Symposium

The creative empowerment of body positivity in the cosplay community

Jordan Kass Lome

Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

[0.1] Abstract—In a case study about the cosplay community in relation to creative empowerment of identity and body positivity, I created a blog (http://cosplaycasestudy.tumblr.com/) and devised a survey that allowed cosplayers whom I met online and in person to discuss what cosplay meant to them as individuals. Using a combination of qualitative, arts-based research and journalism, I used online documentation to record the ways cosplayers see the community changing, noting themes such as body policing, social media, and sexual harassment.

[0.2] Keywords—Blog; Identity; Survey; Tumblr

Lome, Jordan Kass. 2016. "The Creative Empowerment of Body Positivity in the Cosplay Community." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2016.0712.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Cosplay is a transformative art form that can empower one's creative identity while providing a space for body positivity. I have been casually acquainted with cosplay since my first anime convention in fourth grade, Anime Boston, which I attended with my older sister and my father. We were obviously fresh blood. Dad kept taking pictures of these weird people in outrageous yet amazing costumes. No one felt embarrassed when a 40-year-old man accompanied by two girls requested a picture; instead, they transformed immediately into the character they were personifying. I had no context yet for this crazy world, but 15 years later it has become part of my lifestyle. Ever since I became active in fandom studies in art education, I have been researching the creative empowerment of identity through cosplay by conducting interviews, surveys, and on-site field observations at comic conventions. I have collated my data in a blog that showcases cosplayers' stories and describes how they grew to love cosplay as both a hobby and profession. Cosplay makes people feel more confident about themselves—their bodies, their sexuality, and their physical abilities—no matter who they are or how much time and money they invest.

[1.2] Cosplay is the act of dressing up or emulating fictional or historical characters. Fictional characters can include figures from television, comics, movies, and other various forms of media (http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2011.0246). In cosplay—the term is a portmanteau of "costume" and "role-play"—people create and become the art. While most cosplayers draw from existing characters, some create their own characters or use creative license to incorporate aspects of their own identities into their characters (figure 1). The culture of cosplay physically manifests at conventions, where cosplayers pose for press photos, meet up for gatherings, join collectives based on the work they are recreating, and form online fan bases that support their professional cosplay careers. Broadly defined, the culture of cosplay is a collective creation of traditions, products, and ideas that bring meaning to individuals in terms of their self-confidence, mentally and physically. Cosplay can transcend conventional costuming to become a transformative and creative means to view a character, as well as the person embodying them.

Photo of group of <em>The Lord of the Rings</em> cosplay

Figure 1. Photo of group of The Lord of the Rings cosplay: Merry (far left), Galadriel (second from right), and Pippin (far right). [View larger image.]

2. Methodology

[2.1] Interested in learning who these cosplayers were outside of the costumes, I put together a case study this year for Boston Comic-Con to find more about the role of the arts in cosplay. I surveyed approximately 20 cosplayers, asking how they got into cosplay, what draws them to the community, and what changes they'd like to see happen in the future. Some of the responses went far beyond what I anticipated. In fact, they shifted the focus of my research. I became fascinated with the need to promote body positivity both for cosplayers and society in general. I read stories about how cosplay brought people out of their personal bubbles, how it was a freeing form of art for them, and how many cosplayers hope to make this hobby a profession. The more cosplayers I surveyed, the more my research began to change. I began documenting the survey responses in the form of a Tumblr blog (http://cosplaycasestudy.tumblr.com) while also using the blog to make the history of cosplay understandable to an external audience of professors, fellow cohorts, and parents. My blog contains all of my facts, documentation, survey data, and interviews with professionals in the field.

3. Cosplay online and off-line at Boston Comic-Con

[3.1] The first of my main research questions was, "How does cosplay play a role in being a creative/transformative act of empowering identity?" This became the focal question of my research during Boston Comic-Con. During my on-site research, most of my responses referenced creative license and the community itself. People like adding their own twist to already established characters, and like to share that transformation with others. Examples might be someone dressing as a steampunk-influenced Santa Claus, or as Sherlock Holmes in the 1970s. Some of these people do not consider themselves professional cosplayers, and instead see cosplay as a special craft to vent their creativity. "I myself have 'cosplayed' characters I've made up," said one respondent. "It's entirely about being whoever you want to be—acting is a huge part, you get to fully take on a character you love and know and other people treat you like you are that character." Others find investing in cosplay professionally useful. Cosplayers can spend a month or more creating elaborate costumes with stories tied to them, costing over $500 for materials. Then they find marketing opportunities at conventions, which is how some cosplayers become professional models or spokespeople.

[3.2] While at Boston Comic-Con (figure 2), I noticed a large percentage of attendees cosplayed as either characters from The CW's Arrow or Cartoon Network's Steven Universe, the latter of which has been most positive for female cosplayers of color and LGBTQA cosplayers. The former mainly appealed to men dressed as the titular character, Green Arrow; yet both men and women cosplayed as a variety of main and recurring characters in Steven Universe. Both of these shows are highly regarded for their diverse casting and character designs that make the characters accessible for any person to play.

Cosplayer dressed as Mace Windu from Star Wars

Figure 2. Cosplayer dressed as Mace Windu from Star Wars (center) at Boston Comic-Con 2015. [View larger image.]

[3.3] From my Boston Comic-Con and online survey data, I learned that people are generally drawn to the inclusive atmosphere of the cosplay community. "I really like how nice people are and open. When you're in cosplay strangers rush up to you excited to gush about you. And you make their days! That's the best part!" said one anonymous survey participant. People often become cosplayers through friends. Thanks to social media, which I would argue is the glue in the cosplay community, there is a diverse yet amicable environment built on inclusion and advocacy for the right to cultural expression through transformative work.

