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question of the day: Are “slave Leias” and other “sexy” geek costumes feminist and empowering, demeaning and sexist, or something in between?

slave Princess Leia cosplayers

Today’s question comes via reader Noah, who sent a link to a post at GeekFeminist.org that examines the issue of “‘Geek girls’ and the problem of self-objectification.” The gist of the long post, by Courtney Stoker:

I’ve been researching and thinking about cosplay for a while now, and one of the most distressing trends I’ve been grappling with is how women will choose characters, costumes, or costume constructions based on how “sexy” the costume will appear on them. This is not just a cosplay problem, but a geek problem. And until we start having an intelligent conversation about it (preferably a conversation that starts with the assumption that it is a problem), it’s not one that geek communities will ever be rid of.

When I was on the “Geek Girls in Popular Culture” panel at ApolloCon, we talked about this nonsense for quite a while, because, as a couple of the panelists pointed out, it seems like a geek woman can only get attention if she’s conventionally beautiful and willing to objectify herself. When geek women choose to self-objectify at geek events, they are not doing so in a vacuum. So while I think it’s possible that some of them are trying to feel empowered in their sexuality, and reclaim their femininity, they cannot escape the fact that this is a culture that embraces female fans almost exclusively as sexy objects. In other words, a feminist can wear high heels, but she shouldn’t lie to herself about what that means.

….

But the actions of women are not the cause of their objectification. Women have a lot of good reasons to perform beauty work and to dress sexy, especially in the sexist cultures represented at your average con. Women aren’t the problem, whether they crossplay and eschew femininity altogether or they pull out the sexy Leia costume. The problem is that women who dress sexy, who frame themselves as sex objects, are rewarded by geek culture for doing so. They get attention, approval, and recognition from the culture when they dress as sexy Leia (or any sexy geek thing). They have pictures taken of them at cons, and they get posted and reposted on the internet. They are recognized as geeks (and generally as somewhat authentic geeks, even if they aren’t talked about that way) and welcomed into the community (maybe not as full members, but at least as desirable). There’s nothing wrong with wanting attention and approval in one’s community. What cosplayer and geek wouldn’t want those things? What female geek doesn’t want to be welcomed into the community with enthusiasm and excitement (instead of derided as a harpy feminist or annoying squeeing fangirl)? The problem, then, isn’t what women do, but a culture in which the only way that women can be recognized as a desirable part of the culture is when they participate by making themselves consumable sexy objects for geek men.

(Emphasis in original.)

It’s a long and fascinating post — and the comments that follow are equally intriguing and diverse — and there are a lot of advanced antipatriarchy concepts jammed into it (and even into just the brief bits I’ve excerpted). Do read the original post for a better idea of how complicated the subject is.

What is all comes down to is unpacking this conundrum:

Are “slave Leias” and other “sexy” geek costumes feminist and empowering, demeaning and sexist, or something in between?

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)


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  • alyssa terranova

    Wow, I accidentally came across this… so I’m late to the game. I don’t go to cos play, but the issue with the costume reminds me of how I feel on Halloween.
    The best portrayal of my mixed feelings when having to choose between an awesome costume vs sexy costume was in “Mean Girls” it’s the scene where Lindsay lohan is niave showing up to a party as a zombie bride. She looks around & immediately knows she’s out of place because every girl is something overly sexy. The reactions of the guys is horror because she looks scary… which she thought was the point…
    Yes, you can go against the grain, but don’t be surprised at the lack of appreciation.