By Emma Louise Backe
Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans congregate at conventions like San Diego’s Comic Con, Atlanta’s Dragon Con and Emerald City Comic Con, to name a few. Cities play host to a variety of visitors and spectators who coalesce around their mutual appreciation and celebration of certain forms of media: manga, anime, science fiction, fantasy, comic books, video games, zombie narratives. Some of these fans extend their devotion to a series or character through cosplay, a word speculated to originate from the combination of costumes and play (Winge 2006, Plunkett 2014). The history of cosplay itself is contested. In a recent article in Racked, Culp (2016) contends that Myrtle Douglas and her then-time partner Forrest J. Ackerman initiated the cosplay sub-culture in North America in 1939 when they arrived at the inaugural Worldcon in “futuristicostumes” inspired by H. G. Well’s Things to Come (1936). Plunkett (2016), however, points out that masquerade balls and costuming were not uncommon in 19th century North America, a practice he perceives as a precursor to cosplay. Yet, despite the sometimes diffuse nature of the international cosplay community, and the categorical differences between the practice of cosplay in different countries, there are particular elements that have come to be associated with contemporary cosplay which separate the custom from traditional masquerades.
Cosplay is inherently situated within fan culture, one marked by the simultaneous consumption, celebration and appropriation of a particular corpus of narratives and media referents. Jenkins (1992) devoted much of his career to fan culture and its seeming incursion upon the sanctity of the text for popular reinterpretation and use. He notes that fandom, and cosplay more generally, reconstitutes conceptions of ownership and authorship, fact and fiction for popular culture, often by rewriting narratives (fanfiction), interrogating what constitutes canon, and demanding writers’ accountability to their fanbase. While Jenkins may refer to fans as “textual poachers,” drawing upon Michel de Certeau’s phrase, “Fans possess not simply borrowed remnants snatched from mass culture, but their own culture built from the semiotic raw materials the media provides” (1992, 49).
Speaking of raw materials, it’s important to recognize that cosplay requires a degree of artistry and technical skill to design, create and often replicate the aesthetic of characters produced within the broader geek genre. In the beginnings of cosplay (the word wasn’t even invented until the 1980s, although that doesn’t mean it wasn’t being practiced), all costumes had to be generated by the fans who wished to wear them. Now that cosplay, and geek culture more generally, has ascended into the mainstream, prefabricated (though admittedly cheap) costumes can be purchased at online sites dedicated to cons and fan culture. Many of the cosplayers I interviewed at the 2016 Awesome Con hosted in Washington, D.C., however, possessed a strong background in fashion design or the creative arts. Indeed, cosplay’s initial draw was the opportunity for a creative outlet. Cosplay not only provides opportunities for fans to show off and develop their technical skills, but also allows the creators to inhabit their work. A member of the Steampunk Family, dressed as DC Bombshells’ Black Canary, described it thus: “You are the art.” Entire Awesome Con panels were dedicated to “leveling up” one’s cosplay, with recommendations on the different materials and technical considerations that go into constructing a costume. Some costumes are so complicated and cumbersome that cosplayers need to recruit a “handler,” particularly if the costume is difficult to take off. One’s cosplay “class” is related to the costume’s technical mastery as well as verisimilitude, but panelists also reiterated that cosplayers have to decide why they want to cosplay. Demonstration of one’s creative skills may be one reason among many that someone recreates a Mecha Godzilla costume or hand-sews an elaborate dress of Cersei Lannister.
Regardless of whether or not fans writ large should be considered a single, unitary group of analysis, many who cosplay are also attracted to the community. As a “sub-culture,” cosplayers in particular contexts like cons share a set of symbols, rituals and traditions that are mutually understood and bolstered by a collective corpus of popular culture and media which serve as referents and perhaps proof of their belonging. Numerous panels reiterated the role of cosplay as a galvanizing force to “bring people together.” A group of young girls I met at Awesome Con, dressed as characters from the Thor comics, were all homeschooled and had met online the year previous through mutual geek-related interests. They didn’t meet in person until the 2015 Awesome Con through a group cosplay. The very context of their offline friendship was premised upon the mutual performance and investment in cosplay.
