Since it started popping up in the 80s, cosplay has become an essential part of geek culture events and conventions, with at least one costume contest or fashion show at every major nerd gathering. The cosplay scene also has its fair share of problems, including more and more reported incidents of sexual harassment and assault. Though official statistics don't exist, reports have gotten so bad that in some cases, petitions have been brought to convention companies, asking them to help combat the problem.
This month at Anime Expo in Los Angeles, a panel dedicated to this topic called Cosplay Is Not Consent was held by Cosplay Deviants, an adult entertainment company that promotes cosplay. We talked with Vivid Vivka, a Deviant model and cosplay enthusiast, about her experiences with the darker side of dressing up, the cosplay scene, and why she keeps doing what she does.
VICE: When did you start cosplaying? Why?
Vivid Vivka: "When" is a hard pinpoint. I would say with past Halloweens. I'd always use that wonderful holiday as an excuse to dress up as my favorite characters. I remember my absolute glee when I found that not only was there a community that dresses up as often as they can, but that the community itself was wonderful and endearing. I've met the kindest, most wonderful, crazy, crafty people via the cosplay circuit. As per why, it's this amazing transformation. You watch TV, movies, play video games. You see the characters. You get so wrapped up in their personalities, the details of the characters. Or hell, maybe you just think their clothing is awesome. But to actually put on the costume, finally finished, for the first time—it's overpowering. I always try to think about how that character would walk into a room, how they would answer the questions asked to me, and how they would pose for the photos. It's dress-up, yes, but it's so much more.
Vivid Vivka as Belldandy from the anime Ah! My Goddess. Photo via Vivid Vivka
When did you join Cosplay Deviants?
My first CD set went up in 2011. I was instantly hooked. I enjoy being naked, and already had a well-rounded nude-model career. I enjoyed cosplaying. And boy howdy, I found a company that wants me to do both. Fuck yes. Sign me up; I'm in. I've done many sets since, and been a part of their book, trading card game, magazine, calendars, and gone to conventions as part of their event team.
Did you experience harassment from people as soon as you started cosplaying? Or was it something that you noticed more over time?
At first, my costumes were more along the lines of bloody horror themes: Pyramid Head from Silent Hill, zombies, etc. Mostly people just stayed away from me! But as I grew up, started my alt-model/nude-modeling career, and became much more confident and comfortable in my skin. I started to "dare to bare." I started cosplaying the characters whom I adored and wanted to dress up as, but before was too shy or nervous to. It's no secret that anime girls defy gravity, and super heroines usually wear too-tight spandex and not much else. I'm not perfect, and I don't have the ideal gym body. But I like my skin, and I wanted to play, so fuck all who try to stop me!
The internet is a ruthless place, though. A photo gets posted, and everyone has an opinion that must be shared. If I had a nickel for every time I was called horse face, tranny, fat, ugly, I could buy the damned internet. Online harassment is a constant flow, and it's downright nasty. In person, it's a different story. People would ask for a photo, and "jokingly" grab my butt. Lewd, tactless, raunchy things would be said or asked of me, and followed by a "JK… unless you will." I feel like a lot of people don't realize they are overstepping their grounds, and they don't realize how hurtful, scary, and gross they are being. They see this character that they also know and love and I feel they forget that there is a person inside the costume. Cosplay is not consent. Just because I am dressed up, doesn't mean I aim to serve your fantasies.
Vivid Vivka as the Joker. Photo via Cosplay Deviants
At every convention I go to, there are a handful of horror stories… both to me and that happen to my friends. The worst is when the harass-ee doesn't speak up about it. As I said, I feel like the majority of people don't realize what they are doing is bad, and if we don't speak up and tell them, then how will they know? I can't believe the change I've seen from when I was more shy and wouldn't want to stand up for myself verses now; I'm much more mouthy and can aggressively say "no."
And it's not just physical. Yes, sometimes a boob is "accidentally" touched, or a skirt is "accidentally" lifted. Or hell, someone is just picked up and carried away. That is scary. Don't do that. It's not cute. It's terrifying. But it's so emotional and mental. I've worn costumes I've worked months on, only to be called "slut, whore, skank" by other females. I've even been told I'm the "slutty one" by another girl who was cosplaying the same character, due to my bust being bigger. And there is the whole spectrum of body shaming. No one is built like cartoons. They are two-dimensional beings, without gravity or age. You should be able to dress up like whomever you want, even if your waist isn't that small, hips aren't that wide, legs that long, bust that big, hell, even if your skin color isn't "correct." Cosplay should be, and deep down is, about the love of the characters and the joy of the craft. But the spectators mostly just see the lighter, jovial side, the finished product and the smiles for the camera. There is a darker, hurtful side of cosplay. People get wrapped up and bogged down by the little details and this venomous need to rip the person down.
Vivid Vivka as Mad Moxxi from Borderlands 2. Photo by Enrique Malfavon
Have there been any particularly outrageous things you've seen/heard about/experienced to a degree?
Once I was cosplaying a video game character, Mad Moxxi from Borderlands 2, who is a very ample busty character. A couple walked by, and the gent was very excited for the character, as he was a big fan of the game. He asked for a photo with me, and right before the camera snapped, I heard his girlfriend saying that he didn't need photos with "some gross slut. I thought you were into real women." I was crushed. It hurt. I didn't do anything. Why am I not "real"? Why am I a slut? I'm character-accurate, and having fun! I think the girlfriend saw my transparent epic sad face. She fumbled a half-assed apology, but I could tell that she said it without even thinking about me, the girl in the suit, and how I would feel hearing such a remark spit into my face. Aside from that, I've been propositioned a multitude of times. Even to the degree that a hotel key was pushed into my pocket, as a random stranger hissed his hotel room number and a time into my ear. To note, I found the biggest, burliest cosplay gang I could find, told them the time and gave them the room key. I wonder what happened that night.
Have you ever felt like stopping cosplaying because of this kind of stuff?
Everyone has dark days. Sometimes there are just too many mean Facebook comments, too many pushy hissy remarks, and too many sleazy gropes. But I love this. I love doing this so much. There is a dark side and there are bad apples. But as a whole the cosplay community has given so much more to me that I ever could have hoped for. The majority of them are wonderful people, who are supportive and friendly. They share my passion and excitement, and I look forward to every con season. Hell, I even get the post-con-depression. I can't give this up. But I don't want to have to deal with the harassment as well, so I speak up about it, and hopefully enlighten others to their actions and options.
Vivid Vivka as Fionna from Adventure Time. Photo via Vivid Vivka
The education you and the others behind Cosplay Is Not Consent do is great. Do you have any other tips for combating abuse in cosplay scenes? Or any you think are more effective than others?
Speak up and stand up for yourself. No is a viable and powerful word— it's OK to say it! Don't let anyone push you down or pressure you into something you don't want to do. Someone is being a jerk? Fuck that person. You don't have to take a photo with them. Someone is touching you, or invading your personal space? Tell a security personal. We, as individuals, are powerful creatures. And most importantly: You are not alone. There are so many other people who are out here, and on your side. We can work together to educate, enlighten, and create a happier, healthier, more fucking awesome cosplay environment. Be most excellent to each other.