Conventions and expos are widely considered a safe haven for the ostracised, the socially anxious, the awkward, the “uncool”, and their families. They offer a shining, welcoming harbour where even the least mainstream pop-culture fandoms are encouraged and shared with passionate, talented like-minds, and with many attendees living their day-to-day lives on the receiving end of teasing, bullying, harassment, domestic violence, and other unpleasantries, the appeal of “the con world” is palpable. Perhaps conventions are less about escaping one world and more about diving headfirst into another, more comfortable one.
But with the convention year wrapping up for many countries horror stories about the past year’s events continue to trickle out, and whether through a rise in instances or a rise in vocality, the number of situations seems to be growing. These “safe spaces” we cherish as second homes appear to be transmuting into minefields where attendees are in DEFCON 1 because of events that could have easily been avoided by their perpetrators, who sometimes don’t realise that they’ve overstepped a line. The social landscape can be even harder to navigate in large groups, and is even more difficult when there's a lack of clearly defined or enforced guidelines.
For those who are new to the convention scene, or just looking for advice, I’ve compiled a handy “how to” guide of some of the most frequent social situations we face that can go either of two ways (well, or very badly), written from a cosplayer’s point of view, and some of the boundaries you may encounter along the way. Not everyone will agree with everything here, but it's up to them if they are more liberal with where they draw the line, and it's safer to err on the side of caution.
2. Photos With People
3. Filming People
4. Touching People And/Or Their Stuff
5. Asking People Out
8. Offensive Language/Jokes/Behaviour
9. Cosplayers Aren't The Characters They Cosplay
10. "Badly-Made Costumes"
11. Waiting To Speak To People
12. Starting A Conversation
13. Talking To People With Disabilities
14. Carrying Prop Weapons
15. Big/Pointy Costumes
16. Throwing Things At People
17. Drinking (Alcohol)
18. Artists In Artist Alley
19. Dealing With Harassment/Assault
20. Convention Staff
Asuka Langley Sohryu and Mari Makinami Illustrious (Neon Genesis: Evangelion) cosplayers pose for a photograph. Photo from Paul Mullin
1. I would like to photograph someone
The very first thing you should do is ask their permission (bonus points if you address them by their character name). Even in areas where it’s not illegal to photograph strangers in exhibition venues without their consent, it’s still good etiquette and sometimes falls under convention rules. Usually if you’re polite enough to ask permission they'll will agree because you were nice. If they said yes to someone else, don’t mistake it as a signal that it’s okay for you to photograph them as well. It is always best to ask personally. Always consider the patience and convenience of the person you’ve approached. You may need to allow them a few moments to prepare for the photo (putting gloves and helmets back on, putting down their bags or bottles of water, etc). Giving a countdown for when to expect the photo (“3, 2, 1…”) is a good guide for them to know how long they need to hold poses, then let them know when the photo has been taken so they can relax. It’s not always convenient for people to leave where they are to suit your vision, particularly if they’re queueing, meeting friends, or on our way to a panel, etc., but if something looks out of place it’s okay to clearly explain so (e.g., “there’s a big pylon lining up with your head that’s making it look a little like the Katamari King, is it okay if you move a few steps to the left so we can get a second shot?”).
There are a couple of kinds of photos that are particular danger zones. In many areas buttshots and upskirts are both unethical and illegal, and if you want to take one of those kinds of photos be very specific about it. Snapping “paparazzi shots” from a distance instead of approaching people for photos usually comes off as very creepy. Some quick attendees now make a point of photographing these people as they take their photos, uploading them with the hashtag #caughtcreep .
If you would like to photograph a child ALWAYS ask the permission of the parent. If you do not ask not only may you be breaking umpteen laws but you will probably also look like a paedophile, hebephile, or ephebophile. It’s worth remembering that some cosplayers are actually only teenagers or tweens who look older than their years.
If they say no, please don’t be offended. Many attendees are young men and women (including underage kids), some attendees specifically just want to enjoy the events but are anxious about strangers wanting photographs of them to take home and do gods-know-what with, other times they’re in a rush to get to one place or another, and sometimes you’ve just given a bad impression and they’re erring on the side of caution. Ultimately you’re not entitled to a record of their body anyway so it’s best to just take it in your stride, say “no worries, thanks anyway, enjoy the rest of the con”, and get back to the rest of the convention.
