Tag Archives: cons

“Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification

Cross-posted at From Austin to A&M.

I just returned from the PCA/ACA conference in Boston this year, where I presented a paper on geek women presenting themselves as “sexy,” focusing on cosplay.

My presentation had a powerpoint. I’ve embedded it below. You can also download it, if you like.

Oh, you sexy geek!

I’m fairly certain the embedded video for “G33k and G4m3r Girls” won’t work, so here it is:
And here’s the actual presentation I gave:

In July of last year at Comic-Con (the largest media convention in the country), a panel titled “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” purported to address the trend of female geeks dressing “sexy.” From the panel description:

Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? When geek girls show off, are they liberating themselves or pandering to men? Do some “fake fangirls” blend sex appeal with nerdiness just to appeal to the growing geek/nerd market, or is that question itself unfair? And what’s up with all the Slave Leias?

The discussion at Comic-Con was framed in terms of individual choices, not structural influences, and this limited the conclusions the panel could come to. The dichotomous choice offered—“Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? […] are they liberating themselves or pandering to men?”—fails to take into account the complexities of women’s positions in geek culture, the politics of cosplay, or how cultural ideals of beauty influence women’s fashion decisions and choices.Geek cultures—centered on video games, science fiction and fantasy, and comic books—are traditionally thought of as boys’ clubs. Even though women often make up half of geek populations, their roles in geek culture(s) are limited by the perceptions and actions of advertisers, producers, designers, marketers, and fans. Women are considered valuable additions to many geek cultures, but usually as decoration. Which means that most of the women “celebrated” in geek cultures are conventionally beautiful, thin, white, abled cis women who position themselves as sexy objects for male geek consumption, usually via cosplay. For the uninitiated, the term cosplay is a combination of “costume” and “roleplay” or “play,” and refers to when fans costume as characters or objects from their favorite media (like video games, movies, and TV shows). Cosplayers usually wear their costumes to conventions, and the “roleplay” aspect of cosplaying is often minimal in North America, and limited to the poses struck for photos or occasional interactions in the convention hallways.

This presentation will explore the ways in which female geeks’ choices are limited by geek cultures, how the trend of self-objectification among geek women can signal both a hostility towards women as equal participants and a resistance to that hostility, and how blaming women’s performances is a hand-waving exercise intended to gloss over the culture(s)’ problems.

The sexism that persists in geek communities is not special. It is not separable and inherently different than sexist institutions and behaviors in the “real world.” This means that the sexualization and objectification of women is not unique to geek cultures, though it is particularly severe in geek media. Video games, comics, science fiction, fantasy—these media forms are often at fault for promoting unrealistic (and, pretty regularly, physically impossible) standards of beauty for women. They fashion their female heroines and villains as sexy objects to be consumed, unlike male counterparts. Further, geek industries bring the objectification of women into the real world, hiring, for example, booth babes for conventions. Booth babes are conventionally attractive models hired by media companies to wear skimpy clothing and entice convention-goers to their respective booths. Geek women exist within this culture, which devalues their contributions as producers of media and meaning, but values their contributions as adornment.

This project is about self-objectification, not objectification by others, but the two are not wholly separable, any more separable than my putting on makeup and high heels this morning and the objectification of women in advertising and fashion magazines. Just as media representations of women influence women’s decisions to diet, wear cosmetics, get plastic surgery, lighten their skin, relax their hair, shave their legs, and wax their bikini lines, geek media representations of women influence geek women’s decisions to dress in “sexy” cosplay.

By “sexy” cosplay, I mean cosplay that appeals to heterosexual male fantasies, participates in the objectification of the cosplayer, and (purposefully or not) positions the cosplayer as an object for consumption by male geeks. There are two ways to participate in sexy cosplay; one is to choose a character whose costume is already sexy, and another to alter a character’s costume in order to make it sexy.

First, let’s look at cosplayers who do not alter their costumes. A rather visible example of this kind of sexy cosplay is women who costume as “slave Leia.” The Star Wars character has two main costumes that cosplayers choose from. [Next slide] The first, and least popular, is the costume from A New Hope. This is the costume with the iconic buns. [Next slide] The second, and more popular, Leia costume is “slave Leia,” the bikini-style costume worn by Leia in Return of the Jedi when she is the prisoner of Jabba the Hutt. At major science fiction media conventions, like Comic-Con and Dragon*Con, it is common to have an official group slave Leia picture, because of the popularity of this costume with cosplayers and other convention-goers. In the slave Leia cosplay, we see a classic example of sexy cosplay in which the costumer chooses a costume that is already heteronormatively “sexy.”

Next, let’s look at an example of a cosplayer who alters their costume to make them sexy. [Next slide] This is LeeAnna Vamp as Chewbacca from Star Wars, who is on the left. This cosplay was featured on IGN, a website about gaming and entertainment. Notice how Vamp positions herself compared with the actual Chewbacca. Chewbacca stands firmly and aggressively, feet apart to keep him stable. LeeAnna, on the other hand, stands off-center, with her legs together and crossed: a passive position. In the kneeling photo, her position suggests sexual availability and exposure (not sexual aggression), with a slightly open mouth and legs parted. These positions, along with her revealing costume, position LeeAnna as a sexual object for consumption. [Next slide]

In both altered and unaltered sexy cosplay, we thus see a desire to be seen as attractive by straight men. These women visually signal to a viewer (there’s always a viewer for cosplayers) that they are conforming to heteronormative beauty standards. They do this by positioning themselves as sexually receptive and passive; by wearing costumes that emphasize body parts that our culture associates with sex appeal, like breasts, hips, buttocks, and navels; and by emphasizing their femininity and conformity to beauty standards.