[3.4] Most people are first exposed to cosplay through the Internet, online groups, anime, or friends already in the community. Cosplay has many social media support groups that help cosplayers feel included. Sites such as CosplayingWhileBlack (http://cosplayingwhileblack.tumblr.com) and DisabledCosplayers (http://disabledcosplayers.tumblr.com) are meant as spaces where cosplayers of color and with disabilities can interact and share costuming secrets. These sites also provide a positive way for cosplayers to represent the missing voices within the community. My survey answers also showed that, since there is no primary physical destination for cosplayers other than cons, social media has become vital for connecting cosplayers to each other. Apps such as Cosplyr (http://cosplyr.com/), Anime Animo (http://animeamino.com/), CosplayNet (http://cosplaynet.com.au/), Cosplay Showcase, and Cosplanner are helpful in keeping cosplayers connected with other cosplay groups. They also serve as important archives, as they are visual blogs and portfolios of cosplayers' work.

4. Body positivity and an imperfect community

[4.1] Although body positivity is an increasingly common catchphrase in online communities as well as at conventions, my research showed that cosplayers still encounter misconceptions as to whether people can cosplay characters of different genders, races, heights, weights, and so on. "You can't be that character because you are black!," "You are too fat to be x character!," and "A dude can't dress like a girl!" are still frequent complaints. As one survey respondent put it, "It's impossible to be a cosplayer and ignore the amount of elitism and policing in the community on top of the sexual harassment cosplayers of all genders experience at cons or online." While cosplay fosters a sense of creative empowerment in many people, it still faces many obstacles that affect its reputation and the cosplayers themselves. This policing and prejudice, as well as sexual harassment, defeats what cosplay is about.

[4.2] More stories are beginning to surface about harassment at conventions, ranging from nonconsensual photography to assault to child pornography (http://www.themarysue.com/cosplay-photographer-child-porn/). Harassment and body policing are the central issues that affect the cosplay community. What is worse is that most conventions do not have protocols set up to address sexual harassment or do anything to support victims (http://metro.co.uk/2015/07/09/is-sexual-harassment-ruining-comic-con-for-cosplayers-5286543/). Recently, conventions have been trying to improve policies that support cosplayers if they are feeling hurt, attacked, or assaulted. Because cosplay is intrinsically tied to the Internet, more cosplayers are becoming ready to unveil harassers online and report their stories.

5. Cosplay as art and craft

[5.1] The arts have a major influence on the cosplay community. "It's a way to take 2D characters and embody them on a 3D scale. You become a work of art," explained one respondent. Cosplay stems from fashion and costume design and could thus be considered a visual form of art, but it also includes role-play and other forms of dramatic play that create a performance. In addition to prints, jewelry, literature, and other fan-made merchandise, major cosplaying events showcase performers. Human chess, masquerades, which may include collaborative scenes devised by groups of cosplayers, and even dating games in full character are some of the performance games common within the community. When I go to these events, it is like being in the middle of a giant improvised drama, since everyone is in character and the audience is already engaged the minute they come through the convention doors. In fact, audience participation is a crucial part of cosplayers' experience, as it includes the whole fandom community and gives everyone a role, even those who are not in costume.

[5.2] Cosplay is gradually becoming more recognized in the media as a form of art. In fact, I argue that cosplayers' undeniable artistry is one reason they are becoming more open about their hobby to the general public. I have cosplayed before—I have no pictures because I was too nervous at the time—but my background in theater made it feel as if I were a performance artist. Boston Comic-Con feels like a convention of visual and performance artists. At cons, people sell original prints of their favorite characters in addition to dressing up as them. The arts are the glue that bonds people with shared interests together. "Fandom" refers to their collective interest in a piece of media, and fan art, fan fiction, and cosplay solidify the community. As one survey respondent explained, "Cosplay is an open expression of fandom appreciation. It's a way to show someone 'this is what I love,' 'this is what I am passionate about' without using a single word. It's an open-ended art form and almost a little club that bonds with others through personal expression. It's a hobby, it's a little bit of a lifestyle and it's all one big fannish thing to enjoy."

6. Conclusion

[6.1] In my survey, I asked participants how they anticipated the cosplay community changing in the future. One answer from an anonymous participant struck me: "I think a fandom brings a community together, but cosplay takes that community a step further, just like fanfiction does. As a cosplayer, I embrace my love of Xena: Warrior Princess and share it with everyone. I act in character and hope it not only brings a smile to people's faces, as it always does, but I also like to remind people of what Xena stands for. I love having interactions with people who tell me, 'OH MY GOSH, Xena inspired me to leave an abusive situation/have confidence/love my body/etc,' and I love when young kids, especially girls, come up and ask if they can hug Xena. In a fandom, you have interaction with others, but as a cosplayer, that interaction becomes more intimate. Cosplaying isn't easy, especially if you make most of your costume. If you're not learning to sew, you're learning to dye a wig, engineer a PS2 controller to make a robotics part move, sculpt, paint…the list goes on! It takes tremendous dedication, patience, a willingness to learn various art techniques, and money to cosplay, and not every fan is invested in the same way or interested in it." Thanks to the efforts of this vibrant community, cosplayers have educational resources and support systems that bridge the online and off-line worlds. The transformative nature of cosplay has the power to make people self-confident artists in their own right.





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