Comic-Con Wrestles with 'Booth Babe' Controversy

A "booth babe" at the 2009 Comic-Con International: San Diego

Comic-Con may be the ideal place to find enthusiastic geeks dressed as Chewbacca and Captain Kirk, but "fanboys" aren't the only ones in costume.

Enter the "booth babe."

The halls of the San Diego show are filled with women in costume — often rather scantily clad — who attract attention and pose for hundreds of pictures a day. Some of them are self-described "cosplayers" who imitate favorite characters, but many are hired to dress up and promote merchandise.

Julie Raelyn, an aspiring model/actress who advertised herself on CraigsList to get a modeling gig at Comic-Con International, said a costumed job at the show is enticing for people trying to break into the entertainment industry.

"There are a lot of big-wigs that hang around during Comic-Con, so it's a great time to get noticed," Raelyn said. "Even if you don't get noticed, you still might have the chance of meeting someone who could help you further some aspect of your career."

Playboy at Comic Con

Victoria, who withheld her last name but goes by "Cosplaygirl" online, is both a comics’ fan and professional model. Most days at this year's Comic-Con, she'll be walking the floor as a costumed fan, but on Sunday, she'll be working with Playboy Model Haydn Porter at the booth for collectible manufacturer Gentle Giant.

"We help attract more media attention and bring more traffic to the booth," said Victoria, who will work while wearing a "Princess Leia" costume." "With bringing more people over, the booth has a better opportunity to sell or promote their product," she said.

While costumed fans of both genders are enthusiastically welcomed by the comics industry, hired promotional models have caused some controversy among fans, particularly since Comic-Con's attendees are now 40 percent female.

Much of the outrage last year came when EA Games ran a Comic-Con contest encouraging men to "commit acts of lust" toward "booth babes", resulting in at least one floor model getting a not-so-friendly goosing. EA Games later apologized for the contest.

And the tech site Gizmodo recently filmed a documentary revealing that some booth models are mistreated by lecherous attendees, even without a contest egging them on.

"It can get a bit overwhelming and there's always that underlying fear that someone will cross the line," Victoria said. "I have been very fortunate, however, and have not dealt with any overzealous fans thus far. I feel comfortable in all of my costumes. Wearing revealing clothing doesn't bother me."

Anti-booth babes movement

Some of the negative attention on "booth babes" also relates more to what they represent. Game developer Agetec recently launched an anti-booth babes movement for the E3 convention, citing a desire to "get the focus back on gaming." And organizers of San Diego's Comic-Con International banned the erotic models of Suicide Girls from having a booth at this year's show.

"My biggest issue with booth babes is that all the parties involved end up feeling dirty," Ian Cooper, a tech blogger for CodeBetter.com, told Newsarama. "Male customers feel cheapened because the sellers assume they purchase based off some illusory promise of sex. And the 'booth babes' end up dirty from using sex to sell in the first place. Appeal to me through the quality of your product, that's what I am buying — not your booth babe."

But Matt Price, a blogger and comic shop owner who attends the show each year, pointed out that good-looking spokeswomen aren't exactly exclusive to conventions.

"The marketing world uses attractive women to market just about everything, from coffee to plane tickets, so I guess it's not a huge surprise," Price said. "I'd prefer Comic-Con be more about the costume, or the product knowledge, than just skin though."

Price's wife Annette, who attends Comic-Con with him each year, said seeing costumes are actually one of her favorite parts of the show, whether they're worn by paid models or just fans. "Last year, my sister-in-law and I competed to see who could get the most photos with different characters," she said. "For the most part, people are fantastic with their creativity! Occasionally, an outfit will cross the line, but that's no different than real life."

Just like Walmart

Raelyn agreed that comic conventions aren't that different from other modeling gigs she's gotten, including dressing up as Barbie for a promotion at various Walmart stores ("get your photo taken with Barbie," she said, smiling). And while she wishes her dinner theater job would lead to more acting gigs, being a promotional model by day is at least a fun way to earn money while waiting for her big break.

"It's just a great social experience to do this sort of work," she said. "Most of these events are pretty easy to do so long as you're personable, and many are handing out free samples, which tends to put a smile on people's faces... You might have to be willing to stand out in the hot sun, or put on a costume, but if you can handle that, then it's the best gig around for someone who likes to be social and bubbly. And you never know who's going to show up."

Female blogger "Geek Girl Diva" doesn't wear a costume to Comic-Con when she works at the Entertainment Earth booth. But she likes seeing costumes at the convention because they add to the "overall feel of the con" — as long as they don't get too sex-oriented.

"I figure, if people want to wear it and they feel comfortable in it, awesome," she said. "I'd say that most anything is cool as long as it's PG-13. There are kids at the con. Not to mention, I don't really need to deal with someone's nudity while they're walking along the masses of people at SDCC."

But then, she also added, "I think booth babes are fine for the most part. But considering the growth in female attendance at SDCC, can't we get a few more guys? Seems fair to me."

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