"Can I take your picture?"—Privacy in cosplay

Babak Zarin

[0.1] Abstract—In this piece I examine the privacy concerns faced by costume players, or cosplayers, as a means of beginning to examine the question of how privacy can still exist in an increasingly public world. I first offer a brief overview of philosophical and current legal approaches to the concept of privacy, and then discuss the cosplay community and its concerns regarding harassment at conventions. I conclude by demonstrating how these concerns are actually privacy concerns and what this suggests regarding attempts to address these concerns both presently and in the future.

[0.2] Keywords—Convention harassment; Economic discrimination; Law; Legal studies; Privacy

Zarin, Babak. 2017. "'Can I Take Your Picture?'—Privacy in Cosplay." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Widespread use of sharing technology in recent years has prompted questions about how privacy can still exist in a world where publicly signaling your identity is all but required. Here I begin to look at this question by looking at the concerns of costume players, or cosplayers. Cosplay occurs in public, but cosplayers themselves increasingly seek privacy protections. Why are they doing this, and what are the means and implications of addressing cosplay concerns as privacy concerns?

2. Privacy and privacy law

[2.1] There is no single definition of privacy, but people have always recognized a difference between "public" and "private." Historically, "public" space has been viewed as that within which people's interactions directly impact society, which authorizes society to encourage or restrain their interactions as it deems appropriate. In contrast, "private" space has been viewed as that within which a person's actions impact society indirectly or not at all, because they are carried out in the presence of no, or nearly no, other people.

[2.2] However, defining "private" as "not public" isn't satisfying, and others have attempted to define it by focusing on personal privacy: a person's right or ability to decide whether and to what extent to disclose personal information. These attempts agree that privacy allows people to experiment with ideas and conduct safely, without fear of disruption by physical sensation (e.g., being hit, shouted at, or exposed to noxious odors as a means of shaming), identification, or surveillance, and thus to develop, as Alan Westin says in Privacy and Freedom (1967), "close, relaxed, and frank relationship[s]"; opportunities for "emotional release"; and "qualities of independent thought, diversity of views, and non-conformity," all of which are vital for healthy human development (quoted in Solove and Shwartz 2015, 26–29).

[2.3] There is also no single law or clearly defined body of law covering privacy in the United States. Instead, privacy law is based on interpretations of the Bill of Rights, state tort laws, and laws that enforce measures like confidentiality clauses in contracts (Solove and Shwartz 2015, 14; see also the Supreme Court's 1965 ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut that a constitutional right to privacy includes a married couple's right to receive contraceptive advice). These all ensure that a person has the right to determine when, and how much, information appears about them publicly. Still, those who are skeptical of privacy law and its efficacy question how much privacy really exists in a world where people regularly consent to the public broadcast of their private behavior on reality television (Solove and Shwartz 2015, 38–48). Yet reality television has existed for decades: why is there concern now?

[2.4] The answer is technology. As noted by Scott Peppet, "The Internet and digitization are decreasing the transaction costs of signaling by making verifiable signals more readily available throughout the economy, and one can therefore expect signaling to become more and more important and ubiquitous as a response to information asymmetries" (2011, 1156). Put more simply, technology has made sharing information so easy that people who choose not to do so face a greater likelihood of social and economic discrimination, because people wonder why they refuse.

3. The cosplay community and its concerns

[3.1] Modern-day cosplay originated as a hobby among science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts, and has been a regular feature at conventions internationally since the 1970s (Galbraith 2013). Cosplayers regularly participate in masquerade competitions and fashion shows, where they may receive awards for character portrayal (Lamerichs 2011).

[3.2] Making a successful cosplay costume is immensely difficult. Cosplayers spend hours studying whatever source material depicting their character they can find. This is followed by weeks creating the costume, which requires them to develop a host of fashion, arts, and crafts skills in everything from choosing textiles to building fake weaponry. The difficulty has resulted in the establishment of online communities offering cosplaying advice and a $400-million cosplay industry (Lamerichs 2011; Galbraith 2013).

[3.3] Demographic information on cosplayers is scarce. One survey undertaken in 2013 describes the average cosplayer as a 28-year-old cisgender woman of Caucasian or Asian descent who possesses a four-year university degree, resides in the United States, and likely cosplays between one to five times annually while spending roughly $100–$400 and 44 hours per year on creating her costumes (Rosenberg and Letamendi 2015). Cosplayer motivations vary widely and include entertainment, parody, and exploration of some aspect of their identity, such as gender or sexuality. Some cosplay as a career; professional cosplayers often make as much as they would in a part-time job through paid appearances and sales of their costumes or photos (Lamerichs 2011; Rosenberg and Letamendi 2015; Galbraith 2013).

4. Cosplay concerns as privacy concerns

[4.1] Cosplayers tend to come from historically underprivileged groups (e.g., gender, age, and ethnic minorities). It is unsurprising that they have concerns about their safety while cosplaying. Cosplayers face an almost constant stream of harassment. Audiences—convention goers, photographers, judges, and industry heads—take photos for adult use without asking permission, and often fetishize, fat-shame, and slut-shame cosplayers. The underprivileged groups of which cosplayers are often members are also underrepresented in the media (Nigatu 2013; also see many articles in the Escapist's Cosplay Dossier, Harassment can be worsened by the fact that audience members are often older men in positions of power, meaning that a cosplayer who resists or speaks out against their behavior may lose connections and employment opportunities (Galbraith 2013, 5, 6).

