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strange_doings ([personal profile] strange_doings) wrote2016-11-17 10:10 am
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A Letter to the ICG

I wrote this in January of 2016, to send to the president of the International Costumers Guild to explain why I was stepping down as vice-president and not renewing my membership in the guild, and in a more broad sense, what I saw as concerns about the viability of the ICG.

Since then, CC34 happened, and I was so burned out after promoting, organizing, and running it that I felt completely justified in walking out the door and never wanting to associate with the ICG again. Over the summer and fall, one or two veteran members were making a stink on Facebook and their personal (but public and shareable) blogs about how cosplay wasn't "real" costuming and getting huffy because everyone uses this word now. So, understandably, all of this came up again.

I decided to repost the letter publicly, here, so I can share it with interested parties. I don't intend for this to go viral but this is the internet, we know how this goes. I am reposting it unedited, so even if I may have rethought a thing or two since then, I want it out there as a snapshot of what was told to the President in January 2016 and how in November, it has not been addressed in any way.

I mentioned in our other discussion that I had additional concerns to bring to you, so here they are. I wrote the text in bits and pieces over the last two years, and tried to keep it organized, but I tend to ramble as things come to mind so hopefully the train of thought isn't too hard to follow.

The primary reason I speak of letting my ICG membership lapse and stepping down is due to my own burnout: I'm just not enjoying this hobby like I used to and if I can't even bring myself to make new costumes or have fun wearing them, I certainly can't find the fire necessary to be in any sort of leadership or administrative roles in any organizations. It would be better for me to bow out and take some time away, and though I plan to remain a MACS officer (because nobody else wants it), that's about it. Costume-Con 34 has been a major contributing factor, but I'll need some time off after it's over to try to regain my love for this hobby. This is a burnout 3-4 years in the making, it isn't recent. But I have two additional reasons for not renewing: for one, I'm not seeing any benefit to paying dues, and for two, I'm getting really tired of the ageist behavior of some of the older members looking down their noses at cosplayers. I'll explain myself in full.

In preface, I do have concerns about the vitality and relevance of the ICG in this modern age, and I want to run them past you in the hopes that it can open a dialogue and eventually be brought before the entirety of the organization for discussion. And I do mean discussion, because a number of the old guard in the ICG have a tendency to shut down any dissent, complaint, or suggestion that the way they're doing things is not 100% amazing and awesome. Whether because they don't see it on their own personal or local level, or because they don't appreciate someone "younger" calling their beloved organization into question, either way, it is the primary reason the "younger" folks are not stepping up, taking leadership roles, taking on projects, or even speaking up in discussions. I put that word in scare quotes because I am not young, and neither is most of our chapter. I'm turning 41 on Monday. The majority of our members are 30-38. We're not a bunch of teenagers.

Regarding dues: MACS originally decided to become a member of the ICG because to our members, the name had prestige. Even if that prestige is something only we perceive – we had a dynamic, positive view of what it meant to be in the ICG, and wanted to be a part of that. Some of our members still do. But it occurs to me now that prestige and a dollar won't get you a cup of coffee. We support the ICG mainly because of the Archives, but we would like more than just to stroke our own egos by reminding ourselves that we're an ICG chapter. Because, really, what's so impressive about that? Big hairy deal, right? It looks nice on paper but means little to nothing in the real world. Bragging rights become increasingly pointless as more cosplayers enter the scene and don't even know about the existence of an international organization dedicated to costuming. Simply put, even with the recent efforts to secure tangible benefits, there really is no reason to be paying in. The newsletter is nice, but our dues don't really go to it anymore. I love and support the Archives, but I can send them an earmarked donation. The Marty Gear Fund is nice too, but again, it can take earmarked donations, plus...even though I do trust the current committee in charge of reviewing requests and doling out grants, what happens when my chapter, or ANY chapter, hears about a grant and registers complaints that it's a waste of money or a poor cause? This is OUR money being put into it and yet we, at the chapter level, have no say in who gets it. I find this to be a fundamental problem that hasn't been tested yet because so far, the handful of grants have been worthy. But who knows what will happen in five years with entirely new people on the committee or the board?

