Feminist Musings from a Cosplay Photographer

This week has been a rough week for women in fandom. Just in the past few days, we’ve seen:

Controversy, controversy, everywhere.

First, some context: I am a straight white male. I grew up middle class. I have never had to go hungry, and never been financially destitute (despite the ongoing efforts of my mortgage company). I am pleased to be in the position I’m in, and I recognize that a lot of people have things a heck of a lot tougher than I do, for various social and economic reasons.

As I’ve gotten more involved in fandom, and met a lot of awesome people, I’ve had my perspectives challenged and expanded. I’ve watched and chimed in via Twitter as fandom struggled with questions of diversity vs. political correctness, whether it be the Readercon fiasco, back-and-forth criticism of sexuality in cosplay, or the dirty jokes that led to two people getting fired. (That last one is more “tech” than “fandom”, although the two circles heavily intersect.)

On a more positive and well thought-out note, I see interesting re-imaginings like Michael Lee Lunsford’s fully clothed superheroines, which got a lot of positive reaction a few days ago. But some of the praise verged on the suggestion that beauty = modesty (a dubious statement– the two concepts are only tangentially related) and that women who cosplay scantily-clad characters and superheroines are, to say the least, not helping the feminist cause. This is perhaps best personified in this reaction, in which the author laments the oversexualization of cosplay. Oh, if only cosplayers wouldn’t parade their butts around and show so much skin!

For my part, I consider myself a feminist. I’m also a cosplayer, a photographer, a writer, and a creative person. I’ve shot photoshoots with gorgeous models, I’ve done bodypainting (on both myself and others), and written erotic fiction. And here’s the thing: none of those are mutually exclusive in the slightest. Rather, being successful at any of them starts from the same place: Respect. Whether the person I’m photographing is dressed as Vampirella, Kratos, or Optimus Prime, they are a human being, with all the motivations, insecurities, temptations, shortcomings, feelings, and thoughts that entails. Therefore they are worthy of respect, period, full stop.

Respect isn’t something people earn, it’s something they deserve. It’s a direct benefit of existence. Even if she (or he) is in a sexy or provocative pose, wearing next to nothing, or partaking in some other action that you disagree with either on a rational or a moral basis, that doesn’t and never will countenance being disrespectful or harassing.

In a previous blog post, I said that happiness isn’t so much a result of what happens to you, as opposed to how you react to it. In a similar manner, respect– and class, and dignity, and a host of other adjectives– aren’t so much about what happen to you, as how you react to them. Are you a journalist interviewing a gorgeous woman dressed as Black Cat? How you comport yourself in that interview says everything about you, and nothing about her. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that you don’t have control over your own behavior.

To which I say, loud and clear, bullshit. This is a call to all the males– all the people– of fandom, of geekdom, of cosplay, hell, of the whole goddamn world. YOU have full control and responsibility for YOUR OWN actions. Whether you’re a football player in Steubenville, a journalist in New York, a professional author, or a cosplay photographer in one of countless cons across the world. Take some fucking responsibility. Believe it or not, you have 100% control over what you say and how you treat people. The awesome places you find yourself, the sexy people you might find yourself talking to and looking at, do not under any circumstance excuse or justify, even in the slightest, a bad reaction.

For me as a photographer, this means that no matter who I want to take a picture of, I always get their permission first. I walk up to them, tap them once on the shoulder if I need to get their attention, and ask, while maintaining eye contact: “May I take your picture?” If they’re in a conversation, I will apologize for interrupting– if indeed I interrupt at all. I try not to stop folks who are clearly busy, no matter how great their costume is or how sexy they look. I recognize that even though they are cosplayers, I am not actually entitled to anything. And I wouldn’t touch a cosplayer inappropriately, no matter how they dress, any more than I would inappropriately touch a stranger on the street.

This attitude has benefits. For one, it works in reverse. If I react under the default assumption that others are worthy of respect, then it means that I am worthy of respect. This is a huge self-confidence booster; in fact, I’d say this attitude, more than anything else, has boosted my self-confidence more than anything else I’ve done in the past couple years, including taking anti-depressants. It means that when others don’t treat me with respect, I feel okay about leaving the situation. People aren’t entitled to things from me any more than I’m entitled to things from them, and that has stopped a lot of second-guessing on my part when it comes to my social anxiety. Moreover, it means that I’m naturally less awkward in social interactions, whether they be with beautiful women or anybody else– I know how I’m going to behave, and the other person’s clothing, mannerisms, etc. is pretty much irrelevant to that.

