Cosplay: The Geek Backlash Against Women at Comic Con is Unfair, But Understandable
In the last month or so following a string of comic book conventions, including New York Comic Con at the Javits Center in October, several prominent figures in the comic book industry, notably Tony Harris — the artist and writer of Ex Machina — have generated controversy with their harsh, public statements regarding the prevalence of women in revealing costumes flocking to these conventions.
This practice of dressing up as a favorite character is called Cosplay, and is a staple of comic conventions, where fans of all ages design and build elaborate costumes of their favorite comic, TV, anime, or movie character to wear around the convention hall. While doing this, they get to show their dedication, take photographs with other convention attendees, and get to have fun being in character.
But like with the sexification of Halloween costumes over the years — and egged on by a trend of revealing outfits for women both in Japanese anime, and mainstream American comics — there has been a growing influx of women wearing very revealing costumes, often not true to the characters they are portraying (such as sexy Darth Vader), attending these conventions, and if Tony Harris is to be believed, they aren't "real" fans.
The sexy costume trend likely started with "booth babes," paid models who dress in costume to attract attention to a presenters booth. However, it is becoming more and more common for women in sexy costumes to be attendees, rather than presenters these days.
There is a grain of truth to Harris' accusations. As evidence by the Reddit subgroup r/Cosplaygirls, there is no doubt that many of these attractive cosplayers are being objectified by men, and that many of them know it and willingly feed into it to attract attention to themselves. A Comic Con is a place where a very average looking girl can put on a revealing costume and feel like a supermodel as throngs of awkward men stumble over themselves to talk to her. But this is really no different than the muscular men walking around as Bane or He-Man to avoid wearing a shirt (whose muscles wouldn't be impressive in a room full of athletes), or frankly, the hardcore con veterans themselves, who walk around in costumes that they have spent decades and thousands of dollars perfecting, all to attract positive attention they wouldn't normally get.
I think this recent iteration of nerd-rage isn't actually directed at women themselves, but rather at a bigger, broader problem, of which sexy female nerds are only the most obvious symptom.
For decades, geeks were socially awkward men, who didn't fit in to the mainstream of society. While their obsessions with Captain America, The Watchmen, and Dungeons & Dragons, may have brought them together initially, what really kept this community together, at first, was the fact it was a safe haven for all of them to be among people just as obsessive, just as awkward, and just like them.
However, in the epic struggle between geeks and the cool kids ... the geeks won. Software and web developers are no longer fat guys with neckbeards programing in their mother's basement, but thin, impeccably dressed hipsters with macbooks (or Linux pcs for the ultra-chic). Whereas 20 years ago, no studio would throw any kind of real money behind a superhero movie, let alone a movie involving many superheros and a plot that seemingly comes from nowhere ... we have a top director (Joss Whedon, who himself embodies the mainstreaming of nerd culture) directing a multi-million dollar movie The Avengers, which instead of being a campy cult classic that goes unnoticed in all but the most obscure circles, grossed more money at the box office than most countries did in 2012.
Suddenly, Comic Con, DragonCon, etc, which were once safe havens for the socially awkward and the obsessive, are being overrun with the general population, who are suddenly interested in knowing more about the origin story of Gambit, or the rules of Warhammer. To any hardcore nerd/geek veteran this is nothing short of an invasion of the society they attend Comic Con to escape.
However, while their anger is understanable, they miss a crucial fact, which is that these people want to be there, and want to learn. While there are certainly con-goers who will lose interest once geek-culture is supplanted as the "in" thing, nerds everywhere have really been handed a gift, social legitimacy. Many will argue that their outcast status was the whole point, but surely they can't complain that this expanded demographic has made movies like Captain America and Dark Knight possible.
Geeks were just being themselves before they became in-style, and will still be themselves once they are back to being just another counter-culture. They don't need to fear that their community will be co-opted by the mainstream, because like all things embraced by the mainstream, everyone is going to forget about them in a few years. The only change in the long run will be that a whole new demographic of honest fans have discovered them, whereas they may never have been exposed to the culture if it had stayed hidden.