I can't speak for others, so I'm giving my own personal reasons why I can't afford to prioritize ICG membership as a worthy cause. I'm not getting anything out of my $8. I'm very poor, so I need to put my money where it benefits me. This is why I wanted to be on the committee for finding benefits to ICG membership, I wanted to help find more tangible benefits because in this day and age, esoteric feel-good platitudes about supporting costuming are just not enough to warrant forking over money. I'm rather frustrated that the committee has not been taken away from Aurora Celeste and given to someone who will actively do something with it. 12 months ago, that someone might have been me, but now that burnout has hit, I really don't care enough to do that kind of work. No one in my chapter is willing to step up and take my place on that committee, or any committee, because they're all in the hands of people who do nothing with them and when we see no action for YEARS in a row, we lose confidence that anything can even be done. That's a separate issue, though, I'll get to that in a bit.

Bringing local costumers together to hang out and teach one another is great, but there are a lot of ways to do that without ever paying a single dollar in dues to an international organization. The internet has changed the nature of organizing costumers forever. Between forums, Facebook groups, and tumblr followers, people can talk to other costumers, get advice, share tutorials, and organize photoshoots and convention events for free! Why should they pay dues? Answering that question - if we can - is what will make or break the ICG. How can an organization with the right to charge membership dues stay relevant in a world where its very statement of purpose has been undermined by lots of other organizations, both formal and non, who do it without charging dues? Moreover, how does it stay relevant to the 16-25 demographic, whose ideas of cosplay get warped by the echo chamber effect of the internet and the media? Particularly when the core of the organization is easily old enough to be parents and grandparents to these kids, and don't enjoy conventions the same way they do?

Which leads me into my other concern, about both subtle and overt ageism and anti-cosplayer sentiment. You don't usually see it directly on the Board discussion, but I have seen it among members on Facebook and other venues where they get together to shoot the shit. I call myself a cosplayer, even though it's just a label, so it discourages me to see people I used to respect talking down about cosplayers, saying they only buy their costumes and only care about roleplaying their characters, etc. These things are fallacies. They're just not true. But so long as people in respectable positions among the ICG continue to believe these fallacies, they talk themselves into not reaching out to these younger costumers. I know you've wondered why the younger folks aren't joining the ICG and aren't volunteering to be in leadership positions. I can speak from my point of view, and I have actually talked with my chapter about this. The overarching thought is that we still feel unwanted by the old guard. Even if we're in our 30s and 40s, we get treated like "those cosplayers" by those who've been part of the organization since its inception. Particularly since many of us (not all, but many) do build and wear costumes from anime and video games and attend anime conventions for fun, we're tarred with the same brush as the kids who buy bootleg costumes and then quit cosplaying when they graduate high school. So, if 30-somethings feel this way, how do you think the 18-25 year olds feel? At the very least, we don't get the encouragement that some claim to be giving.

There's also the aforementioned issue of committees not actually getting anything accomplished. Most of our members have been members for at least 5-6 years, and have attended board meetings at multiple CCs. They have seen the inaction in action. They aren't just relying on rumor, they know from first-hand experience. Nothing gets done, so the apathy carries down to them - why should they care when no one else does? I honestly don't know how to change this, because even if everyone who has served X number of years in officer positions or on committees were to en masse step down, that doesn't mean all the younger folks will automatically take their places. I think a lot needs to change on all levels, before younger members will 1) desire to be on the board, on a committee, etc, and 2) happily fork over their cash for the privilege of doing so.

