I’ve been attending San Diego Comic Con and covering it for Sound on Sight for the past four years. This year, prompted by my sister, I decided to cosplay at the Con, wearing a different costume each day, from Thursday through Sunday. I dusted off some Halloween costumes from years past, did repair and prep work as needed, packed an extra suitcase, and was ready to go. I expected it to be an entertaining diversion, a chance to embrace the Comic-Con vibe and get in on the fun in a new way, plus the notion of wearing some of my geek costumes around a group of people who would actually get them was certainly appealing. I had no idea how completely the decision to cosplay would shape my Con.
Cosplay is a huge part of SDCC with hugely talented costumers, makeup artists, and prop designers showing off their skills. For some, it’s a chance to get noticed and photographed, to build portfolios of their work to help break into their chosen field. For others, it’s a creative outlet, a way to share their passion for a particular fandom or project before returning to their day job. For yet others, it’s an easy way to have a little fun, donning a nerd-relevant tee-shirt or throwing on a cool mask. I went with the mid-range option, opting for easy to wear looks that would be recognized by fans of the properties, but wouldn’t intrude upon my Con-going experience (no giant masks or props for me). For some, cosplaying is a chance to release or challenge inhibitions, to feel comfortable in outfits that would be deemed inappropriate in another context; I’m quite comfortable with my inhibitions, so I stuck with demure, G-rated looks, and boy, am I glad I did.
As soon as you attend SDCC in costume, you relinquish any control over your image. Many people snap pictures of cosplayers without asking permission, but even when approached by an attendee beforehand, there’s little chance one will see the image, let alone be able to keep it in the private sphere. I’ve only ever attended SDCC as press, so in my interactions with cosplayers, I’ve always been diligent about consent: unless they are already posing for a large group of picture takers, particularly professionals, I always ask cosplayers for their permission to post their image on my Twitter feed or at Sound on Sight before taking their picture. If they’re uncomfortable with this, I complement them on their handiwork and move on. I’m extra careful with children and teens, getting approval from them and their parents/guardians. During the four days I cosplayed this year, not a single person asked for my consent in reprinting or sharing my image.
When asked for my picture by people clearly covering SDCC as photojournalists, I would inquire as to the publication—almost every time, the photographer looked surprised or even taken aback. They were quite happy to take my picture, then grill me about my personal details (I’d agreed to have my picture taken, not disclose my name and home city), but were puzzled when I wanted to know where the image would be used. They were they were certainly not going to mention SoS or tag me in the image so I could find it and see how it turned out. Over the four days, only one photojournalist gave my sister or me her card and only one or two personal photographers handed out slips of paper with their information, so we could find the image later. I was completely unprepared for this and after days of having people ask to take a picture, I realized that while I had plenty of pictures of other cosplayers, I had almost none of myself. Next year when I go to SDCC, I’ll come armed with a giant stack of cards so that I can give one to any cosplayer who’d like it, so they can find their picture on my Twitter feed and have at least one shot of themselves from that day.
I was also utterly unprepared for some of the inappropriate comments hurled my way. Given the loose shoulder-to-heel coverage of all but one of my outfits, I had very few uncomfortably forward exchanges, but when I wore my TARDIS dress, I had a number of grodily suggestive, “So… are you bigger on the inside?” and “Hello, Sexy!”s sent my direction [to the non-Who fans out there, the TARDIS is a space- and time-ship that is bigger on the inside than the outside, and during the current Steven Moffat era, the Doctor has nicknamed the TARDIS “Sexy”]. I guess it was foolish to assume that dressing utterly un-provocatively would keep me from having to deal with unwanted, sexualizing comments. One such exchange happened while I was waiting in line, unable to move away from the offending person, who was standing a few feet away. Fortunately I was able to turn my reaction, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to take that” into a bit of a group discussion with the people nearby, talking about how the context of cosplay (ie, speaking to a person and not, you know, an imaginary spaceship) affects the language that is appropriate to use in relation to a character/costume. This took some of the sting out of the exchange, let me feel a bit more in control of how I was viewed, and hopefully prompted the offender to be more aware of how their comments make cosplayers feel.
My sister was less fortunate. She cosplayed as different Adventure Time princesses each day and one of her more popular costumes, Breakfast Princess, elicited several requests, all from 30-something through 50-something white men, to look under her skirt, eat her in the morning, etc. It didn’t matter that she was completely covered up, wearing tights and visible brown shorts beneath her semi-rigid knee-length skirt, these attendees saw what was clearly a costume and felt utterly comfortable speaking inappropriately to a complete stranger. I can’t imagine what the women dressed in more revealing costumes have to deal with. Inappropriate comments, unwanted touching, and general harassment of cosplayers is an issue I know has plagued SDCC for years and I thought I was aware and mindful of it, but experiencing even the smallest taste of this was eye-opening. It’s amazing how quickly you can go from feeling confident and excited about cosplaying to feeling vulnerable and exposed, a consumable and disposable object, and knowing that there’s very little you can do to combat or counteract this behavior is incredibly frustrating.
