Where do we draw the line between socially awkward and creepy? How bad does something have to get to be considered harassment?
When I think about my experiences at Rhode Island Comic Con last weekend, there is no point where I felt unsafe or feared for my physical presence, but there were several points where–had things gone any farther or had I been a less confident person–I would have felt unsafe.
The first thing you should know is that this year marks the first time I’ve moved out of my cosplay comfort zone. In years past, every day was a Kaylee day, wearing different coveralls (or her cupcake dress) for the majority of my weekend with other, smaller projects (like Katniss from Hunger Games and Lydia Martin from Teen Wolf) on minor days or not at all. The constant barrage of “You know who you look so much like?” and “You know who you should cosplay?” made it so I stuck to Kaylee until April of last year. I love Kaylee but I want to have fun with other characters like the other costumes I love and want to wear. So I said to hell with it. My most ambitious show was Chicago Comic Con in August where I wore 4 different characters/costumes over 4 days.
One of these costumes is Zoya the Destroya, a character played by Alison Brie on the Netflix original G.L.O.W. She wears a metallic red one armed leotard, with a black fur ushanka, leather belt with the hammer and sickle, and black leather boots. I love this costume because of the way I get to experiment with hair and makeup; these are more extensive than anything I’ve done before. I also love poses that encourage me to move beyond smiling and holding my parasol. Zoya shows more skin than any other cosplay I’ve done and, until Rhode Island Comic Con, I never felt like this was a problem. I still don’t feel like it’s a problem and I’m not gonna stop wearing a costume I feel comfortable in, but what the hell happened?
I’ve been trying to rationalize why, at this small convention instead of bigger conventions I’ve been to, two men approached me and made me feel icky and gross. Was this convention different because I wasn’t walking with a friend/handler? Are people in New England just odd? I was able to safely get out of both situations but I felt trapped in the moment and I’m still not sure how to address what happened.
In the first instance while walking the show floor with a friend, a man repeatedly shouted for me to slow down despite the fact that I was not walking fast. When I did, he asked what character I was dressed as, then instructed my friend to take a full body picture of him with me where he wanted to put his arm around me but didn’t verbally ask. I responded, “I’m not comfortable being touched” though when asked politely for Zoya pics, I don’t mind putting someone into a headlock for the photo.
He handed my friend what looked like an ancient gameboy DS (though I am unfamiliar with handheld video game devices) and my friend did his best to step backwards into surging crowds to snap a pic. My friend and I attempted to leave after the first photo but the man accosted us for not getting a full body picture which we then refused, stating that it was too busy. The man aggressively apologized, saying “I’m sorry I yelled, I’m sorry that I was acting in a way you thought was rude, I just wanted a picture!”
He later found me talking with friends at a booth, got his full body picture, and then showed up to my panel about Comic Con-ing on a Budget where he asked if the costume contest at New York Comic Con was always on Sunday. It’s not, and that’s not even the convention we were currently attending. After the panel, I was chatting with a few folks from the audience who had relevant questions and the man interrupted to ask if his questions were good. I told him they were not.
But that’s the small scale problem dude. The second experience I had at Rhode Island Comic Con was far more insidious.
It started with me walking by myself around the Dunkin Donuts floor, about to head downstairs to check on the autograph lines when an older man with a camera asked me what was downstairs. Since I had walked the show floor in its entirety on Friday, I was pretty good at giving directions.
Me: “The bigger name celebrities and more vendors.”
He: “Where are the smaller name celebrities?”
Me: “Upstairs, near the Star Wars stuff.”
He: “Oh, do you do these often?”
This is where the conversation shifted from me politely offering directions to this man making me uncomfortable. “Yup.” I said, hoping to signal I was done with the conversation so I could get on with my day. But no, he continued.
He: “What are you dressed as?”
Me: “Zoya. From GLOW.”
Me: “Zoya. With a Z.” I motioned with my hands.
He: “Oh Zoya! Do you mind if I get a picture?”
Despite the fact that I was snacking on pumpkin seeds left over from Halloween, I didn’t mind a picture. I made a snap decision that I didn’t feel unsafe, I was proud of my hair, makeup and costume, and I didn’t mind this guy taking one picture. He held up his camera and took the shot. While he adjusted his camera settings, I took the opportunity to try to get pumpkin seed shell out of my teeth.
He: “Oh are you chewing gum? Will you blow a bubble for me?”
Me: “Nope, I have pumpkin seed in my teeth.”
At this point he took a second picture and showed it to me. I didn’t care.
He: “Have you ever modeled?”
Me: “Not since I was a kid.”
He: “Are you interested in it?”
Me: “Nope I have a full time job.”
He: “I’ve actually shot some models, you know, BBW stuff, not that that’s you, or there’s anything wrong with being that.”
I now looked for any possible reason in the world to walk away from this man who made me step to the side for his picture and was now in the way of me leaving.
Me: “I have a full time job that I enjoy.” I was actively glaring.
He: “Did you see my hat?” He was wearing a beanie that said ‘Smile.’ I bared my teeth and left.
Did I feel that my life or person were in danger in either of these scenarios? No. In both situations, I attempted several times to verbally and non-verbally suggest my discomfort, but what do you do in a situation like this? It isn’t so bad that I felt the need to go to security, but it makes me second guess even speaking to people who ask directions on the show floor. With first guy, I didn’t feel like he had the capacity to understand the social connotations of harassing someone on the show floor, so my direct (if brusque) language was the best I could manage at the time. With the latter, a friendly gesture turned into me knowing this man was thinking about me in a sexual manner. I felt violated, and maybe I should have told him that what he was asking was incredibly inappropriate given the setting we were in. But I needed to get away. Do you go to security for something like this? Do you leave it alone and let men go on doing the same thing to other people? Do you make a scene to try to attract the attention of anyone nearby? I don’t have the answers, but I do have to rethink how I approach conventions on my own in the future.