Please remember that if the photographs are intended for commercial use you may require signed release forms.
Photograph from Trever of fragsandbeer.com
2. I want a photograph with someone
Follow the same methods as you would for other photos, but specify if you want to pose with them and which pose, and be open to alternate suggestions they may be more comfortable with. If you want to touch them, their props, or costume in any way, refer to the “I would like to touch someone, their clothes, or their belongings” section below. I had a guy ask to grab a photo with me only to grab me for a photo, and it was pretty upsetting.
3. I want to film a video of/with someone
As per the photography guidelines above, but there are a couple more considerations to make. It’s good measure to specify what you’d like them to do or say, and telling them in advance what questions you’d like to ask (if you’re interviewing them). As always, respect their wishes if they say no to any part of this.
4. I would like to touch someone, their clothes, or their belongings
This could be anything from putting your arm around someone’s shoulders to wanting to hold their prop gun. The golden rule here is to always ask permission, not just because it’s the normal and expected thing to do but also because physical contact with a person or their possessions can be grounds for sexual harassment, assault, or property damage charges if it isn’t welcomed or you cross a line.
This seems to fall into two main categories: damaging things, and personal space.
When it comes to damaging things, it can range from things that are clearly likely to make something fall apart such as people pulling or hitting parts of our costumes to see how strong they are (unsurprisingly this usually breaks them because they’re not actually heavy steel), to things that may seem initiality harmless, as I’ve also had people damage my costume by putting their arm around my shoulder without asking first, not acknowledging that my costume was fragile and taking the two seconds to check if it was okay. I’ve also had people grab my prop weapons out my hands to play with them, swinging them and pointing them threateningly at people “as a joke”. This also applies to artist alleys, exhibitors halls, and vendors halls, where the merchandise may be fragile, expensive, collectable, limited edition, or unique.
In terms of personal space, this one can be a little harder to define. Many of us are shy or socially awkward people and just don’t like being touched to begin with, or we’ve been in a bad situation already that we don’t want to repeat. We also have a sliding scale of comfort with different people - you might be okay with one friend putting their hand on your thigh or waist but not another, and even if it’s alright for your friend to do it, it might be a completely different story having a stranger do it. This is particularly relevant to sexual behaviours, such as risque poses and asking for a kiss. Many of us will decline to kiss you on the cheek as there are countless creeps who’ve asked for a kiss on the cheek and then quickly turned and kissed the unsuspecting victim on the lips. These sorts of behaviours are felony sexual assault and misdemeanor sexual battery, and a health risk (you don’t know if either of you has something communicable), and just plain bad decision-making. Don't be the reason people use the buddy system.
Glomping (“tackle hugging”, usually involving a run-up launch and slamming into an unsuspecting “glompee”) has earned itself a specific mention here as it is very dangerous and banned from many events. There have been incidents in the past that have become legendary convention horror stories (names left out for privacy): with a cosplayer losing their teeth on the corner brick wall of a garden bed after being tackled in 2010, an Ivy (Soul Cal) cosplayer being knocked down a flight of stairs in 2008, and a pregnant Seven Of Nine cosplayer in the UK being bowled onto her stomach and miscarrying at the convention, just to mention a few.
Again, if they said no, don’t take it as a personal affront, and don’t become hostile or forceful. Other attendees are within their right to request security remove you if you become threatening.
Catherine—"Love Is Over" Deluxe Edition (Atlus, 2011) from the official Playstation.com blog (July 11, 2011), via "Peril-sensitive sunglasses, superheroes in miniature, and pink polka-dot boxers: Artifact and collectible video game feelies, play, and the paratextual gaming experience" by Ian M. Peters of Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia, United States.
5. I want to ask someone out at the con
It’s generally not the best place to ask someone out. Conventions have begun to feel increasingly like high risk environments and many of us are on edge with our creep-detection switched on from the get-go. You’re better off asking at a more appropriate time and place. That said, if you’re a stranger to the person you’re asking, you’re virtually guaranteed to come off as a creepy stranger who wants to get in their pants regardless. This isn’t a suggestion to try force them into a friendship with you so you can ask, either, as that is also really creepy.
6. I want to give someone a gift
Some people aren’t comfortable receiving gifts at all, but for the most part it really depends on the gift so be upfront about what the gift is. I’ve had guys try to give me objects of an adult nature and it made me very uncomfortable. If you’re unsure of your options or what they might like, many people have amazon wishlists, which might be helpful to you.
