The Problem with Cosplay Celebrity

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.

Image

My husband and I out in front of our theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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.

About these ads
Tagged ,

158 thoughts on “The Problem with Cosplay Celebrity

  1. Chad says:

    I agree on all counts, however I do want to point out that men are subject to body shaming just as much as women. If we don’t fill out that super hero suit just right, you can bet we’re going to hear about it.

    • Andre G says:

      We really aren’t subject to body shamingas men. At least not to the extent woman are. You can get a guy in a ::insert any female from any fandom:: costume and it’s immediately humorous. Generally the hairier and bigger beer bellies go a long ways.
      You throw a girl in any costume and they immediately have to live up to the professional whor- errrr-models that skimp in little outfits.

      • kailen says:

        You have not been to enough conventions or you have not been listening. Yes women are subjected to more body shaming than men but if you try to do a serious male cosplay and you are even a bit chubby you are getting talked about or made fun of. “look! chubby Storm Shadow! or “that guy is to fat for that” are totally common. Women have it rougher by far but men get the shaming too. I want to do pyramid head but I am fearing the belly comments I know I will be getting should I ever don the costume I am working on.

  2. Bravo. Well put, the entire article. This is why, when I meet any of the so-called celebrity cosplayers I try to tell them how much I respect their skill. I can only imagine what it’s like to put dozens or hundreds of hours into a cosplay only to have hawkers look straight past to my skin. Cosplay is for everyone. It should be safe and enjoyable for everyone.

  3. Chelsea says:

    I’ve been a huge geek my whole life, and I’ve always wanted to cosplay personally. In the past, I’ve been paid to model costumes at anime cosplay fashion shows. Since I’m not a huge fan of anime as much as I am for video games, comics, and Star Wars, I rarely knew the character I was dressed up as. So, yes, they do pay models and “booth babes” to wear costumes. I didn’t think much of it at the time because I just wanted the (very) meager paycheck and exposure, and hey, I related with some fellow nerds. Also, many of the other girls working with me were kind, and let’s be honest–it was dubbed a fashion show after all, for the designers to show off their work to be bought.

    Despite my past in modeling and the attention my looks have brought to me while simply existing as a fan of these genres, I have a fear and paranoia of cosplaying my favorite fandoms. What you’ve written here is why. My entire life I’ve already been criticized for my behavior, looks, or ideas by other fans, just because that’s what people do when they see someone who sticks out among them. So, the idea of cosplaying and suddenly being picked apart, again, makes me nervous.

    As you can see, it’s a lose/lose situation especially for women. If you’re deemed fat and unattractive by the mainstream, stones are thrown at you. If you’re deemed attractive by the mainstream, they’ll still find something to insult– they’ll go for your personality, dignity, and intellect just the same. i.e. “She’s probably not a real fan.” “Too bad she’s stupid.” “She’s a crazy b****!” “Has to wear makeup to look like that.” “Total slut!” “OMG attention whore!”

    I’m not saying it doesn’t happen to men on some level. I’ve seen men work really hard on their armor just to be viciously criticized by people who are part of groups, or better at it than they are, rather than given a helping hand if asked for.

    I’m not against celebrity cosplayers, sexy cosplayers, or studio quality cosplays, or even cosplayers that are wearing a costume someone else helped them make or design for them. As long as you are having fun expressing yourself and you are not inflicting harm on others, there is nothing wrong with it. I am against the negative critique of something that was never asking for such input, the insults, the sexism, and so on. It’s one thing when someone on the “outside” does it, but it’s terrible that fellow cosplayers and fans go out of their way to tear each other down for their cosplays.

    At the same time I know it’s up to me to gain that confidence, recognize that this is how the world is regardless of cosplay, and to give zero f’s about what they think. It’s easier said than done!

  4. I’ve been in this hobby for a long time. About a decade. Unfortunately…or fortunately, I’ve been pigeonholed into a description due to the change in our hobby.

