Performances of innocence and deviance in Disney cosplaying

Maria Patrice Amon

University of California, Irvine, Irvine, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Disney cosplayers are uniquely positioned in relationship to the characters they perform because of Disney's reliance on innocence as a narrative trope and character element. Their cosplaying transmutes normative innocence via performative fan practice.

[0.2] Keywords—Cartoon; Ethnography; Fan costumes; Masking effect; Scott McCloud; Performativity; San Diego Comic-Con; Surrogation

Amon, Maria Patrice. 2014. "Performances of Innocence and Deviance in Disney Cosplaying." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 17.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Princess Tiana was a long way from the bayou and in a great deal of trouble; she was under attack by a dinglehopper-wielding mermaid pirate in a hallway of the Anaheim convention center at the WonderCon, an annual comic book, science fiction, and motion picture convention. In a chance meeting at the convention, a group of Disney heroes and a group of princess pirates posed for pictures (figure 1). Princess Tiana and her friends are neither the actual characters nor representatives from the Disney Company. They are dedicated Disney cosplayers who dress as characters from Disney animated films and other properties. As a subset of the cosplaying community, Disney cosplayers are unique in their relationship to the characters they perform because of the Disney brand's reliance on innocence as a narrative trope and character element. The innocence of the Disney brand becomes deviant through transposing animated characters onto corporeal bodies. The Disney cosplayer's deviance is a performance that at once invokes the original nostalgic character while at the same time presenting an uncanny departure from the official company-created character design and narrative. Disney cosplaying is simultaneously deviant and nostalgic; it looks backwards to innocent childhood characters but it performs those innocent characters on the bodies of adults. The practice of Disney cosplaying uses the visual rhetoric of innocence established in Disney animated films to blur the line between self and character, between nostalgia and deviance.

Color group photograph of people, mostly women, dressed in Disney outfits.

Figure 1. Pirate princesses and Disney heroes. Photograph by author, July 12, 2012. [View larger image.]

2. Disney orthodoxy

[2.1] Disney cosplayers are a unique subset of the cosplaying community because their reference texts hold deep cultural recognizability and popularity based on narratives that are dogmatically consistent, with a predictably constant set of social values—the most notable being innocence. Disney animated films contain and reaffirm an ontology of good and evil with definitive boundaries and a set of moral structures centered on a romantic vision of innocence. This concept of innocence holds that children are magically endowed with value by virtue of their inexperience (Higonnet 1998). The central characters in Disney animated films are innocent and it is by virtue of their innocence that they are able to defeat the villain. The innocence of the characters is central to fan practice and to corresponding performances of identity such as cosplay.

[2.2] As a leisure activity, cosplaying has the potential for creativity and imagination of play; however, for Disney cosplayers, this freedom of play is often ignored in favor of adherence to the Disney canon. This aspect of Disney cosplaying makes the practice unique. Departures from Disney canon are framed as playful acts rather than as overt challenges to canon. For example, cosplaying pictures in which a heroic character is behaving contrary to his or her established characteristics are framed as mischievous fun and never serve as the main purpose or the central images of a photo shoot. Dressing as the characters is not used to play out alternative stories for the characters. Instead, the point of Disney cosplaying is to appear and perform as close to the original source as possible. Traditional analysis of role playing frames the practice of imitation as liberating for the character from the text, and produces the potential to develop alternative scenarios and story lines (Gn 2011, 584); however, the practice of cosplaying is not strongly concerned with narrative based role playing (Newman 2008, 85). Disney cosplayers proceed from a strongly narrativized object, a Disney animated film, and engage in a practice with the potential to upend the corporately produced narrative; yet, this double present potential to alter narratives is disregarded in favor of adherence to the Disney canon. Although Disney cosplayers perform as their characters, their actions only minimally depart from Disney narrative canon. Cosplayers do not often use their costumes as opportunities to create new plot lines for their characters and often even predetermine photo poses with an eye toward maintaining narrative unity. Cosplayers are very familiar with their chosen objects, and performing a character consistent with the Disney narrative canon is a demonstration of that knowledge. For example, calling a fork a dinglehopper is a must for a person cosplaying Ariel from The Little Mermaid, and a failure to recognize this detail of performance would be an admission of ineptitude. The reliance on canon is a means of demonstrating affinity for a film and a personal knowledge of the canon. The deviations from the canon in variant forms of Disney cosplaying like the princess pirate group are founded in close readings of the canonical character and make heavy use of the original character's tropes. Disney cosplayers' self-policing and heightened devotion to the source material minimize the deviation from traditional formations of innocence through narrative.

Color photograph of a white man at a conference venue dressed in a Buzz Lightyear outfit with round dials on the chest.

