During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on April 19, 2012.
Cross-posted at From Austin to A&M.
I just returned from the PCA/ACA conference in Boston this year, where I presented a paper on geek women presenting themselves as “sexy,” focusing on cosplay.
My presentation had a powerpoint. I’ve embedded it below. You can also download it, if you like.
And here’s the actual presentation I gave:
In July of last year  at Comic-Con (the largest media convention in the country), a panel titled “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” purported to address the trend of female geeks dressing “sexy.” From the panel description:
Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? When geek girls show off, are they liberating themselves or pandering to men? Do some “fake fangirls” blend sex appeal with nerdiness just to appeal to the growing geek/nerd market, or is that question itself unfair? And what’s up with all the Slave Leias?
The discussion at Comic-Con was framed in terms of individual choices, not structural influences, and this limited the conclusions the panel could come to. The dichotomous choice offered—“Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? […] are they liberating themselves or pandering to men?”—fails to take into account the complexities of women’s positions in geek culture, the politics of cosplay, or how cultural ideals of beauty influence women’s fashion decisions and choices. Geek cultures—centered on video games, science fiction and fantasy, and comic books—are traditionally thought of as boys’ clubs. Even though women often make up half of geek populations, their roles in geek culture(s) are limited by the perceptions and actions of advertisers, producers, designers, marketers, and fans. Women are considered valuable additions to many geek cultures, but usually as decoration. Which means that most of the women “celebrated” in geek cultures are conventionally beautiful, thin, white, abled cis women who position themselves as sexy objects for male geek consumption, usually via cosplay. For the uninitiated, the term cosplay is a combination of “costume” and “roleplay” or “play,” and refers to when fans costume as characters or objects from their favorite media (like video games, movies, and TV shows). Cosplayers usually wear their costumes to conventions, and the “roleplay” aspect of cosplaying is often minimal in North America, and limited to the poses struck for photos or occasional interactions in the convention hallways.
This presentation will explore the ways in which female geeks’ choices are limited by geek cultures, how the trend of self-objectification among geek women can signal both a hostility towards women as equal participants and a resistance to that hostility, and how blaming women’s performances is a hand-waving exercise intended to gloss over the culture(s)’ problems.
The sexism that persists in geek communities is not special. It is not separable and inherently different than sexist institutions and behaviors in the “real world.” This means that the sexualization and objectification of women is not unique to geek cultures, though it is particularly severe in geek media. Video games, comics, science fiction, fantasy—these media forms are often at fault for promoting unrealistic (and, pretty regularly, physically impossible) standards of beauty for women. They fashion their female heroines and villains as sexy objects to be consumed, unlike male counterparts. Further, geek industries bring the objectification of women into the real world, hiring, for example, booth babes for conventions. Booth babes are conventionally attractive models hired by media companies to wear skimpy clothing and entice convention-goers to their respective booths. Geek women exist within this culture, which devalues their contributions as producers of media and meaning, but values their contributions as adornment.
This project is about self-objectification, not objectification by others, but the two are not wholly separable, any more separable than my putting on makeup and high heels this morning and the objectification of women in advertising and fashion magazines. Just as media representations of women influence women’s decisions to diet, wear cosmetics, get plastic surgery, lighten their skin, relax their hair, shave their legs, and wax their bikini lines, geek media representations of women influence geek women’s decisions to dress in “sexy” cosplay.
By “sexy” cosplay, I mean cosplay that appeals to heterosexual male fantasies, participates in the objectification of the cosplayer, and (purposefully or not) positions the cosplayer as an object for consumption by male geeks. There are two ways to participate in sexy cosplay; one is to choose a character whose costume is already sexy, and another to alter a character’s costume in order to make it sexy.
First, let’s look at cosplayers who do not alter their costumes. A rather visible example of this kind of sexy cosplay is women who costume as “slave Leia.” The Star Wars character has two main costumes that cosplayers choose from. [Next slide] The first, and least popular, is the costume from A New Hope. This is the costume with the iconic buns. [Next slide] The second, and more popular, Leia costume is “slave Leia,” the bikini-style costume worn by Leia in Return of the Jedi when she is the prisoner of Jabba the Hutt. At major science fiction media conventions, like Comic-Con and Dragon*Con, it is common to have an official group slave Leia picture, because of the popularity of this costume with cosplayers and other convention-goers. In the slave Leia cosplay, we see a classic example of sexy cosplay in which the costumer chooses a costume that is already heteronormatively “sexy.”
