Cosplay Is Not Consent – An Interview With Kerry Holland

As a geek I love going to comic conventions.  There’s nothing quite like being in a convention hall with thousands of other fans, meeting people with the same interests as yourself, looking at cool merchandise on sale and meeting some of your favorite actor and creators.  One of the parts of geek experience that has always interested me is cosplayers.  You see them at every convention, people dressed up as some of their favorite characters, interacting with other fans.

I’ve not cosplayed myself, I don’t think I have the drive to do it, but the people who do are some of the most committed and talented fans around.  Some of the costumes they make are so amazingly intricate and complicated that the skill that goes into creating them is staggering.  Plus walking around all day in the freezing cold in some of the costumes female characters wear takes some doing.

Seriously, she must be cold!

Whilst cosplay is a growing phenomena that is liked by many there is a darker side to the hobby.  The reports of people in costume being assaulted is increasing every day.  From verbal abuse to physical and even sexual assault it would appear that dressing as your favorite super hero is a more dangerous past time than you would first think.

New York Comic Con reminding it’s attendees that cosplay is not consent.

The problem is becoming so widespread that various conventions are even placing signs in their spaces to remind attendees that just because someone is in a revealing costume that it is not permission to perform sexual assault.

Not only is is other convention attendees that cosplayers are having to find themselves on the look out for, cosplay artists have also been subjected by massively open misogyny from internet show hosts too, as detailed by 23 year old cosplayer Mandy Caruso who when interviewed found the only thing the host was interested in was the size of her breasts.

Cosplayer Mandy Caruso Subjected to Sexual Harassment

 

Unfortunately it would seem like the treatment that Mandy went through has become the rule rather than the exception, with so many cosplayers facing unwanted sexual attention.  Now I know what some of you might be thinking, ‘if they don’t want people drooling over them then they shouldn’t be dressed in those costumes’.  Well, if that thought did enter your mind then just remember that it’s the same argument people make about the victims of rape.
It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a small party dress or a Wonder Woman costume, being dressed a certain way is not an invitation for people to assault you.
When a British cosplayer, the beautiful and talented Kerry Holland, began to post some frankly disturbing accounts of just a small fraction of the abuse she has been made to go through and the effect that it has had on her I reached out to her to share some of the experiences she has had, and she kindly agreed.

Kerry Holland as Spider-Gwen

Kerry, how long have you been cosplaying?

I started back in May 2011, so coming up to 4 years now, it doesn’t seem that long when I think about it, it’s crazy how quickly this whole roller coaster has gone.

How did you discover your love of the activity and what was your first cosplay experience?

From what I recall, I discovered most of it via Tumblr, I was in the Harley Quinn community there and so I say a lot and really admired girls such as Elise Archer, Trini Quinn and Kate Quinn.  I even started talking someone who would become one of my best friends, Holly Rose, on there due to seeing their cosplay on Tumblr.

Kate and another friend off Tumblr, called Claire then encouraged me to come down from Scotland where I was living at that point to MCM in London to take part in a Harley Quinn meet up called Harleypalooza.  So Harley was my first cosplay.  The whole experience was amazing and unique, I was sucked into the worlds instantly and hooked

Kerry in her much loved Harley Quinn costume.

What has been your favorite costume to make and/or wear?

Harley is most definitely the most enjoyable to wear.  She helps me loose my inhibitions and mess around at cons more than I can in other costumes, people also respond well to her which is always wonderful.  Laverne’s Tentacle costume was probably the most fun to make as I couldn’t stop laughing at myself as I was making it and thinking ‘you fucking idiot’.

What’s the cosplay community like from the inside?  Is there a lot of friendship and support between cosplayers?

Oh god yes very much so!  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve witnessed some bitchy shit, but in my own experience people have been so kind and supportive of me, really encouraging.  It has been really overwhelming, the friendships I’ve built and being part of groups.  I isolated myself a lot as I grew up and never felt a part of a group, in recent years the whole journey has been a lot for me to take in.  The people though, my friends, have been some of the greatest people I’ve ever met.  I have learnt so much from them and owe much of who I have become in the past few years to them and their influence.

What kinds of positive experiences have you had through your work?

The friendships, cheesey as it sounds, these people I now know, mean the world to man and I can’t imagine mt life without them or even being able to become a better me without them in my life.

Cosplayers coming together as a community.

What kinds of negative experiences have you had to endure?

Sexual objectification, body shaming, rape threats, my image linked to Spider fetish.  When my Spider Gwen image went viral, the intensity of all this was traumatic.  I’m not a sexual person, sexually confident, and I wasn’t even trying to be promiscuous by I was slut shamed, made out to be some whore for men to abuse and slur.  I was told I was asking for it because of the way I was dressed, much like how rape victims are dealt with, even though I was dressed in a mans costume.

