from "Pilgrimages, Pageantry and Fan Communities"
published June 2011
Hunter College Dept of Anthropology
The following in an excerpt from my MA thesis. As it was published almost 4 years ago (and revised in 2012 for a re-draft), much of the content is temporal: I conducted fieldwork between 2009-2010, when the con-scape was in massive flux. By now, it's evolved (something I love pointing out). But there is a certain theme and ideal in this chapter that still holds relevance, even if the players have changed, and the community alongside of it.
Cosplay is the art of masquerading as desired character, playing a role over the course of the convention weekend that runs the gamut from model, to actor, to performer. Derived from the words “costume play,” cosplay is a form of acting and role playing that demands creativity, skill, patience, and the desire to be, at least in part, a showman for a few days. Cosplay has a long history in convention culture, both in the United States and Japan, where it has been a part of science fiction fandom since the 1960s (Winge 2006). Discerning the origins of cosplay within US anime fandom is a far trickier question, however, as there are no concrete records on the fact, save a few images taken from Yamatocon 1986, considered to be one of the earliest attempts at creating a specialized anime convention. But in fact, cosplay is often more than just the simple act of wearing a costume, as small businesses have appeared that cater to props, design and crafting of the costumes themselves.
Apart from being highly visible, cosplay is also a consummate activity that has the potential to incite passion in some, and respect in others. In her book “From Impressionism to Anime,” Napier cited how cosplay itself draws parallels with the idea of mimicry as coined by Homi K. Bhaba, and further emphasized in the activities and multi-ethnic identifications of both Lafcadio Hearn and Vincent Van Gogh (Napier 165). Though Bhabha’s argument posits the failure of colonized people to successfully mimic their colonizers, within anime fandom, cosplay often has the opposite effect, elevating the practitioners beyond their peers in terms of participation, respect and community. Likewise, Van Gogh and Hearn practiced the art of costuming to make statements about who they were, the ideals they ascribed to, and the “fantasies” to which they held conviction (Napier 165). While more idealistic than the “average cosplayer,” there is still a hint of this escapism, idealism and conviction within the cosplay community, which often hold themselves to specific standards regarding the act of cosplay, and frequently assume alternate “personas” when in costume, usually related to the character being portrayed.
Cosplay might be the single most visible aspect of contemporary congoing. Aside from the obvious visibility of attendees in costume, both on the con floor and outside the venue, for some it is also synonymous with the entire experience. More than a few respondents indicated that it would not be a con without cosplay, or that cosplay is what congoing is all about. (Many of those same attendees would also quantify cosplay as an indicator of otakudom: “true otaku” cosplayed, while congoers were content to watch and photograph them.) Many of these same respondents went on to say that for them, cosplay was more than just the act of dressing up- it was an escape from the world around them, and a chance to be someone else for a few days. People who identified themselves as normally very shy, suddenly transformed into outgoing, excited participants, who bathed in the attention and energy thrust upon them by the other attendees. Much like the idea of the community of practice posited by Lave and Wenger (1991, 1998) cosplayers are themselves defined by their shared practice, norms and roles within the community.
There are many events that are themselves tied in with cosplay- the Masquerade being the largest, but also including Cosplay Chess, the Cosplay Dating Game, Photo-shoots, Hall Costume Contests, Cosplay Speed Dating (not the same as the dating game, which is a play on the classic TV game show, but an actual “speed dating” event where all the participants are both in costume, and in character) and others that are more convention specific. Many of these events are among the most popular, and have the largest attendee draws of the weekend. At Otakon, for example, the masquerade often requires use of the Baltimore Mariner Arena to house all the participants and fans, while ConnectiCon in Hartford boasts long lines and an event that often runs overtime due to both popularity and demand. Others, like the photo-shoots, are in designated areas where photographers, both amateur and professional, spend entire weekends snapping pictures of attendees in costume. It is not uncommon for cosplayers to be stopped frequently and asked to pose for pictures, and it is also not uncommon for the attendees to be “in-character” for the entire weekend. For some, the level of devotion to design and “acting” is very intense and respected. For others, it is an enjoyable part of the entire experience, just one of the many activities that “only happens at conventions.”
Thus, it comes as little surprise when 68% of attendees surveyed replied they actively cosplay, or have cosplayed in the past. This is sometimes seen as a sort of “rite of passage” for the congoer. Some cosplay from their very first convention, some need a bit of prodding, some simply need time to hone their skills. Cosplay can be taken very seriously, as it is also taken as a chance to assume a different identity than the one the attendee wears in the real world. It also is a strong indicator of the desire to become more than “just another attendee.” At a convention of any size, cosplayers stand out, and are usually the first ones noticed. They are often the ones who are approached by non-attendees or persons in the street who inquire as to the nature of the event. They are often the ones complimented the most. One attendee of Anime Boston prided himself on the attention, classifying himself as “an ambassador of anime, telling people what’s going on.” Another participant went so far as to state it was a “huge ego boost” when she was complimented, especially by outsiders, and it made her want to cosplay more frequently. More than just attending, cosplay is a stronger way for the participant to affirm their ties to the community and culture at hand, while also showcasing any skills they might have acquired in the process of creating a costume.