A young man dressed as Ron Stoppable stated that cosplay is a great way to meet people who share similar interests, that the community possesses a “shared language.” Since cosplay depends as much upon the audience as it does the cosplayer, this mutual visual rhetoric is vital to costume recognition. Hale (2014) highlights the importance of this “referential commons” in the reception of cosplay, characterizing cosplay as a “citational act” which the audience and other con attendees recognize “as a conventionalized, repeatable configuration of signs” (8). In this way, “popular culture texts serve as a kind of intertextual lingua franca or medium of exchange that is differentially invested with value, circulated, and mobilized by thousands of fans” (Hale 2014, 27). Cosplay is a portal to community in as much as you share the same values, cultural corpus and geeky referents as others in attendance. It would only seem natural that you wouldn’t cosplay if you didn’t participate in these source texts, but perceptions about cosplay motivations and gender performativity do not always align with this sense of community.
Cosplay is also deeply invested in the project of identity. While your technical skills and disposable income may be taken into consideration, your cosplay choice is essentially a matter of affinity. All the cosplayers I interviewed reiterated the importance of a connection with their cosplay character. Not only are you investing in the source text of a movie, show or video game, but by embodying a character you are also designating your connection with them. Some cosplayers have deeply personal stories about their connections to a character and the importance of a particular series or novel in their emotional world. Since cosplay often involves being in character or roleplaying (hence the frequency of a theatre background among cosplayers) a sense of kinship with the character helps to elevate the performance. Rhaman et al. note, “Indeed, cosplay is an identity marker, a visual art form that transforms an individual’s identity through the reproduction of an idealized character” (2012, 334). This act of transformation, however, does not merely occur internally. Rhaman et al. go so far as to claim, “It is obvious that many cosplayers role-play their beloved characters in order to fulfill the role/dream that is missing in real life” (2012, 333-334).
Cosplayers may also adopt the outward appearance and personas of characters they want to emulate, characters that possess personality traits or characteristics they desire or admire. It could be argued that cosplay represents an act of self-transformation. Two college students, one dressed as Harley Quinn and one as Poison Ivy, talked about how cosplay helped them to develop personality traits they lacked but their characters possessed in spades. Harley Quinn said, “One of the reasons I cosplay is because I can dress as characters who are more powerful than me and like feel more powerful.” Building upon her friend’s point, Poison Ivy remarked, “I pick characters who are like me but are more outgoing, because I’m a very shy person normally.” In the past, Poison Ivy has cosplayed as characters with traits she wanted to “absorb,” signaling the desire and belief that cosplaying as a performative identity act can also allow individuals to channel new aspects of personhood that wouldn’t be accessible otherwise. Many of the women I spoke with reiterated this feeling of empowerment, one that often came from the physical strength and personal fortitude associated with superheroes or even supervillains. So while cosplay may be outwardly similar to masquerades, it also signals an inward as well as outward transformation for the participant.
The role of gender in cosplay is particularly prescient given the “cosplay is not consent” movement. Geek culture, particularly for anime and manga fans, has often been cast as a male-dominated space, a gender divide that is quickly disintegrating. Gender bending or cross-play has become a common sub-genre of cosplay culture, one that is similarly rooted in a number of motivations. As an ostensibly male-dominated space, female representation in many geek genres may be limited. Individuals who gender bend may be expressing a desire for more female characters of the same ilk as the Doctor, for instance. Others may want to avoid dressing in the oversexualized nature common of many female characters in comic books and graphic novels; gender bending could provide a more “conservative” way to cosplay that won’t invite as much sexual harassment or unwanted attention. Yet, as Hale (2014) illustrates, cosplay is also an intertextual act, one that celebrates adaptation and reinterpretation. Fandoms may cross and merge in certain costumes, like The Big Lebowski’s (1998) The Dude as a jedi master, or Sailor scouts as Hogwarts students. Gender bending could be a part of this intertextual impulse, even though not every female version of a male character is inherently gender bent. For example, female Loki and female Thor are both a part of Marvel’s textual canon. Despite the common refrain that cosplay is for everyone and that cosplay spaces should be free of judgment, several female cosplayers mentioned experiencing “downtalking” and casual sexism at cons. Male con attendees may approach women in costume and try to “educate” women who cosplay, assuming that the women don’t know the backstory of their cosplay characters. Others may even interrogate female cosplayers’ credentials, testing their knowledge of canon even beyond that of their cosplay. In a group of fellow female cosplayers, Psylocke of Conjure Corps remarked that there’s still an assumption “that you can’t be a real geek girl.” Others remarked that attractive girls at cons, particularly those in more revealing outfits, are still sometimes perceived as “fake geek girls.”