Figure 2. Steampunk Buzz Lightyear. San Diego Comic-Con International. Photograph by author, July 23, 2012. [View larger image.]

[2.3] This dogmatic orthodoxy is perfectly matched with the dogmatic innocence of the brand. A Disneyland employee performing the character Alice from Alice in Wonderland must speak in a specific pitch with a particular British accent at all times while in the theme park. To transgress these parameters brings the threat of demerits and possible employment termination. Disney dogma insists upon a radically narrow and consistent view of the franchise. However, the Disney cosplaying fan approaches Disney films as texts or objects to be interpreted and reconstructed through lived experience. Cosplaying thus bears a strong potential for departures from the narrative because as living beings performing static characters, cosplayers must take their characters into situations and narratives beyond those found in the films. Transposing an innocent character into real-world situations found in cosplaying venues, like eating or waiting in lines, requires cosplayers to fill in gaps and create character responses. These additions made by cosplayers have the potential to disrupt the traditional formations of innocence central to the Disney characters. Disney cosplay destabilizes innocence through subversive tensions which reframe fictional characters onto the bodies of ordinary people.

3. Blurred lines between self and character

[3.1] Disney cosplayers' fascination with the dogma of Disney blurs the boundary between self and fictional character through the practice's playful relationship with constructions of identity. Richard Schechner and Victor W. Turner's (2008) concept of subjunctive mood or liminal performance is useful in a consideration of this aspect of the practice. Their work on performance interrogates the junction of performer and character to find the boundary between self, or me, and character, or not me. Performers embodying a character take on the not me of the character yet simultaneously retain me-ness even though the not me has become me, instilling in the performer a new not-not-me identity. "Elements that are 'not me' become 'me' without losing their 'not me–ness.' This is the peculiar but necessary double negativity that characterizes symbolic actions. While performing a performer experiences his own self not directly but through the medium of experiencing the others. While performing, he no longer has a 'me' but has a 'not not me,' and this double negative relationship also shows how restored behavior is simultaneously private and social" (Schechner and Turner 2008, 111–12). The not-not-me aspect of performance allows the performer to combine aspects of the character with aspects of the performer (Gunnels 2009, ¶1.3). However, cosplaying differs from acting because of the deep personal connection between self and characters.

[3.2] Cosplaying offers participants the opportunity to construct their own identity through playful engagement with dogmatic text. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud (1994) presents the concept of the Masking Effect, or the surrogation of the self in the body of an iconic character. Through focusing on the aesthetic form of the cartoon, McCloud explains that "the cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled, an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm. We don't just observe the cartoon, we become it" (36). Mickey Mouse is not just a figure outside of myself, but is myself. Mickey's face is a mask I exchange for my own face, an identification I take as my own.

[3.3] Scott McCloud's (1994) theory of the masking effect goes beyond Schechner and Turner's (1985) formation of subjunctive performance to account for a lack of distinction between self and character. Cosplayers perform a live surrogation, taking the identity of their characters for their own identity in their cosplaying. Like the cartoon viewer who inserts themselves into the place of the character while watching, the cosplayer inserts their body into the space of the character through costume and performance. Cosplaying is the embodied performance of active identity construction and thus serves as a prime example of the masking effect.

[3.4] In my participant observations of cosplaying, I found that simplified physical similarities served as a grounding for identification with a character and the surrogation of the self. My first Disney cosplay was Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame because I identified with Esmeralda as a child, based primarily on the character's mass of dark curly hair, which matched my own. This sense of childhood superficiality is common to the Disney brand. Within Disney ontology, physical traits function as cultural memes and are direct metaphors for personality or character traits: a hunchback is evidence of personal weakness, or wild hair is evidence for liberated independence. I am not a highly independent or adventurous person, but through cosplaying I experienced an expansion of that trait in my own identity; because Esmeralda would stride through the hall with confidence, I found myself striding with confidence, and because people identified my body as Esmeralda's, it did become her body, and surrogation for the character was achieved.

4. Deviance: Corporeal bodies and translation

[4.1] The innocent imagery and thematics deployed in Disney animation is subverted through cosplay and fan practice. Disney cosplaying is a performance of nostalgia that becomes deviant through the translation of animation onto corporeal bodies.

