Praxis

Self-identification in Malaysian cosplay

Eriko Yamato

RMIT International University, Saigon South Campus, Vietnam

[0.1] Abstract—To examine cosplay (costume play) as performed by non-Japanese cosplayers, video interviews were conducted at five Japanese popular culture conventions in Malaysia. Analysis of descriptions made by 158 cosplayers reveals cosplay to function as a medium for the process of self-identification. Cosplay enables Malaysians to explore individual rather than collective identities and to experience fluidity and dilemma in self-identification as they translate fictional characters into their physical world. Although ethnicity seems not to prevail in their cosplay, it appears not to have totally vanished.

[0.2] Keywords—Costume play; Ethnicity; Fan conventions; Interviews; Japanese popular culture

Yamato, Eriko. 2020. "Self-Identification in Malaysian Cosplay." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 34. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2020.1771.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Malaysia is a Muslim country located in Southeast Asia, where English language and culture have been dominant since the country's period of British colonial rule and as a result of the implementation of official language policies. However, East Asian influence is markedly prevalent. This cultural influence results from both geographical location and the cultures of immigrants who have settled in the nation. Despite the fact that "most Islamist groups have a tradition of protesting or banning supposedly un-Islamic music and arts" (Müller 2015, 322), which is an issue in Malaysia, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese as well as English and American popular culture have become embedded in Malaysian everyday life.

[1.2] Cosplay (costume play) activity emerged in the early 2000s, notably at fan conventions relating to Japanese cultural commodities. As I have discussed elsewhere (Yamato 2016), most major Malaysian ACG (anime, comics, and game) fan conventions include cosplay activity. Besides their involvement in official stage competitions and fashion shows, cosplayers (people who engage in cosplay) have important roles at the convention sites as key participants in the convention and, collectively, as an unofficial attraction for other convention goers. Paidi, Akhir, and Ping (2014) describe cosplay activity in Malaysia as an empowering Malaysian subculture inspired by ACG of Japanese origin. Chan (2018) observes, however, that Malaysian cosplay activity is connoted with nerdy culture in much the same way as other ACG subcultures and usually involves participation within safe spaces such as fan conventions and through online portals.

[1.3] According to previous research exploring cosplay activity as a new cultural phenomenon and fan subculture/culture in Japan and other countries, fan conventions are the social settings where cosplayers gather to display their costumes, participate in photo shoots, and engage in off-line social interaction with other cosplayers (e.g., Rahman, Liu, and Cheung 2012; Peirson-Smith 2013). While creative and educational aspects of cosplay activity have been recognized even outside Japan as fan culture and fashion culture (Chen 2012; Manifold 2009), Miyamato (2012) describes both how Japanese cosplayers constitute a community of practice and the aspirations of new cosplayers to become members of the community. Studies by Okabe (2012) and Matsuura and Okabe (2014) point to the usefulness of situated learning processes in the analysis of cosplay activity embedded in evolving communities. Social networking engagement in the cosplay community has been observed in some research as well (Bainbridge and Norris 2013; Chen 2007; Rahman, Liu, and Cheung 2012). Lamerichs (2013) has reported on the internationalization of the cosplay community at large through fan conventions and world cosplay competitions.

[1.4] Observing broader acceptance of cosplay, Yarimizu (2016) has reviewed the term kosupure (cosplay in Japanese) and points out that it is a multifaceted term in Japanese referring to the following activities: (1) dressing up as a fictional character originating from cultural commodities (e.g., anime, manga, games and films), (2) dressing up as workers who have specific uniforms (e.g., policeman; military personnel), and (3) dressing up for sex-related business (220, translated by author). Kosupure, according to the first definition provided above, involves a complete portrayal of the role of a fictional character by posing, acting, and/or dancing in addition to the act of dressing in costume to imitate the appearance of the character. This is a type of fan activity, and the other two types of cosplay are not. Most previous studies have examined cosplay as a cultural manifestation of a socially identifiable group of fans (fandom).

[1.5] Based on my informal observations at local Malaysian ACG fan conventions from 2010 to 2014, prior to designing this study, cosplay corresponding to the second definition has taken place to some extent (e.g., military cosplay and Lolita cosplay). Although sex-related business is officially banned in Malaysia, cosplayers there have dressed up as female game characters with skimpy costumes as apparent sex objects to promote products. The moral implications associated with this type of cosplay activity and at least one criminal case involving cosplayers have raised concerns for some conservative Malaysians. In October 2013, cosplay was negatively highlighted in the local Malaysian news because of the murder case of a fifteen-year-old girl. The girl was reported to have been sexually molested by a twenty-three-year-old male friend who had been working with her on their cosplay project for an upcoming cosplay competition (Borneo Post 2013). One experienced cosplayer claimed that his parents never understood what he had been doing, and all interviewed cosplayers said they needed time to convince their parents to endorse their participation as cosplayers in fan conventions (Yamato 2015, 748).