One of the greatest things I’ve learned in the past year is that it’s possible to flirt with people while still staying true to every single thing I mentioned above. In fact, some people will be so surprised that you’re acting this way that they’ll take regular conversation as flirting, even skillful flirting, simply because you’re confident in yourself while still treating them like a human being. Seizing and holding on to full responsibility for my own actions is the greatest and most liberating thing I’ve ever done, and I highly suggest people try it, regardless of your gender, sexual orientation, skin color, costume, or political beliefs. And– this is key– regardless of the gender, sexual orientation, skin color, costume, or political beliefs of the people you interact with. That’s my advice to fandom. It’s simple, perhaps even seemingly obvious, yet amazingly overlooked by too many people.

To paraphrase Aretha Franklin: R-e-s-p-e-c-t. That is what it means to me.

Norwescon: Roses, Onions, and Assorted Vegetation

Norwescon was a blast this year. For me, it was also a bit of a healing process, a reassurance that yes, life is still totally awesome. It was great– even more so than usual– to hang out with friends, meet new writer peeps, take lots of photos, and just spend a few days indulging my creative and social sides. My writing has been fairly neglected over the past couple months, what with family and travel and work and life, and so Norwescon was a bit of a kick in the pants, as if life shook me by the shoulder and said, “hey, I’m expecting some stories from you this year.”

The con is always very good about soliciting post-con feedback, so I’ll do most of the con recap in a “Roses/Onions” format. That’s Norwescon-speak for good things and bad things, although just as an aside, I’d rather have a bushel of onions than a bushel of roses– the former is tastier. That said… we’ll stick with convention for the time being. (No pun intended.)

Rose:Name Badges.

The most universal gripe I heard last year was that the names on the badges were too small to read from more than about a foot away. After all, at a con where you’re seeing new people constantly, it’s nice to be able to see their name without squinting at their chest. So I was pleased to see they addressed that. There was still some name badge silliness– for example, the requirement that someone have a badge name AND a real name, and that they both be on the badge… this led to oddities like someone having their real name printed twice. Why not just make the badge name optional? (I suppose it’s possible that it was and I wasn’t paying attention, but I never saw anyone with just one name on their badge.)

Onion: Registration.

The name badges took a step forward; the registration took a step forward and three steps back. This year, they tried a new process, with stages delineated represented by traffic light-ish colors (red, yellow, blue, green). Unfortunately no one knew what the stages actually meant, so a volunteer had to be stationed up front telling people exactly what to do, and I presume, repeat the exact same thing three thousand times.

The general idea was that people could input their own information, print the form, take it to the cashier, and pick up their badge. But I suspect confusion slowed things down (not to mention forcing the pre-reg folks to go through the whole process too) . Everyone I know who registered on Thursday afternoon said the line took at least an hour, which for a relatively small con like Norwescon, is silly. I got there on Thursday evening, at which point there was no longer a line, but was still caught in registration for several extra minutes by a jammed printer which I had to fix myself. I suspect it wouldn’t be too hard to remove the physical paper from the process entirely, since its only purpose is to be carried three feet to the cashier.

Rose: Readings

Lots of fantastic and well-attended readings this year; Tina Connolly and Nancy Kress stood out particularly in my mind. The Broad Universe Rapid-Fire reading was also very good– Camille Alexa’s telling of her story “All Them Pretty Babies” might be hands-down my favorite reading ever (pictured left). Cat Rambo, Folly Blaine, and Mae Empson were all fantastic as well.

All those folks read short stories instead of novels; by and large I was not as much a fan of the novel excerpt readings, not just because novels are less satisfying than short stories in that format but also, by and large, they weren’t read as well. Oral storytelling is an art in and of itself, and not all writers have it. But of the folks who did read longer excerpts, Patrick Swenson’s stood out in my mind, and I can’t wait to read his book The Ultra Thin Man when it comes out from Tor next year.

Onion: Overcrowded panels.

I didn’t attend many panels (more on that later) but Norwescon appears to be outgrowing its panel space. Most of the panels take place in the Cascade rooms upstairs, and a decent percentage of panels (maybe even a majority) were standing-room only. It’s great that the panels are so well-attended, but it does make things feel a bit overcrowded.

There were also a few cases in which panels were assigned to poor spaces. For example, the Weapons Demo, in which various martial artists and combat experts did demos for writers to help them write fight scenes more accurately. It was a great panel, but it was scheduled in a room with low ceilings– this made any weapon demos with anything longer than a short sword kind of impractical. Recommendation? Put the Weapons Demos in one of the Evergreen rooms next year. The ceilings there are high enough that someone can construct a 10-foot tall costume and still not touch the ceiling.