As Naomi Wolf points out The Beauty Myth, women in the U.S. are rewarded for capitulating to narrow and often impossible beauty standards. She claims that beauty is a currency, with which “women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves” (12). Ariel Levy’s exploration of raunch culture in Female Chauvinist Pigs demonstrates, however, that women must often do more than merely perform beauty work. She argues that “hotness doesn’t just yield approval. Proof that a woman actively seeks approval is a crucial criterion for hotness in the first place.” In a world of booth babes and sexy cosplay, this is apparent. What makes the sexy cosplay sexy is not merely that the cosplayers are thin, young, and buxom, but that they are performing and actively seeking male approval. [Next slide] For a particularly egregious example of this, I’m going to show you the video created by some geek women, mostly actresses, who formed a group called Team Unicorn. [play to 1:28] The video is very repetitive, so we can stop it there.

Almost everything about this video marks it as a performance in the service of geek men. Of course, the participants in the video, Team Unicorn, consist of young, thin, light-skinned women who conform to cultural beauty standards. There are a number of particularly porn-like shots, in which the young women are naked, strategically covered by light sabers, video game controllers, or DVDs, and on piles of geek toys, movies, or comic books. Meanwhile, the men in the intermittent shots do not match cultural standards of male beauty or masculinity. They wear cheap costumes and dance in awkward or silly ways. The women in the video wear sexy and high-quality costumes, and their dances mimic those of pop stars, which is to say, their dances are meant to appeal to straight male viewers. The video is also framed by Seth Green saying, “Hello friends. Don’t you want to meet a nice girl?,” positioning the video as an introduction to women as dating partners or sex objects. The video is not meant for geek women to view, and feel empowered by seeing representations of other geek women. It is meant to be viewed by men who wish to believe that, despite their own inability to meet cultural standards of masculinity, there are geek women available to them who are “sexy” in two ways: 1. These women do fit a physical standard of beauty, and 2. These women want to please men, want to be sexually appealing to them.

The video’s YouTube description claims, “This music video parody proves Geek and Gamer Girls really do exist.” Since, at the time, there had been multiple headlines proclaiming that women make up 50% of gamers and Comic-Con attendees, this description seems disingenuous. This is because geek women who are not “hot” are routinely ignored or erased in geek culture. This video would more accurately describe itself as “proof that conventionally sexy women who are also geeks want to have sex with you, presumed straight geek male viewer.”

Because geek women are often clearly aiming their performances at geek men, geek men and women often place blame on the women who dress this way. [Next slide] A comment on Geek Tyrant, written by a blogger who is posting a collection of “cosplay cleavage,” is illustrative. Venkman writes, “And ladies, maybe some of you will find these images offensive, but these are women that are dressing like this. We didn’t ask them to, they do it on their own, and if women dress like this, the fact of the matter is…guys are going to stare [sic].” This sentiment lands the blame for the objectification of geek women squarely on the shoulders of women, and characterizes men’s responses to these women as inevitable, natural, and uncontrollable. [Next slide] Needless to say, however, the images included in the blog post make it clear that these geek men feel they have nothing to apologize for. The blogger is not suggesting that men do not objectify women (after all, they go to cons to see “cleavage,” not to meet women or fellow geeks), but he refuses to accept responsibility for this. Rather, he suggests that women need to just accept that “guys are going to stare” at women who perform a certain version of “sexy.” It is thus women’s responsibility to prevent their own objectification. [Next slide]

There are some obvious problems in this kind of hand-waving exercise, but the most important one for us today is that one of the reasons geek women seek the approval of geek men is that geek men have positions of power and privilege in both geek industries and in geek fan communities. While women understand that sexy cosplay won’t get them respect, per se, they also know that it is most likely to get them positive attention, recognition, and limited acceptance in geek communities. Women who do not or cannot seek sexual approval from the male geek community are more likely to be ignored, derided, or dismissed. They are more likely to be called harpy feminists or annoying squeeing fangirls than to get approval and acceptance. Team Unicorn, for example, was rewarded generously for their performance with relative fame and funding for a slick new website. They also managed to buy legitimacy in this video with the inclusion of Seth Green and Stan Lee. One has to wonder, would Seth Green have agreed to a video proving the existence of female geeks if those geeks had been fat, queer, or disabled?

The pressure is on for geek women to position themselves as sexy consumable objects for geek men. When they do so, their decision is framed as a freely-made choice. On the other hand, men’s behavior in reaction to sexy cosplay, like leering, sexual harassment, or other forms of objectification, is usually framed as inevitable and natural. The pressure women feel to perform “sexy” for their fellow geeks is usually ignored or dismissed, and the conversation becomes similar to the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel at Comic-Con, in which the problem is framed as about geek women, not geek culture. Are women selling out, or being empowered?

The answer to that question is that it’s more complicated. While women performing sexy for their fellow geeks are unquestionably doing so within a culture that encourages this performance and values women merely as decoration, they may also be using sexy cosplay to subvert that culture’s objectification of women.

