I’ve been ruminating about this post since I wrote part one almost a month ago. This piece has been written and rewritten more often than I would like to admit. Everything I produced just did not seem to hit the mark in terms of what I wanted to express. I promised in my last post to discuss my experiences with sexism at Ottawa Comic Con and so, without delay let us delve into my memories.
I have written before about being young and how it can place one at a disadvantage or not depending on the situation. However, I have never been one to particularly reflect upon my gender, as a female in this day and age I suppose I should count my blessings that I have never encountered much discrimination based upon this particular facet of myself. I write that phrase with extreme sadness because while an ideal society would appreciate anyone regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or race, our world is still catching up to where it should be today. I should not have to ‘count my blessings’ but I know what the world we live in is like and it is not always a safe place for women. *FYI, that’s part of the reason we need feminism. If a woman cannot feel safe walking down a street in broad daylight by herself then there’s a serious problem.
I never gave much thought to feminism before university, my group of friends from high school was more focused on LGBTQ rights, anti-bullying, and other crusades. It wasn’t until I entered university that I began to learn more about sexism and its everyday effects on women. I was educated by friends, both men and women, sisters, and professors about their own views of feminism, sexism, and how best to combat it. I say that I was educated because before coming to Carleton I only had vague ideas about some of the issues affecting women. I learned a lot by listening to my peers; that is not to say that I accept everything that they tell me as gospel but I do appreciate their willingness to share their points of view. Sometimes my colleagues and I have exceedingly productive conversations and sometimes there are arguments but in the end, I always come away from those debates feeling more informed.
I give you this background to preface my experiences at Comic Con because though it may have been extremely naive, I never expected to be on the receiving end of sexism when I cosplayed as Black Widow (also known as Natalia Romanova or Natasha Romanoff). The thought barely crossed my mind. Sure, when I first chose the character and began making the costume I briefly thought about how I could make it more practical. I was not extremely comfortable with the idea of wearing some kind of latex bodysuit and I did not want to be overly sexual with my portrayal. I cosplayed as Nat because of her personality and her character, the experimentation with red hair was just a bonus. I knew theoretically what I was getting into upon selecting her as my cosplay inspiration but I just figured that putting my own spin on the character would somehow change things. After all, I am not Scarlett Johansson, and I accept that fact. I do not look like her and I do not necessarily have the confidence to pull off some of the outfits she does simply because not everything she wears is my style. I know what I am comfortable wearing and I am proud of my fashion sense. But again, just because I know someone is going to pick at this, I want to highlight that I have no problem with the sexual independence of Black Widow, what I have a problem with is people judging her only on that qualities. However, to me the sexiness of a character is never the most interesting fact about her (or him).
So, when I created my costume I focused on practicality. I wanted something that would allow me to breathe, eat, and not sweat to death in the May heat. Unfortunately, many people I encountered at the con were not thinking along the same lines but surprisingly, there were even more who were on my side. One of my favourite compliments of the day was from one of the women working the Cici & co. Bakery booth (http://on.fb.me/1eR9Tf2) and she told me that my outfit was both ‘functional and accurate.’ *I was very (surprised) and appreciative of their inclusion of Natasha-centric merchandise in their lineup. I went back three times to buy Black Widow cupcakes and cookies. Also, their sweets were absolutely scrumptious.
Sadly, that mentality of appreciating a character that is often overlooked in merchandise (see: http://on.mtv.com/1FLsS53 and http://bit.ly/1Jt0QMR) was not shared by everyone at the convention. While browsing the Artists Alley I stumbled upon a booth, I will not describe its unique product because I have no wish to promote it, which sold things that had themes. See how nondescript that was? Maybe I really could be a spy…
Anyways, I stopped by said nondescript booth to take a closer look at one of the products and the booth keepers engaged me in conversation. They asked me about my favourite superhero, to which I replied, “Well, I’m dressed like one of them.” They appeared nonplussed so I told them who I was cosplaying as and how she’s part of the Avengers. That caught their attention! They pointed out one of their products to me and told me how it featured the Avengers, except Black Widow. When they mentioned that she was not included they even chuckled amongst themselves as if including her would be ridiculous. I was curious about why they had not featured her but when asked they did not really have an answer. I told them to think about including Nat, who is a kick butt super spy by the way in case they did not know, in their next line of products and I kept moving.