[1.6] In this context, this qualitative study, which captured visual manifestations and interactions with cosplayers in action, was conducted at ACG fan conventions. On the premise of Bauman's (2004) notion of provisional "fluid identities," the study aims to further explore Malaysian cosplayers, analyzing the process of performing identities by focusing on how cosplayers represent themselves while engaging in their cosplay, especially at a convention, which is a public situation, since the identification process involves others who have multiple individual and collective identities (Buckingham 2008).

2. Identities in cosplay

[2.1] Cosplayers present a secondary product created on the basis of existing cultural commodities utilizing their own physical features. Rahman, Liu, and Cheung (2012) explain cosplay activity as "an identity marker" in their quasi-ethnographic study conducted in Hong Kong. They highlight cosplay's main concept—transforming an ordinary person into a character in an imaginary world—as temporarily changing self-identity, which contributes to the development of social skills. This idea of temporarily attached identities is in line with Jenkins's (1992) argument that in fan culture, "fans produce alternative identities" (214). In these discussions, however, the concept of identity seems to be at the surface level of who we are in contrast to our normal, legal, and social identifications associated with our given names and what is registered in our identification documents.

[2.2] Another ethnographic study by Peirson-Smith (2013) concerns aspects of multiple identities in applied social interaction theory. She discusses cosplay activities in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tokyo from a fashion theory perspective. Her findings underline the importance of individuality manifested by the various motivations each cosplayer has while engaging in social processes in their cosplay community. She also points out that cosplayers openly exhibit a secret self, which is supposedly revealed only to individuals and intimates through their fanciful clothes. Her analysis illustrates a progressive aspect of cosplay activity that works as a catalyst for the individual identification process.

[2.3] Peirson-Smith (2013), Gn (2011), and Leng (2014) argue that cross-play, especially male to female cosplay, does not essentially reflect cosplayers' gender identity. Rather, it is related to their artistic expression and alternative interpretation of cultural commodities or texts. In the framework of fan studies, Lamerichs (2011) also points out that in reference to performative theory, cosplay is not the mere realization of fictional worlds. Cosplayers attempt to actualize a character and its significance from the context of the story from which that character originates, and at the same time they represent their own identities in their cosplay. Cosplay activity thus ambiguously involves both fictional and actual dimensions. Moreover, Mongan's (2015) heuristic essay prompted me to relate cosplay to everyday life. In her essay, she relates her journey of playing pretend from her childhood until the stage at which she became enchanted with cosplay. Cosplay could be described as an extraordinary act, considering that it is a part of nerdy culture, but in fact it could be seen as mirroring the act of dressing up for different occasions in ordinary life.

[2.4] In terms of theorizing identity and interculturality, Dervin (2013) posits that instead of identifying what someone's identity/identities is/are, we should examine the process by which people identify themselves. Dervin and Risager (2015, 7–8) propose crucial points when researching identities and interculturality in order to avoid objectifying someone's identity, which are as follows: (1) searching identity markers, including gender, age, profession, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, and place/space, which indicate shifts, inconsistencies, and contradictions; and (2) examining identification strategies and unfolding the meanings in discourse, such as what is hidden, what is present in a speaker's discourse, and who is an interlocutor. By referring to their methodology, I reexamine self-identification as an ongoing process in cosplay and further address cosplayers' processes in portraying unreal two-dimensional characters in real life.

3. Hijab as identification in Malaysia

[3.1] Since ethnic and religious identification and their integration have been a crucial part of the national agenda and a prioritized issue in Malaysia, I also discuss hijab cosplay, referring to previous studies focusing on everyday fashion in Malaysia. Hijab is a word originating from Arabic, which can be roughly translated as "veil." Muslim women usually wear a headscarf as required by their faith, which instructs that women should not expose what are identified as the private parts of their bodies to anyone other than certain close family members. Thus, according to most interpretations of the Malaysian Islamic school of thought, the hands, face, and feet may be exposed in public, while the rest of an adult woman's body, including hair, arms, and legs, is to be clothed. According to Siraj (2011), however, hijab has been used as an element of identification among Muslim women with various social contextual meanings depending on the cultures and histories of Muslim communities, all of which have arisen from various interpretations of the Qur'an and other Islamic religious texts (717). Unlike in some Arabic countries in the Middle East, wearing a black veil and covering the face is not a common practice among Malaysian Muslim women. Hassan, Zaman, and Santosa (2015) have identified various ways that Malaysian Muslim women interpret Islamic teachings in relation to their appearance. They highlight that Malaysian Muslim women preserve their modesty in their working environments as well as in the social sphere while adapting to new fashion trends. Hassim, Nayan, and Ishak (2016) point out that the wearing of hijab is a modern movement among Malaysian Muslims. Regarding hijab in the cosplay scene, Indonesian scholar Rastati (2017) reports on an Islamic cosplay group which was established in 2014 and supports and promotes hijab cosplay outside of Indonesia, including in Malaysia.

4. Methods

[4.1] Applying the Heideggerian hermeneutic concept (Laverty 2003) from the phenomenological interview approach, I conducted fieldwork inside ACG fan convention sites. Both observations and interviews were conducted at each convention site where potential study participants would be in their roles as cosplayers in action, following the guidance that interviews should be "situated in a space that allows the participant to remain in the role that is consistent with the research focus" (Quinney, Dwyer, and Chapman 2016, 6). The video interviews were the main data collection method to gain profound insights into cosplayers' thoughts and feelings while wearing costumes, posing, and/or performing as fictional characters. Selecting video rather than audio recording was crucial to archive the visual features of cosplayers and analyze the cosplayers who embodied fictional characters.

[4.2] Small- to medium-scale conventions held in different areas in Malaysia (Table 1) were selected for the fieldwork in order to establish trust with the convention organizers and participants as well as to secure suitable areas for the video interviews at noisy fan convention sites. Since the convention sites were considered public spaces, some cosplayers might not have felt comfortable with being interviewed, but the issues of interview space and interviewee roles were not compromised. The research team only recruited cosplayers on a voluntary basis and then obtained their participatory consent.

Table 1. Fieldwork Sites

Name of Convention (Abbreviation) Location of Convention Description Date of Fieldwork No. of Cosplayers in the Video Interview
COSWALK (CW) Berjaya Megamall, Stage Area, Kuantan, Pahang Regional small-scale cosplay event 15 March 2015 11
YUMECON (YC) Mary Yek Grand Hall, i-CATS West Campus, Kuching, Sarawak Regional small-scale ACG* event 30 and 31 May 2015 37
ANIMANGAKI (AMG) Sunway Pyramid Convention Centre, Subang Jaya, Selangor Established annual ACG convention since 2009 (13,000 participants) 29 and 30 August 2015 55
OTAFUSE (OF) Suria Sabah, 6th Floor Exhibition Hall, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah Established annual ACG convention since 2011 19 and 20 September 2015 38
Radical Anime Games Expo (RAGE) The Shore Shopping Gallery, Malacca Regional small scale ACG event 17 and 18 October 2015 28

*Anime, Comics (or Cosplay), and Games

[4.3] During the fieldwork, I, as the principal researcher, conducted observations of the cosplayers at the convention sites and held a supervisory position for the video interviews with the responsibilities of managing the sessions, obtaining signatures for consent forms, and collecting answers for a short questionnaire survey with video interview participants. An assistant who was fluent in English (the language medium of the fan conventions) and the Malay language (the official language of Malaysia and the native language of the major ethnic group in Malaysia) randomly approached budding cosplayers, requested their participation in the research, and then conducted the video interviews at the particular space set up within each convention site.

[4.4] The participants read the guidelines before signing a consent form that informed them of the purpose of making the video recordings. The video interviews consisted of open-ended questions and included eight main questions regarding the cosplayed character, costume and props, and cosplay activity. Using a wireless microphone attached to a video camera, the assistant posed the prepared questions, interacted with cosplayers, and asked them to elaborate more when their responses were too simple or vague. The main language medium of the interviews was English; the assistant switched to Malay when interviewees seemed more comfortable using the Malay language. If there was a request to have the interview conducted in Mandarin, a translator was then assigned by selecting an acquaintance from among the cosplayers. The transcribed video interviews were verified later with a Malaysian native Mandarin speaker.

[4.5] In total, 169 cosplayers participated in the video interviews. There were ninety-six males and seventy-three females, all of whom were born between 1974 and 2000. At the time of the interviews, those who had student status (university/college students and secondary school students) totaled 109, while fifty-seven were working adults (three did not state their status). The majority age range was between eighteen and twenty-two years (52 percent), followed by the age group of twenty-three to twenty-eight years old (29 percent).

[4.6] All 169 transcripts were coded for analysis, but data for eleven underaged cosplayers were excluded because they did not provide their parent's consent, as required by the university's research ethics for informants aged below seventeen years old. For underaged cosplayers who came to the convention with their elder siblings, we requested the working adult siblings to sign the consent forms.