In John Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture, he describes jeans as objects of popular culture that can embody contradictory meanings. Jeans, he argues, have multiple meanings given to us by jean producers, such as associations with heteronormative femininity, youth, toughness, and/or hard work. These meanings come from the top, and represent the interests of those in power. People can tear their jeans (or write on them, or bleach them, or cut them off) to subvert and resist those meanings, but this doesn’t mean that the original meanings just go away. Rather, both meanings coexist in the garment simultaneously. According to Fiske, this means that popular culture objects, like jeans, “can entail the expression of both domination and subordination, of both power and resistance. So torn jeans signify both a set of dominant American values and a degree of resistance to them” (4). Sexy cosplay works in the same way. There are ways in which individual sexy cosplayers incorporate meanings resistant to the culture’s demand that they proffer themselves as consumable objects.

[Next slide] Olivia Waite, a geek and erotica writer, wrote about her personal experience with the slave Leia cosplay, after I had blogged a version of this essay at the Geek Feminism blog. Waite was a big fan of Star Wars when she was a child, and her favorite character was Leia, who she describes as “badass, intelligent, and passionate.”

She writes that when watching Return of the Jedi,

as soon as [Leia] shows up in the gold bikini, with the high ponytail and the neck-chain, every cell in my being went, She must be so pissed about that.

Because what people forget, when they talk about Slave Leia outfits, is that it’s the one costume she doesn’t choose for herself. She’s forced into it, compelled to wear that bikini for Jabba’s dubious and slobbery pleasure. And I can see why people are upset that this happens—because if there’s one thing we do not need to gratify so much, it’s the male gaze in film—but at the same time, I think it’s important that this happens to Leia, because it happens to plenty of women, all the time, every day, around the world, with or without help from a gold bikini.

And here is what Leia does, when you force her into a scanty outfit and choke-chain: she takes that chain, and she kills you with it. She doesn’t let her clothing get in her way or limit her more than she can help—she waits for her moment to strike, and then she conquers her would-be conqueror and saves the day.

And I was a little kid, not yet desensitized to violence […] Jabba’s death scene freaked the hell out of me. It wasn’t a clean blaster shot to the chest or a slice from a lightsaber that sent sparks flying or made you turn invisible. There were struggles, and flailing, and twitching limbs. The shots are close-ups, and very dark—it’s vicious, and vengeful, and physical, and very very personal.

So for me, wearing that gold bikini does not mean Here I am, a sexy toy for your amusement and gratification.

To me, that gold bikini says, If you fuck with me, I will end you.

It says, What I wear is not the same as who I am.

Waite’s is a particularly powerful example of how women can create subversive meanings in their sexy cosplay. Hers doesn’t even require an alteration in the costume, though it may include a more aggressive stance for pictures, or even a performance of the chain choking. But it is, all the same, resistant to the cultural meanings put onto the costume by the producers of Star Wars and by the powers that be in fan communities. In Waite’s cosplay, the gold bikini is a symbol of female power and resistance to objectification. At the same time, it holds those dominant meanings as well. It contains the raunch culture assumption that women are primarily valuable for their performance of “sexy” and a resistance to that gross objectification. It symbolizes the titillation of women in sexual slavery and a challenge to women’s subordinate status as the sex class. From my own experiences in geek fan cultures, I don’t believe Waite is an anomaly, a pioneering feminist geek who uses sexy cosplay to challenge the messages found in geek media and geek culture. There are others like her, whose sexy cosplays are also challenges to the status quo.

It is also important to note that not all cosplay (sexy or not) is progressive or oppositional, either. As Henry Jenkins points out in Textual Poachers,

To say that fans promote their own meanings over those of producers is not to suggest that the meanings fans produce are always oppositional ones or that those meanings are made in isolation from other social factors. Fans have chosen these media products from the total range of available texts precisely because they seem to hold special potential as vehicles for expressing the fans’ pre-existing social commitments and cultural interests; there is already some degree of compatibility between the ideological construction of the text and the ideological commitments of the fans and therefore, some degree of affinity will exist between the meanings fans produces and those which might be located through a critical analysis of the original story. […] Readers are not always resistant; all resistant readings are not necessarily progressive readings; the ‘people’ do not always recognize their conditions of alienation and subordination. (34)

That is to say, not all geek women recognize their conditions as alienated and subordinated members of geek cultures. Not all sexy cosplay is (or can be) oppositional or progressive, as Waite’s reading of the costume is. However, this does not mean that geek women are somehow to blame for their objectification. As Jenkins notes, fans make their choices in the context of their cultures, and not in isolation of social factors. The beauty myth, raunch culture, and the male domination of geek culture(s) all contribute to female fans’ choice in sexy cosplay, even if they choose to resist the meanings handed down from those in power. In order to fix the culture of objectification in geek culture, we cannot look to individual women and cosplayers, but rather to those in power, whether they be content creators (like George Lucas, Stan Lee, Felicia Day), influential commentators (like Chris Hardwick, Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik), convention organizers, or forum moderators. The problem here is not “self-objectification,” as my essay title suggests, but the pressure to perform sexy (or be ignored, derided, or dismissed). The fact is, “sexy” is not the only way that geek women represent themselves; it is merely the representation recognized and rewarded by geek culture at large. That has to change before the position of women in these culture(s) can change.