[4.2] These forms of social and economic harassment are legitimate concerns, but at this point it is worthwhile to ask why they are privacy concerns. Cosplay occurs in public, after all: the cosplayers are usually at a public convention held in a public venue, and they engage with the public, allowing people to see and interact with them as the characters they depict. Why treat the accompanying difficulties as privacy concerns?

[4.3] They are privacy concerns because cosplayers are choosing and trying out attributes of a particular narrative, often as a way to develop and explore parts of their own identities. They do this prior to appearing before an observing public. As noted above, this type of exploration is a benefit of privacy, and the ability to explore and experiment without facing public penalty or harassment is what privacy legislation aims to protect. Furthermore, harassment of cosplayers is partly enabled by the ease with which audiences can access or share their images online. Cosplayer concerns over harassment, then, are privacy concerns because the pressure to adapt a cosplay to the viewer's desires or face harassment suggests that the cosplaying "market" is beginning to shift to Peppet's (2011) signal economy: players in the market (cosplayers) are being forced to signal information they want to keep private (e.g., their image while cosplaying) in order to meet the desires of the consumer (the viewing audience). If they do not do so, they face social and economic discrimination. Cosplayers who say that they cannot cosplay safely are saying that their privacy—that is, their ability to develop their identities by choosing, depicting, and experimenting with a narrative—is being violated.

[4.4] Cosplayers' concerns regarding harassment must be addressed, but only a few attempts to do this have been made. For example, most conventions have rules limiting access to and photography of cosplayers, but these rules can be difficult to enforce and are often brought to bear only after harm has been done. Cosplayers themselves have begun to issue guidelines to the etiquette of interacting with them, offering to pose for photographs in exchange for fans and photographers obeying certain rules, such as not following cosplayers around the convention hall, taking unauthorized photographs, or pressing them for personal information (Everett 2013; Liana 2013). However, while etiquette can be more readily and easily enforced than the convention rules, it can take time for attendees to learn it, meaning that it does not necessarily prevent harm as cosplayers could still face harassment by the uninformed.

[4.5] Since cosplayer concerns are also privacy concerns, perhaps attempts to address them should look to privacy laws. Unfortunately, many privacy laws are variations of "don't ask, don't tell, don't use" limits and restrictions, which both convention rules and cosplayer etiquette already include (Peppet 2011, 1197–1200). While cosplayers could certainly use these laws to protect themselves, such use carries with it the same challenges cosplayers already face: the law does not prevent harm but only responds to it, and navigating the legal system is difficult. And it is unlikely that newer, stronger laws would be passed to protect them specifically.

[4.6] This suggests that, for better or worse, cosplayers' privacy concerns in the face of harassment are being addressed the best way possible: through a combination of convention rules, social etiquette, and privacy laws that allow them to define the manner in which people may interact with them and seek redress when their privacy is violated. Still, all of these controls on behavior have only a limited ability to prevent harm from being done by those who don't know (or don't care) about them.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] How can privacy be preserved in a world where people are increasingly being pushed to share more information publicly or face social and economic harm? I have tried to address this question through examining cosplayer concerns. What has been gained by this attempt?

[5.2] I have shown that cosplayer concerns about harassment while cosplaying are privacy concerns. This fact has several implications for greater fandom. First, if the best protections are difficult to implement and often apply only after the fact, should fandom just accept that cosplaying will always involve some risk—that there can be no completely safe space for cosplayers? Second, what does the fact that harassment often involves social or economic discrimination imply about future attempts to strengthen etiquette or convention rules? Should cosplayers carry responsibility for protecting themselves, or should their audience (which likely includes potential harassers) be asked to do so? Third, how can protections for cosplayers effectively engage with the growing ease of sharing technology: should cosplayers and conventions grant tacit permission for audiences to take and share photos, or should photography be further restricted, even to the point of requiring audience members to give up cameras and cellphones at the door?

[5.3] These are complicated questions, to be sure, ones that are likely to be discussed at great length in many places, and I don't pretend to have answers to them. Yet my conclusions, and the questions they raise, do show that cosplayers need greater privacy protections, as nothing less than their ability to grow and develop will be hindered without them.

6. Works cited

Everett, Kelly. 2013. To Boldly Go: Cosplay =/= Consent.

Galbraith, Patrick W. 2013. "Intersections: Cosplay, Lolita and Gender in Japan and Australia; An Introduction." Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 32.

Lamerichs, Nicolle. 2011. "Stranger than Fiction: Fan Identity in Cosplay." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 7.

Liana. 2013. A Cosplay Etiquette Primer.

Nigatu, Heben. 2013. "Cosplayers Have a Message to All Perverts." BuzzFeed, April 4.

Peppet, Scott R. 2011. "Unraveling Privacy: The Personal Prospectus and the Threat of a Full-Disclosure Future." Northwestern University Law Review 105 (3): 1153–203.

Rosenberg, Robin S., and Andrea M. Letamendi. 2013. "Expressions of Fandom: Findings from a Psychological Survey of Cosplay and Costume Wear." Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media, no. 5: 9, 11.

Solove, Daniel J., and Paul M. Schwartz. 2015. Consumer Privacy and Data Protection. New York: Wolters Kluwer.