Next, let’s look at an example of a cosplayer who alters their costume to make them sexy. [Next slide] This is LeeAnna Vamp as Chewbacca from Star Wars, who is on the left. This cosplay was featured on IGN, a website about gaming and entertainment. Notice how Vamp positions herself compared with the actual Chewbacca. Chewbacca stands firmly and aggressively, feet apart to keep him stable. LeeAnna, on the other hand, stands off-center, with her legs together and crossed: a passive position. In the kneeling photo, her position suggests sexual availability and exposure (not sexual aggression), with a slightly open mouth and legs parted. These positions, along with her revealing costume, position LeeAnna as a sexual object for consumption. [Next slide]
In both altered and unaltered sexy cosplay, we thus see a desire to be seen as attractive by straight men. These women visually signal to a viewer (there’s always a viewer for cosplayers) that they are conforming to heteronormative beauty standards. They do this by positioning themselves as sexually receptive and passive; by wearing costumes that emphasize body parts that our culture associates with sex appeal, like breasts, hips, buttocks, and navels; and by emphasizing their femininity and conformity to beauty standards.
As Naomi Wolf points out The Beauty Myth, women in the U.S. are rewarded for capitulating to narrow and often impossible beauty standards. She claims that beauty is a currency, with which “women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves” (12). Ariel Levy’s exploration of raunch culture in Female Chauvinist Pigs demonstrates, however, that women must often do more than merely perform beauty work. She argues that “hotness doesn’t just yield approval. Proof that a woman actively seeks approval is a crucial criterion for hotness in the first place.” In a world of booth babes and sexy cosplay, this is apparent. What makes the sexy cosplay sexy is not merely that the cosplayers are thin, young, and buxom, but that they are performing and actively seeking male approval. [Next slide] For a particularly egregious example of this, I’m going to show you the video created by some geek women, mostly actresses, who formed a group called Team Unicorn. [play to 1:28] The video is very repetitive, so we can stop it there.
Almost everything about this video marks it as a performance in the service of geek men. Of course, the participants in the video, Team Unicorn, consist of young, thin, light-skinned women who conform to cultural beauty standards. There are a number of particularly porn-like shots, in which the young women are naked, strategically covered by light sabers, video game controllers, or DVDs, and on piles of geek toys, movies, or comic books. Meanwhile, the men in the intermittent shots do not match cultural standards of male beauty or masculinity. They wear cheap costumes and dance in awkward or silly ways. The women in the video wear sexy and high-quality costumes, and their dances mimic those of pop stars, which is to say, their dances are meant to appeal to straight male viewers. The video is also framed by Seth Green saying, “Hello friends. Don’t you want to meet a nice girl?,” positioning the video as an introduction to women as dating partners or sex objects. The video is not meant for geek women to view, and feel empowered by seeing representations of other geek women. It is meant to be viewed by men who wish to believe that, despite their own inability to meet cultural standards of masculinity, there are geek women available to them who are “sexy” in two ways: 1. These women do fit a physical standard of beauty, and 2. These women want to please men, want to be sexually appealing to them.
The video’s YouTube description claims, “This music video parody proves Geek and Gamer Girls really do exist.” Since, at the time, there had been multiple headlines proclaiming that women make up 50% of gamers and Comic-Con attendees, this description seems disingenuous. This is because geek women who are not “hot” are routinely ignored or erased in geek culture. This video would more accurately describe itself as “proof that conventionally sexy women who are also geeks want to have sex with you, presumed straight geek male viewer.”