Works Cited

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Kindle ed. New York: Free Press, 2005. AZW file.

“Oh, You Sexy Geek!” Panel at Comic-Con, 21 July 2011, 10:45 AM. My Comic-Con 2011 Sched*. Comic-Con, n.d. Web. 25 September 2011. < http://mysched.comic-con.org/event/c31518fe1aa3bb6b788ba63757b84fba&gt;

Venkman. “Collection of Cosplay Cleavage.” Geek Tyrant. Geektyrant, 15 July 2011. Web. 9 April 2012.

Waite, Olivia. “In Defense of Slave Leia.” Olivia Waite. Olivia Waite, 29 August 2011. Web. 8 April 2012.

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991. Print.

Femme Doctors and crossplayers: Not that different

Cross-posted at Doctor Her.

Post-Gallifrey, I was interviewed at i09 about the phenomenon of femme Doctor cosplay. If you’re not familiar with it, femme cosplay is when female cosplayers alter the costumes of male characters to make them feminine. Femme cosplayers add ruffles, lace, heels, alter the silhouette of a costume (often with a corset), etc.

A femme Jackson Lake A femme Jackson Lake sports a corset and long coat. Photo by Alex Halcyon.

This trend is often contrasted with crossplaying. Crossplayers are usually female cosplayers who alter their bodies to costume as male characters. (Male crossplayers dress as female characters.) Unlike their femme counterparts, they will bind their breasts, wear men’s wigs, and wear makeup designed to mask feminine features. Generally, people think these trends are at odds; they believe that femme Doctors and crossplay Doctors are doing very different things.

A femme Eighth DoctorsquirrelyTONKS is a bit of a femme Doctor superstar at the Gallifrey convention. Photo by Alex Halcyon.

A snippet from the interview:

Both crossplay and femme cosplay draw attention to gender. Women passing as men are destabilizing gender by illustrating how easy it is to perform the opposite gender, by showing that all gender performance is performance, since cosplay is fundamentally performative. Femme cosplay does the same thing: it draws attention to the performance of gender, but this time femininity. […]

So really, crossplay and femme cosplay are not that different. Both alter their bodies, showing that no matter what gender they are playing, their bodies often don’t match any ideal. While crossplayers wear binders, femme cosplayers wear corsets and heels. But their motivations are the same: they emphasize the performative nature of gender, and thus destabilize it. Women do this more because they have more to gain by destabilizing gender, being at the bottom rung of the gender hierarchy.

I have quite a bit more to say about how I think femme Doctor cosplay (and crossplay) is a feminist critique of Doctor Who and its fan community, so go read it!

two femme fivesTwo femme Fifth Doctors with cropped jackets…and celery! Photo by Alex Halcyon.
Paparazzi with cameras

Re-post: Harassing photography and recording; ethics and policies

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from last year. This post originally appeared on April 28, 2011.

We’re starting to collect some examples of photography/recording harassment experiences (still open , and some of the kinds of problems people mention there and elsewhere are:

  • photography/recording conducted in a way that is designed to hide the fact of the photography/recording from the subject both before and after the shot/recording happens
  • photography/recording that is indifferent to or careless of the subject’s feelings about being photographed/recorded
  • photography/recording that is othering: “wow, women! *click click*” or “hey, babe, smile for the camera!” or later posted with othering, sexist or creepy commentary
  • failing or refusing to stop photographing/recording on an explicit request or appearance of discomfort (eg turning away or frowning or covering one’s face, etc)
  • publishing photographs without the subject’s consent, or after the subject’s explicit refusal of consent
  • use of photographs to implicitly or explicitly endorse an event or community, eg, using pics of smiling participants from the previous year in publicity materials, without consent

Now most of these things are legal in my region (see NSW Photographer’s Rights, which as you will guess from the title is not focussed on subject’s concerns, but which is informative) and in many others. I believe the only exception (in NSW) may be the last, because the use of someone’s image to promote a product requires a model release, that is, consent from the subject. Whether/when using someone’s photo on a website is considered promotion I don’t know but that’s a side point.

For that matter, I’m not even arguing that they should be illegal or actionable (in this piece anyway, perhaps some of them are arguable). I’m sympathetic to many of the uses of non-consensual photography, even (art, journalism, historical documentation). I’m arguing more narrowly that in the context of geek events, which are usually private and which can therefore impose additional restrictions on behaviour as a condition of entry, that restrictions on photography could prevent some harassment. (As a short and possibly sloppy definition for people who haven’t seen many harassment discussions, I would define harassment as “unwelcome interpersonal interactions, which either a reasonable person would know are unwelcome, or which were stated to be unwelcome but continued after that.”)

I’m arguing that this collection of behaviours around photographs makes geek events hostile to some participants, especially women. After all, even though it’s (I think) legal to sneak-photograph a woman’s face, write a little essay about how attractive you find her and try and get it on Flickr Explore even as she emails you to say that she’s upset and repeatedly request that you take it down, that doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

Now, obviously it would be nice not to have to spell ethical behaviour out to people, but the need for anti-harassment policies (and, for that matter, law) makes it clear that geek events do need to do so.