That’s not a hypothetical, as you can see in the picture to the right. The Venus & Venice Carnival Fashion Show, which showcased both traditional and sci-fi-style Carnival costumes, was excellent. The real Venice Carnival is now on my bucket list.

Rose: Parties.

The parties at Norwescon were, as usual, excellent. Particular props go out to the folks who organized the Masterplan party, which was easily my favorite room party.

For pure socializing and hanging out, the more sedate “writerly” parties were pretty awesome too, as was the Saturday afternoon Fairwood Social. It was fun to hang out with both the “amateurs” and the pros, too. I’ve had enough practice that this sort of mingling and chatting comes almost naturally to me now. Almost.

Onion: Advanced Writing Panels

I’ve more or less stopped going to the writing panels at Norwescon. Not because of the overcrowding, but because I kind of feel like I’ve seen them all before. To be clear, this isn’t a Norwescon-only problem, it’s a problem at all cons, except maybe World Fantasy, which has the luxury of assuming its entire audience are pros.

But by and large, it feels like all cons have the same writing panels. There’s the Worldbuilding 101 panel, How to Write a First Page, the How to Submit Your Stories to Markets, How to Edit, How to Critique, How to Write a Character Arc… which is fine. They cover the basics, and I presume the reason they keep having them is because they’re popular.

But each of these panels is pretty much the same every year, and each time the panelists give a very basic level of advice that they could give in their sleep. Given the sizable chunk of serious/aspiring pros at Norwescon– people who’ve written a fair amount, are actively submitting and publishing their stories, and know a lot of what’s being said– I think there’s room for some more advanced panels, or panels that cover unusual topics. To be fair, the science panels at Norwescon are pretty cool and cover some of this (for example, the “Pigs in Space” panel dealing with agriculture in space was very useful from a Science Fiction standpoint), but I think there’s room for more.

Some fantastic writing panels that stand out in my memory (at Norwescon and other cons) include things like Weapons Demos for Writers, Mapmaking for Fantasy Books, and in-depth discussions of a particular Fantasy Archetype (i.e. The Changeling, or the Eternal Wanderer). I’d really like to see authors and panelists take more advantage of niche knowledge to create really unique panels, because those are almost always more fun than something broad and basic.

Rose: Photography.

I really like the designated Masquerade photography area. No other con I’ve attended has anything similar, and it’s a great opportunity to get photos of both hall costumes and the Masquerade. You know what would be really cool? If there was an area– even just a few feet of a wall– where a section of backdrop was left up all weekend and people could get pics in front of it anytime. Hall photography at Norwescon isn’t the easiest, since the registration area takes up the largest empty space and obvious gathering places are limited. An all-weekend photo area might give folks a place to take pictures that doesn’t block hall traffic. Just my two cents.

Onion: Photography.

This isn’t really the con’s fault, but sitting in the second row of the Masquerade photo area was a mistake. I was too short (and the gaps were too small) to get good pics from behind the first row without standing up, and if I stood up, I felt like I was blocking the people behind me. As a result I spent two hours alternating between sitting and being in a rather uncomfortable half-crouch. My legs were killing me, which contributed partly to my decision to leave midway through and go drink scotch. Next year it’ll be easier to just stand up for the whole thing instead.

Also, the flow of cosplayers through the photo area was a bit disorganized. Large groups were spontaneously pulled together out of various hall costumers, which isn’t bad, but then having to get pictures of the groups and then of the folks individually, from multiple angles and poses, meant that things moved slow and those of us who didn’t have the leg strength to half-crouch for four hours missed out on a bunch of the Masqueraders. I realize this is mostly just me whining now, but well, an onion is an onion. I got some great pictures, I just wish I’d gotten more great pictures. The pics I did get are here: link.

Rose: Volunteers.

Sure, it may sound like I’m complaining in the onions above, but only in the sense that you tell someone you love when there’s a piece of spinach between their teeth. Norwescon has grown on me, and all in all it’s a fantastically-run con. I have a better time every year I go, partly because I feel more comfortable there each time, but partly because it is well-run, despite occasional hiccups like this year’s registration.

With almost every con I go to, my respect and appreciation for con volunteers deepens. It’s tough to sit and do a job when everyone around you is chatting to friends, having fun, networking, cosplaying, or just generally having fun. So thanks, everyone. A particular note of thanks for the hospitality suite. The food options close to the hotel aren’t exactly numerous, and the hospitality suite helped keep me going several times.