“I enjoy creating costumes, and wearing them, and having other attendees appreciate my work is fun. I like the challenge of taking a design and recreating it. It's my way of appreciating fandoms that I like” wrote Elizabeth O’Malley, Vice-President of “Northern Lights,” the New England chapter of the International Costumer’s Guild. A cosplayer since 2004, O’Malley has become well known in New England for her accuracy and creativity in the act of cosplay, something she initially approached as (and still considers) a hobby. For her, cosplay is all about appreciation and respect: for the act of cosplay, the media that spawned it, and the fandom that approves of it. And, as with many others interviewed, O’Malley also considers cosplay, first and foremost, a fun activity. While she approaches her cosplay with a more serious eye, she insists that it is her preference to do so, and not adherence to a set of unspoken rules.
It's definitely just for fun. The only thing I take serious is my own craftsmanship. I want to make the best costume that I can. I don't care if others take shortcuts, aren't 100% accurate, or use incorrect techniques. But, I think if you really want recognition, be it online, in the halls, or in competitions, you have to put serious effort into making a costume. Using the right fabrics, proper fit and finishing, styling wigs, and wearing the right make-up help to do that. But no one should be feel obligated to do those things just to have fun in costume.
My counter would be that cosplay is a hobby, and hobbies should be fun. If it's not fun, you're doing it wrong. As long as someone is having fun and not ruining the fun of others, who cares?
When looking at the con floor of any convention, it might seem like 68% is an underestimation of the actual number in costume, especially in a sea of PVC weapons and giant wigs. As previously stated, cosplayers are more visible than other attendees. Bright colors, intricate designs, elaborate patterns, and occasionally gaudy pageantry- these are what are found among cosplayers in general, so they are often the first thing to catch someone’s eye. Cosplayers embody a very open, participatory and devoted sect of the convention attendees, and it shows.
The overall view of cosplayers is highly positive, with 66% affirming it as either positive or respectful, while a scant 5% have openly negative views. 17% of the respondents stated they were either “mixed” or “neutral” about the matter, and 12% replied they have favorable views only when effort is put into the crafting of costumes. As such, there can often be priorities among the cosplayers themselves as to how to approach the act, and how to execute it. While a good many of the attendees in costume might have purchased their outfits from a vendor or online site, others shun such behavior, going so far as to decry the act as “selling out” or “camera-whoring.” Those cosplayers that place a high priority on craftsmanship are more inclined than others to take this view, indicating in their responses that, while it’s okay to not make your own outfit, don’t go around telling others that you did, and certainly do not enter the competitions with store-bought attire. “Faking” the origin of your costume is tantamount to betrayal, at least in the eyes of one attendee, who prides himself on his skill with a needle and thread, and “detests anyone who tries to steal that from him.”
It is here that the serious aspect of costuming becomes apparent. “Get it right or don’t do it at all” showed up in the replies a fair number of times. As with any creative endeavor, there are always those who want to see something done well, or if not well, at least done correctly. While the majority of congoers applaud cosplayers for taking that extra step into the convention world by donning a costume and playing a part, there are the naysayers that react to “bad” cosplay almost as if it were a personal offense, citing reasons from poor materials to bad stitching, to inappropriate body type. (The latter being a long-standing critique of female cosplayers in particular. Overheard comments accusing female attendees of being “too fat to cosplay” a certain character are regularly overheard, mostly coming from non-cosplaying males. Instances among fellow cosplayers are significantly rarer, and almost never made as an accusation. It would be tempting to characterize such behaviors as resulting from a fetishization on the part of the accuser, of either cosplay in general, or specific to the characters being cosplayed, but the data lacks the ability to verify anything more than conjecture. This is a sensitive subject among cosplay, though one male attendee made it a point of specifically addressing “body-type flaws” as falling under “do it right or not at all.”) This attitude varies with regard to conventions, and is sometimes extremely character specific (obscure characters sometimes “get a pass” because of the obscurity of the source material).
Over the course of the research, at least once per day per convention, there was at least one instance of an attendee critiquing the quality of another attendee’s costume. These critique ranged from “I bet they bought that, it doesn’t look home-made” to “how could they get that color wrong?” or “they need a better wig, that one isn’t the right shape.” The tone of these questions ranged from honest questions to snide and condescending criticism, and frequently was not directed as a the cosplayer in question, but a shared comment among friends.
One can speculate a good deal about why certain attendees elect to construe a particular costume as “bad” cosplay, but very little concrete information is given as to why. The most obvious answer would be that they have a strong tie to a certain character, and want to see it in real life as it is portrayed on screen. Perhaps the “offending” cosplayer made so obvious a mistake with the costume, that it changed the entire image of the character they are playing. Or it might be as simple as the person is predisposed to details, and simply irked by an “incorrect” choice on the part of the cosplayer. Some critics even choose to forego the critique of the costume itself, instead electing to criticize the actions and activities of the person “playing the role.” In these cases, the lines between real person and fictional character are further blurred, with some attendees openly “believing” that the cosplayer is, in fact, the character, and reacting as such.
The sort of blur isn’t common, but also not rare. During a convention in Virginia, an artist choosing to cosplay a popular character from the television series “Kuroshitsuji” (Black Butler) found herself pursued by another cosplayer dressed as the character’s love interest. Over the course of the weekend, said cosplayer found herself “confronted” by this other attendee, both on and off the con floor, until she removed her costume, and the “harassment” stopped. At a different convention, another attendee related the following story:
"One convention my sister was cosplaying as Draco Malfoy [from the Harry Potter book series]. She makes a very good Draco, she actually looks like a boy, mostly because Tom Felton (who plays Draco Malfoy in the movies) looks sort of like a girl. Unknown to her, theres some girl at the convention who is madly in love with her Draco, like she says it and thinks ‘I’m in love.’ Ok, after the con’s over, we’re back home, we see on like cosplay.com, on the forums, she had posted online, because she found out she [Draco] was a girl, and was freaking out, saying derogatory things, and my sister is like “how is it my responsibility to inform you that I was a girl when you didn’t come up and talk to me and just sorta fapped at me from afar?” and she just defamed her online for being a girl."
But for every critic, there are far more who fully believe that cosplay is a personal matter, especially if the cosplayer is not electing to take part in any contests. “Do the costume you want to do, don’t let anyone get you down” appeared just as often in replies as “do it right.” Many attendees are willing to overlook “trivial” details, often because the cosplayer cares enough to “play the role,” which isn’t something every attendee chooses to do. Seeing an obscure, but still beloved, character often elicits enough “love” from the community that an errant strand or “inaccurate” garment is quickly “forgiven” (though, as some indicated, getting an obscure character “right” would definitely lead to more respect. Said O’Malley on the subject: “I definitely think people have the right to cosplay anything. Yes, having the right body-shape, skin-color, age, etc. can really bring a costume to another level. But if you really love a character and want to portray them - go ahead!”). In the end, the decision to cosplay embodies a decision to stand out, and accept the risks associated with “putting ones-self on display.” That level of “courage” often leads to respect from more attendees than it might earn the ire of others.
Owing to the ever-changing and more cosmopolitan nature of the contemporary anime convention, it is not significant that 52% of respondents chose to cosplay anime characters, it’s that 48% chose not to. This figure of 48% takes into account characters from video games (which have both Eastern and Western origins), which as a medium are more frequently being inserted into anime itself, but for a convention that, at least theoretically, revolves around anime and not media in general, the presence of characters outside that sphere is an indication that conventions are fast heading in the future that encompasses more than just anime, and into the realm of the multi-fandom experience. Look at some of the numbers: 10% of cosplay characters are from the realms of science fiction: be it Jedi from Star Wars, Starfleet officers from Star Trek, Time Lords from Doctor Who, “mad scientists,” “steampunkers,” and even zombies are all found within the non-anime slice of convention cosplay. Some groups have grown in recent years. Since the start of the field research in 2009, zombies and steampunk characters have skyrocketed at cons, especially the latter, with entire panels devoted to their part of the convention culture. 6% identified their favorite cosplay characters as those from American or western comic books. Going back to 2002, when I first began attending conventions as a fan, there was always at least one Spiderman and Wolverine at every convention attended, and this trend persists today, albeit alongside Iron Man, Superman, Batman and Rorschach from the graphic novel/feature film “Watchmen.”
More recently, characters from popular webcomics like Homestuck have exploded onto the convention scene. Easily identifiable from their grey-tinted skin and vividly colored horns, Homestuck has become one of the more dominant cosplay fandoms found at anime conventions, much to the chagrin (and occasional dismay) of attendees. Like some of the series mentioned above, Homestuck has nothing to do with anime (beyond a few artistic influences in the character design), but the fandom has latched onto the anime convention as a source for meetups, games, interaction between fans, large-scale photo-shoots and displays of artistic and costuming innovation. One thing to note about Homestuck is the importance of cosplay within the community: while many fandoms view cosplay as a sort of complement to the fandom experience; with regards to Homestuck, cosplay is almost seen as a “requirement.” Attending a Homestuck panel demonstrates the importance cosplay has within the community: the vast majority of the room is in some sort of Homestuck-related costume, and those not in costume are often offered “tips” on how to go about it. More than any other fandom, Homestuck appears to highly pride itself on the act of cosplay, and the visibility that comes with it. Being approached by a grey-tinted fellow in candy-striped horns, spouting the line “can I tell you about Homestuck,” has become almost a common instance of the fandom proselytization that the group prides itself on, utilizing cosplay as the impetus of first contact.
Originality is also represented, with 7% identifying their favorite cosplay as being an original character, taken from a creative endeavor the cosplayer undertook themselves.These original characters were tied to any one of the other categories presented here, but involved characters of the cosplayer’s own design, and fit into the category as a whole. Sometimes they were lifted from a manga-style comic series that the cosplayer drew, sometimes they were from sweeping science fiction epics the cosplayer wrote, sometimes they were a direct response to a major cosplay group, like an original steampunk character complete with personality, and of course there were the random ninjas, samurai, monks and eastern-inspired and influenced personas the cosplayer wished to assume. In a culture that prizes creativity and participation, the decision to dress up as, and assume the mantle of, a fully original character is one that is often applauded and worthy of recognition. Anime fandom, as stated earlier, is one centered strongly around active participation and appropriation, and the case of original characters fulfills both those categories. What did you create today? Your own persona.
￼￼This data presents three very interesting points when choosing why certain characters are chosen by the cosplayer portraying them. There are six variables that showed up in the data, but the focus here is on the following: Design, the character itself, and attention/recognition.
Design becomes a factor when choosing to cosplay a character for two main reasons. The first is ease and accessibility of a given design to execute, and therefore indicated the simplicity to play. This is the case for many a first time congoer- an easy to execute costume is a simple and effective entrance into the participation experience. For a newcomer with limited funds or skills, a simple design can be executed at low cost and in little time, and can lead to a faster entrance into the cosplay world, and its associated “rewards.”
On the flip side of this, an intricate or complicated costume design can be viewed as a challenge to undertake, and eventually overcome. Complicated designs are often the hallmarks of the “professional cosplayers,” who can, and frequently do, labor, sometimes for weeks or even months, to craft the “perfect costume.” Some are drawn to the challenge, some like the attention the costume garners, and some simply want to prove to themselves they can do it, but a challenging design can spur on a dedicated costume designer to a new height of personal achievement. Respect also figures prominently into this equation: since cosplay is at heart a self-sustained community, winning praise from fellow cosplayers, and nods of appreciation for one’s work, can often mean more to the designer than mainstream acceptance. After all, if people who share devotion and pride in the art of costuming appreciate a cosplayer’s work (and therefore also understand and appreciate the effort involved), it carries more weight than someone with a camera snapping a photo. It is a validation of the devotion, incite and “elbow grease” that went into the final product, and a powerful sense of fulfillment for a “job well done.”
There is a third factor to design choices, which segues into the next variable I wish to discuss- character identification. Some people play certain characters because they either love the character’s reactions, or because they have strong ties to the character in general. Sometimes their manner of dress is appealing, but cannot be worn outside of the convention by the attendee. Sometimes the cosplayer identifies with the character (this is especially true of villains) and it gives the cosplayer a chance to “cut loose” for a weekend. Sometimes a cosplayer respects the character, or views it as the embodiment of some ideal or desired trait that the cosplayer wishes to possess or emulate (a common reasoning among many male respondents). Sometimes, as with design, assuming the role of an established character comes with it the challenge of “acting the part” successfully, and budding thespians take the role gladly. Sometimes, it can be as simple as effecting an accent, or mimicking a voice or catchphrase that the character is known for. Sometimes, though, it entails an even deeper delving into the “history” and “condition” of the character at hand (or as one reply put it, “the psychosis”).
“When people look at my cosplay, I don’t want them to think ‘that guy is dressed as so-and-so,’ I want them to be able to call out the character’s name and feel like they are interacting with said character. I make sure I know as much as I can about my cosplay so that I can make offhand references to others about them. I guess that is going deeper into costume play, and it almost taking on a role-play, but that is the most enjoyment of cosplay to me. Well, that and feeling like a celebrity when 11 people ask for your picture as you’re walking into the food court...” - Jason (Chuang 2010)
Jason’s reply can be read as typical of some cosplayers: he chooses his outfits based on “crowd reaction,” and then dedicates his own time and effort into crafting an at-con persona that is in line with the character he chose. He interacts with the people who stop him, and takes pains to ensure the “encounter” is as “accurate” as possible. Going beyond just putting on a costume, Jason incorporates aspects of the persona into his personality and mannerisms, and rewards those who approach him with something more than a pose.
Doug Wilder, a staff member at Anime Boston and “talking head” on the web series “AnimeCons TV,” commented on the necessity to at least be familiar with the character one chooses to cosplay. “Generally I prefer characters where I know the source material, it always strikes me as a little weird when I see people putting tons of work into a costume when all they're going off is visual appeal. What if it turns out that character is known for something you personally despise? It also hinders that connection I previously mentioned.” Said connection resulted from an instance where a fan “ran across the con floor” just to take his picture, because she loved the character he was cosplaying, and had never seen someone don the outfit before. That instance fostered both a connection with the attendee, and with the act of cosplay itself for Wilder, who now cosplays regularly at the cons he attends. He recently took the extra step into the community by joining the 501st Imperial Legion, a group of Star Wars cosplayers, in order to gain a deeper appreciation of cosplay, and to further hone his skill in costuming.
Much like actors can be mistaken for the roles they play, sometimes to the case where the actor is thought of as being the role instead of the actor, this is one of the major draws to cosplay for those like Jason. For three or four days, they get to become a character, and others will treat them as if they are that role. Lindsey says as much: “[Cosplay] has truly brought me so much happiness since the first day I started doing it. It has brought me together with the people I love most. Becoming someone else for a day, losing yourself in a different world is a truly wonderful feeling.” (Chuang 2010) This appeal is very powerful, and in turn, leads to the next variable.
There were a few responses on the surveys that read along lines of “the character is so cool, I want to be like him.” While the character itself may not exist outside the boundaries of the show, game or literature, cosplay gives the participant a sort of empowerment: they may now “be” the character they love, assume all the traits that they find appealing, and others will recognize that and often “go along” with the role. “Ever since I first saw Rosalina [of Super Mario Galaxy], I knew I wanted to cosplay her...She impressed me from the very start and I felt a strong connection to her, especially because she us so motherly. Not to mention that she’s regal and elegant. I love her.” - Puppet Eyes. (Chuang 2010)
There are some who choose roles specifically to be noticed. Whether they become characters from popular shows, popular characters from obscure shows, or rare characters that only a few other attendees might have seen, there are those that openly stated they cosplay for the attention. Being stopped and having one’s picture taken can be very appealing, even fulfilling or empowering for some. These attendees want to be noticed, and cosplay is a self-protecting way for them to be noticed. So they choose their roles accordingly, prepare their costumes, head to the convention and wait to be seen. This is no different than any other type of dressing to garner attention. In fact, the Japanese cosplay scene has a word for it: “torareta,” derived from a term meaning “I want to be photographed.” (Okabe 2008) Practitioners of torareta, while praised by media and attendees, are often looked down upon by the cosplay community, as they are focused more on attention than the act of cosplay itself, something that is disrespectful within the cosplay community. In the United States, being torareta is far more common, and in some cases more acceptable...provided the cosplayer chooses to keep “that sort of participation outside the competition,” as one cosplayer put it. “Anything goes in the halls, but don’t play it off on stage” they went on to say. “Serious cosplayers only.”
Inside and outside of the con, human beings often crave attention. With cosplay, it is far easier to get it, and still remain “invisible.” The attention is lavished on the character and costume, but both parties know that the person inside has created both the costume and real-life character, regardless of whether that fact is acknowledged. The viewer gets satisfaction from seeing the costume, and the cosplayer thrives on being recognized for their efforts. It creates a sort of symbiotic relationship between the congoers, it enriches both their lives, and sustains and furthers the concept of the other world, the other self, and the realization of what the person would like to be, but can only be behind a mask. Much like the idea of the online avatar, it is a wholly other being that they assume, but unlike the avatar, it exists within the context of the real world. Anonymity without being truly anonymous.
Crossplay is the art of cosplaying a character of the opposite gender (Hlozek 2004). Crossplay has a long-established history within the cosplay community, especially when tied to series and games with large casts dominated by single gender characters. Crossplay comes in two varieties: females dressing as males, which is frequently ‘expected’ by congoers; and males dressing as females, which is scarcer, but often more noticeable. While not as prevalent as other types of cosplay, crossplay is commonplace among the costumed, and widely recognized by attendees.
Female to male crossplay is the more common type (at lease according to the replies gathered to this survey): indeed, many females do elect to portray characters from franchises like Naruto, Bleach, Kingdom Hearts, Kuroshitsuji (which contains, among many things, a cross-dressing death god character) and other titles with largely male-populated casts. Some of the series have male characters that are themselves bishounen [beautiful boys, or boys that have heavy female characteristics], and these have large female fan bases. At the same time, many females also indulge in yaoi and slash subcultures, which are centered around “boy’s love,” romantic relationships between male characters (Jenkins 1992), and crossplay is one of the ways they express their membership and creativity within the community. Female crossplay is frequently overlooked (or more accurately, unnoticed) by the general attendance, to the point of being expected over the weekend. Of all the replies to the survey, no attendee had a negative opinion of female crossplay. Most, in fact, had no opinion at all with regards to female crossplay- the notion of a girl dressing as a boy was as “mundane” as a girl dressing as a female character.
Male to female crossplay, however, is a mixed bag. Several respondents indicated that while female to male is acceptable, many cases of male to female crossplay are not. Said Wilder, “I think there's a bit of a double standard. Females dressing as male characters is fine, but people seem to get a little uncomfortable when a male dresses as a female and it's not done for laughs. That might be more of a greater social issue than just conventions.” This highlights a common “expectation” when it comes to male crossplay: that the only time males assume a female costume is for “laughs,” or on a “dare” (as in the case of Damon Evans, also known in the convention community by his moniker of “Man Faye” (‘Dong’ 2005)). The idea that a male would approach crossplay with the same seriousness as any other type of cosplay is often met with raised eyebrows, and a general sense of non-understanding, as relayed by a cosplayer in the following story:
“Ok, so back at my first I-CON, back in High School, I wanna say six years ago, me and my friends were doing a group cosplay for Ragnarok Online. I drew the short straw and got stuck playing the female assassin. Since my friend’s dad was a Hollywood makeup artist, he did a good job on me, and I ended up getting six numbers from guys. And at the actual judging, we won and they asked if we had anything to say. I took the little mute bubble down from over my head and said ‘Oh, by the way, I’m a guy.’ And everybody’s jaws just dropped to the floor.”
He did not elaborate further on details, but the reaction from the assembled audience speaks enough. Shock. Surprise. There is a term in the convention community for this as well: “trap.” The term (a derivation of the line “it’s a trap” from Return of the Jedi), popularized in recent years, defines any crossplayer who devotes time and care to their outfit, sometimes to the point where their gender is no longer discernible to the naked eye. While this type of devotion might be applauded in cosplay circles, it is equated to being fooled, or deceived, by general attendees. Panels at cons on “How to Identify Traps,” (one labeled ominously as “Don’t Be A Victim”) and similar threads on internet sites, have even brought unnecessary attention to the act of crossplay, occasionally associating it with sexually deviant practices or skewed judgements. This has led to some crossplayers feeling ashamed of their interests.