    Sometimes I get really pissed that physicality matters more than the length of time I’ve been a Staff member of the Replica Prop Forum or the amount of attention I put into my craft. Then again, I’m proud of my body, the work I put into it, and don’t feel that any woman (or man for that matter) should be shamed for how she looks or wants to wear.

    Basically all we can do is be the change we want to see. If I am known, let it be known for acceptance of sexuality/non sexuality and all forms of the hobby. Let it be about respecting each other as human beings and sharing the geeky things we love.

    Keep swimming, keep geeking and keep crafting. <3

    ~Abby

  5. Zooey says:

    I’m sick of seeing all these facebook fanpages. I think they’re partly to blame for what’s happening to the cosplay community too. I’ll admit that yes, I do have one, but purely for the purpose of keeping all my cosplay photos on the one place.
    I know so many “big” cosplayers who treat the little guys so terribly, making fun of them and picking on them. Cosplay fame is something extremely rare & sadly it can’t last forever, I’d like to see how these “bigger” cosplayers act once their time is up.
    As a massive nerd myself I started cosplaying because it looked like fun, while I’ve only been doing it for 2 years, that first year was the most fun I’ve ever had. Now, it’s horrible.
    I make all of my costumes and props yet when I go to a convention it’s not about the craftsman ship, it’s about who looks the best and who shows the MOST skin.

    Cons aren’t fun anymore. Cons are just another danger zone like that dark alley that no one ever wants to walk down and soon enough, no ones going to want to go to a con anymore.

  6. wendyzski says:

    My first cosplay was a Star Wars one – Jawa at age 11 in 1977 and my poor little brother in his trash-can R2 decorated with prism tape! Then I discovered renfaire, and then comic book, then steampunk, and now I run the costume track at a long-running Chicago convention.

    I agree when you say there are no easy answers to the issues you raise – the “answer” is to keep talking about them, to call people out when they fat-shame or for that matter anything-shame cosplayers, to continue to exercise and promote this craft that we love so much.

    I sit on a lot of “Getting Started in Costuming” panels, and the one thing I tell people is that no matter what, they are going to get shit from people. Some people are going to tell them they aren’t authentic enough, polished enough, young enough, old enough, skilled enough, and anything else you can think of. It’s going to happen, but they also need to remember this – the kind of person who is going to say crap like that to a complete stranger…why would you care what that kind of person has to say? Ignore them, and listen to the people who will support you.

    We’re actually having a discussion on “REAL Heroes of Cosplay” on the schedule this year at Windycon. We’re getting some people from groups who do charity and/or community work in costume to talk about what they do – everything from a friend from the 501st to one of the guys behind the Klingon Christmas Carol that does a toy drive every year. Those people, the people who teach others, who encourage people to push their comfort zone a bit and to give it a try, who don’t hoard their techniques to themselves but share them in person and online, and every person who has every screwed up the guts to walk into a room in that costume and just for a moment felt truly amazing – To me, those are the real “Heroes” here.

  7. Badinplaid says:

    This happen when a sub-culture goes mainstream, heck it happen with tattooing, the whole fetish scene and, comics. Then once mainstream done with it, the scene is all messed up, you have the old schoolers trying to keep the hobby going and you wannabes trying to make a buck off its. If the old schoolers hang in, a new generation will pick it up and actual bring it back. It will come back around different but still have it’s roots.

  8. Problem with cosplay celebrity is not celebrity itself. Problem is complete and utter lack of cookies.

    Me get over 250,000 likes on Reddit, and George Takei posts my picture on his Facebook, and how many cookies do me get?
    That right. NONE.

    So many comments saying, why doesn’t cookie monster trooper have blue fur showing?
    Because me wearing under armor. Me have modesty. Me no feel need to show off perfect muppet fur while wearing storm trooper armor.

    I am glad to see that modesty is not just for cookie monster cosplayers. Keep the faith, fight the good fight, and pass the cookies.

