Cosplay and Carnality: Gender, Sexuality, and Geek Subculture
Comic, sci-fi, and anime geeks share an intensive if not obsessive commitment to genre and characters, so it is not surprising that fans so well-schooled in the finest details of characterization can reproduce those characters flawlessly. This weekend a phalanx of Pikachu’s, Catwomen, Storm Troopers, and myriad other comic, video game, and movie characters have invaded the City of Brotherly Love at Wizardworld Philadelphia Comic-Con, one of countless settings in which a host of costumed fans take on the guise of their favorite characters.
Cosplay (i.e., costumed play) is a performance in which a fan demonstrates their depth of character understanding, seamless reproduction of character, and creativity and craftsmanship by interpreting and assuming the materiality of that character. Cosplay is visual theatre delivered through costume, pose, and bodily presentation, and cosplayers’ bodies inevitably invoke gender and sexuality, sometimes in subtle forms and other times very assertively. Cosplay is compelling because it exaggerates dimensions of identity in the same way as comics and movies: That is, it takes the essential and familiar threads of class, gender, race, and sexuality and hyperbolizes them. Spiderman, Wonder Woman, or Abraham Lincoln the Vampire Hunter would not be at all interesting if they were “real”; instead, they are alluring because they and their broader narratives capture some compelling dimensions of our own selfhood projected onto distorted realities or pure fantasies.
Characters like Lara Croft (from Tomb Raider), for instance, are strong and independent personalities painted as physically and sexually confident, so there is a legion of women who cosplay Lara Croft. In her video and movie portrayals Lara Croft is modestly clad and physically abundant, aesthetic cues invoking Croft’s confident sexuality and agency, so Lara Croft cosplayers aspire to reproduce her character in personality and physical form. Cosplayers performing characters like Lara Croft self-consciously “perform” gender, while other cosplayers illuminate gender by “cross-play” (e.g., female Doctor Who’s) or assuming the part of an alien (e.g., “She-Bacca”) or things. This cosplay theater obliquely turns a light on our mostly unexamined everyday performances of gender and selfhood.
Yet some observers reduce such cosplay performance to a shallow erotics of scantily clad women manipulatively transfixing straight male nerds. Last year, for instance, Geek Out’s Joe Peacock lamented “fake” cosplay women “pretending to be geeks for attention . . . I’m talking about an attention addict trying to satisfy her ego and feel pretty by infiltrating a community to seek the attention of guys she wouldn’t give the time of day on the street. . . They decide to put on a `hot’ costume, parade around a group of boys notorious for being outcasts that don’t get attention from girls, and feel like a celebrity.”
This clumsy defense of geek subculture makes a familiar appeal to “authenticity” for those who satisfy ambiguous standards for being a “real” geek. Normally this means demonstrating a mastery of a geek oeuvre, which should be represented in the visual performance of well-done cosplay. The mystification of geek authenticity and challenges to cosplaying women’s right to that geek identity reflects a shallow sense of cosplay. A cosplaying body can aesthetically signify beauty, strength, and sexuality in clear ways most of us can “read” visually: in contrast, the ephemeral characteristics we associate with our favorite characters, like intelligence, angst, vulnerability, confidence, deviousness, or selfishness, are much more difficult to perform visually. Cosplay is in most instances a theater without voice whose meanings are completely expressed in visuality and dependent on an audience knowing the visual cues. Those with the oeuvre understanding will recognize most characters and know the qualities of the character, and practiced geeks will know the meanings of genres like steampunk or mecha anime that cosplayers often don.
Shallow critiques of cosplaying sexuality and gender performances evade the complicated gendered politics of cosplay. Much of the cosplaying of powerful female characters in modest dress is an effort of women to secure a symbolic and social foothold in a fan community–as well as a broader social world–that is routinely hostile to their ambitions as both women and geeks. Like any subculture fancying itself distinct from a monolithic mainstream, geeks spend a considerable amount of time patrolling the confines of geek authenticity, but much of that defense takes aim on women. The caricature of geeks as poorly socialized straight men eternally mystified by women hazards becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: a modest but vociferous circle of geek men seems to warily view the entrance of smart, beautiful, and strong women into the geek fold.