One crossplayer, known by his “stage name” of “Haru,” spoke at length about choosing to be a crossplayer. A man in his early 30s, Haru made the decision to crossplay due to a lack of serious crossplayers within the community. Additionally, he wanted the chance to “act on stage” during “Dating Games” and other cosplay events, where he expressed further dismay about the lack of female participants. “I asked one convention about a yuri [female on female romance] game, and they said there were no girls interested in playing. So I decided I would just dress like a girl, and play. Needless to say, my mom wasn’t exactly thrilled when I asked her to make me a girl’s kimono.” Rather than just be content to crossplay, Haru took an extra step and built up a complete alter ego around this female persona he chooses to portray at cons and online, to add a bit of “authenticity” to his crossplay. He considers himself a “trap,” and wears the label with pride. He also says the attention he has gathered from the convention community has been largely positive. “I used to worry that people would just see me as an ugly fat guy in a dress, but after every event, I always have this gaggle of girl telling me how cute I am. It’s really flattering.”
Haru cites this alternate identity with allowing him to develop more confidence, and to “break out of his shell.” “I chose the name Haru because it was ambiguous, and it’s worked out so far. People meet me online and are surprised when I tell them I’m a guy, but nobody has ever had a problem with it. I’ve made so many friends because I became Haru, way more than if I was just myself.” This in turn has given him stronger motivation to attempt more intricate crossplays, and expand his repertoire of skills. Haru has even expressed interest in trying a more “traditional” costume at later cons, where he has begun designing a male outfit. He credits the positive encouragement of his con friends with these new endeavors, and approaches them with anticipation.
This brings up another point: despite the naysayers, many cosplayers themselves have a positive view of the act of crossplay. “Falling for a ‘trap’ is actually complimenting a crossplayer for their accuracy and ability to change gender without letting on” was one reply. “I think 90% of the best cosplays I've seen have been crossplays. I have no issue with it at all. If the cosplayer is having fun, then it shouldn't matter if they're a man, woman, etc...Cosplaying what you love is the biggest part of what cosplay means to me, so why limit that just because of gender?” said another. Both these replies highlight the fact that for many, cosplay is about enjoying ones-self and playing a role, two of the defining aspects of cosplay as a community. If one is not having fun, or feels pressured into something, then cosplay loses some of its authenticity, and limits the creativity and enjoyability of the act. Crossplay is one part of that same dynamic: crossplayers want more from their participation, and turn to crossplay as a means of fulfilling that. As long as the person in question is having fun, and devoting attention to their craft, that is the only true standard for judgement.
Identity, Escape and Costume Play
Over the course of research, the subject of identity came up more than once. Do cosplayers use their costuming as a way of constructing another identity for themselves? Do they develop ties with playing a specific character, and in turn overlay that identity onto their own? Aside from being fans, a powerful identifier in its own right at fan conventions, the question of who the cosplayer really was became more philosophical debate than a real one. Some cosplayers spoke highly of the sense of empowerment that resulted from the act (not unlike Van Gogh, who “cosplayed” as a way of protesting the encroachment of technology and science on art and nature (Napier 165)); for others, it was a sense of escape or denial of who they were in real life (not unlike Hearn, who cosplayed to grow closer to the “fantasyland” of Japan, and in turn “flee” from his own insecurities and inadequacies (Napier 165)) that fueled their participation. In still other cases, it was the question of where did cosplayers saw themselves on the “fandom continuum,” and how that relation defined their convention lives.
The case of Haru, the 30-something male who developed a complete persona around his crossplay identity, is hardly a rarity. Development of these alternate identities is found in many aspects of convention culture: from artists to enthusiasts, many people answered surveys with assumed names, often noting that they identified with the pseudonym more than their given name. Like the act of costuming, it allowed them to dictate who they were, on their own terms. While cosplay itself is often restricted to the intellectual creations of others, the cosplayers themselves in turn created their own “cosplay selves,” either through online avatars, or written on attendee badges worn throughout the weekend. More than the act of becoming “someone else’s character,” creating a separate name that one wears “on the weekend” itself embodied a sense of play: the person would consciously and deliberately choose to answer to another name, another face and another set of principles that might be different to the ones they display in their daily lives. Adding costumes to this other face became one way in which they defined themselves, but not the only way. This type of symbolic “rejection” is empowering, like donning the outfit of a strong character, and in many cases, the fan acts differently when under this assumed persona. It is a nexus of many different modes of fandom participation, just as much as the person is a nexus of many different costumes they wear, and faces the present to the world. But unlike artists, vendors and gamers, cosplayers have the ultimate means of completing the transformation: they can physically become someone else, and tailor their actions, reactions, and personal identifications through the voice of a total other.
That said, no respondent to the survey ever mentioned utilizing a specific cosplayed character when creating these types of alternate identity. While many chose to identify traits found within certain characters or character archetypes, it was the traits and not the character per se that drew them to cosplay, and it was those same traits that the cosplayers wished to incorporate into their daily lives. Likewise, where design came into play, cosplayers often spoke of logistics- crafting pieces of costumes, or the challenge that came with creating the final product, as opposed to the character itself. While the desire to cosplay a specific character was almost universally present, there were more motivations associated with challenge and execution, than with simply being the character. What did come of this devotion to the act of cosplay was not building an identity around character, but rather building it around the idea of cosplaying in general. Cosplayers and cosplay identity is more focused around defining ones-self as a cosplayer, as opposed to a character: the character being the end result of labors and inspiration that served as the primary motivator for action. Like artists, panelists, staff and guests, cosplayers are a specific part of the community, and identify themselves as such.
