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Cosplay Shenanigans: Harassment and Walking Without My Privilege in SDCC

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The Comic Book version of the Flash Rogue, the Rainbow Raider.

A few weeks ago, I made a Rainbow Raider Costume,   (Based off the semi-obscure Flash Rogues comic book character) as a way to express my joy and support for the Supreme Court ruling. Granted it was a short-cut version I made with what materials I had at the time, but I revised the costume to be more like the comic book counterpart (seen above, from the 80s “Who’s Who in the DC Universe ‘Q-R’ Issue”). It was just a few minor tweaks, like changing the torso leather armor, so it has all seven colors of the rainbow instead of the original that had four, and the addition of a rainbow pattern to my arm and leg armor. Because of that added level of detail, I thought I could wear it to San Diego Comic Con (SDCC), so I did.

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This time, there are seven colors to my Rainbow Raider costume. Okay, so I had to replace Indigo with Dark Blue, but it should be close enough.

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The armbands now shimmer under flash photography?! Time to take this to SDCC!

This is an account of my experiences and my thoughts on those experiences. It also may very well be that my analyses of these situations need other perspectives, so please feel free to address my accounts and offer such perspectives.

I wore this costume primarily on the Thursday of SDCC, Day 1.  When I left my hotel, which was a Hotel Circle hotel, I had to take the shuttle to the convention center. The shuttle stop was right next door, so I made my way to the shuttle stop, and as I walked towards it, I saw a shuttle pass by, meaning it will be around twenty minutes until the next shuttle came.

I reached the stop, which is on the corner of a sidewalk and the driveway of the Doubletree Hotel. During that twenty-minute wait, and between the vehicles form the road and the vehicles driving into the hotel, this happened five times: a vehicle passes by and either honks obnoxiously, its passengers sticks their head out and screams “WHOOOOOOOOO –HOOOOOOOOO!” or both.

I don’t think those noises and honks really express a recognition of the character (not five cars within twenty minutes), nor did I expect them to. Even the “Who’s Who” issue I read as a kid only dedicated half a page to the Rainbow Raider.  I don’t think it was necessarily an appreciation of the craftsmanship of the costume either since, as I said in my original article, I made the costume in a couple of hours, and that includes the time it took the paint to dry and the random adhesives to set in.  I have worn more impressive and attention-getting costumes, and the level of noise and that kind of attention I got was not like that at all. I think it is very much an expression of how people want to project or think they have the license to be loudly flamboyant because “Oh, look, a RAINBOW COSTUME, therefore I can act [or project] what I think a flamboyant gay stereotype is”

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I had plenty of attention from this costume the other days as well, but NONE of the responses were obnoxious honks or “WOOOO-HOOOOOO!” (Photo thanks to David “DTJAAAAM” Ngo)

Think about how “Catcalls” work. It is not really done to attract the person (usually women) being catcalled, but it is a way for the Catcaller to exercise (usually) male privilege that they can dominate and openly objectify the person being called in the guise of some sort of shallow, empty compliment. I think this was a very similar thing happening, and the hetero-normative privilege of these people in the cars passing by caused them to say something like “Oh, look, how amusing, you marginalized subaltern individual, you!”

When the shuttle came, and I got in, the experience was not as dramatic as waiting on the sidewalk. But as I came into the bus, three pairs of people  did that thing where they turn their head towards each other, and use their hands to shield the sides of their mouths, so you cannot conceivably lipread their whispers.  I will concede that this may be paranoia after being honked at for a bit, but these pairs looked at me, giggled, and did that whispering thing.

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When I sat down, I heard a few  not-so-whispered whispers.  Not sure if these people are just bat at being subtle, or they intended me to hear it.  One was “OH, MY….NOW, I’ve seen everything!” Really, REALLLLLY, Now-I’ve-Seen-Everything guy?  You’re at SDCC, with so many people wearing costumes, and THIS is what makes you say that?