There’s quite a range of possible policies that could be adopted around photography:

  • the status quo, obviously, which at many geek events is that any photography/recording that would be legally allowed in public spaces is allowed there;
  • photography/recording should be treated like other potentially harassing interpersonal interactions at an event, that is, when one person in the interaction says “stop” or “leave me alone” (etc), the interaction must end;
  • photography/recording shouldn’t be done in such a way as to hide from the subject that it’s happening, and upon the subject’s request the photo/footage/etc must be deleted;
  • subjects cannot be photographed/recorded without prior explicit consent; and/or
  • the above combined with some kind of explicit opt-in or opt-out marking so that one doesn’t need to necessarily ask every time if one can see the marking (in various conversations on this I have to say my main concern tends to be the need to peer closely at people’s chests to see their “PHOTOS/VIDEOS OK” or “NO PHOTOS/VIDEOS” marking on their badge, however, Skud says it works well at Wiscon).

There might be certain additional freedoms or restrictions regarding crowd photography/recording and/or photography/recording of organisers, scheduled speakers and people actively highlighted in similar formal events.

What do you think? Whether a photographer/videographer/recorder or subject of same, what do you think appropriate ethics are when photographing/recording at private geek events, and what do you think could/should be codified as policy?

Note to commenters: there are a couple of things that tend to come up a lot in these sorts of discussions, which are:

  1. “but this is perfectly legal [in my jurisdiction]”
  2. some geeks, including geek photographers, are shy and asking strangers for permission to photograph them is a confronting interaction, and thus very hard on shy people

I’m not saying that you need to totally avoid discussion of these points in comments here, but you can safely assume that everyone knows these points and has to some degree taken them into account and go from there. (My own perspective on the last one is that it’s odd at best to pay an enormous amount of heed to the social comfort of photographers at the expense of their subjects. You could, of course, consider both together.) Also if talking about legal aspects, do specify which jurisdiction(s) you are talking about: this is an area where laws vary substantially.

Booth Grandmas passing out cookies at Good Old Games PAX Prime 2011 booth

Booth Grandmas at PAX Prime 2011

Apparently game company Good Old Games‘ booth at PAX prime this year featured booth grandmas passing out cookies. I was worried the PAX coverage would just make me sad that I couldn’t make it this year, but this just made me smile. Nice way to fit your booth staff into your retro-nostalgic theming! Also, cookies are totally awesome swag, and you don’t have to try to fit them into your suitcase on the way home. As you can tell from the background X Banner Stands, this was THE spot to get cookies.

Booth Grandmas passing out cookies at Good Old Games' PAX Prime 2011 booth

Booth Grandmas passing out cookies at Good Old Games’ PAX Prime 2011 booth

I got the picture from here, although I don’t know if that’s the original since I’ve seen it elsewhere.

Slave Leias

“Geek girls” and the problem of self-objectification

UPDATE: I have written a better and more developed version of this article as a presentation for the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in 2012. You can read the updated version of this article here. (Also, hello WisCon 36 attendees! I wish I was there!)

Cross-posted at From Austin to A&M.

There is a difficult conversation to be had about self-objectifying geeks. (I’m looking at you, slave Leias.) And while feminist geeks have been addressing this issue for a while now, it seems that more mainstream geek culture has caught up with us. Comic-Con actually had a panel this year called “Oh, You Sexy Geek!,” in which they were to discuss the implications of sexy women in geek culture. From the online program:

Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? When geek girls show off, are they liberating themselves or pandering to men? Do some “fake fangirls” blend sex appeal with nerdiness just to appeal to the growing geek/nerd market, or is that question itself unfair? And what’s up with all the Slave Leias?

I’ve been researching and thinking about cosplay for a while now, and one of the most distressing trends I’ve been grappling with is how women will choose characters, costumes, or costume constructions based on how “sexy” the costume will appear on them. This is not just a cosplay problem, but a geek problem. And until we start having an intelligent conversation about it (preferably a conversation that starts with the assumption that it is a problem), it’s not one that geek communities will ever be rid of. (A little unsurprisingly, the Comic-Con panel was apparently sort of terrible. We’ll get to that in a minute.)

As I’ve argued before, the sexisms that persist in geek communities are not special. They are not separable and inherently different from sexist thoughts and behaviors in the”real world.” They are part and parcel of regular ole sexism, not a special geek dude brand invented outside of patriarchy. So with that in mind, it’s important to remember that the sexualization of women is something that women and men consume and internalize all over the place. Though it does seem to be particularly bad in geek media. Video games, comics, science fiction, fantasy: these media forms are often at fault for promoting unrealistic (and, pretty regularly, physically impossible) standards of beauty. They fashion their female heroines and villains as sexy objects to be consumed, unlike their male counterparts.

As I said to Amanda Hess last year, being the sexy object is one of the places where geek women can find acceptance in their communities. From the interview:

Too often, women in geek cultures are only welcomed if they are decoration, sexy versions of the things geek men love, not equal participants or fellow fans. Forever Geek […], for example, has, in just the past two months, posted with glee about female models naked except for high heels and stormtrooper helmets gracing skateboards, a car wash in which women dressed in sexy Princess Leia costumes washed cars, and Star Wars corsets. Geek communities love women, as long as their members don’t have to think of those women as people.

When I was on the “Geek Girls in Popular Culture” panel at ApolloCon, we talked about this nonsense for quite a while, because, as a couple of the panelists pointed out, it seems like a geek woman can only get attention if she’s conventionally beautiful and willing to objectify herself. When geek women choose to self-objectify at geek events, they are not doing so in a vacuum. So while I think it’s possible that some of them are trying to feel empowered in their sexuality, and reclaim their femininity, they cannot escape the fact that this is a culture that embraces female fans almost exclusively as sexy objects. In other words, a feminist can wear high heels, but she shouldn’t lie to herself about what that means.

