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.

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