Cosplay needs a makeover.
I was scrolling through my Pinterest board called Cosplay Envy (I have a lot of cosplay envy), and I noticed something gross. It’s all hot white girls in pinup poses. Granted that’s because I want to be a Hot White Girl in a Pinup Pose ™, but I could at least practice what I preach and, like, include some other people that exist in the world. Instead I share corsets and short shorts and gowns OH MY.
So I started Googling. Guess what? Most of cosplay is a Hot White Girl in a Pinup Pose ™. There’s not a ton of trans or GNC people. Not a ton of disabled cosplayers. Not a ton of POCs. I discovered Cosplaying While Black and my new fave Chaka Cumberbatch. (Please tell me that’s her given name because it is AMAZING. Even if that’s her cosplay name, STILL be my mentor.) Other than those and a handful of others, it seems that #CosplaySoWhite. And straight. And from the male gaze.
But I think there’s hope!! All the dumbness and disparity in cosplay indicate a systemic lack of representation, but fangirls and fanboys and fanpeople have the power to change that!
Before we wield any power, us fans need to be more intentional in our choices. Not like we have to be Christian Bale intense all the livelong day. Cosplay is fun! But just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it has to be dumb. On the contrary, the full-on-academic research on cosplay abounds!! In the essay “Toward new horizons: Cosplay (re)imagined through the superhero genre, authenticity, and transformation,” Ellen Kirkpatrick suggests that fans use cosplay (and fanfic and RPGs) to explore and assert their identity(ies):
Whoa. That’s so smart. Kirkpatrick is reading between the autograph lines to suggest a deeper psychology at work when we play dress up. Sure, we want to look good/cute/hot/cool/screen accurate, but our psyches want to try on a new identity.
So next time you cosplay, think about why. You don’t need to write an essay (which this is quickly turning into) or even a journal entry, but don’t make a stupid or easy choice when you can embrace that space “between the fictional and the real.” Don’t think about the character you want to embody.
Think about the story you want to tell.
Maybe if we thought about narratives and not who we think is The Coolest, convention halls wouldn’t be filled thousands of white boys acting like assholes in Deadpool onesies. Sweaty, sweaty Deadpool onesies.
Drippy Deadpools not withstanding, cosplay is surprisingly female. Back in 2013, Lisa Granshaw at The Daily Dot reported on the results of a cosplay survey:
I would love to believe that more women cosplay because we DOMINATE, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s more because of INTERNALIZED MISOGYNY. Picture a convention hall. Guys can wear jeans and sneakers and a nerdy tee (Boy howdy! The number of nerdy tees!), but the ladieeezzz have to dress to the NINES. Cons are like nerd nightclubs: the bouncer will let in more hot girls to make the club more desireable to the straight dudes who’ll spend money there, so the girls get dressed up to go to DA CLUB. We’re not consciously cosplaying for the male gaze, but the sexy girl aesthetic is so ubiquitous we don’t even notice until it's deemed “inappropriate.”
Take cosplayer Jessica Nigri.
She got kicked out of PAX for that costume. [Okay, not technically kicked out, but she would have been relegated to a promo bus outside the convention hall, so, yeah, she got kicked out.] The character is Juliet from a horror comedy video game called Lollipop Chainsaw. Let’s peep Juliet's in-game wardrobe.
Now, I’m partial to any character with blonde pigtails (Harley Quinn is my spirit animal), so I like all of these costumes, but they leave very little to the imagination. I’m sure this is intentional (today’s secret word is INTENTIONAL) on the part of the creators as an homage to the B-movie genre, but most convention goers will just see a bid for the Top 10 Sexiest Cosplay Girls You Need to Follow list.
You wanna cosplay Juliet Starling for a con? Yeah, me too! But maybe consider adding to the costume the component that pokes fun at the trope: Juliet’s boyfriend, a disembodied head she clips to her skirt that stares DIRECTLY AT HER CROTCH.
That’s cosplay with intention: taking the costume one step further to put it in context.
But it’s not enough to think about why. We should also think about who.
Letamendi’s cosplay survey looked at race as well as gender: “The participants identified as 81.2 percent white, 5.1 percent Latino or Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, .8 percent African-American or black, 6.2 percent mixed, and 1.9 percent decline, “human,” or other.”
Granshaw goes on to say, “This leads to further questions such as whether minorities are not participating as much because they are under-represented in media and don’t have as many characters to choose from for cosplay.”
Of course under-representation in media leads to under-representation in cosplay. Of course that needs to change. But if you're not a famous movie producer, it's hard to feel like you have the power to affect change. What can lil ol' me do?
Explore the stories you’re not hearing.
And seriously, just shut up and listen to other people's stories. Read, watch, absorb, take it aaaaaalllll in, and LISTEN.
And show your appreciation for inclusive and intersectional stories when you do hear them.
By “show your appreciation,” I mean share stuff on the social medias! I also mean listen/rate/review on iTunes or whatever. But I mostly mean BUY STUFF! Conventions are nerd malls, and they will listen if you talk with money. HELLO CAPITALISM!
If you buy a bunch of Storm merch, retailers will know that people love Storm. They will produce more Storm stuff. Entertainment execs will be all, “Oh, hey, Storm stuff is selling hella well, maybe we should make a Storm movie…?”
AND THEN WE GET A STORM MOVIE.
And we’re one step closer towards more equal representation!
As fans, we are labeling ourselves as avid consumers. We can tell The Man what we want to consume. The Man will never stop caring about money, but that means that He’ll listen when we spend (or don’t spend) on a certain thing.
VOTE WITH YOUR WALLET, PEOPLE!
Last, if you’re afraid to cosplay for whatever reason, take a note from Abby Green re: disabled cosplayers:
But it DOESN'T MATTER! Us self-dubbed "nerds" posses an ability to let our imaginations make connections between our real world experiences and the epic experiences of our favorite characters. We feel like these heroes and villains, and in feeling like and I identifying with these characters, we're exercising our empathy muscle. It's not hard to push that one step further and empathize with our fellow cosplayers no matter what they look like. Cosplay should be fun and joyous! Let's take out the fear, the prejudice, and especially the cat-calling.