The graying of fandom is not just a problem with the literary snobs at Worldcon, it's right here in costuming too. The old folks mostly don't like the kids on their lawn, because they don't do things the way we do things and they don't know their history. Marty, may he rest in peace, was our ambassador on that front, but now that he's gone, who will step up and carry that banner? The Archives do a good job with their presentations and their internet presence, but even they suffer sometimes from just not giving a shit about the 14 year olds running around wearing Tardis dresses and cosplaying from Nickelodeon cartoons for toddlers. They also can't be everywhere at once. I am seriously concerned that as the core movers and shakers among the ICG continue to retire and, yes, die, there's no one to take their place and the ICG will end. Which, sometimes on my most cynical days, I wonder if that's for the better. If there's no point to the ICG's existence, would costuming be hurt if it disappeared? The Archives need to exist, but beyond that...I don't think a single thing would change at the local level if the ICG ceased to exist tomorrow. People would still find each other on the internet, post their photos, share tutorials, and run costuming panels at cons. Think about that: costuming would not suddenly end if the ICG ended. So what's the point to the ICG?

I know, there is an ICG mission statement: to bring costumers together and foster educational and social opportunities at the local level through local chapters. But what does that MEAN? How does the ICG carry out that purpose? If the ICG exists to support its chapters so that they, in turn, can be more visible at their regional level (encourage membership, participation, and educational and social activities), then it needs to define what "support" means and how it gets carried out. If, however, the ICG also exists to promote costuming in general, as well as promote some of their ideals (e.g. the fairness guidelines for competition, mentoring judges and directors) then they will need a different set of actions. I also know from our discussions that the ICG parent organization was meant to be as hands-off as possible for the local chapters, so as not to stifle them and allow them to fulfill their purpose as they best see fit. But, again, if costumers of all types can perform the same purpose without joining the ICG with their own private clubs and organizations, for free, what is the point of the ICG?

The ICG is not quite yet obsolete. However, in the 16 years since I began costuming, it has gone from this organization you may hear about in passing, a nebulous impression of high-class costumers one may aspire to join someday, to an organization few ground-level costumers have even heard of. In 1999, people who enjoyed media costuming tended to know that the ICG was a thing that existed, even if they didn't know much about it or have plans to join it. Today, the majority of hobby costumers have NEVER EVEN HEARD OF IT. Plus, outside of people who regularly go to CC and Worldcon, there is a small segment which has a very negative view of the ICG: that it's full of elitist snobs who want to ruin the fun of everyone else who cosplays.

Part of the problem is a PR issue. The ICG does not promote itself. The ICG does not step out beyond Costume-Con and Worldcon to let people know they exist. The exception being the recent push by the Archivists to have a much stronger visible presence on the web, through Youtube videos and Facebook. However, there is little effort to point costumers, particularly of a younger age or certain media genre persuasion, to those sites. As I've learned while assisting the PR department of CC34, it isn't enough just to have a website or have a Facebook, if people aren't finding it and using it. You don't get new followers by simply passively existing, promotion requires activity and aggression. Most cosplay groups on FB have thousands of followers, the ICG has 650. That's barely the size of a tiny local niche convention attendance. The archivists are doing a great job, but they can't manage everything by themselves. They are cataloging documents, preparing presentations, AND doing all of the promotion themselves. Putting the promotion of the entire ICG on them will burn them out in no time. I see a PR committee listed on the ICG site, but have they done anything at all lately?

But the larger problem is whether or not the ICG is fulfilling its statement of purpose. I'm not going to say "no, it isn't" or "yes, it is," my personal jury is still out on that. There are a few things it does for its chapters...the GEL is a nice thing, I'm sure. But MACS doesn't need it. We don't bring in much in dues and what we do, we basically use to treat ourselves to a party once a year. If you can get the website upgraded to include chapter pages, we'd sure take advantage of that, but we don't have a webmaster either. I see a lot of "well if you need this we can probably help, but if you don't need it, we've got nothing for you." That, in a nutshell, is why you're having such a hard time reaching out to other organizations and asking them to consider being under the ICG's umbrella.