The other loud whisper was “[lots of giggling] Now, we’ve found the perfect boyfriend for Steven!”   It’s such a snide remark, and I hope they treat their friend Steven more than the caricature they seem to be pigeon-holing a dude in a random costume they see going to a place where people… wear costumes.

When I got to the shuttle stop, the equivalent of a block or so away from the convention center next to Petco Park, there is a large lot filled with off-site events.  Walking through, the side of that off-site events thing, I got two more of those Catcall-like WOO-HOOOO’s.

And that was the leitmotif of most of the day, people hollering out loud to me as though seeing a man in a Rainbow-themed costume is CONSENT for people just harrass me.

Perhaps, they really DO think it’s some sort of compliment, going back to my catcalling analogy, but it’s really a form of exercising their privilege, perhaps because some of them have not been in such situations.  It’s a bit like when, growing up as an Asian-American, people would assume things about me , and say “You’re good in academics” or  “You can play an instrument really well.”  Neither of those were necessarily true, but it was projected each time people realize I am Asian-American.  It is a bit jarring for people to assume that you are just one stereotype, however flattering or positive it is because it gives little room for other possibilities on I can be perceived as.

A few more comments that came in lumps are these:

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Some people felt the need to do poses like this, right before they come up to me, like I’m a jpeg of a meme who cannot see them.

“I gotta tell you, you are FABULOOUSSSSSSSS!”  this came to me in a variety of volumes and levels of showmanship, I even think three or four stopped right in front of me and said it so loudly while flailing their arms up in the air.  I know when people come and geek out about something, and this is not it.  It is a similar mentality to that catcalling thing.  They are not really there to pay me a compliment.  They are there to try and see if I would act like the stereotypical flamboyant gay stereotype they think I am.

There is the cousin of the Now-I’ve-Seen-Everything dude, the “You’ve GOT to tell me, what is ALL THIS!”  The people are obviously not asking for which character I am; they are waiting for a confirmation of their lazy assumption that a person wearing a man rainbow pattern as part of a costume is automatically gay.  Again, I don’t see these people (since two of them are security people at the door, so I observed them throughout the day) asking that to more elaborate, but obscure characters.  How disappointed were ALL (every single one of them) of them when I just went “It’s Rainbow Raider, a character from the  Flash comics,” a few times followed with an awkward lingering “Oooooooooooooh” as they slowly walk away,  obviously having their assumptions proven wrong.

It was a bit disheartening that those who asked in such a manner already had such an expectation in mind.  There were PLENTY of other people, who asked nicely, politely, and some did not even care about the character, and all of it is fine.  They were there enjoying the con, run into me, either had a brief chat or words, or took pictures, not caring about the character, not caring (or at least they did not make it too known, which is fine by  me as well) about what possible preconceived notions they have

There was even a comment like this on social media on one of my Rainbow Raider pictures, as I was writing this article:

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Now, let’s see… “Besides, DOT DOT DOT colorful.” Hmmmmm.

Let’s analyze this comment a bit.  Obviously he does not know the character, but that’s okay.  “What are you suppose to be?” is, granted not the most eloquent of was to ask who the character is, but we can just take that as being inquisitive or curious, but it DID NOT STOP THERE.  There was “Besides [ellipses] colorful.”  Now, THAT’s a sign that he’s not just asking about the character, but somehow waiting or expecting a response other than “It’s a character from the Flash Comics, the Rainbow Raider.”  I think he’s waiting for some big gay explanation or revelation.  The ellipses and use of  “colorful,” as a euphemism are signs that he’s asking for some sort of below-the-surface answer.  “Colorful,” is asking if it’s another word for “Flaming” ie: the stereotype he assumes.

All these comments and actions were not really about people unable to recognize an obscure character; a lot of people showed their appreciation or just not shown just jarring behavior throughout the day.  However, an issue about the privileged thinking  many people have.  Even though I can accept that people will assume the costume is automatically (but more significantly ONLY) an LGBT symbol because of the rainbow pattern, the assumption about me, the cosplayer, is an interesting one.  Just because I cosplay a character they assume is a gay character (even though the Rainbow Raider is actually a straight male), they automatically think I am gay as well.  It is privileged behavior to think this way because in our world where straight white males are privileged and hold a presumptive dominance over anyone who isn’t, the question in people’s heads become “If you are straight, why would you cosplay as a gay character?” There is the assumption that cosplaying, and the fantasy fulfillment that comes from it can only be achieved by being like the people in privilege.

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I’m the one in the left, whos character is the female Golden Age Red Tornado. The Silver Age Red Tornado to the right, a genderless android (though in recent years, have been given a male gender as part of his humanized persona).

It was a very similar situation when I first cosplayed as Abilgail “Ma” Hunkel, the Golden Age Red Tornado, who is a female.  People were telling me “You know this character is a female, right?”  when they find out I’m a male under the mask.  It is that assumption of “Why cosplay a female character when you’re male?”  The inverse, when we see all these female versions of male characters, NEVER get questioned.  It is because of that same assumption, since they are female, and not in the position of privilege, it “makes sense” for them to cosplay as male characters as a sort of fantasy fulfillment. Or at least that is how the privilege part of the argument seems to play out in the minds of the SPECTATORS (not necessarily the cosplayers, who probably have many reasons for cosplaying the character they want).

It is even similar to being a person of color.  Whenever a person ANYWHERE, be in social media or a forum would ask for “What costume should I do?” and that person is not white, a majority of the costume suggestions will be inscribed onto that person’s ethnicity.  If say, a black man asks that question (and I’ve seen this sooo much), they’ll get “Oh, Luke Cage, Black Panther, Black Lightning, Static Shock, John Stewart Green Lantern.”  If an Asian girl, asks this question, the answer always goes to “Jubilee, Psylocke, Karma, Katana, Lady Shiva, Mulan, Chung Li.”

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Flash Rogues… apparently popular and not-so-obscure with the young ‘uns!

The day was not all bad, and a lot of people WERE civil and nice throughout SDCC and the Gaslamp District, whether they knew who I was, or not.  Some people thought I was some sort of Mortal Kombat (Sub-Zero) mash-up with someone else, a human Skittles costume, and a few other fun ones, which are all nice, creative, and more credit t them because I’m not that creative.  All I did was try to lift the costume’s design, and alter it enough to make the materials I had at the time work.

A good number of people also asked genuinely, and we had a fun talk, sometimes not even about the Flash Rogues at all.   Some others did not care, but appreciated the costume for whatever value they saw it: social awareness, what little craftsmanship it was, or the design.  More importantly, these people treated and talked to me like a regular person would talk to anybody else in the convention.

It was also very surprising that (perhaps because the Rainbow Raider was in the Flash/Arrow Crossover episode) people recognize it. Interestingly enough, a few of those people geeking out about “IT”S THE RAINBOW RAIDER!” were young kids in their teens or even below teens.  I was surprised by that, given how obscure the character is, and whatever notoriety he had was during the 80s.

There were also a few creators, artists and writers who geeked out at the DC booth when they say my costume, one of whom was Dan Didio, the Co-Editor of DC Comics.  He was a busy guy passing through the crowd, passed by me, did a double-take, an went “Is that a Rainbow Raider?!”

While a good number of my experiences gave me hope that people are awesome, and more enlightened than I think, walking a SDCC Mile (or a few miles… that was A LOT of walking) in the proverbial shoes of the Rainbow Raider gave me a lot of things to think about.  I suppose I am a bit naive, so I am a bit  jaded at the geeky/convention-going community, who apparently still has a lot to learn about boundaries, an perhaps how people are just regular real people, not  stock characters, caricatures, or stereotypes.

John Garcia
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John Garcia is a Professor of English, specializing in popular culture, comparative literature, and postcolonial studies. He is also an artist and character designer for Smorgasbord Productions. He has been cosplaying since 2002, and attending geeky conventions since 1998.

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