The problem then, isn’t that women are objectifying themselves. That’s like holding a panel asking if women are liberating themselves or pandering to men for wearing mascara/high heels/Spanx/bras, curling or straightening their hair, or shaving their legs and underarms. Because it’s easy to blame women, right? It’s easy to say that if women don’t want to be objectified, they shouldn’t dress sexy or do the beauty work asked of them.

And it’s easy to get angry at Team Unicorn for so obviously pandering to the male gaze and framing themselves as sex objects for male geeks. It’s easy to hate Olivia Munn and point to her as everything that is wrong with geek women or geek culture. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the ubiquitous sexy cosplayers, and blame them for the objectification of women in geek cultures.

But the actions of women are not the cause of their objectification. Women have a lot of good reasons to perform beauty work and to dress sexy, especially in the sexist cultures represented at your average con. Women aren’t the problem, whether they crossplay and eschew femininity altogether or they pull out the sexy Leia costume. The problem is that women who dress sexy, who frame themselves as sex objects, are rewarded by geek culture for doing so. They get attention, approval, and recognition from the culture when they dress as sexy Leia (or any sexy geek thing). They have pictures taken of them at cons, and they get posted and reposted on the internet. They are recognized as geeks (and generally as somewhat authentic geeks, even if they aren’t talked about that way) and welcomed into the community (maybe not as full members, but at least as desirable). There’s nothing wrong with wanting attention and approval in one’s community. What cosplayer and geek wouldn’t want those things? What female geek doesn’t want to be welcomed into the community with enthusiasm and excitement (instead of derided as a harpy feminist or annoying squeeing fangirl)? The problem, then, isn’t what women do, but a culture in which the only way that women can be recognized as a desirable part of the culture is when they participate by making themselves consumable sexy objects for geek men.

Slave Leias

A group of slave Leia cosplayers gather at Comic-Con.

The panel at Comic-Con was framed poorly, and perhaps that’s why it turned into a goddamn mess, with panelists suggesting the women criticizing sexy cosplayers were “just jealous,” one panelist arguing the women are all a bunch of bitches, another claiming”I can’t help it that some of the characters I like to cosplay are scantily clad,” and the only male panelist showing up 5 minutes before the panel ended and making an inappropriate sexual joke (synopsis from Feminist Fatale). Well, one of the reasons. Another reason is probably that geek cultures tend to think we’re beyond feminism, and Suzanne Scott claims that the panel

devolved into a postfeminist panel, in which feminism was invoked and then discarded as no longer necessary (or too “old fashioned,” or some form of buzzkillery we need to”get over”).

This is unsurprising, if disappointing. Because geek cultures often think of themselves as countercultural, they dont usually believe they are tainted by the sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, ad naseum that infect popular culture. And there are entire blogs that prove that nonsense untrue.

This whole conversation needs to change focus. Individual geeks and cosplayers have their own reasons for dressing as they do or presenting themselves as they do. Those reasons can indeed involve their thinking that dressing as sexy Leia is empowering, for whatever reason. And we shouldnt be dismissing those reasons. But the trend of sexy geek cosplaying, the trend of geek women objectifying and sexualizing themselves, that a whole ‘nother ballgame. We need to be talking about this as a problem of our culture, not a problem that women bring upon themselves.

RELATED UPDATE: I just discovered the Fashionably Geek blog, and what. the. fuck:

Lady Chewbacca costume

Billed as a female Chewbacca costume, but it just looks like another sexy Halloween costume. A conventionally pretty white lady sports a furry bra, mini skirt, and cuffs on her wrists and lower legs.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I’m not too comfortable with how much my post (and now the comments) are hyper-focusing on slave Leia cosplayers. This is about sexy cosplayers of all stripes, including ones like the above, which alter a costume to make it sexy. Please keep in mind that we are talking about a large group of cosplayers, not just the slave Leias.

Linkspam made the top 10 (24th June, 2011)

  • Color Lines gives us The Ultimate 21st Century People of Color Sci-Fi List

    It seems that when it comes to sci-fi, cultural experiences of the melanin-inclined are merely reserved for exotic backdrop (ahem, “Stargate”) and half-assed tokenization (ahem, the horrible Mandarin in “Firefly”). […] This is for all the disappointed moviegoers who felt the title “Minority Report” was misleading.