In general food is a bad idea, not just for the potential danger factor of eating food from strangers (“there could be anything in it”), but also because of allergies, coeliac, IBS, and other dietary concerns.
Letters, fanart, and similar items are usually well-received so long as their content is appropriate. “I wrote slash fan-fiction about you and Ivy Doomkitty” probably won’t get a happy reaction, and hentai of us in preferred cosplays makes most of us very, very uncomfortable.
7. I want to catcall a hot person
It’s best not to. The likelihood of them appreciating it isn’t guaranteed, and the discomfort of unwelcomed catcalling can be very unsettling. It’s also often against convention rules and/or illegal (as verbal sexual harassment). For further reading, Cosplay =/= Consent has done some wonderful work on this topic.
8. I want to do/say something that may be offensive
It goes without saying that discrimination isn’t welcome at the vast majority of conventions, or the world in general. Remarks that may be racist, sexist, disciminatory against people with visible or invisible physical disabilities (i.e., not just wheelchair users or people with recognisable visual impairments or hearing impairments), perverted, body shaming, and so forth are in bad taste, are usually violations of convention rules as well as the law. This is also important for cosplayers to remember if they are in character - simply because your character does/says certain things doesn’t make them acceptable to do in public. This includes profanities, particularly in front of children. You are not just representing yourself, you are representing your fandom and the convention scene as a whole. Be a role model.
9. I hate/love that character
Never forget that cosplayers are not the characters they cosplay. Whether they’re dressed as a character you love or a character you hate, they are real people underneath it all and should be afforded the same respect as any other.
10. I really don’t like their costume
You don’t have to love everyone’s costumes, but bon’t berate them for it, no matter how inaccurate or poorly made it seems to you. It’s okay for their duct-tape-bandaged Buster Sword to be held together with a lick and promise. We all start somewhere and this may have taken them hours upon hours of research, sourcing materials, looking at reference, learning new skills, practising, and putting together. They have just as much reason to be there as you do, and at the very least you now know one of their interests. You may even make a new friend from turning it into a positive encounter.
11. I really want to talk to that person but they’re busy talking to someone else
This does happen, and it is good manners not to interrupt or try to insert yourself into the conversation. Many of us will wait our turn to say hi to someone, but also keep in mind that there is a threshold where someone waiting awkwardly beside or behind us starts to feel unsettlingly like a lurking hungry carnivore. If they seem very engaged in their conversation, leave them to enjoy it, and if they start walking off do not follow them like a lost shadow. Don’t forget that they’re there to enjoy the convention as well.
12. They turned around to talk to me. RED ALERT! This is not a drill!
If you do strike up a conversation, it often works well to keep it sweet and simple (“great t-shirt, I love that movie”, “your props look amazing”, etc). Asking for their personal details or acting “overly friendly” is a bad idea, as is staring at their body parts.
An amazing Dr. Arliss Loveless (Wild, Wild West) cosplay from Florida SuperCon 2014. Photograph from mental_floss.
13. I want to talk to another attendee with a disability
It really depends on the person you’re speaking to and not everyone will agree with everything, but as a general guideline that is fairly accepted, use a normal tone of voice, speaking to them the same way you would to anyone else; don’t be patronising or belittling, and speak directly to them - even if they have a companion accompanying them. If they are below your eye level, some people prefer you not bend or crouch to speak to them, while others appreciate being on the same level - it is a very personal decision and varies between people, so if you’re unsure just ask if they’d prefer you stand or kneel.
14. I want to take a prop weapon
Great, but what kind? Is it illegal? Does it meet convention rules? Could it potentially hurt someone? These are the questions you need to ask yourself before you take a prop weapon to any convention. The safety of yourself and your fellow attendees is paramount, and supersedes everything else, especially in busy crowds. Possible dangers aren’t just prop guns, but include things like liquid sprays and glitter that could cause allergic reactions or be a slipping hazard, potentially stabby things that might scratch someone in a crowd (spikes on costumes), blades, and chemicals such as capsicum spray. Not hurting people is far more important than being accurate, and you can save the perfect props for your photoshoots where you’re likely to get better photos anyway.