Cosplay, like many aspects of anime convention participation, inhabits, and is also influenced by, a sense of general escapism. A majority of the respondents to the surveys cited this as a powerful aspect of the appeal of attending conventions in general, and it has been mentioned by Aden, Napier, Reader and Walter, Jenkins, and others when writing on the appeal of pilgrimage, tourism and ritual travel. While for some, escapism might only necessitate travel from one’s place of residence, for others there is a strong appeal in not only “escaping” one’s home, but also in shedding one’s entire identity and assuming something new and different almost as if it were a form of further escapism within an act itself constructed to be escapist. Like the idea of anonymity without being anonymous, cosplay represents for some a chance to fully break away from their daily lives, and in the course of activity, become someone else for a few days, almost to the point of forgetting who they might be outside of the convention. At the same time, they also recognize that this act is only a brief “rejection” of the real world, and that after the convention is over, they will return back to their real lives. One reply reflected this notion very eloquently: “I’m pretty sure everyone in their lifetime once wanted to be someone else even for 5 minutes.”
“That’s why I like cosplay so much, because it does give you a chance to try to be different or act like the character you’re cosplaying from. For me, I usually choose characters I can relate to, either emotionally or physically, but I also choose characters that I really love that I wish I can be like. When I cosplay, it gives me the push to be more badass and help me become someone that I normally am not. As long as you don’t really think you’re that character, I think it’s a good thing to try to take that character’s characteristics and try to apply it to yourself; to grow as a person.
Every cosplayer is different, but cosplay is something stress free (hopefully) and fun, and that makes me feel like I’m in a different place, especially when I’m at a convention, but I take it as a good thing because sometimes the real world is tough and you need to relax.”
This attachment to character and escape is sometimes seen in cosplayers who play the same character over the course of many conventions and years. While some disdain repetition, others gain comfort in the stability of always having the same “persona” at their disposal, and draw from it the same comforts that others might from a favorite book, film or activity. Since cosplay is essentially a hobby fueled by dedication, it isn’t uncommon for creative costumers to also “tweak” a favored outfit, either through customization to personal tastes, or by applying a different “stylistic influence” to the outfit in order to “make it their own.”
This also solves one of the inherent problems surrounding creativity and individuality through cosplay: unless an attendee is cosplaying a completely original character, they are still performing as someone else’s creation. As such, there can be only a limited amount of freedom taken when interpreting and assuming the identity of a fictional character. While many elect to become the character through and through, not unlike actors taking on a part, it is hard for them to express their own, individual identity through it. So those enterprising cosplayers find other ways to assert their “desires” upon the character, thereby circumventing the “official canon” while still managing to adhere to the property through which their character is associated.
One of the more common products of the latter was expressed by a crossplayer who frequently seeks to “revolutionize” his cosplay of Alice Margatroid of the game series Touhou Project, by incorporating aspects of gothic and Victorian fashion into subsequent cosplays. His reasons: as Alice is both his first attempt as crossplay, and his favorite character in the series, he initially desired to challenge himself by undertaking a redesign of the character for future cosplay. In addition, he also admitted he “really wanted to see how the outfit would turn out.” After a number of compliments from both congoers and co-workers at a local renaissance faire, he began experimenting with further modifications: adding a custom leather book-cover to cards he had crafted as part of a “spellbook;” commissioning several “plushie” [a type of plush toy specifically tailored to anime and game characters] designers to create custom “voodoo” dolls of characters his character “controlled,” in a Victorian style, as opposed to their “traditional” designs, to add to his belt; several vintage metal keys he had acquired from friends in both the United States and Great Britain for an “authentic key ring;” and finally a custom wig for the outfit in a more gothic style. The end result was a costume that was truly “his own,” one that he wears with great pride, to great respect. Additionally, he is also now known (quite affectionately) at certain cons as “Gothic Alice,” and word of his unique modifications to the costume has spread outside his home location, in some case as far as several states away. While attending one of those further-reaching cons, he was immediately set upon by a group of Touhou fans who knew of his outfit, and he instantly felt welcome among a convention community he had never visited before. He recounted that later as a highlight of his weekend, and a continuing motivation to “perfect” his outfit. While in real life he is “just another guy who likes dressing up like a girl,” at the con he is “Gothic Alice through and through...and Gothic Alice is hot.”
Gothic Alice brings up another point: in some cases, especially where rarer cosplays are concerned, sometimes the line between character and “actor” does not so much blur, as it does merge. When it comes to rare cosplay, repetition often leads to recognition time and again at conventions- not in the same case as Gothic Alice, where his outfit was “famous,” but more along the lines of the cosplayer becoming “famous” for wearing the costume. This is especially pronounced in the Doctor Who community at the cons.
Over the course of the past fifty years, there have been many actors to wear the persona of The Doctor, some making the character famous and recognizable, and others viewed more as “placeholders.” Within the fandom community, which is itself laden with many cosplays attached to the “popular Doctors,” when a cosplayer arrives who elects to assume the role of a less-known Doctor, often that person is given not only respect from the community at large, but also a sort of fame: “oh my god, are you playing [such-and-such]” becomes an overheard comment. One such cosplayer, who has been playing the role of the Ninth Doctor, has become easily identifiable at cons, even when he is out of his outfit, because for several years he was the only person cosplaying said Doctor in his region. “People approach me all the time and ask if I’m the Eccleston [Christopher Eccleston, the actor who portrayed the Ninth Doctor in 2005] who was wandering around earlier, and ask where my costume is. When I’m not playing him, people compliment me on choosing that Doctor.” After several years cosplaying the Ninth Doctor, he decided to stop playing the character, owing to boredom and a lack of excitement when cosplaying. When others in the community discovered his decision, he found himself confronted by some of them. “I actually had some of my ‘fans’ lament my decision, saying quite emphatically that “you were the best one,” and going on to beg me not to stop. Needless to say, I had the outfit back on at the next con.”
The cosplayer in question, a male in his late 20s, initially decided to “assume the mantle” in 2009, when asked to partake in a Doctor Who gathering at Otakon. Curious from the start, he assembled a quick outfit from clothing he already had, intending it to be a one-time deal. Two years later, he has spent a “decent amount of money” to purchase screen-accurate apparel, right down to a replica of the jacket used in the series, because he “takes pride in doing it right. After all, why be half-assed when you can easily go all out.” His continued cosplay is a result of both the respect he earns from being the character, his pride in being part of the cosplay community, and his nature as an attention-seeker. “Every time I quit being the Doctor, I end up missing getting my picture taken, or I see some guy doing Eccleston wrong, and I put the jacket back on. I know that’s not the best reasoning for doing what I do, but it’s the truth. I like the attention.”
He is not alone in that idea, either. Attention, and the validation of the hard work that goes into crafting a costume, showed up frequently in replies. Not the same as “torareta,” who seek more adulation and “fame,” but simple respect- respect for the time, money and devotion that goes into creating the costume. Respect towards the energy needed to successfully research and “play” a character. These cosplayers who cited their appreciation for attention, worded it exactly as that: appreciation for their effort. Unlike the “torareta,” for whom attention might be the defining force behind why they cosplay, these cosplayers only sought acknowledgement for their efforts, not unlike those cosplayers who participated for the sake of competition. Or, as one put it, “My favorite thing about cosplaying is being able to give that same experience back to other people that I had my very first time at a con. I love seeing the excitement that someone has for a series or character and being able to share that with them and contribute to it.”
While escapism, creativity, and respect might be powerful motivators behind cosplay, it is hardly the only one. Friendship and forming connections with other cosplayers and attendees, essentially the “social settings” pointed to by Winge (2006), are also considered highly compelling. Cosplayers citing the people they have met as a major influence on their continued cosplay fell in line with the general attendees citing friendship and new connections as the main reason they kept attending conventions. “I cosplay because it's fun, plain and simple. I get to dress up as my favorite character and associate with other people who share the same interests about particular characters and series. I enjoy the camaraderie of it, and 95% of the friends I have today are friends I have met through cosplaying” was one reply, frequently echoed by others. Much like congregating over a shared love of media, cosplay has produced a strong attached community, one that supports and perpetuates itself through repeated practice, and the sharing of “tips and tales.” Many of those same cosplayers added “if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong” to the end of their replies, further driving home that point that cosplay was more about the “play,” than the costuming.
Another attendee said the following about her motivations behind cosplay:
“Cosplay became something I just grew to love and didn't want to give up. It made me proud of what I made or what I can do, and because I love sewing so much, I went into fashion design. It was a big shock to my parents who wanted me to go into a science major, but I knew that cosplaying and making things was just a part of myself that I couldn't give up.
When people ask me what do I gain from cosplay, I reply ‘everything.’ It has helped me grow confidence as a person, make so many new friends that are still with me today, and it has made me want to better my skills.”
For her, cosplay was a conduit through which she derived many types of personal satisfaction, from friendship to a chosen career path. More than just a hobby, cosplay has become a way of life that she feels empowered by, and uses as a director towards satisfaction in life outside the con. While not commonplace, there have been many instances of cosplayers using their skills to parlay into a full-time job, from award-winning professional cosplayer Yaya Han, to the many ambitious seamstresses and small business owners that appear at cons wearing their creations, and taking orders from congoers for future projects.
As previously stated, cosplay is more than just the act of dressing up in a costume and wandering around convention halls. While for some that is indeed the sole motivation behind the act of costuming, for others cosplay entails a deeper connection to the community, a chance to utilize a skilled trade, a way to make and develop friendships, and a chance to assume an alternate identity for the weekend. The further one progresses into the act of cosplay, the more complex their outfits become, the more devoted they get to the act itself, and the more satisfaction they derive from it. And while many cosplayers likely do not progress far down the road of costuming beyond that initial foray, those that do attain a deeper understanding into a very visible, and satisfying, aspect of the convention community. It is one of the many roads an attendee may take towards increased participation in convention fandom, and is one of the more accessible routes, open to any who simply have the desire to be someone (or something) else for a few days.
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