  • Forbes lists The 10 Most Powerful Women Authors The list only counts living authors, but includes both Pulitzer-Prize winners and bestsellers
  • on privilege denial within disability: If the only time you bring up being not abled is when someone calls you out on being ableist, this may apply to you.
  • An Open Letter to Courtney Martin, an Editor at Feministing.Com: To offer a review on a feminist Web site of Octavia Butler’s work without discussing, in depth, her contribution to feminism in general and black feminism specifically is to do the legacy of Octavia Butler a tremendous disservice.
  • (Warning: extensive anti-women/feminist statements quoted, some advocating violence.) How to choose the absolutely wrong person to write about girls and D&D — the title really says it all. The article in question has since been removed.
  • On Geekdom and Privilege: Sympathy For The “Pretty’?: All of which is not to say that celebrities or hot people can never be members of the community. In calling herself a history geek, Campanella herself seems to fit the definition of a geek ally: she has some geeky interests, and she believes in evolution (thank goodness), but it’s not like she chose to cosplay Wonder Woman for the swimsuit competition, either.
  • Ann Leckie: Wiscon-Related Thoughts pt 1: But we still do it, ourselves. Some portions of the eternal what’s really science fiction debate seem focused on excluding pears and oranges from our basket on the grounds that they’re not really fruit. Except no definition that excludes oranges and pears will also include every sort of apple.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Linkspamming the night away (11th May, 2011)

  • May 13 in Boston: A project-driven introduction to Python for women and their friends (unfortunately now gone to “waiting list only” status).
  • An open letter to the Australian SF community: However, the venue staging was awful, in terms of its accessibility. High, and only accessible by temporary stairs, the stage was off-limits to anyone in a wheelchair, anyone in an electric scooter and anyone with a significant mobility impairment… This should not be acceptable to us as a community in the twenty-first century.
  • How To Encourage More Brown Women To Launch Tech Startups I realized that simply asking, “Are you going?” is enough to make a difference in someone’s awareness.
  • As benno37 says: Tip to open source developers: don’t name your library after a sexist/offensive/illegal activity. I’m looking at you upskirt! Seriously, wtf. (So that not everyone has to google for the term, upskirt is a library to parse the Markdown syntax for webpages. The Wikipedia page for Markdown has loads of alternative implementations to choose from.)
  • Confessions of a Fairy Tale Addict: Because it is a lifestyle choice, to write fairy tale books. Make no mistake. I mean, in our culture, the phrase fairy tale practically means: trite, lightweight, and fluffy. You know, girl stuff.
  • There’s a long series of interviews conducted in 2010/2011 with women working in planetary science. See for example Natalie Batalha (From postdoc to Deputy Project Scientist on Kepler), Amy Jurewicz (Stardust, Genesis, and SCIM) and for that matter Emily Lakdawalla (It is NOT failure to leave academia).

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Ask a Geek Feminist, photography/recording round

Welcome to a special round of Ask a Geek Feminist! There are a few photographers/recorders or event organisers who want to ask us questions about their policies or practices, and don’t feel their questions fit the existing threads.

So:

  • if you’ve got a question about practising photography/recording at geek events, displaying photos of same, or about how your policy is perceived, ask a question in comments here. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
  • in a few days I’ll begin opening questions up to our commenters in one or more posts

Please keep questions to two paragraphs at most. If you’re asking about a specific policy or specific recording please provide a link where possible. Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it.

Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. If you miss out and find comments have already closed, you can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.

Harassing photography and recording; ethics and policies

We’re starting to collect some examples of photography/recording harassment experiences (still open , and some of the kinds of problems people mention there and elsewhere are:

  • photography/recording conducted in a way that is designed to hide the fact of the photography/recording from the subject both before and after the shot/recording happens
  • photography/recording that is indifferent to or careless of the subject’s feelings about being photographed/recorded
  • photography/recording that is othering: “wow, women! *click click*” or “hey, babe, smile for the camera!” or later posted with othering, sexist or creepy commentary
  • failing or refusing to stop photographing/recording on an explicit request or appearance of discomfort (eg turning away or frowning or covering one’s face, etc)
  • publishing photographs without the subject’s consent, or after the subject’s explicit refusal of consent
  • use of photographs to implicitly or explicitly endorse an event or community, eg, using pics of smiling participants from the previous year in publicity materials, without consent

Now most of these things are legal in my region (see NSW Photographer’s Rights, which as you will guess from the title is not focussed on subject’s concerns, but which is informative) and in many others. I believe the only exception (in NSW) may be the last, because the use of someone’s image to promote a product requires a model release, that is, consent from the subject. Whether/when using someone’s photo on a website is considered promotion I don’t know but that’s a side point.

For that matter, I’m not even arguing that they should be illegal or actionable (in this piece anyway, perhaps some of them are arguable). I’m sympathetic to many of the uses of non-consensual photography, even (art, journalism, historical documentation). I’m arguing more narrowly that in the context of geek events, which are usually private and which can therefore impose additional restrictions on behaviour as a condition of entry, that restrictions on photography could prevent some harassment. (As a short and possibly sloppy definition for people who haven’t seen many harassment discussions, I would define harassment as “unwelcome interpersonal interactions, which either a reasonable person would know are unwelcome, or which were stated to be unwelcome but continued after that.”)

I’m arguing that this collection of behaviours around photographs makes geek events hostile to some participants, especially women. After all, even though it’s (I think) legal to sneak-photograph a woman’s face, write a little essay about how attractive you find her and try and get it on Flickr Explore even as she emails you to say that she’s upset and repeatedly request that you take it down, that doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

Now, obviously it would be nice not to have to spell ethical behaviour out to people, but the need for anti-harassment policies (and, for that matter, law) makes it clear that geek events do need to do so.