When I corrected people about their assumptions I was mocked and told I was wrong.  I felt the whole situation was out of my control.  It was about me and my body but I had no say in the matter, it was violating, it effected me badly.  I was in tears constantly and became a trigger for my panic attacks.  I started to fear conventions because I thought I may be touched or attacked, which stories of that happening to other girls was starting to become public at the time.  It was also off putting to see that it was still happening when most people were mistaking me for a child.  I may be an adult but these people were still giving me this treatment thinking I was a minor.

On a whole do you receive more negative experiences in person at conventions or through the internet?

Luckily mostly positive at conventions, though I tend to focus on the negative that it over shadows the good, even if the good’s the majority.  Most of the harassment I’ve experiences is online because people like to hide behind a computer so that they do not have to face the consequences of their actions.

What kind of ratio of men and women have you found make these kind of comments, or is it a problem rooted solely in the male audience?

Generally each give different types of insults.  Men like to say how they will dominate and over power you, like how they will ‘fuck you senseless’ without giving me a choice.  Women like to shame and put the blame on you more, aka name me Spider-Whore.  Men tend to do that too, but that was the focus of the females.

 

Kerry takes her Street Fighter very seriously.

Would you say that the harassment has soured your experience of cosplaying? 

Very much so, I nearly gave up completely because I have little self esteem or self respect and the experience stripped me of the little I had.  As I said, it flared up my anxiety and I began to freak out a lot about cosplay stuff.  I couldn’t deal with it and felt so disgusted with myself.  My friends helped me a lot to deal with the experience.  I still have problems though, to do cosplay or similar again is being a struggle to motivate myself even though it was one of my favorite things to do.  I start over thinking and panicking when I start thinking what could happen if I try and brave the suit again.

From what you know, is this kind of harassment something exclusive to your own experiences or is it a problem the whole community faces?

I experienced it in an extreme way, but it’s not only happening in the community, but it’s an example of what women face every day of their lives.  The objectification, the sexual harassment, the dehumanising of ourselves, the lack of control over our own bodies, the fact that we live in fear of being sexually attacked, so much more than being humiliated if we try and stand up for ourselves, or trying to point out the issues.

The ‘calm down, you must be on your period’, ‘you’re over reacting’, being called a man hater, or the classic ‘but men get it too’ arguments.  Sexism and misogyny is something that is still happening in society and it’s locking women from reaching their full potential.

Do you feel that any responsibility of preventing unwanted sexual harassment falls to convention organisers when cosplayers are in attendance at their events?

Definitely, they need to project us and the males who get harassed too.  I also feel like we need to look out for each other, to keep each other safe.  If we won’t then who will?  There are so many young girls getting into cosplay now and if they are anything like me at that age they wont be able to deal with what may happen to them, it would kill me to see them being manipulated like that.

Kerry Holland, girl wonder!

Is there anything that over convention attendees can do to try and improve the situation for cosplayers?

Watch out for inappropriate behaviour, do not be afraid if you see someone getting harassed or people following cosplayers around to step in.  Even the girl code where you see a girl you don’t know being bothered by someone, coming and pretending to be their best friend or them a part of your group and taking them out of the situation.  Don’t touch, even if just a hug, without permission.  Speak to the cosplayer with manners, no sexual comments or suggestions ect.  Just treat them with respect.

Is there anything that you would like to say to any of the people that have harassed you?

Think before you speak, there is a real person in that costume. Would you like it if a man spoke to your daughter the way you are treating me?

Finally, are you planning on attending any conventions this year, and if so what new costumes can we expect to see from you?

Now that would be telling. 😛

 

Kerry has spoken about the subject with more passion then I ever could.  Whilst I’m someone on the outside who is bothered by what cosplayers have to go through she’s an amazingly talented person that is being forced to live through that abuse.

Too many people see cosplayers as just another attraction at comic cons, they think that they’re there for the enjoyment of others.  The thing is they’re not.  Cosplayers do what they do because it makes them happy, not you.  They’re real people just like you and me.  They don’t deserve poor treatment because they ‘look slutty’, or they’re ‘not the right skin colour’ or ‘too big to pull off that character’.

Cosplay has become such a big part of the geek community that those who engage in it shouldn’t feel afraid to express themselves, they shouldn’t be worried if they’re going to get abuse or if someone is going to do something to them or not.  This kind of behaviour can’t be tolerated.  If you see someone acting badly towards a cosplayer, step in, do what you can to help.

This isn’t a problem that’s just going to go away, it’s something that we all need to work together to stop.

I would like to thank the amazing Kerry Holland for her participation in this article.  Her answers were wonderful to read and her cosplay is great to see.  Keep up the amazing work Kerry, don’t let the jerks get you down.

Amy.

I’m on twitter @Amazing_Amy_W, I use Tumblr, blog at Trans Girl Writer and check me out on Facebook too!

Amy is a journalist and editor contributing the websites Planet Transgender, Gay News Network, The Bottle Episode, The Retro Box and Claire Channel. Amy is also a published comic book writer and letterer.

In addition to her writing Amy has also worked with the Centre For Hate Crime Studies in Leicester and has worked in the capacity of an advisor to the United Nations Entity For Gender Equality and The Empowerment of Women.

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