It’s also important to make sure you’re carrying your prop weapons in a safe way, such as not swinging them in crowds, not pointing guns at people without their consent, not leaving them on the floor in aisles.
Cosplayer Loren Louro wore this amazing Cydaea (Maiden Of Lust, Diablo III) for Yamato Cosplay Cup Brasil 2012. It was a very large costume complete with spider legs. Photograph from RodIshiCi
15. My costume is big and/or may be jabby
Costumes are also something to be considerate with at conventions, particularly if they have large or sharp features such at spikes or wings. Do your best to be aware of your surroundings and your costume, don’t stop or change direction suddenly, particularly in crowded areas.
16. I want to throw something at that person
You really don’t. This can result in injuries, ejection from the convention, and assault charges being pressed, as well as being a really shady thing to do.
17. I plan on drinking (alcohol)
The likelihood of things going FUBAR seems to jump when there's alcohol involved. If you're a drinker, make sure you know your limits. Alcohol can be a great social lubricant if you're a little stressed or anxious, but make sure you keep it well controlled so you don't make bad impressions, risk losing friends or professional contacts, or land yourself in some serious trouble. Make sure you eat beforehand and stay well hydrated (that means water, mother knows best). As with non-convention locations, be aware of drinking with people you don't trust and avoid drinking alone.
“A few drinks in and suddenly that line you think is hilarious and harmless is actually really offensive or creepy to everyone else.”
- Harris O’Malley, administrator of the geek dating site Paging Dr. Nerdlove
18. ) I don't like that artist's work
Say it in your "head voice" and keep it to yourself. More often than not the artist will be the person sitting in front of you, at that table for the past ten hours, and they'll have invested countless hours into all the work displayed before you. It might not be your taste, and you might not even think they have talent, but it has value to them. If they have work from a series you like, you can comment on that rather than their work (i.e., "oh, Dino-Riders, I loved that show"), no harm done, and at the very least you'vebroken up their day with some conversation, and shared a mutual interest.
19. I saw someone being assaulted or harassed
Acceptance through silence doesn't help anybody. As the rule goes, "if you see something, say something", or at the very least document it. Exceptions to "asking for permission" are made when drama is going down and the footage your record or photograph could be used as evidence for the convention staff, law enforcement, etc., in cases of assault and harassment. It's a useful resource for identifying the time of day, the venue area, and the attacker - who might otherwise be lost in the crowd or mistaken for someone else. It's best to take this footage directly to the convention organisers rather than posting it publicly, as the victim may be ashamed and/or traumatised. In more serious situations it may be fitting to call out inappropriate behaviour, but it's always a good measure to seek assistance from the convention staff.
If you see someone you know who appears to be stuck in an awkward situation, intercept with a subtle "excuse me, I need to borrow my friend for a second", or "hey, sorry, we need to rush to get to that panel", at least to get them aside to check that they're okay and not trapped in an uncomfortable situation. If the friend is fine they can easily slink their way back into the conversation with no harm done. It might be tempting to unleash your Kung Fury and deliver some vigilante justice on the possible wrongdoer, but usually it's best to be a sidekick rather than a superhero in these situations. When it comes to small tresspasses many people will be genuinely apologetic, not realising that what they’ve done is wrong.
20. Convention staff was mean to me
Sometimes this is the case with certain venues and events, but it is the rarer case (i.e., usually you did something wrong). Convention staff are often volunteers on long shifts, standing on concrete, getting asked the same questions 500 times a day. They're just doing their jobs. As a precaution if a volunteer or venue security give you a warning, take their concerns on board, heed their advice, and do your best to be a great attendee!
For many of us who are convention regulars or convention veterans these events are our second homes and an amazing place to make new friends, to keep in touch with old ones, to celebrate our fandoms, and to discover new series in a safety net of belonging and support that is often lacking outside the con environment. If you're ever unsure, remember that is is always best to ask permission, not forgiveness, and that in any situation where you ask another attendee to do or say something and they decline, you should respect their wishes.
Looking for other ways to help keep conventions a safe and awesome place? Some options may include:
- circulating articles and posts like this one to help them reach more attendees.
- if your local convention doesn’t have an anti-harassment policy, approach them about it.
- join groups such as Cosplay =/= Consent and the #cositivity movement.
As always, if there is anything you’d like to contribute, or if you’d like to request a future topic, please let me know. Until next time, SEW SAY WE ALL!