There’s quite a range of possible policies that could be adopted around photography:

  • the status quo, obviously, which at many geek events is that any photography/recording that would be legally allowed in public spaces is allowed there;
  • photography/recording should be treated like other potentially harassing interpersonal interactions at an event, that is, when one person in the interaction says “stop” or “leave me alone” (etc), the interaction must end;
  • photography/recording shouldn’t be done in such a way as to hide from the subject that it’s happening, and upon the subject’s request the photo/footage/etc must be deleted;
  • subjects cannot be photographed/recorded without prior explicit consent; and/or
  • the above combined with some kind of explicit opt-in or opt-out marking so that one doesn’t need to necessarily ask every time if one can see the marking (in various conversations on this I have to say my main concern tends to be the need to peer closely at people’s chests to see their “PHOTOS/VIDEOS OK” or “NO PHOTOS/VIDEOS” marking on their badge, however, Skud says it works well at Wiscon).

There might be certain additional freedoms or restrictions regarding crowd photography/recording and/or photography/recording of organisers, scheduled speakers and people actively highlighted in similar formal events.

What do you think? Whether a photographer/videographer/recorder or subject of same, what do you think appropriate ethics are when photographing/recording at private geek events, and what do you think could/should be codified as policy?

Note to commenters: there are a couple of things that tend to come up a lot in these sorts of discussions, which are:

  1. “but this is perfectly legal [in my jurisdiction]”
  2. some geeks, including geek photographers, are shy and asking strangers for permission to photograph them is a confronting interaction, and thus very hard on shy people

I’m not saying that you need to totally avoid discussion of these points in comments here, but you can safely assume that everyone knows these points and has to some degree taken them into account and go from there. (My own perspective on the last one is that it’s odd at best to pay an enormous amount of heed to the social comfort of photographers at the expense of their subjects. You could, of course, consider both together.) Also if talking about legal aspects, do specify which jurisdiction(s) you are talking about: this is an area where laws vary substantially.

Harassing photography and recording; collecting your experiences

This is an anecdote gathering exercise, hopefully creating an opportunity for discussion around photography at geek events.

At present, the confererence anti-harassment policy (which, as a reminder, is designed to be edited to be made more appropriate for individual conferences) includes this text:

Harassment includes… harassing photography or recording

Discussion after the application of this policy at linux.conf.au 2011 (see my entry Powerful people: Mark Pesce’s linux.conf.au keynote) focussed on this to an extent, with considerable pushback from people who like taking candid portrait photography after some proposals of making portrait photography opt-in at conferences. (I don’t want to focus on specific people’s opinions in this post or its comments, but see the linux-aus threads beginning with Some Anti-Harassment Policies considered harmful and Designated Photography Space at LCA? for some examples. Warning that a considerable number of commentators are unsympathetic to the idea that either Pesce’s talk or any candid photography can be harassing, and sometimes to feminist conceptions of harassment in general.)

It was fairly clear to me that, as is usual in these kinds of situations, people are picturing the most vindictive and trivial possible uses of the policy by overly powerful presumed-women photography subjects against poor defenseless presumed-men photographers. The real situation is of course considerably less sympathetic to some photographers and videographers, and viewers of their output. Recall my entry Conference recordings and harassment which shares a couple of stories about harassment by viewers of event imagery:

S gave a talk at a professional conference and related the following experience in chat:

S: linkedin pm I just got: “wow- you’re alot more younger and attractive than I imagined!.Thanks for showing your picture!”
S: I don’t like photographs and don’t let my likeness out much online. But a professional talk I gave a couple weeks ago was videoed (with my knowledge and consent). This was the result.

C gave a talk at a technical conference and a recorded version was also published with her consent. She subsequently received an anonymous email with a list of time offsets for the video and sexual commentary on her appearance at those time offsets.

The main point of that entry was to talk about official recordings, and how reluctance to appear in them might not just be due to “I hate sharing! I want to control my image for monetary gain!” as some event organisers seem to assume.

It seems we now need to talk about unofficial images and recordings, and how reluctance to appear in them might not (is usually not) “I hate people having pleasant memories and mementos of an event! I wish to end all event fun right now, and wipe people’s memories when they leave! I also hate art!”

There’s also the issue of harassment by photographers/recorders themselves. I’d like to gather stories of experiences if possible. If you’ve been photographed or recorded in a harassing way at a geek event, or have been harassed by viewers of the photograph/recording, you are invited to share your story here, including impact on you and follow-up if any.

Stories here will hopefully be useful to activists, policy designers and event organisers, to give them a sense of what real harassment scenarios are, and the impact they have on attendees.

Notes for commenting:

  1. participation in this thread is totally voluntary. Do not feel obliged to share experiences.
  2. this post is focussing on peoples experiences of being photographed and recorded. That means one’s experiences of being a photographer, videographer or recorder, even if you think your practices are far more ethical than those of photographers described by commenters, are off-topic for this entry, as are comments like “I take photographs in [some particular way] do people think that’s OK?”. I will probably put up a companion piece in a day or two for more general discussion of photography, harassment, artistic freedom and ethics, and intersections of same.
  3. responses are not limited to women (nor do you have to identify your gender in your reply): if you’re not a woman and you’ve been subjected to harassing photography/recordings or responses to them, you are welcome to share
  4. you are welcome to use a new and one-time pseudonym for this post if you like. Check carefully before you do so that the pseudonym you choose has not already been used in the thread so that there’s no chance that you and someone else are assumed to be the same person. Comments must otherwise adhere to our comments policy.

Notes for using/interpreting comments here: these are not necessarily representative experiences and of course we have not verified them. They have the status of anecdotes.