My husband and I are both 501st. My initial forays into cosplay were through the 501st, and I became an official member in 2007. We did local events. We did cons. And we branched out early on into other areas of cosplay.
As someone who has always been a nerd, usually in the process of varying degrees of hiding my nerdiness, the cosplay scene was like a dream come true. I’d never been involved in a more openly nerdy, less judgmental activity. It was a way to express your enjoyment of a certain thing and enjoy it along with others. The accuracy, complexity, or creativity of the costume was paramount. I remember examining the craftmanship on one woman’s costume as she proudly told me she learned metalworking in order to create it.
Then . . . it became popular. Mainstream culture moved in, and what happened to cosplay when mainstream culture moved in is what happens to everything when mainstream culture moves in. The values change. The culture changes. And the mainstream dynamic of “popular kids front and center, nerds to the margins” came roaring in. Cosplay went from an all-skate to Superhero Suicide Girls in no time flat.
Long-term cosplayers who voice concerns about the costuming and the fandom aspects taking a firm backseat to the hotness of the girl in the costume are told, repeatedly, that they’re “just jealous” because they aren’t as pretty as popular cosplayers, or are called “haters,” as if expressing dismay at being pushed to the margins of your own hobby is somehow being unfair. I felt exceedingly lucky to be able to remove myself from the whole thing by being 501st (armor is a great equalizer) but there are non-501st costumes I’ll likely never wear again.
Cosplay is now dominated by models and women striving to look like models, who sell seductive pictures of themselves posing in sexy costumes. And you know? There’s not a damn thing wrong with that. My issue isn’t what they do– it’s what we lost when cosplay changed. Cosplay, once a way of expressing fandom with other fans, has become another area of our culture where we privilege the concepts of celebrity, oppressive beauty standards, and the commodification of both over everything else.
Women who are young and beautiful (and, to a much lesser extent, men who are young and beautiful) are the “popular kids.” They’re minor celebrities with facebook fan pages, press attention, and now, web series, films, and video games devoted to them. Their popularity is based on their physical attractiveness. Cosplayers who do not conform to traditional beauty standards are publicly shamed (I will not post the many, many links as they do not deserve the hits), occupying the same position of “marginalized outsider” we occupied throughout our lives EVERYWHERE BUT THE CON SCENE, our little oasis. That was our one place to belong until mainstream culture invaded the cosplay scene and shoved us back to the margins, back to where the “not good enough” are always shoved.
I’m not implying that cosplay celebrities aren’t nerds or fans. Of course they are. Apart from the obvious– that everyone is suddenly a nerd in this cultural moment (I never thought I’d see the day)– I absolutely believe that these women are true fans of the work they represent. And I absolutely believe that most of them have no intention of marginalizing others. I see some cosplay celebrities regularly championing body acceptance and cosplayer diversity, shutting people down for shaming other cosplayers, and encouraging people of all types to get their nerd on.
I DON’T BLAME THE COSPLAYERS. Nor do I expect (or even want) them to stop doing what they’re doing. I’m so committed to not blaming the cosplayers themselves that I refuse to post any pictures of them along with this article, because I don’t want anyone to feel implicated or blamed. Cosplay celebrities are not, however, in control of the culture at large (would that they were), and even the most vocal supporter of nonconforming cosplayers has little power to change mainstream culture as a whole.
The problem isn’t cosplay celebrities themselves, it’s the way mainstream culture requires our celebrities, especially the women, to conform to oppressive beauty standards, the way we commodify women’s bodies, and the way we divide women into categories of “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”
Conforming to traditional beauty standards is the basic entrance fee to celebrity. Our culture demands that women who participate in the kinds of activities that might make one a celebrity conform to these beauty standards or receive a barrage of shaming. Actors, politicians, singers . . . and now cosplayers. Where once upon a time a cosplayer could be anyone with a costume and a lanyard, the rise of cosplay celebrity has brought with it our culture’s oppressive normativity for female (and often male) bodies in display-related activities, and that extends to body size, body type, gender identity, age, and race. Before this change, the display was from fan to fan, largely unseen in the mainstream community. Now it’s celebrity to admirers (or perceived as aspirationally so), bringing with it all the cultural restrictions on who is allowed to occupy that celebrity space and who is not. Mainstream culture demands that we know our assigned places and stick to them or the shaming is fierce.
The cosplay community was never perfect. Don’t get me wrong; there are douches everywhere. And there’s nothing (apart from being publicly shamed: again, not posting links) stopping anyone of any type from slapping on a costume and living the dream. I see cosplayers who don’t conform openly flouting the new oppressive standards, setting up tumblrs for cosplayers of size and of color, with some cosplay celebrities in full, vocal support. I see resistance from lots of sources, and it’s good.
But it would be disingenuous in the extreme to assert that there’s been no change in the cosplay community over the past 5 or so years, or that all change has been positive. And it would be disingenuous in the extreme to pretend that the mainstream dynamic of “popular kids > marginalized misfits” hasn’t taken over cosplay to at least some degree, particularly in how it’s expressed on the internet and in press coverage, which is, let’s face it, MOST of cosplay now. Cons are only a few days long and not everyone can go to them, so cosplay celebrity lives primarily on websites, fan pages, and the like.
And even as they sit at the top of the heap, is cosplay celebrity nothing but good for these young and beautiful women? Their authenticity is questioned nonstop, as if beauty cannot coexist with a love for comics. A young and beautiful cosplayer is inundated with disrespectful attention from the kinds of guys who are at the con primarily to see hot girls in costume– the new phenomenon of cosplay fans. There have always been young and beautiful nerdy cosplayers, and there always will be, but they haven’t always been forced into a cosplay situation that values their beauty far, far more than their craftmanship, or that forces them into competitions they never sought over “who’s the hottest Poison Ivy” or “which Slave Leia is hotter?”
I don’t have a solution. I don’t think one exists, apart from the obvious: keep resisting and keep the conversation going. I think cosplay will slowly become more accepting of cosplayers whose size, age, gender identity, or race currently marginalize them, but only if we choose to carve a place for acceptance of difference in a space where acceptance of difference used to be the norm. I honestly don’t know if that will make it easier or more difficult. And maybe the change will come when mainstream culture gets bored with us and tosses us back onto the scrap heap. Until that time, I’ll stay under my helmet for the most part. But I think you look great– truly.
UPDATE: I approve almost all the comments I find in my moderation queue. I will not, however, despite the fact that they prove my point, be approving the comments I’m getting that are accusing me of being a “jealous hater,” or that are based on reading comprehension errors, such as the assertion that I “hate” that there are beautiful cosplayers now, where before there were none, all of which is demonstrably false and nowhere in the blog post, and is, of course, just another way of calling me a “jealous hater.” I have no problem approving comments that disagree with me– I welcome debate– but I am under no obligation to approve comments that have no purpose other than to attack me. So, gentlemen (and so far, all of the attacks are coming from self-identified guys), that’s what happened to your eloquently worded “Your just jealous” comment, and all comments of that ilk.