Cosplay and Choice by Sara Frykenberg


Sara FrykenbergCosplay is often a deliberate, interpretive and self-chosen performance of gender and power.  Like drag performers, cosplayers put on a show of the characters they represent; and in my experience, they often do so within diverse, supportive and principally, inclusive communities. 

This week my husband sent me a great blog post he found about cosplay and one woman’s determination that she would no longer tolerate being demeaned, objectified or trivialized because of what she chooses to wear.  Blogger Megan Marie’s post, entitled “What would you do if you weren’t afraid,” inspires me.  She points out and refuses the trappings of rape culture: victim blaming, assumed male control over female sexuality and shame; and claims her right to be who she is.  I, as fellow (what is the female equivalent for fellow???) cosplayer, was also moved by her defense of this creative art.  I have been cosplaying a long time, but I have been too afraid to speak much about this or to directly protest the rejection of these fantasy images within some feminist communities.  So to answer Megan Marie’s question* in her own words, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid? My answer.  I’d write this blog.”

Coplay = costume + play!  It is the recreation of popular characters from video games, comic books, anime, scifi series, fantasy literature or the like.  Cosplayers do this for the fun of it, the craft involved, to express one’s fandom and sometimes, professionally, usually within an arena where fans can enjoy one another’s recreations.  The attempt to embody these characters involves a great deal of work and artistic expression.  Many conventions, like Fanime Con in San Jose, CA, host panels in which fans can learn cosplay skills, such as armor construction, wig making and costume design.  I have cosplayed the following characters: Sailor Star Healer, Eudial and Sailor Iron Mouse from the anime Sailor Moon, Misa

Death Note Cosplay: Misa and Light are in the center, flanked by their respective "Shinigami," or the death gods they are working with

Death Note Cosplay: Misa and Light are in the center, flanked by their respective “Shinigami,” or the death gods they are working with

from the manga Death Note, the Sorceress from He-man, a Star Fleet officer from Star Trek: The Original Series, and most recently, a giant “Angel,” Sachiel from Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Sachiel from Neon Genesis Evangelion: I am trying on my almost finished costume here!

Sachiel from Neon Genesis Evangelion: I am trying on my almost finished costume here!

I am currently planning a to make a Metroid out of an umbrella and to cosplay Nyan-kitty at the May conference that my husband (who will be playing Tac-nyan), my sister and many of my friends attend.

So, why the feminist-anxiety?  Many of the characters that women cosplay are dismissed as oppressive representations of patriarchal culture and unreal fantasies of sexual objectification.  Death Note’s Misa, for example, is drawn in the style of “Lolita goth,” a popular Japanese street style (also popular among many Westerners) that is sort of a mix between porcelain dolls, the gothic and sexualized femininity.  Sailor Star Healer is basically half naked, otherwise bound in leather with small angel wings affixed to her top/bra.  I fear what many of my feminist sisters and comrades would say if they saw the photo of me cosplaying Sailor Star Healer.  I do not want to be rejected or considered duped by patriarchy based simply on what I chose to wear.

Sailor Star Healer is actually fluidly transgender in Sailor Moon: she is female bodied when a superhero, but male bodied when in human form.  All of the Sailor Stars are.  This gender flopping is common in some Japanese anime.  Sailor Moon actually depicts several loving homosexual and queer relationships.  And while the series exhibits death and violence, it is Sailor Moon’s love and belief in others that ultimately helps transform pain, monstrosity and death into life, healing and renewed possibility.

Does knowing who these characters are change the way that I, you or we as feminists read their bodies?  How? If not, why?  If so, why?  Should I, as a feminist, have performed the male body instead, simply to avoid over-sexualized femininity?  Or am I *supposed to* disdain these images?  The fact of the matter is, I don’t… And now I am going to say what I think I am not supposed to say as a feminist: I also think that Sailor Star Healer is sexy.  I play her/him partially because I do: he/she is sexy, beautiful, handsome and powerful.  Shouldn’t I, as a woman and a feminist, be able to wear these costumes because I choose to?

These are both of Sailor Star Healer's incarnations.Sourced from: http://www.sailorlunaticas.com/Galerias/Sailor-Star-Healer/Sailor-Star-Healer-Yaten-Kou-109.jpg

These are both of Sailor Star Healer’s incarnations.
Sourced from: http://www.sailorlunaticas.com/Galerias/Sailor-Star-Healer/Sailor-Star-Healer-Yaten-Kou-109.jpg

In her article Future Sex: Cyborg Bodies and the Politics of Meaning, Norha Campbell argues that we fetishize the hyper-sexualized female cyborg, but this only precedes attention to her hyper-functionality (p. 6).  I have been thinking about this statement a lot.  I argued in my December post that the hyper-functionality of a female gamer-avatar actually helps to disrupt the meaning system—the actual symbolic order—behind over sexualized femininity.  My question is: can the same be true for comic book and anime heroines?  I think it can.