Onion/Rose: Harassment Policy.

This might yet go either way. I noticed, to my surprise, that there was a panel on creating an anti-harassment policy for Norwescon. While it’s good that one is under consideration, it’s somewhat disconcerting that there wasn’t one already.

I wasn’t able to make it to the panel, so I don’t know the outcome, but I hope one gets put in place for next year. Anti-harassment policies work best when thought out and constructed before an incident, not hastily thrown together or updated after one, as ReaderCon learned with much difficulty not so long ago. I’d hate to see anything similar happen to Norwescon.

Rose: People.

Each year I know more people at Norwescon, and each year I make more friends and strengthen previous ones. What really makes Norwescon so much fun for me these days is getting to chat to people, and not just my writing group, who I see fairly often, but also people who I may only see once or twice a year. Especially this year, having spent so much time in North Carolina and missing the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat, it was awesome beyond words to see everyone again. If I ever leave Seattle, I think the writing and fan community would be the thing I miss the most.

And now, after a con last weekend and three blog entries in four days, it’s time to get to writing actual stories. Thanks again, everyone, for making Norwescon great.

Anthology Release Day!

The anthology After Death…, which contains my story Someone to Remember, is now available in print at Barnes & Noble (link) and Amazon (link). Huzzah!

On a personal note, it’s rather ironic my first story to be published since Mom passed away is in an anthology titled After Death…. When I wrote and submitted the story last summer I was in a much different position; Mom’s chemotherapy was on my mind, but it certainly hadn’t sunk in to me we’d be, well, here.

Would the story be different if I’d been through then what I’ve been through now? It’s tough to say. Almost certainly I would have wrote a different story, but that’s just a given. We are inevitably molded and changed by experience. But I’m very proud of the story I wrote, and even more proud that it’s the leadoff story in the anthology, sitting right at the top of the Table of Contents!

Being an anthology of dark fiction, it’s not the happiest story in the world, but nor is it the saddest. In that way, the protagonist’s experiences in the afterlife are much like those in life– it’s not so much what happens that determines your happiness, as how you deal with it.

If you do buy the book and enjoy it, please leave a review, or at least a rating, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Goodreads. Lots of reviews can have a big impact on the commercial success of a book, and even though I’m paid an upfront fee instead of royalties, I certainly hope Dark Moon Books and my editor, Eric J. Guignard, will be able to continue doing what they do. (This is Eric’s second anthology that I’ve been in, after Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations).

In the meantime, this story is dedicated to my Mom, though I hope if there is an afterlife, it is a more cheerful place than what’s portrayed here.

And Life Goes On

I’ve been back in Seattle for almost three weeks now, and in a sense I feel like I’ve been re-entering life. Slowly the mundanities of every day existence– like going to work, or remembering what I need to buy from the grocery store on the way home– have regained their previous importance.

Well, perhaps “importance” is the wrong word. Better to say that it’s easier to care about them.

I have to admit, it was tough returning from North Carolina (where Mom’s passing was very much present, in almost every thought and personal interaction) back to Seattle (where I was more or less expected to continue with the routines of day-to-day life). For a while I wasn’t sure if I had the strength.

But life does, indeed, goes on. Two weeks ago I went back to work, and started going to the gym again, and slowly but surely things fell into place. An immensely daunting pile of paperwork even got finished, one signature and one receipt at a time.

The hardest thing, I find, is the number of times something will happen or I’ll hear a funny story, and think, “oh, I should e-mail that to Mom.” Or “hey, I’d better ask Mom.” And then I’ll remember.. no, no I won’t. I can’t just call her up any afternoon or evening on a whim just to ask, for example, “Do you soak the bread crumbs in milk before you put them in the meatloaf?” And I always knew, no matter what, that Mom would be glad I called.

I think we all have an unfortunate tendency to take for granted the people who love us unconditionally, especially if they are people we have known for a very long time– and certainly parents qualify. It’s when they’re not there any more that you realize– even if you didn’t talk to them every day– that their mere presence in the world cheered you. You walked a little easier just knowing in the back of your mind that someone who cared that much about you existed– and when you lose someone like that, I’m not sure you ever get over it. You just get a bit stronger, because you have to.

So that’s where I stand. One thing that helped me immensely last weekend was Norwescon, and later this week I hope to do a more detailed (and cheerful!) write-up. Because it’s time to cut down on the depressing blog posts, and make this thing about writing and travelling again.

Life, and Blog, goes on.