[4.7] All transcribed interview data were managed and coded in NVivo 10, a qualitative data management software application. Image files of the cosplayers were extracted from the video recordings and those of the characters they portrayed in cosplay were obtained online and stored in the same NVivo project file. The background information of each cosplayer—gender, ethnicity, date of birth, occupation/status, years of cosplay experience, and cosplay participation in the past two years—was also stored in the same project file.

[4.8] These data were referred to inductively during further analysis after the interview data had been coded into the following emergent subcategories of self-identification (note 1): (1) "Hiding who I am," (2) "What I am becoming," and (3) "What I become aware of." The findings of the first two categories are presented in Section 5 on "Experiencing self-identification" and the third one in Section 6, on "Fluid fan identities." Since this study specifically sought evidence of the individual self-identification of cosplayers while in costume beyond cosplay as a collective fan culture, it does not examine that identification from a static and normative view of identities. Nevertheless, ethnic identification, such as being Malay, Chinese, or Indian, prevails in Malaysian contexts as "most Malaysians consider themselves and other fellow Malaysians as members of certain ethnic groups" (Chin et al. 2015, 259) in both academic situations and individual everyday existence. Ethnicity is mentioned only in the section discussing cross-gender cosplay (cross-play). The cross-play by Chinese and Malay cosplayers and hijab cosplay among female Malay cosplayers are not major practices among the 158 cosplayers who participated in the video interviews. These cases are highlighted as examples of intersecting identities, which play a part in the process of self-identification.

5. Experiencing self-identification

[5.1] Among the 158 cosplayers who voluntarily participated in the video interview, only nine cosplayers made statements that indicated hiding who they are when cosplaying at the convention. Of the nine cosplayers, three did not cover their faces and they made contradictory statements. One of them said "I want to tell the world that, it is okay not being yourself for a day or two [days]. You can actually be someone else through putting on costumes, and just don't be yourself" (AMG1–4, emphasis added) (note 2). The same cosplayer, in another moment of the interview, said "Cosplay is actually a really good thing and a great way to express yourself." Her first statement indicates that she perceived cosplay activity as escapism from her daily life. By putting on a fictional character's costume, technically, she could claim she was different from her normal day-to-day appearance. However, the phrase "express yourself" in the later part of the same interview indicates that her proposition is that she does not intend to be entirely someone else in cosplay. She had in fact modified the original fictional character's appearance to fit into her ideal attire as a Muslim female.

[5.2] Another cosplayer, who had just begun his cosplay, said, "[other people] do not recognize me. Uh, [when] I wore like this, I can do anything I want, and they don't know who I am" (AMG1–1). This teen cosplayer seemingly enjoys the playful aspect of cosplay without rationalizing why his cosplay character is his preferred one in his favorite anime story. Nevertheless, there are apparently alternative intentions for covering the face in cosplay. The novice teen cosplayer with sophisticated armor said "Armor can cover my body shape, [so I am] more confident to cosplay" (OF2–10). He did not consider "hiding who he is" as a reason for selecting the fully armored character. For him, hiding his physique allows him to get close to his ideal appearance as a cosplayer: taller and fitter. There was also a case of a teen cosplayer who did not want his parents to know about his cosplay activity. This sixteen-year-old cosplayer with a whole-body suit cosplaying in a group consisting of mostly working adults had cosplayed more than eleven times within the previous two years without his parents' knowledge. In the video interview, he stated "this character actually really suits me. His attitude, his behavior" (AMG2–11). Wishing to conceal their involvement in cosplay from their guardians or someone opposed to cosplay activities is the reason for hiding their face.

Cosplayer wearing whole body armor, posing with two swords crossed on his chest.

Figure 1. Novice teen cosplayer (OF2–10) as Pekka from Clash of Clans, Finnish video game, screen capture from the video recording taken at OTAFUSE, 2015.

[5.3] On the other hand, by embodying a fictional character using deviant costumes and makeup, thirty-eight cosplayers decisively stated that they expressed themselves through their cosplay. Descriptions of these thirty-eight cosplayers reveal that personality (twenty-six cosplayers), attitude (seven cosplayers), and appearance (five cosplayers) of characters overlapped those of the cosplayers. The following extract is an example illustrating a cosplayer's character reflecting their own personality:

[5.4] This character is very patient…I found it's somehow like me…Umm, He is kind of, more introvert. He likes to do research, build magic stuff for his friends…Because I personally like to make [something] and do research on prop making and stuff. (AMG2–4)

[5.5] This twenty-two-year-old cosplayer had only two years of experience in cosplay, but he had actively participated in cosplay as many as eleven times or more in the previous two years. He claimed that he had discovered a suitable character for himself while playing a game. To him, in fact, the most significant part of cosplay is not about putting on a costume on the event day; it is about the cosplayer being purposefully engaged in prop making. When he was working to render the two-dimensional character in three-dimensional form, parts of his own personality were gradually revealed. Another cosplayer with two years of cosplay experience, who was thirty-six years old, said "what you see right now, this is what I am" (YC1–6). He cosplayed a character from the comic books of his childhood and explained "I chose him because he's more like me. I just want to be like, you know, be there for everyone…I just can help anyone that I can." The character had been his hero for more than twenty years. This is not only a nostalgic memory of his childhood but also reflects his life process in becoming an adult while admiring the stature of his hero. The cosplay seems to be in support of this admiration.

