is a huge bitch. I’ve never met them, but I’ve heard things.

“I didn’t win because the other person who competed is friends with the judges.”

“She’s not even a real geek.”

“What an attention whore.”

“That’s good, for a black cosplay.”

But don’t think that other people weren’t experiencing Internet hate. We might not have had Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or the vast amount of space that is Tumblr, but we had forums, chat rooms, and image boards full of negativity. There were websites, as there are today, created for the explicit purpose of hating on cosplayers—post a picture of a cosplay you don’t like and let the negative times roll. Or, heck, make a meme out of a person, and spread it like wildfire (and make sure it’s the most unflattering picture possible). You think “ghetto” or “land whale” memes are a recent thing? Not even close.

Just a handful of comments I’ve gotten while cosplaying.

But let’s step away from bullying and go into a darker territory. I’d hear stories. All kinds of stories. Someone trying to look up girls’ skirts as they walked up and down the stairs at a con. Someone attaching a camera to their shoes to get upskirt shots. People taking inappropriate pictures, without permission, until being caught by security. Conventions and con-goers being warned of people who were either too friendly or a bit too “in character.” People who assumed that a costume did mean consent. People who strike up a conversation with you to try and get away from someone who’s following them. And that’s just attendees, not guests.

This all sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So why does it seem even worse now?

The answer: it’s not. People are just able to be more vocal now.

And this isn’t just the negative people within the community; this is also negative people outside the community. Now that cosplay is more popular, people outside of our geek bubble see it. And no, it’s not just because of Heroes of Cosplay and that whole cosfamous term that people like to throw around—that’s just one example in the mix of random My Strange Addiction episodes or that one episode of NCIS. But even outside of the handful of media appearances cosplay has made, anyone who cosplayed before the days of costumed reality TV has a story about being in costume, in public, and hearing the tried-and-true mocking commentary of “Is it Halloween?”

As I said before, it’s very easy to find story upon story of negative experiences in regards to cosplay. Some stories are important to tell, and others are the catty tales of who doesn’t like whom for whatever reason. But it’s the same way things worked back then. Stories that help people improve situations are vital; that’s how we get movements like Cosplay Is Not Consent, the It Gets Better Project, a demand for more accessible conventions, safe spaces, and #28DaysOfBlackCosplay. But among those important tales are the other ones—and you know which ones I’m talking about. So with people able to be more vocal (see: social media), is it ruining the cosplay community? I’m going to put on my optimistic hat and say no, absolutely not. Why? Well, it’s simple, really.

Because people can be more vocal.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “Didn’t you just say that things seem worse because people are able to be more vocal?” Yes I did. But the flipside is this: even though negative people have more ways to spread their hate, people also have more ways to speak out against that hate. I’ve learned over the years that the negative voices always feel like they’re the loudest; it’s really easy to home in on a negative post, no matter how many positive posts there are. I’m guilty of doing this. I’ve been bullied online, have been harassed and told that I’d be better off dead. I am absolutely guilty of listening to the negative and wondering if I should just stop cosplaying altogether. I’ve wondered the exact thing I’m writing about: when did cosplay stop being about fun? I’ve ignored the positive reinforcement I was receiving and let the negative words circulate in my head. The questions about negativity in the cosplay community will always come up; it’s just a part of existing in a world where people can, and will, disagree. But you know what comes along with those questions? Answers. Or rather, solutions. The bullies, the catty people, the creepers, they’re nothing compared to the amount of positivity that exists in this community. Whether it’s through the numerous groups, the movements, and the panels, or just making a post expressing your feelings and getting encouraging responses. It may not feel like it—especially if you’re in the middle of a negative onslaught—but the good is out there, and it’s easier to reach now than it was back then.

Back then there was no #28DaysOfBlackCosplay getting coverage from major websites. Back then there was no “It Gets Better” panel. Back then there weren’t conventions posting “Cosplay Is Not Consent” flyers and banners. Back then, when there was a creeper to be on the lookout for, it was all through word of mouth. Now? You can post all of their information online, share it around, and shut them down.

The “It Gets Better” panelists at Anime Detour 2016.

Is there drama in the cosplay community? Absolutely. Is it bad enough that some people decide to leave? Sure. Is this kind of drama recent? No. It feels like it is because it takes about 30 seconds to type up a terrible comment—even less to just post a negative meme, or a single word like “ew” or “gross.” But please remember the other side to this: we’re at a point where people can call out problematic behavior. Someone got turned into a negative meme? We can find out who’s in the picture and share them the way they deserve to be shared. There’s a hateful page online? We can report it, and potentially have it taken down. Feeling down about yourself? Positive groups are easy to find, and well-run groups don’t tolerate hate. Is someone threatening you or someone you know? Screencap it and report that person. Even if the comments are deleted, that screencap is forever. Hell, there have been instances where those threatening screencaps have gotten people fired from their jobs.

But beyond that, it has become very apparent to me what cosplay has done for the community. On top of being a fun hobby, it has strengthened friendships, and it has helped people open up and have a chance to be themselves, including me. Before cosplay, I was never as vocal as I am now. Before cosplay, I never would’ve dreamed of writing think pieces that spread across the Internet, giving panels about a need for diversity, or—more importantly—sitting on panels where I encourage people to love themselves. There are a number of people who use cosplay as a way to express themselves, but even outside of costuming, there are a number of people who use these conventions to escape the reality of their lives. It was at a convention where, at 18 years old, I was out for the first time, freely holding my partner’s hand, openly being a black geek dating a white girl—and instead of facing the pushback that existed outside those convention doors, I made friends, had fun, and felt love. Is there a chance that a convention-goer sneered at us while we walked the halls, me dressed in Gundam Wing gear and my partner teaching me about cosplay in her hand-stitched Hot Ice Hilda cosplay? Sure, but I never noticed. I was too busy enjoying the first moment where I was an out black geek who didn’t feel the need to hide who she was.

And really, that’s what cosplay is all about.

Picture taken at CONvergence 2014 and featured in Minnesota’s Star Tribune. Used with permission

If you’re at the point where you feel like you need to take a step back, that’s fine, because self-care is very important. This article isn’t here to tell anyone that their feelings about the cosplay community aren’t valid. I just thought it would be good to put things into perspective. Cosplay drama isn’t anything new. Drama isn’t new period. Any group you become a part of, whether it’s niche or mainstream, will always have its share of drama. There will always be the person who takes things too far, who is the bully, who is catty, and any other negative caricature you can think of. It may seem more claustrophobic now because cosplay is becoming more mainstream, and with that, more and more people are coming in, and some of those people fill in the “asshole” slot. But I can guarantee that those people lingered in the community before social media, before San Diego Comic-Con was trending, before Jo-Ann Fabric carried sailor fuku patterns, and before comic-book movies broke records.

When did cosplay stop being about fun?

It didn’t.

It’s still fun.

And for 2017, remember: it always will be.

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  1. By Frank Williams

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