Anime is a broad medium that ranges from the purely innocent to the pornographic. Some of it fetishizes young girls.
The Alper arrest and conviction became a hot topic among anime fans, some of whom fear being further stigmatized. (Many of them already think that other people consider them geeks who live in their parents’ basements.)
“Leave it to the sickos to make the rest of us older guys that go to cons feel like eyeballs will be watching us double now,” one poster wrote on the Anime News Network forum. “I already have issues with going to cons and being the odd man out, and this guy has to make it just that much harder.”
Said Katsucon’s Diederichs: “It does propagate a terrible stereotype that some people have about male fans that attend anime conventions.”
But an uncomfortable undercurrent is obvious. Just consider the visual snapshot of attendees at any anime convention now.
“You get hundreds and hundreds of young girls in skimpy costumes . . . and then you have older male anime fans,” Diederichs said. “The juxtaposition of the two may not look entirely wholesome.
“I myself feel a little uncomfortable sometimes [at Katsucon] when I have to say to the third girl in a weekend who is wearing something too revealing, ‘Go back to your room and get more dressed.’ ”
At Otakon, there were people “cosplaying” — or costume-playing — characters from their favorite anime series and video games and sci-fi films. There were pirates and vampires and superheroes, along with a Rubik’s Cube and a My Little Pony.
Everywhere you looked, there were older girls dressed as little girls and little girls dressed as littler girls — and grown men taking photos of all of them. Sometimes, the men asked for hugs, too.
“There’s a little bit of perviness,” said Jamie Blanco, who was cosplaying a teenager from the hit anime series “Bleach.” (In real life, she’s in her 20s and the morning-drive producer for Federal News Radio.) The majority of people who attend anime conventions, she said, are there “because of a pure love” of the art form, its characters and stories. “But there are definitely a small percentage who come here to hug up on some of the younger girls — and younger boys.”
At the trade bazaar in the bowels of the Convention Center, one could buy all the too-short schoolgirl outfits one would ever need. Also on offer: hentai, or pornographic comics, some of which leaned Lolita.
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In 1994, before anime moved in from the outer edges of fringe culture in the United States, David Stoliker attended the first Otakon. He has turned out every year since. He is 43 now, a physical therapist from Long Island. His summary of the demographic shift at Otakon: “There are definitely people who can wear skimpier costumes a little better.”
But don’t take that the wrong way, he said. Most of what happens at Otakon “isn’t prurient. It’s certainly not criminal.” An encounter like the one between a registered sex offender and a 13-year-old at Katsucon, he said, “can happen anywhere. People tend to draw attention to it when it happens in an unusual environment.”
Outside the Convention Center, cosplayers in animal outfits and gas masks and wigs generated triple takes (and occasional heckles) from drivers on Pratt Street. For Otakon attendees, it was business as usual.
A man dressed in a “Pedobear” costume was there, portraying the creepy satirical mascot that first emerged on the Internet as a way to mock inappropriate behavior in anime Web forums. Pedobears are regulars at anime cons, where many attendees appear to be in on the joke.
“Everybody loves Pedobear,” Travon Smith, the 20-year-old Baltimore man inside the sweltering teddy-bear suit, said — while assuring anyone within earshot that he is not, in fact, a pedophile. He also is not endorsed by Otakon but came to the conference as a paid attendee. “It’s all a joke,” he said. “Just people having fun.”
In his costume, Smith posed for photos and shook hands. People laughed. A young girl hugged Pedobear.