Cosplayer wearing Japanese traditional clothing, including a kimono top, looking at a notebook held in his left hand while pushing his glasses up with two fingers.

Figure 2. Cosplayer (AMG2–4) as Morichika Rinnosuke from Curiosities of Lotus Asia, a series of side stories of Touhou Project, Japanese video game series, screen capture from the video recording taken at ANIMANGAKI, 2015.

[5.6] In line with studies conducted in other countries (Chen 2007; Manifold 2009; Peirson-Smith 2013; Rahman, Liu, and Cheung 2012), this study also finds that cosplayers reveal themselves through their cosplay activity. It is not clear which comes first: the planning of the cosplay activity or the discovery of themselves in the fictional characters. What can be seen is that the cosplay process is a mediation for the cosplayers in exploring themselves and their fictional characters beyond the consumption of cultural commodities. Additionally, I would say that only novice cosplayers perceive cosplay activity as mere escapism. Of the six cosplayers who clearly state that their intention was to be totally another person in cosplay, only one had three years' experience in cosplaying, and the others had less experience in terms of length of time as well as frequency in participation in cosplay activities. Four of these cosplayers were still eighteen or nineteen years of age. Cosplayers who considered that cosplay allows them to be themselves in the guise of a character are not the majority.

[5.7] Additionally, some cosplayers convey their message to other cosplayers to "be yourself" in cosplay, saying "Just express your needs, your creativity, and yourself" (AMG1–13); "I just say that, be yourself. Stay yourself" (OF1–1). Peirson-Smith (2013) refers to the fashion theory notion that claims cosplay allows a participant to perform the secret self publicly via dressing up in fanciful costumes. The finding of this study, however, suggests the notion that cosplay activity prompts a self-identification process that enables people to experience the acts of searching, revealing, and/or reflecting as well as a prolonged process of self-identification of "what I am becoming." Thus, cosplayers do not necessarily reveal an alternative or hidden part of themselves in their cosplay but are in the process of discovering themselves or becoming what they are.

6. Fluid fan identities

[6.1] This section discusses cosplayers who utilize their cosplay activity as a medium for precisely expressing their adoration toward a specific fictional character and a popular cultural commodity in a way that is also an act of self-expression. This aspect of cosplay has been identified in other studies (e.g., Rahman, Liu, and Cheung 2012), and fan studies have found this to be the core concept in the production of secondary fan products. Obviously, cosplay activity is one form of fan reproduction since the main driving force of the activity is the feeling of adoration toward a specific character as a fan. The majority of the Malaysian cosplayers contributing to this study express their adoration toward Japanese popular culture, while only six out of the 158 cosplayers claim they are not fans of Japanese popular culture. The fan base of Japanese popular culture is too wide-ranging to allow for an exhaustive description of fan attributes since Japanese popular culture consists of a variety of formats, genres, and products; however, in cosplay, the core notion appears to be "to engage in the process of self-identification." This may be seen in the apparent nonstatic nature of fan identities. The cosplayers also articulate what they become aware of, including awareness about their own distinctive qualities.

[6.2] Of the 158 cosplayers, sixty-three (39.9 percent) expressed their adoration for the fictional characters that appeared in anime or games. Only fourteen of the 158 cosplayed fictional characters from their childhood, which lends support to the notion that current popular culture rather than the culture of childhood memories tends to be translated into cosplay activity. The cosplayer with four years' experience said "we as the cosplayer, cos[play] them [fictional characters] to express our love" (OF1–20). Her cosplayed character was released in 2015, and she was introduced to the product series by her friends, but she was the one who adored one character from the twelve characters involved in it. In principle, cosplayers did not cosplay characters they found repulsive. Other people realize a cosplayer's favorite character when they see their cosplay. In other words, by cosplaying, the cosplayers express themselves in admiration of their chosen fictional characters. Their admiration is in a state of flux as their consumption of products related to such fictional characters continues to evolve.

[6.3] Referring to the cosplayed character originating from a Japanese role-playing game, the cosplayer with eight years' experience said "Truthfully…I really love him because he's such a lovely man. But he has been misunderstood by people about how much he really loves his mother…" (YC2–18). He also explained his cosplay activity as follows:

[6.4] When I see inspiring character, it makes me feel, well I want to be like them. And when I want to be like them, I want to be them in one event, where people look at me, as inspiring as how they look at the character itself. (YC2–18)

[6.5] His explanation depicts the nature of fan activities in that some people, as fans, extend their actions to express their feelings toward the products that inspire them beyond consumption as participatory fan culture (Jenkins 1992). Importantly, the inspiring character was not in fact singular. Throughout my observations, this cosplayer cosplayed different characters every time I saw him at the local conventions. As indicated in his use of the pronoun "them" as in "I want to be like them," more than just a few inspiring characters emerged from his consumption. His description of the cosplay further indicates ongoing aspects of his identification:

[6.6] It's truly expanded you guys in many kinds of ways. And the best part about [cosplay] is that, when you expand, you show, you'd be different when you are in cosplay. It's not just about being yourself but being better. (YC2–18)

[6.7] The meaning of the expression "being better" was not elaborated, but this expression and "you'd be different" indicate that his progressive experiences made him aware of himself in cosplay. In fact, "being yourself" is not an easy task as we are not necessarily able to determine "who I am" since identification is fluid depending on contexts, such as being with others who have shared/unshared social, cultural, and biological features, values, histories, and interests (Buckingham 2008).

Cosplayer wearing a steampunk military coat, raising his right hand up to the sky.

Figure 3. Experienced cosplayer (YC2–18) as Kadaj from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, Japanese computer-animated film, screen capture from the video recording taken at YUMEKON, 2015.

[6.8] In fact, there are more cosplayers who merely mention their fondness for or relatedness with the fictional characters than those who expressly disclose their adoration and their own personal traits. Yet, cosplayers have opportunities to become aware of their adoration as well as their own personal traits while consuming popular cultural products, selecting a fictional character for cosplaying, and translating the fictional character using their own physical appearance and performances. This process yields individual differences and similarities. As Peirson-Smith (2013) notes, cosplay activity offers the individual cosplayer a way of appreciating individuality more than commonality (collective characteristics), which is something that Malaysians have been taught to be sensitive about and respectful to. From the results of this study, it may be determined that this is an ongoing process in the development of cosplayers' awareness of self. The next two sections explore whether or not the cosplay activity yields only individuality by referring to intersecting identities.

7. Cross-play and gender twisting

[7.1] Cross-play generally refers to the act of cosplaying a gender and a character different from the cosplayer's own. Of the 158 cosplayers, twenty-seven female cosplayers (eighteen Chinese; seven Malays; two other ethnicities) cross-played. One of the cross-players portrayed a taciturn male character with coldhearted eyes wearing a long, formal blue suit and black-rimmed spectacles. She said, "I'm in love with this character. My friend told me that I suit this character. Um, the character is a bit, uh, sadist" (RAGE2–9; Malay). Most of these female cross-players expressed their fondness for male fictional characters. Another cross-player said "I think I feel it's like, it suits my personality quite well" (RAGE1–3; Chinese). Even though their cosplayed characters were of the opposite gender, eight of them refer to their personality when describing the character or explaining the reason why they cosplayed the character.

Cosplayer wearing a tailcoat jacket and red wrist bands, touching his black-framed glasses while looking away.

Figure 4. Cross-player (RAGE2–9) Saruhiko Fushimi, from K-Project, Japanese anime series, screen capture from the video recording taken at Radical Anime Games Expo, 2015.

[7.2] In these cross-play cases, self-expression in the cosplay was found to be beyond feelings of adoration toward an opposite gender character. A group of three cross-players who cosplayed different male characters from the same visual novel-style game targeting female adults attempted to verbalize their cosplay principle: "You do feel like this is not you, then, don't do it. But do it for, I mean…you feel more, uh, how to say ah? Natural?" (RAGE1–5; Chinese). She also explained the reason why she selected the male character for her cosplay, saying, "I can relate to him." These female cross-players explore themselves when viewing anime or playing games and then select their cosplay characters. I did not observe any hesitation to cross-play among the female-to-male cross-players across ethnicities. They seemed to be confident and determined in what they were doing.

[7.3] Only seven male gender-twisting cosplayers were identified among the video interview participants. Five of these cosplayers explicitly stated that they cosplayed the "male version" or "gender-twisting version" of female characters. They were evidently indecisive about changing their appearance to look feminine even when selecting female source characters for themselves. All of them designed and made top attire, props, and accessories similar to the source characters, and used exactly the same hair color wig as the source characters, but they wore pants instead of miniskirts. One cosplayer said "maybe one day I will wear the skirt. Yeah. Maybe. Maybe. Depend on the situation. Because sometime you also know yourself well…uh, which character you are suitable to cosplay" (RAGE 2–6; Chinese). Although he could smile shyly and behave as the source character, he seemed apprehensive about exposing his bare legs.

