Can I take your picture?
—the most common phrase you should hear at a con
I am not a cosplay expert by any stretch. I’m not bad, but I have several friends who outstrip me by a considerable amount, friends who don’t even enter costume contests anymore unless they’re for big cons. Often, this is because they’re judging, which is more fair for everyone. On the other hand, I do a fair amount of the sewing for the people I work with at Ren faire, and how I’m going to dress is the first question I ask myself before con or faire.
I’m always secretly pleased when someone asks to take my picture, therefore, because my costume is almost never as good as the ones I’m admiring myself. I sew; I know where I screwed up and how many hours of work went into, say, that spectacular seventeenth century French Poison Ivy. (Who turned out to be a friend of a friend, because it’s a small world.) But the point is that the person needs to ask. Always. Yes, there’s a limited expectation of privacy at faire or con, but it’s still polite, and it’s a good place to start getting into the importance of consent.
Goodness knows having your picture taken without permission is a minor violation. It’s not what the “cosplay is not consent” movement is referring to. But just as I start teaching my kids about bodily autonomy and consent by tickling them until they say stop and then stopping immediately, you start with the simple stuff. Asking to take a picture is a really basic habit to get into. It reminds you that the other people you’re taking pictures of are real people with the right to say no if they choose. And then you build from there.
There are stories. There are really truly awful stories of how people—let’s be honest, mostly women, and sometimes teenage girls—get treated based on what they’re wearing. There’s more than just the tedious interrogation to make sure you really care about whatever-it-is you’re dressed from, though goodness knows that’s bad enough. (As it happens, I don’t think it matters if you like the show or just the outfit. If you like the outfit, that’s enough.) But there are stories of people made to feel actually unsafe by people who assume that a short skirt or a bit of cleavage is a license to be harassed or assaulted. People made to feel physically unsafe by people—usually men—who think that the person dressed as a character from their fantasies is therefore interested in being part of what they fantasize about.
But the cosplay? That’s someone’s fantasy, too. Being that person, or just wearing that outfit. Not being yourself for a little while. And then someone else comes in and tramples all over it. In addition to the ordinary, if you can call it that, violation of your personal boundaries and your body and so forth, I would imagine there’s also the pain that is the violation of that fantasy. If you’re groped while dressed as your beloved character, how much does that spoil the character?
Perhaps part of the problem rests in the assumption on certain people’s parts that women exclusively wear certain things to appear physically desirable to men. Let me disabuse you of that notion, if you hold it. What other people think of how I’ll look in an outfit is never as important to me as how I think I’ll look in it. (Which is why I don’t attempt certain cosplays, but that’s a different issue for another day.) For other of my friends, it’s the challenge that’s the important part—how hard it is to make the costume. I suspect that’s rather what drives Adam Savage, to name one famous cosplayer.
Why people dress the way they do, though, isn’t the most important thing. Let us suppose a person who does indeed dress in the costume they’ve chosen because they want people to look at them in it and admire it; such people do exist, though I maintain they’re less common than many assume. So what? Being looked at and being touched or even just being catcalled are not the same thing. Indeed, being complimented and being catcalled are not the same thing, which is another distinction that seems curiously hard to get across.
So all right. That established, how do you compliment a cosplayer?
Well, first off, yes. Ask, politely, if you can take the picture. Don’t interrupt when the person is doing something else. If they’re posing for another person’s picture, you can probably get in on that without special permission, though an acknowledgement that they’re okay with it is still not a bad idea.
Second, and I can’t believe some people need to be told this, is compliment the costume, not the physical appearance of the person in it. Just because someone has chosen to dress as Power Girl or Lara Croft, that doesn’t mean you should compliment the way the costume highlights their figure. “Nice tits” is not an appropriate cosplay compliment. Even if you’re not skilled enough to say something like “I really admire your choice to cut that fabric on the bias,” you can say “that’s really well made and must have taken you a lot of work.”
Third, for heaven’s sake don’t interrogate the person. That’s about the costume or the character. A cheerful conversation is one thing. A series of questions is quite another. It quickly begins to feel as though you’re judging their qualifications. Which is not your right to do. If you sew, you can offer encouragement or seek advice, of course, but don’t just try to steal their techniques.
As always, the rule is “treat the other person like a real person.” Even though, in this situation, they’re dressed as someone imaginary. They’re living in their imagination, not yours.
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