Spiderman and Batman play Pokémon in the corner of a crowded hotel. The entire cast of “Game of Thrones” parades through hallways with swords at their hips. Professor X wheels into an elevator on his way to a Star Trek panel.
In the convention world, creativity is king and anything is possible. Cosplayers – costume role-players – gather to dress up as and celebrate their favorite television and movie characters. But even here, poisonous voices can reign free.
Longtime Gainesville cosplayer Erin McConnell, 43, started noticing an increase in cyber bullying of cosplayers while perusing social media for her business of creating and selling cosplays and props for other people. That was when she stumbled across a blog dedicated to criticizing cosplayers — one of whom she knew — she decided to take a stand.
“It angered and frustrated me that something like that would be out there,” McConnell said. “It didn’t matter if they were children, if they were older, black, Asian, white – it didn’t make any difference. You just got completely ripped apart.”
McConnell founded the Facebook initiative “Heroes United Against Cosplay Bullying” in March 2014. In less than a year, the page has grown to include five local administrators, nearly 7,500 page likes and an international impact.
A shy fourteen-year-old in Brazil was encouraged to start her cosplay journey with suit-and-eyepatch-clad Ciel Phantomhive, the main character from “Black Butler.” An African American college student was unafraid to tackle the design of Chien Po from Disney’s “Mulan.” A plus-sized parent gained the confidence to portray Mizuki Shibata, a young magic engineering student in “The Irregular at Magic School.” All have been inspired by the Facebook page to enter or re-enter the cosplay world.
“I wanted to create a community where people could come and know that they would have support and that they would be protected,” McConnell said. “Cosplay isn’t rooted in whether or not you’re a fashion model. It’s rooted in just being a fan of something and going to a convention and celebrating it, because that’s where it all started to begin with.”
McConnell and her team invite cosplayers of all ages, races and body types to send in stories of any negativity they’ve experienced, how they dealt with it, and their advice for others.
They have expanded their reach hosting panels at conventions as well. This weekend at the University of Florida’s SwampCon will be the first time the majority of the “Heroes United Against Cosplay Bullying” team will be present at a panel.
“The page is really about empowerment through cosplay, or being a positive force through cosplay and not putting other people down,” said Crystal Sorrow, one of the page’s administrators. “Sometimes…characters help them feel more confident because they’re playing someone else versus themselves. I’ve seen cosplay work in a really positive manner in that way.”
Megan Scott, 34, stopped cosplaying in 2005 because the changes in the community became too intimidating. Bullies told her she was too old. They said she was too fat. They said she had no business cosplaying 16-year-old anime characters. She believed them.
McConnell helped change her mind.
“One thing she’s always told me is it doesn’t matter if someone else likes it as long as I’m happy with who I am,” Scott said. “Six months ago, it was absolutely soul crushing. Now, it’s fire.”
Scott, an Ocala-based graphic artist, has since been working on a photography series about cosplay bullying. She credits the “Heroes United Against Cosplay Bullying” page as her inspiration.
“A hero doesn’t have to be somebody in spandex who runs around saving the day,” she said. “It can be the person who gives you the shoulder you need to cry on at the right time or just the person who tells you not to give up when everything else makes you want to.”