Because geek women are often clearly aiming their performances at geek men, geek men and women often place blame on the women who dress this way. [Next slide] A comment on Geek Tyrant, written by a blogger who is posting a collection of “cosplay cleavage,” is illustrative. Venkman writes, “And ladies, maybe some of you will find these images offensive, but these are women that are dressing like this. We didn’t ask them to, they do it on their own, and if women dress like this, the fact of the matter is…guys are going to stare [sic].” This sentiment lands the blame for the objectification of geek women squarely on the shoulders of women, and characterizes men’s responses to these women as inevitable, natural, and uncontrollable. [Next slide] Needless to say, however, the images included in the blog post make it clear that these geek men feel they have nothing to apologize for. The blogger is not suggesting that men do not objectify women (after all, they go to cons to see “cleavage,” not to meet women or fellow geeks), but he refuses to accept responsibility for this. Rather, he suggests that women need to just accept that “guys are going to stare” at women who perform a certain version of “sexy.” It is thus women’s responsibility to prevent their own objectification. [Next slide]
There are some obvious problems in this kind of hand-waving exercise, but the most important one for us today is that one of the reasons geek women seek the approval of geek men is that geek men have positions of power and privilege in both geek industries and in geek fan communities. While women understand that sexy cosplay won’t get them respect, per se, they also know that it is most likely to get them positive attention, recognition, and limited acceptance in geek communities. Women who do not or cannot seek sexual approval from the male geek community are more likely to be ignored, derided, or dismissed. They are more likely to be called harpy feminists or annoying squeeing fangirls than to get approval and acceptance. Team Unicorn, for example, was rewarded generously for their performance with relative fame and funding for a slick new website. They also managed to buy legitimacy in this video with the inclusion of Seth Green and Stan Lee. One has to wonder, would Seth Green have agreed to a video proving the existence of female geeks if those geeks had been fat, queer, or disabled?
The pressure is on for geek women to position themselves as sexy consumable objects for geek men. When they do so, their decision is framed as a freely-made choice. On the other hand, men’s behavior in reaction to sexy cosplay, like leering, sexual harassment, or other forms of objectification, is usually framed as inevitable and natural. The pressure women feel to perform “sexy” for their fellow geeks is usually ignored or dismissed, and the conversation becomes similar to the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel at Comic-Con, in which the problem is framed as about geek women, not geek culture. Are women selling out, or being empowered?
The answer to that question is that it’s more complicated. While women performing sexy for their fellow geeks are unquestionably doing so within a culture that encourages this performance and values women merely as decoration, they may also be using sexy cosplay to subvert that culture’s objectification of women.
In John Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture, he describes jeans as objects of popular culture that can embody contradictory meanings. Jeans, he argues, have multiple meanings given to us by jean producers, such as associations with heteronormative femininity, youth, toughness, and/or hard work. These meanings come from the top, and represent the interests of those in power. People can tear their jeans (or write on them, or bleach them, or cut them off) to subvert and resist those meanings, but this doesn’t mean that the original meanings just go away. Rather, both meanings coexist in the garment simultaneously. According to Fiske, this means that popular culture objects, like jeans, “can entail the expression of both domination and subordination, of both power and resistance. So torn jeans signify both a set of dominant American values and a degree of resistance to them” (4). Sexy cosplay works in the same way. There are ways in which individual sexy cosplayers incorporate meanings resistant to the culture’s demand that they proffer themselves as consumable objects.
[Next slide] Olivia Waite, a geek and erotica writer, wrote about her personal experience with the slave Leia cosplay, after I had blogged a version of this essay at the Geek Feminism blog. Waite was a big fan of Star Wars when she was a child, and her favorite character was Leia, who she describes as “badass, intelligent, and passionate.”
She writes that when watching Return of the Jedi,
as soon as [Leia] shows up in the gold bikini, with the high ponytail and the neck-chain, every cell in my being went, She must be so pissed about that.
Because what people forget, when they talk about Slave Leia outfits, is that it’s the one costume she doesn’t choose for herself. She’s forced into it, compelled to wear that bikini for Jabba’s dubious and slobbery pleasure. And I can see why people are upset that this happens—because if there’s one thing we do not need to gratify so much, it’s the male gaze in film—but at the same time, I think it’s important that this happens to Leia, because it happens to plenty of women, all the time, every day, around the world, with or without help from a gold bikini.