I am not trying to argue that all female fantasy images are empowering.  I am also not trying to minimize justifiable feminist critiques of misogyny within comic book or anime fictions.  However, in the world of cosplay, I think it is important to remember that choice and self-representation are crucial elements of the craft.  Cosplay is often a deliberate, interpretive and self-chosen performance of gender and power.  Like drag performers, cosplayers put on a show of the characters they represent; and in my experience, they often do so within diverse, supportive and principally, inclusive communities. 

One of the coolest cosplays I ever saw was done by a group of women who had reinterpreted the Transformers.  Each woman played a familiar Autobot or Decepticon in the style of Lolita Goth, instead of trying to recreate the mechanized warrior.  It was simply beautiful and very powerful.  These women didn’t change everything about the Transformers.  They didn’t subvert all of the oppressions built into this popular series; but they did change something.  They disrupted, even if only temporarily, the armored hyper-masculinity typical to male-bodied heroes in science fiction and gaming.  I am beginning to wonder if cosplay such as this also performs new or re-newed goddess images, even if it might at times problematically create violent goddesses.  Overall, these women’s work was amazing to see.

TransformersI reiterate Megan Marie’s powerful claim that cosplay is not consent.  Cosplay, video-game play and sci-fi love are also not consent for one woman to demean another, or assume she is a patriarchal collaborator or dupe.  The minimization of particular science fiction and fantasy play, video gaming or cosplaying, is just another way to dismiss an entire population or culture—a culture that I sincerely believe feminism must dialogue with and agents of which, it must also take seriously to remain relevant in cyber-technology using worlds.


* Megan Marie draws this question from Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In.  Also, an additional note: Megan Marie posted a follow up to her original post after I initially read her blog.  In this additional piece she contends with criticisms that both try to dismiss her blog as career motivated, and other comments, that again, try to diminish her work by pointing out the supposedly over-sexualized nature of her profile photo.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

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Categories: Feminism, Fiction, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, Goddess, Herstory, Identity Construction, LGBTQ, Patriarchy, Power relations, Sexism, Sexual Violence

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

9 replies

  1. I’m not an academic, so some of the concepts here are way over my head. But what you’re describing sounds and looks like fun! What is there to stop adults, as well as kids, having fun anymore. some of us live vicariously through our children, and stop having fun ourselves. That’s nuts. And if feminists, or other women, are disdainful/critical, that’s THEIR problem, not ours. Go for it, or as you Americans may say: ‘go girl, go’ :D

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  2. Aha–I’ve learned a new word. Thanks!

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  3. Thanks Annette!
    It is really fun!!!

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  4. I love costumes, and have worn them for years. I wouldn’t call it a feminist act, however. Sometimes a costume is just a costume. We do have to question the dominant themes of costumes women wear, and why women wear what women do. Who is behind the costume machine, or why do almost all the young women you see today ALL have long hair? Odd, every era has its clothing costume conformity. Just because a woman does something doesn’t make it feminist, for example.

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  5. Or even anti-feminist necessarily. But if it is a costume that a lot of women wear, we have to question why this is. It is uncomfortable for a lot of women to critique and break out of patriarchal conditioning to be sexy for men. The obsession with clothing and shoes and make-up is exhausting to me, and I’ve never gotten the hetero woman’s fascination with this, especially the economic impact of the high cost of it all…. blouses are more expensive to dry clean than men’s shirts, for example. Now THAT is a feminist issue.

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  6. Hi Sara —

    I, too, love dress-up. While growing up it was a part of putting on plays (dress-up per se came while my daughter grew up, with a big box of different outfits to try on). Even to this day, every piece of clothing I buy is a costume.

    That being said, it was difficult for me when my daughter (who is 35 years younger than I am and as feminist as I am) began to wear what I considered “sexy clothes.” I can remember when I asked her about it, and she said: “You of all people should understand. If men (or others) have inappropriate reactions to my clothing, that’s their problem, not mine.” What I understood from this interaction is that she was standing on my shoulders. Feminists of my generation had allowed feminists of her/your generation to take the next step and actualize our understanding that female sexuality is not a crime, but a powerful part of our lives. Let’s celebrate it. And what is over-sexualized anyway? It seems to me that’s a part of our Puritan heritage talking. I’d love to hear what you have to say in response to this, Sara.

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Trackbacks

  1. What’s Your Super Power? (And Who’s Allowed to Have It?) by Sara Frykenberg | Feminism and Religion
  2. What I’m Wearing to the Pool and What it Means, by Sara Frykenberg | Feminism and Religion
  3. Frauen & Computerspiele – Grimme Lab

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