Finding truth in playing pretend: A reflection on cosplay

Shelby Fawn Mongan

University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Cosplay fits easily in a life spent playing pretend. Upon reflection, the act of cosplaying is a practice in finding truths, not manufacturing lies.

[0.2] Keywords—Audience; Fan performance

Mongan, Shelby Fawn. 2015. "Finding Truth in Playing Pretend: A Reflection on Cosplay." In "Performance and Performativity in Fandom," edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 18.

[1] I continued playing pretend long after most kids are expected to grow out of it. Though I cut my Internet teeth on sites like Homestar Runner, the majority of my time was spent on Neopets. For the unfamiliar, the site is a combination of Tamagotchi and Pokémon, with flash games and a robust message board. I took good care of my Neopets, but my heart and soul could be found on the role-playing boards. I spent hours creating real-time, collaborative fan fiction with other users for my earliest fandoms. From there, I segued into solo fan fiction. I'm proud to be one of the initiators of the Grey's Anatomy category on, and wrote a novel's worth of words as an active member of the community. Left to my own devices, I would spend hours lovingly crafting stories sprouting from my favorite movies and shows.

[2] When I was in middle school, I discovered a new form of playing pretend. I felt alienated by the popular and preppy girls in my small school. They played lacrosse and had boyfriends; I spent a lot of time singing show tunes alone in my house. Obviously I wanted to rebel. I wore black tank tops and bought my shoes from Hot Topic. I listened to music much angrier than I actually was. The 13-year-old Shelby was pretending to be someone harder and cooler, trying to find some relief from an alien environment. I softened as I got older, after finding a firmer footing and better friends. I slipped in and out of groups—the jocks, the artists, and the honor students in high school—molding myself around the friends who were in front of me. College gave me a new chance to play pretend. Moving hundreds of miles away from anyone who knows you affords that sort of opportunity. I started dyeing my hair every shade of the rainbow and playing ukulele. I was dressing up as the quirky sort of girl I aspired to be.

[3] Having nerdy interests has always afforded me the space to play pretend, but it reached its pinnacle the first time I visited the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo. At the convention, I spoke in the vernacular I had adopted from my time on the Internet (note 1). I made references in conversation and, for once, they weren't met with blank expressions. Best of all, I had a chance to try out cosplaying. Simply put, cosplaying is an act of fan performance where the costume of a fictional character is worn. Cosplays themselves may be painstakingly accurate, or they may be creative interpretations. Some are created with great skill, some are commissioned from professionals, and some are cobbled together out of cardboard and duct tape. All are honest expressions of passion and perhaps the highest form of dress-up you can imagine. The cosplay world has been receiving more attention as a result of Web and television series, as well as increased coverage on nerd-inclined media outlets. Remarkable talents and highly invested fans have been seeing more time in the spotlight and, generally, ushering new people into their world (note 2).

[4] If it isn't already obvious, I fell in love with cosplay the minute I was introduced to it.

[5] I've had a chance to cosplay at a handful of conventions, with plans to do many more. I've utilized my meager sewing skills and learned rudimentary crafting and prop-making as well. I am always dreaming up new costumes to pay homage to my favorite characters. Despite the impression given by television shows like Heroes of Cosplay (2013–), it isn't all about competitions. I have yet to enter one, nor do I intend to. I spend my hard-earned money and many hours creating something to give me a chance to play pretend, something I rarely get to do so fully as an adult. I get the chance to be someone else: someone strong or smart or charming, someone with powers or wit or a tail. It gives me a respite from my life and a chance to step into someone else's.

[6] And yet, as I reflected on the years I've spent playing pretend, with cosplay being only a fraction of them, I realized that during all that time, perhaps I wasn't escaping into someone that I wasn't. Those years of dressing a certain way to be perceived as someone different weren't inauthentic. In fact, they were about as honest as I could have been. My fan fiction stories were glimpses into the minds of characters I identified with. Off the computer, there was a part inside of me that felt the need to rebel, or play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on a ukulele. Those parts of me may not have been dominant or fully realized, but they were certainly real.

[7] Cosplay, too, was an authentic representation of who I was and am. My first cosplay was a simple interpretation of Spyro the Dragon, the protagonist of a series of platformer video games on the PlayStation. I spent hours as a kid hunched over a controller, collecting gems and head-butting bad guys. As an adult in a Spyro costume, I was relishing the innocence and sincerity of being twelve, immersed in a colorful world without any cares except getting to the next level. It reminded me of a time before electric bills and student loans and relationship problems.

Author dressed as Spyro.

Figure 1. First cosplay, creatively interpreting Spyro the Dragon, protagonist of the eponymous series. Photograph by author. [View larger image.]

[8] The following year, I made a cosplay of Hawkeye, a member of the Marvel comic book universe popularized by the movie The Avengers (2012). Hawkeye is a human among geniuses, superhumans, and aliens, but he is able to hold his own. He is extraordinary in his own right. I may not have had remarkable archery skills with my toy bow, but I was able to tap into the confident side of me, unafraid of and undiminished by the amazing people I surround myself with.

Author dressed as Hawkeye.

Figure 2. Crossplay (gender-swapped cosplay) of Hawkeye, member of the Avengers. Photograph by author. [View larger image.]

[9] My latest cosplay and my proudest moment was Lilith, a character from the Borderlands video game franchise. She is endowed with significant power, and uses it to learn about her world, protect her friends, and fight evil. She is not weaker for being a woman and she doesn't conform to comfortable expectations of femininity. When I was cosplaying Lilith, I felt strong, something I am not used to experiencing. I felt capable.

Author dressed as Lilith.

Figure 3. Cosplay of Lilith the Siren, from the Borderlands series. [View larger image.]

[10] The appeal of cosplay wasn't just in the embodying of my favorite characters. The act itself unearthed something inside me, something that brings me back to cosplay again and again. It gives me a chance to be unafraid of relating to others. The joy of taking pictures with or talking to people mirrors my love for giving smiles to others. It also lets me be transparent with my passions. It's hard to hide your love for something when you spent a paycheck and a week's worth of work recreating a character from it.

[11] I could list myriad reasons why I love cosplaying, from the fun I have crafting to the joy I feel relating to others who love the same things I do, but one reason stands above the rest. Rather than trying to be something or someone that I'm not, I'm teasing out things already inside of me. I loved being Lilith, for example, not because I could pretend I was strong, but because it reminded me of how strong I actually am. Spending time in these characters' skins helps reminds me of who I want to be and who I already am. This is true for my lifetime of playing pretend. The whole time, I was testing the waters of my own self, floating to the surface what I valued and seeing what stuck.

[12] I continue to play pretend to this day, whether in costume or not, and I doubt I'll ever stop. I cover up my tattoos when I meet with my academic advisors and bare them when I go to bars. I speak differently with my parents than I do with my partner. The choices I make to wear a different costume every day aren't contrived or artificial; they're magnifications of what I already have. This is the way people experience the world, and joy can be found in it when you embrace it. Whether you grin as you don a brown coat and revolver, or as you knot a delightfully tacky tie around your neck, let the character you show to the world be authentic. Strive for what you want and recognize what is already great. Famous drag queen Ru Paul is known for an intuitive and oft-repeated quote: "Everyone is born naked. The rest is drag." I don't think Ru would mind me rephrasing it here: Everyone is born naked. The rest is cosplay.


Thank you to my former professor and friend Dr. Paul Booth for recruiting me to write this piece. Though my current graduate work is in Catholic theology, he remembered my passion for fandom and fan performance and kindly invited me to speak to one of his classes on the subject of cosplay. This essay is adapted from that short presentation.


1. A more in-depth and engaging discussion about vernacular or dialect on the Internet is available at YouTube (

2. There is a great deal to be discussed about the positive and negative aspects of the cosplay community, especially in regard to its relationship with body positivity, feminism, and elitism in a community, but I have neither the space nor the resources to do so here.