It seems too simplistic to suggest that this use of sexuality in cosplay mechanically perpetuates women’s objectification; nevertheless, much of the aesthetics of cosplay clearly appropriate erotic visual fantasies in which men gaze on women without expecting them to “look back.” Unlike an on-stage performer, a cosplayer is physically in the midst of a swirling audience in which the cosplayer may play their part and then peruse a convention booth as a fan—at some point in the midst of their fierce poses for fellow fans, even Slave Leia needs to have lunch–, but not all audiences distinguish between the cosplayed character and the cosplaying individual. A convention floor is a distinctive space in which character is theatrically explored—cosplayers often acknowledge they would not dress the same way in their everyday lives—but to believe that the codes of everyday life are not going to reach into the convention hall is perhaps overly optimistic. A cosplayer may see themselves as being “in character” and playing the role of a scantily clad and flirtatious character empowered by their sexual agency; audiences on convention floors, though, may respond to visual or vocal cues with personal responses that do not make the distinction between cosplayed character and the cosplayer within.
An especially overwrought complaint was made by Eisner winner Tony Harris in a rant on cosplay and female fakery in which he proclaimed that “I am so sick and tired of the whole COSPLAY-Chiks. . . . `Hey! Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl, you are more pathetic than the REAL Nerds, who YOU secretly think are REALLY PATHETIC.’” Harris’ facebook tirade on cosplaying women bared a self-loathing insider desperate to secure access to fandom. Peacock and Harris’ tirades reveal anxiety in the face of bodily if not sexual agency that many female and male cosplayers take from assuming the role of strong characters or deviating from normative gendered notions. That strength may aspire to theatrically invoke traits such as intelligence, resourcefulness, deviousness, or self-confidence, but observers’ apprehensions suggest that some audiences will be unable or unwilling to see beyond narrowly defined carnality. A Slave Leia outfit—among the most revealing of all cosplay wardrobes–may be experienced as an empowering performance by a cosplayer, but some audiences will inevitably interpret it as a shallow if not objectified display. Much of the “liberation” celebrated by comics producers, popular cultural marketers, and some cosplayers alike risks reproducing shallow and troubling stereotypes that paint simplistic pictures of carnality.
It is naïve to think that cosplay is not being shaped by a variety of social and marketing forces that influence how we approach cosplay characters. Some conventions offer significant financial incentives for the best cosplayers, and cosplayed characters are walking ads for the companies controlling their images, but for the vast majority of cosplayers the capital is in-group social prestige and individual satisfaction. Conventions seek to attract the most dramatic cosplayers, and on the crowded stages of the most popular conventions some cosplayers capitalize on the visual dimensions of gender and sexuality. It is superficial to conclude simply that “sex sells,” but it is not at all unreasonable to acknowledge that we all respond to displays of sexuality and gender because they are dimensions of selfhood that we all possess.
Cosplay caricatures ultimately risk ignoring or even condoning various forms of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy in fan communities and broader society. In March the developers of Tomb Raider hosted a booth at the PAX East convention in Boston and invited a group of Lara Croft cosplayers to their booth. A reporter at the booth opened an interview asking the women “How does it feel to be at a convention where none of the men could please you?” When the developers objected to the question, the reporter replied that “the girls were dressing sexy, so they were asking for it.”
In some ways the distinctive masquerade of cosplay may seem to license some people to behave boorishly or acknowledge their deep-seated prejudices, but gendered cosplay tensions reveal various forms of sexism that course throughout geek culture and mainstream life. We can find comparable ideologies embedded in video gaming and comics that reproduce the same inequities in popular culture, so geek subculture and cosplaying are simply threads in a broad social fabric.
We risk forgetting that in nearly every fan’s hands cosplay is theatrical if not reverential fanhood, a genuine show of love for a character and a community of like-minded people even as it is a consequential effort to know oneself. The act of being “in” Lara Croft, Darth Vader, or Captain America’s character inevitably involves knowing oneself as well and being comfortable in our own skin. People are forever “putting on” their identities in material culture, social practice, and imagination, and cosplay simply brings that out into the open in a spectacular if distorted reflection.
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All images by author at Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con