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.
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
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?
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.
I 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.