[4.2] The nostalgia for characters encountered in childhood is a large motivation for Disney cosplayers. A survey respondent explained that "I truly feel loved when I wear Snow White. The children are so adorable and it feels a bit like magic when they come up to you to talk and tell you how much the character means to them. I feel nostalgic because this is how I felt when I was a kid. One time I had a girl approach me and whispered 'Snow, you are beautiful!'" (note 1). The cosplayer justified her character selection by referring to her nostalgia for the character while simultaneously obscuring her own identity in the character's identity through attributing the identification of the character's beauty as her own. The nostalgia that motivates the practice is forced to reconcile with the reality of a Disney cosplayer's modifying her own voice to match the innocent high and airy voice of Snow White. The translation of an animated image onto a corporeal body is a deviation that transfers an object from one medium of expression and reinterprets the image onto a drastically different format; the tensions of deviance are found in the corresponding limitations that arise from the translation of media.

[4.3] For example, Disney cosplayers demonstrate an intense desire to look as aesthetically close to the reference image as possible. A survey respondent commented: "When I cosplay I 'am' the character, not only on stage or for the poses in the photos but for all the duration on the event. Even with my friends, or while I'm eating—I usually don't eat or drink while cosplaying anyway, but I would eat like my character." In another example, the attempt to style one's hair in rolls identical to a Disney princess ignores not only the practical distinction that human hair does not behave like animated hair but also the more fundamental distinction between animated image and corporeal body.

[4.4] Corporeal bodies are raced and gendered, and these elements are factors when translating an animated image onto a body. Overt or conscious gender politics are rare in cosplaying communities (Gn 2011, 585), but when pressed, Disney cosplayers do recognize the presence and importance of gender in cosplaying. However, the strict gender codes demonstrated in Disney films are challenged by the practice of cosplaying in which crossplay—cross-dressing cosplay—is a conventional practice. These stylistic variations remain largely consistent with the Disney canon but diverge from traditional interpretations of the character's innocence. This thematic difference does not affect essential canon character traits, merely the presentation of those traits. Sexy Disney princesses are a popular group cosplay at Comic-Con; images of the original group of sexy princesses can be found across the Internet. These princesses differ drastically from the original character designs—for example, Sleeping Beauty may forgo a skirt entirely in favor of ruffled underwear—but the cosplayers do not perform their characters any differently.

[4.5] The sexy princesses illustrate the ultimate extension of innocence into the sexualization of the fetishized image of innocence. As the fundamental valorization of inexperience, innocence is antithetical to the experience and knowledge of sexuality. Although innocence is always a creation of the empowered viewer, an identification written onto the inexperienced child, in the sexy princesses the retained visual vocabulary of innocence serves to demonstrate the limitations and constructedness of innocence as a category of social identity performance. The intentional deviance of the sexy princesses appropriates the innocence of the standard princess in a hypersexual costume. It is the innocence itself that is being used to heighten the sense of sexiness in the hyperinflation of fetishization. Even in the face of this purposeful inversion of innocence, the cosplayers remain faithful to the limits of Disney canon. Each of the poses that the cosplayers adopt for photos is strikingly similar to traditional princess cosplay poses. It is as if the character's innocence is so deeply ingrained within the character that when the design is overtly sexualized, her claims on innocence are not mitigated but only transmuted.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Cosplaying is a transmutation of normative innocence through performative fan practice. This uncanny visual representation of children's characters on the corporeal bodies of adults destabilizes innocence and resituates it as a process of deviance. Traditional cosplay is a fluid activity without defined formal boundaries and organization, but Disney cosplaying relies on a highly institutional, ordered, defined, and pedagogical canon with specific traditionalist interpretations of innocence. This resituates the innocence that infuses Disney films in both themes and imagery as something that is constantly fluctuating.

[5.2] In Disney cosplaying, innocence is imbued with the sense of strangeness. Disney cosplayers possess the potential to expand character narratives and rewrite character identity but their reticence to do so, instead cosplaying with fanatic devotion to authenticity, forecloses the potential. As adults performing children's characters without a sense of irony, Disney cosplayers bear a strong potential for subversion; however, this potential dissipates and transforms into an air of strangeness surrounding and imbuing cosplaying practice and the innocence which it actively seeks to perform.

6. Note

1. My analysis of cosplaying is generated from a 3-year study I conducted of self-identifying Disney cosplayers through participant observations and qualitative interviews conducted with respondents from multiple cosplaying venues, including internet sites, popular culture conventions, photo shoots, and cosplay gatherings. The study was completed in 2013.

7. Works cited

Gn, Joel. 2011. "Queer Simulation: The Practice, Performance and Pleasure of Cosplay." Continuum 25 (4): 583–93.

Gunnels, Jen. 2009. "'A Jedi like my father before me': Social Identity and the New York Comic Con." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.

Higonnet, Anne. 1998. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. New York: Thames and Hudson.

McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial.

Newman, James. 2008. Playing with Videogames. London: Routledge.

Schechner, Richard, and Victor W. Turner. 1985. Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.