This patronizing attitude raises the thorny question of authenticity in geek culture and cosplay. Drawing upon the work of Marcel Mauss, fan scholars have applied the theory of gift economy and social cohesion to fan culture (Hellekson 2009, Scott 2015), pushing against fans’ increasing imbrication in capitalism and patterns of consumption (Norris and Bainbridge 2009, Pearson 2010). Building upon this model, to what extent could it be argued that there is also a moral economy of cosplay? Didier Fassin defines moral economies as “’the production, distribution, circulation, and utilization of moral sentiments, emotions and values, norms and obligations in the social space’” (2013, 112). We’ve already established that the cosplay community operates around a certain set of shared values, traditions and referents, and that a person’s affinity with a character often emerges due to emotional, existential resonances. Do certain values and judgments inhere within the costume, generated within the interstice between cultural norms and economic activity? The impulse to question a cosplayer’s affinity or commitment to a character or place within the larger geek community would then seem to emerge from the friction that occurs within the moral economy of fandom. The desire to “educate fake geek girls” or establish the credentials of a geek originates from a community whose praxis is both consumptive and sentimental. You must feel the character as much as you must know their history, their backstory, their place within the canon. Only then can you start to reinvent.
Despite the phenomenon of downtalking female cosplayers, the social spaces where cosplay is performed are increasingly inclusive and non-discriminatory. Many cosplayers and con panelists encourage body positivity, queerness, POC representation and the inclusion of older populations and individuals with disabilities. Cosplay has even become a platform for sex positivity through activities like nerdlesque and the promotion of conversations that encourage respect for all bodies. Some fans have even professionalized their cosplay, developing a social media presence and building a professional portfolio that cashes in upon their performativity and creative prowess. The growing cosplay industry and centrality of female bodies within this burgeoning market surely sits somewhere within the nexus of the fandom moral economy. But, as Ron Stoppable, the indefatigable sidekick remarked, “I can be anyone I want” in cosplay, “I can be myself.”
Culp, Jennifer (2016). “Meet the Woman Who Invented Cosplay.” Racked. http://www.racked.com/2016/5/9/11451408/cosplay-inventor-morojo-myrtle-r-douglas
Fassin, Didier (2013). “Children as Victims: The Moral Economy of Childhood in the Times of AIDS.” In When People Come First: Critical Studies in Global Health, edited by João Biehl and Adriana Petryna, 109-129. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hale, Matthew (2014). “Cosplay: Intertextuality, Public Texts, and the Body Fantastic.” Western Folklore, 73(1), 5-37.
Hellekson, Karen (2009). “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture.” Cinema Journal, 48(4), 113-118.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Norris, Craig and Jason Bainbridge (2009). “Selling Otaku? Mapping the Relationship between Industry and Fandom in the Australian Cosplay Scene.” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, 20.
Pearson, Roberta (2010). “Fandom in the Digital Era.” Popular Communication, 8, 84-95.
Plunkett, Luke (2016). “Cosplay Is Over 100 Years Old.” Kotaku. http://cosplay.kotaku.com/cosplay-is-over-100-years-old-1777013405
Plunkett, Luke (2014). “Where the Word ‘Cosplay’ Actually Comes From.” Kotaku. http://kotaku.com/where-the-word-cosplay-actually-comes-from-1649177711
Rhaman, Osmud, Wing-Sun, Liu and Brittany Hei-man Cheung (2012). “’Cosplay’: Imagining Self and Performing Identity.” Fashion Theory, 16(3), 317-342.
Scott, Suzanne (2015). “’Cosplay is Serious Business’: Gendering Material Fan Labor on Heroes of Cosplay.” Cinema Journal, 54(3), 146-155.
Winge, Theresa (2006). “Costuming the Imagination: Origins of Anima and Manga Cosplay.” Mechademia, 1, 65-76.