[7.4] Showing heterosexual affection while viewing a visual image of an opposite gender character is very common. However, cross-playing and expressing heterosexual affection using our own body is extraordinary because our appearance and behavior are framed within our normative gender expectations. These male cosplayers possibly have encountered this dilemma, or they might doubt the normative gender view. The previously mentioned male cosplayer added the following statements: "[It's] hard to find the people like same anime. So…when other people [who] like this character [see me and say,] Oh! It's this character…Yeah, we can [be] a best friend" (RAGE2–6). His gender-twisting cosplay enables him to meet other fans of the same female character at convention sites packed with people who are mostly strangers to him. Cosplay activity functions socially in the cosplay community by portraying what cosplayers adore (Rahman, Liu, and Cheung 2012; Yarimizu 2016). This distorted version of cross-play functions to identify the normative gender of the cosplayer as male, as well as displaying him as a fan of a certain female character without deviating from the norm of collective gender identity.

[7.5] Additionally, the following is a case of male-to-female cross-play from the observation notes. One cosplayer, who refused to participate in the video interview, insisted that his cross-play is "a joke," and thus he is not suitable to be interviewed for formal research. In my observation, he was aware that his female military costume of miniskirt, high-soled boots, and long hair mismatched with his appearance as a medium-sized man with a manly face. Nevertheless, he freely mingled with other cosplayers at the convention. Though gender is not the initially intended identification in their cosplays, as pointed out in some studies (Peirson-Smith 2013; Gn 2011; Leng 2014), for the male-to-female cross-players, framing of normative gender could be matters of great concern.

8. Hijab cosplay

[8.1] In this section, hijab cosplay is highlighted through discussion of how the collective identities are negotiated in cosplay. Since determining religious differences was not a purpose of this study, the religion of each video interview participant was not documented. Nonetheless, twenty-five Muslim female cosplayers were easily identified since ethnic Malays are Muslims in Malaysia. Only nine of the twenty-five wore headscarves in their cosplay. Of these nine cosplayers, eight donned colored headscarves matching their source characters' hair color, while one wore a self-made helmet on top of her headscarf. There were also two cosplayers who styled their headscarves to resemble the original characters' hairstyles. One of them said:

[8.2] I wanna show like, whoever you are, whatever you are, what kind of people you are, you can still cosplay because cosplay is basically what you love…Like me, there's supposed to be like shorts, and wig [for this character]. But I decide to make it long dress and hijab. Because, I want it that way. Because, uh, I like cosplay. So, I decide to cosplay, the way that I am. (AMG1–12)

[8.3] This cosplayer created her costume to look like the original game character by applying exactly the same color scheme and a similar cloth design and props: a bow, arrows, a quiver, and a small waist bag with a belt. She wore a pink headscarf instead of a pink wig, and the length of the sleeves and the skirt were made long enough to entirely cover her arms and legs. She also said, "Because you like that anime, you become that anime [character]; you like that game, you become that game [character]. You just like to portray how you love towards the things that you [love]" (AMG1–12). From this study, it could not be determined whether there were Muslim female cosplayers who compromised their practice of wearing a headscarf in order to perfectly portray an original source character in their cosplay or whether they actually did not wear a headscarf in daily life. However, hijab cosplay is an indication of a self-identification process in cosplay that involves not only individual personal identities but also intersecting multiple identities including a collective identity as a cosplay fan and Muslim. In Malaysia, some Muslim women do not wear a headscarf, and Hassim, Nayan, and Ishak (2016) state that "wearing the hijab remains an option and not an obligation for Malay women" (11). Thus, those who opted for hijab cosplay may have had some specific intention in their hijab cosplay other than their religious obligation.

[8.4] A few hijab cosplayers pointed out that being a hijab cosplayer was more challenging than being a nonhijab cosplayer. One of them said "Especially for headscarf-wearing cosplayer, do not be afraid. People would definitely bash us. But we need to be confident" (AMG2–23). Although cosplay activity became widely known in its currently established form in Japan, and cosplay activity was first popularized by non-Muslims, for cosplayers who wish to retain their Muslim identity or avoid compromising their religious beliefs, keeping their hijab in cosplay is crucial even though the fictional characters that Malaysians cosplay mostly originate from Japan. Another female Muslim cosplayer said:

[8.5] Well, because I'm doing a hijab cosplay, so I want to portray that, in cosplay, you can do whatever you want. No matter who you are…I spent more [time] on hijab cosplay. And my dream is to cosplay hijab cosplay internationally. Maybe, uh, we can start in Europe, for instance. To show the world that hijab cosplay is, it's something that you can pursue in. (AMG1–8)

[8.6] For this cosplayer, who had four years of experience, hijab cosplay and normal cosplay are separate entities, as she indicated by saying "I spent more [time] on hijab cosplay." Creating hijab cosplay means not only maintaining their Islamic faith but also conveying the message that we Muslim women do cosplay too; we love the characters like non-Muslims do. By doing hijab cosplay, these cosplayers did not intend to deviate from the existing cosplay community due to their religiosity. Rather, they were in the process of creating collective identification by calling for the inclusion of female Muslims in cosplay.

Cosplayer wearing a light blue head scarf, covering her legs with a long dark skirt, smiling with outstretched right arm, holding her palm up.

Figure 5. Hijab cosplayer (AMG1–8) as Yuuki Asuna, from Sword Art Online, Japanese anime series adapted from light novel series, screen capture from the video recording taken at AIMANGAKI, 2015.

[8.7] In this study, these hijab cosplayers were found mainly at one convention out of the five where we conducted the video interviews. This convention was held in the most urban area as compared to the others. This also implies that the hijab culture is not absolutely a tradition or obligation for Malaysian Muslim females, as underlined by Hassim, Nayan, and Ishak (2016) and Hassan, Zaman, and Santosa (2015). The hijab was integrated in the cosplay activity as part of their self-identification that intersected with their collective identification as cosplayers as well as Muslim women.

9. Conclusion

[9.1] Among cosplayers in Malaysia, the incorporation of Japanese popular fan culture is central to the realization of their cosplay. Besides embracing this fan culture as their own by representing fictional characters from worlds originally created by others, the cosplay provides opportunities for them to locally engage in the self-identification process. Self-identification is an interactive process that occurs in everyday life in both private and public contexts. Cosplay seems to be a unique phenomenon that only certain people become involved in; however, it enables us to visualize a phenomenon we encounter and incorporate it into our lives. That is the self-identification cosplayers encounter while consuming cultural commodities in private and socializing as cosplayers among fans as well as the general public. Our identities may be unidentifiable and unpredictable, but they are discoverable. We can also manipulate, build on, and realize our identities. These fluid identities, which consist of individual and collective elements, are illustrated by the cosplayers who participated in this study.

[9.2] In sum, cosplayers potentially explore at least three individual aspects of themselves besides that of being a cosplayer in the collective cosplay community. They see themselves as fans of certain fictional characters, as having personality traits and attitudes in common with fictional characters, or as being similar in appearance to particular fictional characters. Individual self-expression, portraying one's own personality and attitude, can also be performed in the presence of others. This identification involves our desire for either inclusion in a particular group or exclusion from the group. In this sense, I suggest that cosplay functions as a platform or at least provides opportunities not only to express the self but also to explore the fluid identities and dilemmas in existing normative identities and to discover the self. Cosplay activity is not just about the performing self in the fictional world but is also an identification process that occurs in the actual world in which the cosplayers live.

[9.3] Ethnicity appears not to be very important while cosplaying. However, with the everyday reality in Malaysia of national integration and ethnic relations as never-ending social and political issues, it is important to note that only one group of the many groups that were interviewed for this study was a multiethnic cosplay group. The hijab indicates religiosity as well as ethnicity in the Malaysian context since Malay cosplayers are officially Muslims in Malaysia. Therefore, ethnicity does matter for Malaysians in cosplay to some extent in the course of raising their voices for their inclusion in cosplaying.

[9.4] In order to more thoroughly explore Malaysian cosplay, the research should have elicited more in-depth data from each cosplayer in the video interviews. However, despite this possible shortcoming, this study has shed some light on the self-identification process in the cosplay engaged in by the participating cosplayers, who usually perform their own identities, although not overtly, during the conventions. I propose that future studies on cosplay be extended to more interdisciplinary fields such as psychology, consumer economics, and the visual arts. I believe that the self-identification process is only one of many dimensions in cosplay and that cosplay is an integrated phenomenon reflecting our lives based on modern trends such as the technological developments with which young people are increasingly engaged.

10. Acknowledgment

[10.1] This work was supported by the Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia under the Fundamental Research Grant Scheme [06-01-14-1396FR].

11. Notes

1. Some cosplayers had statements in two or three categories.

2. Each video interview participant is indicated by the following formula: [Abbreviation for the name of the convention where the video interview was conducted] [Day of the fieldwork at the convention]–[Number order of the video interview for the day]. For example, the formula AMG1–4 means that this participant was interviewed at the AMG, on the first day, and in the fourth video.

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