Skip to content

Free Hugs, or Markgraf’s Comic Convention Adventure

2012 October 24

If you’re reading this, I assume you know what a comic convention is. Right? Cool. We’re on the same page.

You may also be aware of the FREE HUGS meme. It’s quite sweet: you hold a sign with “FREE HUGS” on it, and people can come to you to claim their free hug. Because free things are nice, hugs shouldn’t be charged for, and aaahhh and d’awww and other such sentiments. FREE HUGSing is very prevalent at comic conventions.

Having set that up, let me tell you a tale.

The scene: a large and popular comic convention held in a large and popular UK city. It’s spring, verging on summer, and it’s warm.

Cosplayers roam the convention with absurdly large props and wigs, and excited teenagers clutch bags of stash from their favourite webcomic artists, faces flushed with glee. Someone is dressed as a cardboard box. Someone else has a large plush Totoro. Gangs of Stormtroopers march about, videogame demos blare and cameras flash.

Numerous people saunter about, idly holding scraps of paper with “FREE HUGS” scrawled on them in pen, either because it’s what everyone is doing, or because they hope for a tiny scrap of human affection in this amazing sea of other people’s playtime.

Something terrible jingles past.

A long, thin, white jingling thing, with no real face and long tentacular horns. It has claws and hooves and no eyes and… a FREE HUGS sign all of its own.

Babylon at MCM

Jingle, jingle, slrrrrrrrp.

Do you hug it?

My costume monster, Babylon, is a non-gendered-but-femme creature, with no anthropomorphic secondary sex characteristics, but with performatively femme behaviour.

Now, as it is rare for women to “perform” their femininity, performative femininity generally tends to be the preserve of people that don’t identify as women – because “performance” indicates a degree of “artifice”, and it is unusual for someone to “put on” the presentation that’s generally considered “appropriate” for their identity.

(But of course, it does happen, because everything does, and identity and presentation are two different things and being a woman doesn’t make your presentation femme by default, so of course one can identify as female and also perform your femininity. That’s a thing that happens too. I don’t need to explain these things to you: you know about stuff, you’re all down with this. Back to telling the tale.)

So. Big, sparkly performance femme-ness is A Thing and a grand one at that – just, not necessarily tethered to a gender identity.  So Babylon is very hard to read. It’s too over-the-top femme to be a girl, but surely boy monsters are big and spiky, right?

Obviously, the answer is that Babylon is non-binary, but our average member of the public in need of a full Gender 101 isn’t going to assume that.

I had lots of fun wearing Babylon during the convention, mostly because it is nice to dress as a monster, but also because I discovered a few interesting things about how people interact with an ungenderable non-human costume.

  • Teenage girls with stripy armwarmers shrieked with delight at Babylon, largely gendered it male, and happily gave it hugs.
  • Women my age wanted photographs and loved Babylon’s boots.
  • Older steampunk gentlemen gendered it female and wanted photographs.

But the most hilarious demographic by far was teenage boys, and other men in costumes.

Teenage boys roam in knots about conventions, all holding papery requests for hugs. Their knuckles blanched as their grip on their FREE HUGS signs tightened when Babylon indicated that their desire for hugs was the same, and came over to hug them.

Oh, they didn’t like it. Oh, teenage boys didn’t like the Babylon. Oh no.

“What is it?” they said.
“Urgh,” they said.
“Oh man, it’s a bloke, mate,” they said.

Babylon is not a bloke. I’m a bloke; Babylon is a Babylon. They didn’t want photographs.

A drawing of the white, tentacled monster from the costume, emerging from a hole in the ground. It is facing left, and has its claws on the edges of the hole, pulling itself up. Its arms are thin and muscular, and have apparen veins. The whole image is coloured and richly textured. The background is a dirty, earthy colour, making a sharp contrast with the pure white monster and its bloody pink and red tentacles and talons.


You probably see where I’m going with this. My next example is brilliant.

I Babyloned up to a group of Star Wars Stormtroopers. Now, I rather like masks and men in uniform, so I saw this as a brilliant opportunity to put the “play” into “cosplay” and be an alien at them. Which is what I did.

Babylon jingled everywhere and posed for photographs, and one of the chaps, reading Babylon as female, got a bit saucy with it. This is fine, and Babylon, of course, sauced right back, all jingly silver bits and long talons – and then the Stormtrooper asked us, “Getting a bit hot are we, ma’am?”

Babylon made a surprised gesture (it doesn’t have a mouth) and indicated that he was wrong, and it wasn’t a “ma’am.”

Image of a stormtrooper in white plastic armour, via Wikimedia Commons.The Stormtrooper, who had been happily playing moments before, rasped, “Oh my god, you’re a dude,” and immediately stopped playing. He backed right off.

I wondered if this was the first time in his life that he had ever had anyone he had not been sexually interested in being flirtatious and forward at him.

I idly thought about all the times I’ve been out with lady friends of mine who’ve experienced street harassment. Random strangers making sexual advances they weren’t comfortable with. I suppressed the urge to tear off my monster mask and bellow, “HUURARRRGGH, FEMINISM, NYERRRGH” and spray liquid feminism at him from my nipples.

Remembering that I’ve been told that sort of behaviour “hurts the cause”, I kept my mask on and flounced off elsewhere.

What’s the moral to this post? There isn’t one, really. It was just an amazing, beautiful, interesting and inspirational experience to be both fully androgynous and have no face.

I’m androgynous myself in presentation and I get gendered more-or-less randomly, but I have a human face, and this means I get treated differently from if I don’t. Some of the roughest transphobia I’ve ever had was when I was masked, and I don’t think that was a coincidence. Babylon doesn’t have anything like a human face: just two slits with emergent tentacles, and this simultaneously intimidates people and makes them feel more free to loudly express their opinion of it.

I’ll be at the large, popular comic convention again at the end of October. If you’re going too this Hallowe’en, come and find us and give us a hug!

First photograph used with permission of the owner; second picture courtesy of the artist. Stormtrooper image Creative Commons, from Wikipedia. 

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Jane Goodall permalink
    October 29, 2012

    What a fun, smart, clever post – about an interesting and novel experience. As a 33y/o female professional, I’m pretty sick of feminism being explored angrily or from the point of view of victimhood, I’m ready for it to be a more relaxed, fun topic where jokes and relative experiences are introduced alongside anecdotes and ideologies. I loved this article and found it approachable and well written. Nice job!

  2. Jean-Baptiste permalink
    October 29, 2012

    I’m so, so sorry to hear this. You didn’t deserve that. You deserved more hugs.

    Here’s an e-hug, for what it’s worth. You certainly deserve it. [you AND Babylon!]

  3. Jackie Webb permalink
    November 11, 2012

    This is so great in so many ways, except for the crap responses. I’m so happy to hear about squads of happy huggy girls though, it makes me less cranky about the rest. I feel like the ones after me will be ok. ;)

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS