Convention season is coming, and right now many cosplayers are elbows deep in bolts of material and the air around them is thick and warm with the smell of soldered metal and melting plastic. Convention season is coming, and the cosplayers will be ready.
In the world of fan conventions, those who cosplay are quasi-royalty, just behind creators and the Hollywood types we line up to meet. Like fanfiction, cosplay is an area of fandom particularly dominated by women. Don’t get me wrong, a good portion of cosplayers are men. But, according to a 2015 Eventbrite survey, the majority of cosplayers identify as female – around 65% if you dig numbers.
There are more issues related to women and cosplay in fan communities than there are Deadpool mashups on a con floor. Take, for a start, sexual harassment, false presumption of implied consent, and, my favorite, the Obscure Canon Quiz. Then things heat up if you take a look at race and cosplay. Some people, who are not me, have done an excellent job with both issues. So, I submit for your approval this and this to begin your journey. If you stick with me here, though, I am going to dole out some arguments and thoughts on crossplay and gender-swapped cosplay.
(Quick definitions for the purpose of this article: when I say cosplay, I mean fan-created costumes depicting fictional characters in popular culture. When I talk about crossplay, I mean gender-accurate character costumes worn by fans who identify as a gender other than the character depicted. And gender-swapped cosplay is a costume that changes the character’s identified gender.)
My first foray into the cosplay world was a Femme Tenth Doctor at the 2015 Wizard World Convention. As a newbie and novice seamstress, I ultimately decided to buy a Darling Army pinafore, which was a pretty straightforward gender-swap. I wasn’t intent on making a big statement on gender and did not choose to sexualize the cosplay, either. The Femme Doctor route just felt right for me.
There are a limited number of ladies in the Whoniverse, and none I identify with strongly enough to embody while interacting with fellow Whovians IRL. Crossplay was an option but doesn’t fit my personal aesthetic. So, I went Femme Ten, and plan to do so again this year when I will (squee!) meet my Doctors at Wizard World 2016.
You will find a trillion and three gender-swapped and crossplay Doctors on con floors all over the world. Doctor swaps and crosses are indicative of the limited number of female characters in Doctor Who in particular but is also an oft-addressed issue with the fandoms to which cons cater. That leaves female fans who want to cosplay with a limited number of choices within their same identified gender.
Choosing to cosplay can be a costly way to express your creativity and fandom. So, if I’m going to put money and time into getting some fancy dress, shouldn’t I pick a costume that speaks to me regardless of the gender?
And that, my friends, is why we have the fantastic, imaginative, innovative, and fun world of gender-swaps and crossplay.
I talked with Lauren (last name withheld at request), one-half of the husband and wife cosplay team, Thousand Faces Cosplay. Lauren is a seasoned cosplayer who also has experience with crossplay, She was kind enough to share some of her experiences and thoughts on gender and cosplay with me.
First order of business, we talked about the Duela Dent meme that circulated a few years ago. For reference, someone with a keyboard and a chip on their shoulder trashed a female cosplayer under the premise she was gender swapping and steampunking the Joker, and “trying too hard.” When, in fact, the person throwing shade was unfamiliar with the character she had done an outstanding job of accurately portraying, one Duela Dent. (Link, NSFW language.) While it did an awesome job of pointing out the absurdity of how many female cosplayers are treated, what if she was going for the steampunk-genderswapped-Joker? Who is the anonymous super-fan to judge? And wouldn’t that have been a pretty amazing interpretation of a character that is a staple in cosplay?
Lauren explained, “If you are comfortable just cosplaying the Joker as a male, go for it. If you don’t think you can lock down that masculine vibe (or don’t want to) the Joker gives off, but you still want to represent that character, you can genderswap it, do an original version, or a steampunk version. Really, cosplay is all about throwing your creative juices into a project that helps you to get out of your own head for a while.”
However, choosing a character to cosplay outside of your gender is a way for some cosplayers to consciously subvert gender roles. Which is an interesting prospect when considered in the context of the way many women are marginalized, have their authenticity challenge, and are even approached with outright animosity in fan communities. Cosplay is a creative outlet, but, even if not the intent, gender-swapping or crossplaying a male character functions as a way for women to take back their place in the “geek” community. Gender-swapping, in particular, is a way to own your gender identity and still pay homage to a character of the opposite gender. That’s some neat stuff if you ask me.
Women dominate the cosplay arena, and Lauren explained, while there are a lot of male cosplayers out there, women cosplayers typically have their photos shared more often within the cosplay communities, and in the slideshows major publications put together. From her experience, it is, “either because their costumes are rocking, or their bodies are.” She sees the preferential treatment of female cosplayers as something the cosplay community finds troublesome but ultimately accepts.
Sexism in cosplay starts to toe into the waters of sexualized cosplays. Remember when we were talking about the number of female characters to choose from when it comes to cosplay? It bears mentioning that the female characters who are out there skew towards hyper-sexualized depictions. However, there are cosplayers on the floors and the tumblrs, who overtly sexualize characters in their female cosplays and gender-swapped cosplays, or choose existing hyper-sexualized versions of characters. (See “slave girl Leia.”) There are many reasons a cosplayer may chose to hyper-sexualize their costume: some cosplayers see cons as a safe environment to assert their sexuality, for others it may be their personal aesthetic.
Lauren contends, sexualized, gender-swapped, cross played, or simply cosplayed, the costume is a creative choice. The way a costume comes together comes down to how the cosplayer chooses to express their creativity and fandom. As a mother of two whose sexy-cosplay days passed her by before she knew they existed, I contend – it you’ve got it, rock it. Honestly, how many of us grew up being teased because of our interest in this stuff? We’re mainstream now, baby. It is our time to shine and own our fandoms, and all that judgement stuff is so 1995.
Unfortunately, harassment is an issue on some con floors – whether the cosplay is provocative or not. And, unfortunately, not all cons have sexual harassment and/or consent policies. In 2015, St. Louis’ Wizard World Con featured several large signs throughout the floors, and at the front entrance, plainly stating cosplay does not mean consent. As of February 2016, the Wizard World website has published an Anti-Harassment Policy, which says harassment will result in ejection and is enforced by staff. San Diego Comic-Con also has a code of conduct on their site that says much the same. However, these are larger cons, and cosplayers must be aware that this isn’t an across the board rule.
Lauren’s best piece of advice for anyone considering cosplay, in any incarnation, is this: “Cosplay how YOU want. Let your creative juices flow. This is a HOBBY, not a job. You are choosing to cosplay; you aren’t forced to. This is YOUR adventure, and YOU get to lead the way. Don’t let the hangups of others take that joy away from you. Always remember that this is YOUR ART.”
About the author: Melody Meiners is a St. Louis-based freelance writer, editor, and ghostwriter for hire. When she isn’t writing or reading words, she spends her time devouring all of the pop-culture and theater. You can find her on Twitter (@cosmosgirl) when she really should be writing, and you can read her pithy jokes about her children on her blog (MrsSmartyPants.com).
Melody Meiners is a freelance writer, developmental editor, and ghostwriter for hire located in St Louis, MO. When she isn’t writing or reading words, she spends her time devouring all of the pop-culture or teaching fiction writing and literature classes for STLCC @ Meramec’s CE program. You can find her on Twitter (@cosmosgirl) when she really should be writing, and you can read her pithy jokes about her children on her blog (MrsSmartyPants.com).