(Image above: yours truly cosplaying as a Visitor from V on Halloween, aka Official Cosplay Night. Yes, the mirror is very dirty, it’s not your screen)
Maybe it’s hard to believe now, but a decade and change ago cosplay was pretty weird. And a decade and change ago, like so many people of my generation, I rolled my eyes at it and mocked it. I was wrong.
Today cosplay rules fandom, but in the days when San Diego Comic-Con was first attracting the attention of the mainstream (ie, the days before Twilight came and changed everything forever), it was still a curiosity. The mainstream media would come to SDCC and every year do the same curious but mystified photo spread about cosplay, including explanations of what cosplay even was. Today cosplay is a word that’s just in the cultural vernacular, but once upon a time people needed it explained to them.
I clung to a lot of negative ideas about cosplay back then. It wasn’t that it was new to me – cosplay has been around as long as fandom, and I had been around cosplay since I started going to Star Trek and comic conventions in middle school – but rather that it had begun to take center stage in a way that threatened me. I never considered why that was, and I certainly never considered that it was subconscious misogyny. But that’s a big part of what it was.
One of the gifts of spending the last 16 months working to repair my life and myself is that I have had a chance to begin unearthing the assumptions and perceptions that I take for granted, and I get to look at them with new eyes. None of us arise independently – our personalities and beliefs are the result of lots of forces, many of them cultural and social. I was aware of SOME of the cultural forces that shaped me, but blind to many more. I was very blind to the way that cultural misogyny shaped me.
There are a lot of examples (see the About page on this site) but when it comes to cosplay the misogyny manifested itself in a disregard for arts that I saw as ‘feminized.’ There’s a complex web of reasons why I disregarded fashion – some of it was about my self image, in that I never imagined I could look good in clothes, and so I never made an effort because nothing seemed more mortifying than making an effort to look good and STILL being fat and ugly – but a big part of it was the acculturated concept that the design and creation of clothes was women’s work. And women’s work, I had been taught, was almost never as serious as men’s work (unless they were working in a male-identified field. Kathryn Bigelow gets a lot of respect not only because she’s a great filmmaker, but because she makes movies in traditionally male genres). “Chick flicks,” romance novels, soap operas – these were all feminized forms and were barely even worthy of scorn. In fact, every one of those terms is both descriptive AND a slur. These things appealed to women, and therefore there were less than. I never consciously thought this, I would never have verbalized this, but that bias colored my perceptions.
On top of that, I was deeply distrustful of anyone who sought attention, despite seeking plenty of attention in my own way. I was probably jealous of the attention cosplayers got, to be honest – attention I thought not earned because I couldn’t see the value of their work through my misogyny-fogged eyes. It likely didn’t help that many of the best cosplayers in the past were women.
Today I’m attempting to dig up the assumptions and cultural biases that inform my opinions and look at them objectively in the harshest light. The way I have always devalued art that I perceived as feminized or in a feminized medium is one of the biases I’m most trying to confront. I was wrong about cosplay back in the day; my opinion has been changing for some time, but today I can firmly say that I was absolutely wrong in my dismissiveness and snark.
For one thing, cosplay is a beautiful way of engaging with your own fandom. You are literally placing yourself inside the thing you love, and you’re doing it in an organic and constructive way. There’s not a lot of angry entitlement in cosplay (someday I will write an “I Was Wrong About Fanfic” piece, but I’m still struggling to disentangle the toxic threads of entitlement from the wonderful threads of personalization, engagement and creativity), and in fact changes to characters and situations only open new doors to cosplayers.
What’s more, the skills required to create a good cosplay are exquisite. My fat fingers can’t thread a needle and I wouldn’t even know where to begin with creating a pattern or fashioning accessories, and I have found myself being awestruck more and more by the people who can do those things, and do them well. There is a creativity on display in good cosplay that is jaw-dropping, and an element of engineering problem-solving that is praiseworthy. Very often these people are taking two-dimensional or completely unrealistic designs and transposing them into three dimensional space. Not only that, but they’re doing it in a way that requires them to be mobile and to wear the outfit for hours on end. I’ve been on movie sets where they create amazing costumes or prosthetics, but they’re never intended to be seen from certain angles or to be in motion all that much. A good cosplay should work from 360 degrees and should withstand a full day on a convention floor – all while looking great.
As for seeking attention: everybody should be seen. It’s taken me so many years to understand this; it’s only in the past few months that I have made peace with my own desire to be read and not see that as a narcissistic, egomaniacal impulse. I took that self-loathing and slathered it on other people seeking attention, and I was wrong. I was wrong to judge myself, and I was wrong to judge others. (I should probably be using words like ‘confused’ or ‘deluded’ here, rather than the very judgmental ‘wrong,’ but I’m trying to use ‘wrong’ to simply mean ‘incorrect,’ not ‘inherently bad.’)
There is, of course, negative attention seeking. But dressing up in beautiful and elaborate costumes to display your appreciation for a story or a character isn’t negative. It’s empowering. It’s inviting the kind of attention that enriches you and the person seeing you. Being seen, being noticed, these are impulses wired into us as social animals, impulses that go back tens of thousands of years. As with all of our social impulses this one can be used poorly, or can hurt us. But soaking up the admiration of like-minded people who are enjoying the art you wear on your body? There’s nothing bad about that. Watch people happily taking pictures with cosplayers and tell me that’s bad.
One of the great things about my evolving appreciation of cosplay is that it has made my life actively better. Cosplay has conquered fandom, and if I were still rolling my eyes at it I would be getting irritated quite regularly as cosplay shows up all the time on social media and more and more at all sorts of events. But my evolving understanding of it means that now when I see a good cosplay I am delighted; the Facebook pics from whatever random regional con now make me happy instead of snarky. That’s better for me.
Unearthing my misogynist acculturation is an ongoing process. I work on it every day. I don’t stand before you as some kind of chastened ex-misogynist. I used to lecture from a position of moral authority – I lost that completely. And I’m glad I did. Now I get to share with you the effort I am making every day. I’m working on it today – a friend shared this piece and as I read it I began to have all sorts of knee jerk reactions (and yes, the thesis of this essay helped inform what I’m writing here). Each reaction is an opportunity for me to practice mindfulness of my views and examine WHY I am reacting in the way I am – is it because the author is not making a good point, or is it because I have such an ingrained misogynist attitude towards art by and for women that I feel threatened when it is pointed out? It’s quite possible that it’s some from each category, and the work is to be aware of the reaction, sift through it and try to find something that leads me towards the truth.