As I reached the end of the Artist’s Alley a guy called out to me and asked for my picture. I consented and he posed with me as his friend took the photo, with a camera phone. Now I know that camera phones used to be less than stellar and required the people being photographed to maintain their smiles for around thirty second in order to take a decent picture but this is 2015, a good photo takes maybe five seconds to take. At the ten second mark I began to feel uncomfortable with the man posed beside me, arm slung over my shoulder, by fifteen seconds I’m quite sure I elbowed him and gave his friend, excuse me, “photographer,” a Black Widow worthy glare. Just as I was about to push him away and say something curt his friend announced that he, “Had it,” meaning the photo. The duo disappeared into the crowd quickly but it left me feeling odd. Aside from his arm on my shoulder he had not touched me so that was good, I probably would have told him off and magically found ‘friends’ in the crowd to spirit away with – but it wasn’t the proximity that bothered me so much as the presumption of my cooperation. I consented to a photo. I’m sure he has around twenty-five now because the phone was an iPhone, heck his friend could have been taking a video. Although, that would be a pretty boring video – standing next to someone awkwardly.
The final incident that occurred took place when I was outside the main hall seeking some respite from the crowds. Standing in the middle of the atrium along with hundreds of others I took my time to people watch, which allowed me to both stay in character and appreciate all of the other costumes. There was a particularly good Black Widow and Hawkeye duo walking around that nodded at me, but that’s beside the point. I was standing there minding my own business when this random guy, who was definitely at least thirty years my senior commented on how hot I looked. Then he walked into the hall. I had seen him coming toward me but I hadn’t given him much thought. The thing is he seemed to be with some people, if I was to guess I would say his wife and son, or sister and nephew – what had given him the idea that approaching me like that was setting a good example for anyone, let alone a boy who did not look older than twelve?
It comes back to the presumption that just because I was wearing a running jacket with the S.H.I.E.L.D insignia on it and a red wig that I was no longer a person in the strictest sense. I was a character to him. Someone he felt that he could objectify and think nothing of because well, it’s called cosplaying for a reason isn’t it? It’s a game, right? The problem is that people are not pawns in a game. People live and breathe, they think and feel, young people watch and learn, and they imitate. His presumption that I would be flattered by being called hot by a man more than twice my age was sorely misplaced.
I began to think of the other women that I had encountered that day, some of whom I was sure were experiencing much more ‘presumptuous’ behaviour than I had – and I only attended one day of the convention. I had admired those women before for the effort that they put into their costumes and their dedication to the characters they portray but now, I admire them for their bravery as well. They pour their hearts and souls into creating a costume that will demonstrate their passion and appreciation for a television show, comic book, or anime only to find themselves confronted by close-minded sexists. Now, the rest of my experience at the convention was relatively uneventful in terms of confronting sexism and I can imagine that most women do enjoy their experiences at conventions. However, there will always be someone who just isn’t up to date on social propriety and equality.
I don’t have a complete solution for this problem. Besides telling my story and sporting the “Cosplay is not consent,” buttons I procured at the convention courtesy of Hollaback! Ottawa (http://bit.ly/1HMNuXm) I have not done much. Nevertheless, I believe that being a part of the solution is better than not playing a part at all. I applaud those women and men that put themselves out there every year at conventions and endure heckling, sexism, and other sorts of harassment. *Yes, men are also sexualized and objectified based upon their costume choices and so they need to be mentioned too. To me, feminism means equality between men and women, that means acknowledging when problems affect both genders.
About two weeks later I found myself watching Marvel’s Agent Carter. I had tried watching the show (in the middle of the season – not a smart move) a few months ago but couldn’t get into it. I picked it up again after Comic Con because I had run into a number of Agent Carter cosplays and I wanted to understand what all of the fuss was about. Now, it’s safe to say that while Agent Carter was one of my favourites in “Captain America: The First Avenger” where she barely had any screen time she now, currently ranks quite high on my list of ‘Top Female Inspirational Characters.’ Agent Peggy Carter is certainly rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hermione Granger, Melinda May (I started Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D recently too), Minerva Mcgonagall, Alanna of Trebond, Natalia Romanova, Trisana Chandler, and Lady Sybil among others who are at the top of that list. By the time I finished season one I was hooked on Peggy and her wisdom. In the finale, Peggy, played by the talented Hayley Atwell, says something that has stuck with throughout these past few weeks, she said “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.”
Two sentences. That’s all it took for Peggy Carter to sum up how life works. “I know my value.” That’s a sentence, there is no qualifier or exception – she knows her value. I have no doubt that she is still learning about her value every day but she knows that she has value. She doesn’t need a commendation from the president or her co-workers to give her value. She has value separate from them and their desires for her. She is Peggy Carter and her value is something that no one but herself can take away. This moment reminded me of a quotation made famous by Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
I suppose what I’m trying to convey is that my experiences at Comic Con could have impacted me negatively. I could have sworn off cosplaying, I could have written a letter to the editor of our local newspaper ranting about the situation, I could have refused to take pictures with anyone else at the Con, but I elected to do none of the above. I know my value. At least, I’m learning my value and those negative influences and their actions have no sway over that part of me. I know who I am, what I fight for, what I believe in, and I know my value.
*Also, you can now find and follow me on Instagram: @seekeachlight