The sexualizing comments of some stood out, but almost as irritating was the dehumanizing behavior of some of the photographers and attendees. Several times, I had conversations interrupted so someone could ask for a picture; this is a little annoying after a while, but not a big deal. But some interrupted conversations to ask for a picture, then demanded a particular pose, wanted me to adjust my hair or costume (or wanted to do so themselves), and got irritated when I didn’t react quickly enough. I had to pointedly tell one man, “I. Don’t. Want. To.” to get him to stop ordering me around (he still took a picture, and didn’t give me his name). Another harassed my sister and me on the street as we hurried to meet up with some friends. “Hey! Hey! HEY!”, he shouted, in our general direction. When he started backing up holding his phone, facing us, we looked around and realized he was talking to us. We obliged, slapped on smiles and posing until, as he opened up his phone’s camera app, the man let out an aggressive, “Just trying to take a Goddamned picture!”. There was no, “Hello”, no, “Excuse me, ladies”, no indication that he saw us as people. By not reading his mind and complying to his whims, we were attacking him, putting him angrily on the defensive. Needless to say, we immediately moved on without giving him our picture. It was an ugly exchange, and a prime example of many of our negative interactions.
Thankfully, the positive and uplifting moments greatly outnumbered these negative ones. Walking around with my Adventure Time-bedecked sister led to many a hushed, “It’s [character name]!” or photo requests from young children. Sharing that moment with them was wonderful, as was seeing the change behind someone’s eyes as they recognized your costume and burst into a smile. Cosplaying puts you into a special club, and a knowing nod and smile across the room to a fellow attendee cosplaying as the same character, or a character from the same property, can be very satisfying. There’s also the potential for spontaneous group costumes or pictures, as when my sister as Princess Bubblegum ran into an Ice King, Finn, and Jake or the numerous Belcher family reunions I saw on the exhibit floor. While you may not find many who pick up on your costume—only a handful of people in the TV panels I attended recognized my cosplay of Death from Sandman—there’s bound to be at least one or two who do, which is far from a given when cosplaying among the general public (at Halloween or at costume parties). Unless you go very basic with your look, cosplaying takes a lot of time: despite our straightforward costumes and makeup, it took my sister and me a full two hours to get ready each day, not to mention the effort that went into constructing or piecing together our costumes initially. Then there’s the extra travel time to consider; walking between panels or hurrying to grab food during a brief break takes much longer when you’re being stopped for pictures, or even just looking around to acknowledge a friendly comment. While non-cosplaying attendees may not understand this, other cosplayers do, and it’s rewarding to feel that appreciation for one’s work, not to mention the kind of specific comments you can get from fellow cosplayers. I’ve never had someone compliment the neat stitching or careful construction of my cosplays when they were my Halloween costumes; it was great to be around people who appreciated the craft that went into them.
Then there’s the fandom. By far the most popular of my cosplays was my look for Sunday, Carmen Sandiego. With the massive popularity of Doctor Who, I would have predicted the TARDIS would garner the biggest reaction of my four costumes (Death from Sandman, the TARDIS, Helena from Orphan Black, and Carmen Sandiego), but it wasn’t even close. I stopped counting the, “Found her!”s after I got to 20 and more than one person came up to me excitedly, looking to confirm that I was dressed as Carmen Sandiego, rather than Agent Carter or another red-hatted genre character. For many, the costume touched on fond memories of childhood, of watching the PBS game show or playing any of the numerous Carmen Sandiego geography and history games in school. Almost everyone who recognized my costume or asked for a picture was in the same age range, in their mid-twenties through thirties, both men and women, and spoke fondly of the property. I was definitely not the only one with that cosplay over the course of the Con—I met and grabbed a picture with another Carmen on the day—but it was an obscure and specific enough choice that it stood out and it was lovely to create a special moment, however fleeting, for those who enjoyed the costume.
I had no idea how big an undertaking cosplaying for all four main days of SDCC would be, or how completely it would shape my Con experience, but for those very reasons, I highly recommend cosplaying to anyone who’s curious about it. Maybe start smaller than I did, with one or two costumes, but if you’re at all intrigued, dive in and experience what the Con is like for cosplayers. In a group as large as the 100,000+ who attend SDCC each year, it’s easy to disappear into the crowd, becoming one with the larger geek community. Standing outside of that, cosplaying and being the one people look at, rather than among the many their eyes glaze over, was a valuable, highly educational experience that taught me a lot about the Con, fandom, and myself. It let me walk a mile in the shoes of the cosplayers whose hard work I appreciate every year and gave me a window into the experiences of those who deal with either harassment or fandom on a daily basis. I don’t know that I’ll cosplay again next year—it really is a lot of work, and now that I’ve used up my best geek costumes, I’d need new ones—but I’m very glad to have done so this year.