There are a lot of tangible things the ICG COULD provide if they made it part of their mission statement: mentoring young costumers, training judges and directors, offering volunteer assistance at conventions either in panels or the masquerade, taking their masquerade competition to new and different locations, offering a centralized internet location for costuming advice/links/networking, etc. Granted, this is not a demand that members of the veteran generation force themselves to attend events in which they have no personal interest, or sacrifice their enjoyment of costuming for the sake of the next generation's whims. In the end, costuming is always about fun and enjoyment, and we all enjoy our costuming in very different, individual ways. However if there are individuals with a vested interest in seeing costuming as a hobby continue (regardless of evolutionary changes that adapt to the new media, social networking, etc), the ICG could be their tool to do so. To keep unhealthy fads and attitudes from creeping in, preserve the history, guide the next evolution, etc. In order to do so, the ICG itself needs to improve its relevance and increase its profile. Right now, there are thousands if not millions of people who put on costumes and go to conventions who have never even heard of the ICG. Among them are a handful with a very negative view of it, assuming that it's full of elitists who want to force everyone to follow their rules and squash their fun.

It's a tough situation. Do you push the parent organization to be more hands-on among its chapters, and risk having even more people think the ICG is trying to force its rules on all costumers? Or do you continue to stay hands-off and be merely a guide, and watch as people continue to join organizations which don't require dues and have an interactive, personal, day-to-day presence on social media? I don't know. I really don't. But I'm really concerned about it. I'm concerned that younger cosplayers are getting terrible ideas about what cosplay is (and isn't) and having them reinforced without veteran mentors to steer them right. I'm concerned that veterans who continue to loudly insist that they're costumers, not cosplayers, alienate the very people they're trying to educate. I'm concerned that the media only touts sexy young women as cosplayers, and conventions have picked up on that and invite pinup models to be "cosplay guests" without considering folks who can really teach hands-on methods of making costumes. I'm concerned when kids get bullied because they want to cosplay outside their weight, race, or age. Can the ICG step in and be a positive influence in this atmosphere? I don't know. And I don't know if any of its current members want to.

Unfortunately, I am not the one to lead the charge into the brave new world or anything. I'm burnt out. I just don't care. Most days I just sit at my sewing machine churning out costumes for clients and know full well that I'm a cog in a machine of sheer pointlessness, as hobbies go. I can't even muster the energy to care when people like Yaya Han get lauded as representatives of cosplay when they don't even resemble 95% of actual cosplayers, I barely have the strength to roll my eyes. There are good things that can be achieved via costuming, but it takes someone who gives a crap to actually take up that banner and run with it. I know it's hypocritical of me to say "the ICG should do this and that" and then pretty much drop out of the organization, but that's all I'm good for. I see the issues, I hear the issues, so all I can do is communicate them to someone who might be able to move others to action. And if you're reaching the point where you plan to step down and push someone else into the presidency, I wouldn't blame you. But I don't know anyone else who can take the reins and lead the ICG to act rather than sit back and enjoy its status quo. Most of MACS is also too consumed running CC34 to even think of offering, and none of them will be free until June of this year. My partner Rosanna did consider running for webmaster, but that wouldn't be until much later this year.

In conclusion...I don't actually have a call to action. I don't intend to ask you to do anything. I may write a much-condensed version of this to present as a statement at the annual meeting, as my final act as VP, but even then I'm not sure because as much as part of me really wants to tell the old guard to check their attitudes toward cosplayers, I know it'll blow up in my face. But I have had all these thoughts percolating around my head for 2 or 3 years, and they needed to come out. Someone needed to know, particularly someone who might be able to, with his influence, at least start a dialogue among the organization. MACS has talked about these things amongst ourselves, informally, but no one has come up with solutions either, so I'm not sure if there are any. But I wouldn't mind seeing it discussed, if it can be brought up in a way that doesn't accuse the entire board of being lazy, ineffectual, or ageist and anti-cosplayer.

You've been amazing as president, Phil, and even now when you're wearing far too many hats for any one person to keep up with, you're trucking on. I and all of MACS love you for it. If there's a way to reach out and connect with the "younger" members of the ICG and get them to step up, maybe this can be a good start.

I'm sorry to dump it on you. I hope it was at least an interesting read.