Here's the thing about Fan Expo. I went every year from 2005 to 2010. But I was less and less engaged with the con every year, and the admission prices kept going up, and after the really really terribly managed crowding and lock-out problems of 2010 I decided that it really wasn't worth my time or money and I wasn't going to go anymore.
So what changed this year? Well, the biggest thing was that Mr Stark had arranged to be a "booth babe" for an artist at the con, and when your boyfriend is going to be spending four days at a local event and staying at your place, it's hard to say "I won't be there at all". In addition to that, I had also heard many times that the organizers have made a lot of improvements since 2010 (and the company is also under new management) so I thought I would give it another chance. However, I still wasn't willing to shell out the kind of money they were charging for badges, so I asked around for a volunteer position and ended up being a handler for The Cosplay Scion in exchange for my weekend badge. Which meant, for the most part, sitting at her table while she was doing her cosplay panels.
I ended up having a very unusual convention experience (for me) as a result, since Lee Scion's table was in the "Cosplay Corner", which was a row of tables for most of the convention's cosplay guests* to sell prints, sign autographs, and meet fans. Up until that weekend, I'd been abstractly aware of the "celebrity cosplayer" business model, but I'd never seen it up close and for extended periods before. I have many friends who do guest spots at conventions and who sell prints, but the women at these tables were on a whole other level. There are a lot of different ways and reasons to cosplay, and I always try very hard not to judge or dismiss others who do it differently than I do. The cosplay guests around me were all clearly fans themselves: they all looked awesome and represented a variety of interests, and they all work hard at what they do. The ones I spoke to were fun and kind. Regardless, when the reason for having a table at a con is to make money (aka almost all the time), you have to offer what customers want, and it was very clear what is popular with the general convention attendee when it comes to cosplayers - traditionally attractive women in sexualized costumes (preferably popular characters) who sell pin-up prints. As someone who cosplays "obscure" characters and (generally) not-terribly-revealing designs, I sometimes feel like I have to fight to get photos of my work, or to find other people who share my fandom. So it was a little disheartening to see just how popular the cosplay guests all were, many with long lines in front of their tables for most of each day. People wanted their photos with these women, wanted to buy posters of them to have signed, wanted to flirt. Some local con photographers were just about falling over themselves to take photos at their tables, and hung around for an uncomfortably long time if there wasn't a line to see someone.
Now I'm not going to say that these successful celebrity cosplayers are doing anything wrong - they're clearly doing alright for themselves, and since they're not hurting anyone I certainly can't blame them for making money doing something they love, as most people don’t get that opportunity. Nor am I jealous of their popularity - at least not in the sense that I want to be in their place, because I definitely don't. But it certainly makes a statement about how the hobby has evolved in recent years, especially with the increase in attention from mainstream media and culture. The women at the tables were not the “best” cosplayers in the building, nor--with a few exceptions--did they contribute to the cosplay community in terms of teaching panels or running events. It makes me sad to know that there are amazingly talented people who are "unknowns" and constantly passed over simply because they don't have "cosplay fame"; that is, because they haven't (or don't want to) figure out the magic formula of self-promotion + popular characters + sex appeal.
I think this got away from me a little bit there... back on track.
Anyways, seeing all this really got me thinking about who gets recognition for their hard work at a con these days. Mostly by accident, I conducted a very small social experiment on Saturday and Sunday to gather some anecdotal evidence. I had decided to cosplay from Hawkeye all weekend - Cover Kate Bishop on Friday, Clint Barton on Saturday, and L.A. Kate on Sunday. My Clint costume is very simple - t-shirt and jeans, a wig, makeup (and bandages), and shades. L.A. Kate is also very simple - tank top and shorts, a wig, makeup, and shades. Both costumes are "closet cosplay" - nothing custom made. Both costumes use the same bow and quiver props. Both designs are from the same book so they should be equally recognizable (well, Kate is at a disadvantage there, since Clint's costume is also used in other Avengers books). Finally, I spent approximately the same amount of time walking around the con, both buildings, in each costume. The difference: Clint is a dude and is fully covered. Kate is a girl in short-shorts and loose tank. The experiment: simply counting photo requests. I got stopped and asked for photos eight times more as Kate than as Clint. Eight. Times. That can't just be me. It's like if you don't fit the mould of the pin-up cosplay celebrities signing autographs, you become more and more invisible. The culture has shifted in such a way that Average Joe Attendee cares about taking photos of people they find attractive, not characters they like or amazing craftsmanship.
My friend and author Derwin Mak, who has been attending fan conventions almost as long as I've been alive, not only pointed out this trend in conversation during Fan Expo this year, he named it: they are "fake geek boys". The guys who go to conventions to take photos, and post galleries which are entirely or almost entirely women. The guys who go so far as to ask male members of a cosplay group to move out of their shot. The guys who are clearly only there to fulfill their hetero fantasies as opposed to actually caring about whichever fandom is relevant because if they were, they'd be taking photos of everyone, not just the girls.
So what? People are allowed to take photos of whatever they like, right? Of course - it's an issue though when it's not just a couple people, but the new cultural norm; not only just seeing cosplayers as sexy models (I had a few conversations over the weekend with people who didn’t understand that most cosplayers there were enthusiastic fans and not hired models), but also only seeing cosplayers as female. I was telling a guy friend about the results of my Fan Ex experiment when I got home, and he told me that ‘knowing he would probably be ignored after putting all the effort into making/wearing a costume’ is a huge reason that he hasn't gotten into the hobby, despite being a regular convention attendee. Heck, Men vs Cosplay, a group which promotes and supports male cosplayers, was started after the founders kept hearing ‘I want to cosplay but think I shouldn't; it's a girls' hobby’ from dudes at conventions. While it's awesome that so many talented women have seen success being professional cosplayers in recent years, men who cosplay have been becoming less visible and what I see now is a feedback loop of guys being discouraged from joining the hobby because all they see are women.
Sorry guys, I just have a lot of feelings - not about how people cosplay, but about what types have become hugely popular and why.
Despite the wall of text above, I had a good (if surreal) time at Fan Ex. I did a mini shoot with Nathan Dunham in my Clint cosplay, I did an interview for the We Got the Geek podcast, I did a little shopping at BMV, Dotsy's, and Cakes Cove. I saw friends at Lee’s table, as well as when I invaded the masquerade greenroom and almost ended up working backstage. I tried a pulled pork parfait, and got to watch Hayley Atwell's Q&A at the end of the weekend. I saw the convention from a different angle (quite literally). And in the end, other life obligations got in the way and Mr Stark wasn't even able to attend. Would I go back again? Sure... but I still wouldn't pay for a badge. Volunteer or bust!
Enjoy some photos from the con ^_^
*since "Toronto Batman" was the only male in the group (and he was there to be a public spectacle, not to make sales) the rest of the discussion refers to the female cosplay guests
Amaterasu (Imperial) 99%