Cosplay: A personal perspective

I was inspired to write this after reading Meagan Marie's post on an incident at this year's PAX regarding the disrespectful treatment of cosplayers. It's not a pleasant read, mostly because it's a reminder of the many times I've just smiled weakly when I really should have said something and stood up for myself. Some of us are just naturally fearful, shying away from confrontation. Some of us. But ALL of us have personal stories, and this is mine...

First things first: I don’t presume to speak for every cosplaying woman out there. I’m not going to make generalisations. This is my specific story; why I enjoy dressing up – or stripping off, as required – to appear in public as my favourite pop culture characters. Other cosplayers are sure to have their own motivations. You’ve only to watch the cosplay segment of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope to get a sense of the different reasons for cosplay. Surprise, surprise, it’s not about sex… Although I can’t deny that attention-grabbing is a part of it.

I’ve always enjoyed dressing up as my heroines. Supergirl, Cheetara and Dorrie the Little Witch were notables in childhood. As an adult, there’s been Wonder Woman, American McGee’s Alice, Lady Sylvanas and Azula, among other more generic fantasy characters. In essence I only cosplay characters that A) I feel some personal affinity for, and B) that I feel I can pull off physically.

I’ve been in school plays, I’ve LARPed, I pen-and-pencil role-play every week. It’s all impromptu theatre. In fact, a big part of gaming (tabletop and electronic) for me is the ability to slip out of my skin and into that of someone, or something, else for a few hours. Only gaming allows me to be a 6 foot 2”, heavily muscled Batman, taking on a courtroom full of thugs with brutal, choreographed efficiency.

Gaming is a form of escapism that allows you to be who you admire; to share their physical and psychological qualities, even if the transformation is only in your head. Cosplay does a similar thing. If you’ve ever done any kind of acting, you’ll know how putting on a costume adds a new depth and sincerity to your performance – how much it changes you.

As for my cosplaying in adulthood, here’s a little context. I was overweight in high school. A fat smart girl at an all-girls’ school. I was shy. I still am. The wallflower in the corner, eyes down, unless I’m talking about my passions or have a couple of Jagermeisters in my system.

I lost weight in college, then dropped a full 10kgs with my first miserable, stomach ulcer-triggering job. I put a good chunk of that weight back on as muscle when I took up martial arts. My body seesawed a bit – nothing as dramatic as Oprah’s – but from August 2011, I committed to keeping the transformation consistent, dropping 5kg and keeping it off. I worked hard and I continue to work hard. And cosplay is very much wrapped up in that goal.

You’ve really got to have confidence in your body to appear in public, either half naked or in a figure-hugging outfit that’s in keeping with the majority of Pop Culture’s female figures. My heroines are toned, trim and strong, and I want to be like that as much as my genetic make-up will allow.

I’m in my early thirties now and I’m more content with my body than ever before. For me it’s a case of “Fuck it, this is the first time I get to do this,” before whipping off my clothes. You know the risk of ridicule is still there, as is the fact that some people will take your nudity the wrong way (think concerned mothers and conservative former classmates on Facebook). But at a certain point, you just don’t care anymore. This is my window after all.

Of course I’m aware that there is some kind of “validation about my appearance” thing happening here. That’s the world we live in though, and my own psychological baggage to deal with. For me, being a woman is about walking that tightrope between accepting myself for how I am, and wanting to be better; admired for my efforts at improvement. I’m not ignorant of this mindset and its impact on me. I know I should never base my worth on what others think of me but like it or not, it happens. You want that external validation, for better or worse. It’s a game of Russian Roulette.

I’m lucky in that I've never been the victim of harassment as a result of cosplay. Despite being a lot of geeky fun, comic and gaming cons are sadly small and amateurish in South Africa… and completely non-existent in the “fishing village” where I live. I cosplay at friends’ dress-up parties and themed nightclub evenings. I’ve never been harassed in the flesh, or groped with the exception of someone yanking on my latex blood elf ears and yelling “For the Alliance!”

Do I cosplay for attention? I won’t deny that. “Wow, you’re hot,” is an embarrassing compliment to receive, but well, you'll gratefully accept it even if you’re not entirely sure how to respond in a way that sounds modest to your own ears. It feels good when someone expresses admiration of your costume (particularly the attention to detail), body and all-round transformative efforts. It feels less good, of course, when you receive emails and DMs from people asking if you’re keen to hook up. Because obviously that’s what you’re doing this for…

I can’t speak for the “posers” – the dreaded “fake geek girls” – and I’m sure there are actually some at every con wanting to have their pictures snapped for a high profile site. However, I don’t know how to identify these ladies and I’m sure as hell not going to point fingers. At the end of the day, everybody – whether you have vast geek credentials or not; whether you’re female or not – is cosplaying because it is FUN.

I’m sorry if you equate it with me trying to entice you into my bed. I’m sorry if in your eyes that makes me a cock tease. Really, I’m doing this for me.

P.S. Read the sister post to this one, "My Tomb Raider Cosplay and Character Thoughts" here.


Rudi Bartsch said…
It's disgusting that so called "journalists" and "reporters" get away with this and worse, they often get a type of praise for this degradation. A guy is likely to receive a smack for a subtle sexual comment in a club for example, but in a gathering like a comic con, this and worse seems to be becoming a norm. Honestly, why is this a thing?
Erick said…
Very cool blog post. I can relate on some note coming from the sometimes very cruel high school era to a time in one's life where you can focus on what makes you happy. I have complete respect for this and just want to say "you go girl!". Thanks for sharing your story and keep the cosplay going!
James said…
Fair enough - I'm not a fan of cosplay, but your post made me understand the wider attraction to it. I'm still opposed to the general concept: 40-year olds running around in Spider-Man costumes do nothing to try and elevate comic culture as a mature one with a lot of range. If anything, they just hurt it. But it's not fair of me to paint everyone with the same brush.

That said, the incident highlighted in the posts you link to indicate that the comic/gaming culture has to still mature a lot. That a term like "cosplay is consent" exists shocks me a little. I always thought the average 'geek' male would be a bit more progressive. Guess not. So in a sense cosplay forces some of these cavemen to air their opinions, which is helpful as those opinions can then be struck down.

Anyway, my point is that cosplayers have no obligation to defend their passion against anyone, be it a naysayer like me or an utter knob such as the journalist mentioned in the PAX debacle.

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