And here is what Leia does, when you force her into a scanty outfit and choke-chain: she takes that chain, and she kills you with it. She doesn’t let her clothing get in her way or limit her more than she can help—she waits for her moment to strike, and then she conquers her would-be conqueror and saves the day.
And I was a little kid, not yet desensitized to violence […] Jabba’s death scene freaked the hell out of me. It wasn’t a clean blaster shot to the chest or a slice from a lightsaber that sent sparks flying or made you turn invisible. There were struggles, and flailing, and twitching limbs. The shots are close-ups, and very dark—it’s vicious, and vengeful, and physical, and very very personal.
So for me, wearing that gold bikini does not mean Here I am, a sexy toy for your amusement and gratification.
To me, that gold bikini says, If you fuck with me, I will end you.
It says, What I wear is not the same as who I am.
Waite’s is a particularly powerful example of how women can create subversive meanings in their sexy cosplay. Hers doesn’t even require an alteration in the costume, though it may include a more aggressive stance for pictures, or even a performance of the chain choking. But it is, all the same, resistant to the cultural meanings put onto the costume by the producers of Star Wars and by the powers that be in fan communities. In Waite’s cosplay, the gold bikini is a symbol of female power and resistance to objectification. At the same time, it holds those dominant meanings as well. It contains the raunch culture assumption that women are primarily valuable for their performance of “sexy” and a resistance to that gross objectification. It symbolizes the titillation of women in sexual slavery and a challenge to women’s subordinate status as the sex class. From my own experiences in geek fan cultures, I don’t believe Waite is an anomaly, a pioneering feminist geek who uses sexy cosplay to challenge the messages found in geek media and geek culture. There are others like her, whose sexy cosplays are also challenges to the status quo.
It is also important to note that not all cosplay (sexy or not) is progressive or oppositional, either. As Henry Jenkins points out in Textual Poachers,
To say that fans promote their own meanings over those of producers is not to suggest that the meanings fans produce are always oppositional ones or that those meanings are made in isolation from other social factors. Fans have chosen these media products from the total range of available texts precisely because they seem to hold special potential as vehicles for expressing the fans’ pre-existing social commitments and cultural interests; there is already some degree of compatibility between the ideological construction of the text and the ideological commitments of the fans and therefore, some degree of affinity will exist between the meanings fans produces and those which might be located through a critical analysis of the original story. […] Readers are not always resistant; all resistant readings are not necessarily progressive readings; the ‘people’ do not always recognize their conditions of alienation and subordination. (34)
That is to say, not all geek women recognize their conditions as alienated and subordinated members of geek cultures. Not all sexy cosplay is (or can be) oppositional or progressive, as Waite’s reading of the costume is. However, this does not mean that geek women are somehow to blame for their objectification. As Jenkins notes, fans make their choices in the context of their cultures, and not in isolation of social factors. The beauty myth, raunch culture, and the male domination of geek culture(s) all contribute to female fans’ choice in sexy cosplay, even if they choose to resist the meanings handed down from those in power. In order to fix the culture of objectification in geek culture, we cannot look to individual women and cosplayers, but rather to those in power, whether they be content creators (like George Lucas, Stan Lee, Felicia Day), influential commentators (like Chris Hardwick, Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik), convention organizers, or forum moderators. The problem here is not “self-objectification,” as my essay title suggests, but the pressure to perform sexy (or be ignored, derided, or dismissed). The fact is, “sexy” is not the only way that geek women represent themselves; it is merely the representation recognized and rewarded by geek culture at large. That has to change before the position of women in these culture(s) can change.
Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Kindle ed. New York: Free Press, 2005. AZW file.
“Oh, You Sexy Geek!” Panel at Comic-Con, 21 July 2011, 10:45 AM. My Comic-Con 2011 Sched*. Comic-Con, n.d. Web. 25 September 2011.
Venkman. “Collection of Cosplay Cleavage.” Geek Tyrant. Geektyrant, 15 July 2011. Web. 9 April 2012.
Waite, Olivia. “In Defense of Slave Leia.” Olivia Waite. Olivia Waite, 29 August 2011. Web. 8 April 2012.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991. Print.