Who Counts as a Geek, Anyway?

Tony Harris, the award-winning comic book artist of Ex-Machina, Starman, and many DC/Marvel series, has taken a passionate stance on the subject of cosplay at conventions. Harris posted a long rant on his Facebook page admonishing women who he believes cosplay just to get attention at conventions. He accuses them of not really being fans, choosing costumes just to show off their bodies, and ignoring the actual target audience outside of conventions. Obviously, this has set off a wave of equally passionate reactions to the comments. People seem to fall into two clear camps: those who agree with Harris' sweeping cosplay assessment, and those who feel his comments are misogynistic or hateful.

Because of the criticism, Harris has doubled down on his position, going so far as to posit that people who want to boycott him because of misogyny never read his work anyway and are exactly who he said they are.

I'd like to filter Harris' comments through my own experience.

I've been to a lot of conventions in my life. I've done Comic Cons and Weekends of Horror, grabbag Otaku conventions and single series merch fests. The thing that connects all of these events is that they survive on the fans.

Larger events, like the Comic Cons, has taken a broader approach to gathering an audience. Popular film and television panels fill up hours before the event while the writers and comic artists who originally created the material speak to half-filled annex rooms in the basement. It is possible to be a fan of a series without knowing everything about it. It would be better if the original creators were met with equal fanfare, but that's, unfortunately, not how our world works at this time.

However, in the world of this nerd girl/who can really cosplay debate, no one ever stops to question the credentials of someone like me. People just assume because I'm a young overweight male that I obviously read all the comics, play all the games, and know everything about such and such cult TV series. It's not true, but no one is trying to take away my cosplay permission slip and put me in time out.

If you go back to my NYCC cosplay experiment post, you'll see I chose perhaps less common--arguably less relevant--characters to go as. I'm a big Shaun of the Dead fan, but I honestly haven't watched the film in years. I pulled up some reference images, watched a few clips on YouTube, and went to sewing and designing the costume.

Same with Fry from Futurama. I know the original run very well because of Adult Swim. I know who the voice actors are and have a strong grasp of the mythology. But I don't watch the new seasons loyally. I don't like the tone and think the show has more than run its course. I haven't played the video games, don't own the action figures, only have the season one DVD (and the first movie), and laugh at the idea of a Futurama comic. People shouted lines at me from the newest episodes and I had no clue what they were talking about until I looked them up afterwards.

I chose to dress as characters from less popular series for a number of reasons. One, the costumes could be altered enough to fit me and not look ridiculous. Two, I like the characters, even if I don't know everything about them. Three, I was targeting a specific audience reaction for that post and a few other projects I'm working on.

How come no one is questioning my nerd credentials before I'm allowed on a showroom floor? Where's the passionate rant about people who look like comic book geeks but know more about the Golden Age of Broadway than the origins of Marvel and DC? Is the intrusion of attractive women so offensive to the fan world that we have to start defining who does or does not qualify as a fan?

And what about those lady cosplayers who spend weeks designing their costumes? Do you really think they arbitrarily choose the skimpiest costume they can find and go to work? Any cosplayer worth their weight knows that you need to adapt the costume to fit a real human body and work with a character you can actually sell in a believable way on the floor. Is it that much of a stretch to think a real Batman fan might dress as Poison Ivy because she likes the character, is confident in her legs, but wants the freedom to mask parts of her upper bodies with the vines and flowers for comfort and confidence?

Let's swing back around to the instigator of the social media blow-up. Do I think Tony Harris is a misogynist? No. He is genuinely one of the few male comic book creators who actually covers up his female characters and avoids the broken anatomy of an Escher Girls' post. I think he's very passionate about the issue and didn't choose his words as well as he could have. He's frustrated because people are projecting the image of the T&A comic book industry onto his work because of a post on female cosplay.

There is a kernel of truth in his rant and it falls into the same category as the booth babes argument. They're a slim minority, but there are models and actresses hired by various companies to cosplay at conventions to promote a new product or service. They walk around the show floor like normal fans and then whip out a business card or say canned ad-speak when you talk to them. Most of the cosplayers are not these people, but it only takes a few bad encounters with the more aggressive hired guns to make you question why someone is really dressed a certain way.

There are attention seekers in all walks of life. Reality TV has made celebrities out of people who did nothing but act stupid in front of a camera. They turned their foibles into enterprises and now every Phoebe Price in the world will do anything to get attention in crowded public spaces. They're another minority, but perhaps a more insidious one at a fan event.

Do I agree with Harris' argument? Absolutely not.

I want conventions to be all inclusive. I've met some of the smartest and kindest people I know at conventions just by having an open mind and accepting them for who they are. This includes cosplayers who struggle to walk into a panel without getting catcalls from fans who think they're entitled to behave however they want at a convention.

I've yet to be at a convention that says it's ok to grope, grab, hoot at, and photograph everyone you want to, yet a certain minority of fans will become very aggressive if you decline a photo-op on the way to the bathroom.

What I'm getting at is this. Does anyone really want the job of creating a fan purity test to say who can and cannot engage with a convention in a certain way? If you show your fandom by literally wearing it, go right ahead. This kind of argument does nothing but divide the culture and make fools of people online who jump to conclusions without thinking.

What do you think of Tony Harris' comments? Or the focus on cosplay at conventions and geek culture in general? Sound off below.

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