  9. Lonnie says:

    To me the funny part to this is that I have no idea what you look like. You could be one of the “mega” hot babes and you are getting “you’re just jealous” comments. I’m 47 (or will be in November 2014) and I enjoy costuming, or cosplay. I’m not one of the young and beautiful and I don’t care. I do it for me, haters be damned. To be honest, I look when a “hot skin baring” woman walks by (I’m a guy. We do that.) but I really look when I see someone who has obviously put a lot of time and effort into their costume and it looks great to me. I will let those that impress me know that I like their costume, regardless of “hotness”. I guess what I’m trying to say is, “Don’t let the haters keep you from enjoying ‘your’ hobby”. Those that matter don’t hate and those that hate don’t matter.

  10. Tom says:

    The whole cosplay celebrity movement is why I stopped cosplaying. When they monetized my favorite hobby all of a sudden attractive women started showing up like hey, we’re nerds too! I remember con’s from 10 yrs ago. The attendees were not a pretty bunch. Myself included. But as soon as it became known you can make money off of it (right around 4 or so years ago) there was a deluge of beautiful women who suddenly appeared out of nowhere claiming nerdom that they had previously shunned and mocked others for. You can’t say that they all were closeted nerds and suddenly decided to show their true colors all around the time a certain “ambassador” proved you can make a living off it in the US.
    Mind you, I’m not saying this out of “Omg all pretty girls/guys are fakes!” A lot aren’t. But, I do know a few of the most popular cos celebs weren’t really nerds to begin with. I grew up with a couple of the biggest. They saw an opportunity and didn’t just appear. They decided to immerse themselves in nerd culture so they could claim nerd cred and back it up with knowledge. Maybe along the way they became actual fans when they realized how awesome the material is, but they started out to basically exploit an untapped market

    Oh and I grew up in Phoenix, for those asking who the heck I’m talking about

  11. Jesse says:

    I disagree with a great many of your points.

    I’ve been in this hobby for over a decade now myself. And this has *always* been here.There have always been people seeking cosplay fame. Most of the ones who *are* cosplay famous now are the same ones who were seeking it 5-10+ years ago. Only one thing changed.

    Social Media. Social Media gave the people seeking cosplay fame the ability to reach out to a wider audience. The “mainstream boom” we’re seeing in it now is because of that more then any “change in the subculture” or “cosplay going mainstream”

  12. Jaymz says:

    Dead. On. Accurate. Keep on keepin on.

  13. Ashley says:

    As someone who has been cosplaying since 1999, I completely agree.. the cosplay community has changed, and I don’t like it. No one cares anymore if I spend months working on a costume, as long as my boobs look nice.. =p
    I stopped cosplaying a little while ago, because I can’t deal with the beauty pageant that it’s become.

  14. Bob Thayer says:

    501st Member here. Long time costumer, 501st since 2010.

    What I dislike about the new era is two emerging trends:

    1. Focus, for the most part, has shifted to pushing the costume limits toward the R rating. Can’t just be a girl dressed up like something cool – gotta make it a “sexy” version. Why? Are you too insecure or too much of an attention hog to not show off your body?

    2. People who can’t respect boundaries. Don’t touch means hands off. I’m talking about every aspect of costuming – male, female, normal, sexy, whatever. I’ve been assaulted as a Scout Trooper. We’ve had a Vader get punched in the face (and not by some little kid who didn’t know any better). Luckily as a Tusken Raider I have a large, pointy stick that keeps the punks at bay.

  15. Orochi8 says:

    I think you’ve really hit on the driving impetus behind this whole “fake geek girls” phenomenon, and the reason why so many “real” geek girls (at least behind closed doors) are all too happy to jump on the anti-fake-geek-girl bandwagon. Labeling people as “fake” geek girls has never actually been about a presumed lack of enthusiasm or interest in geek-approved subject matter; at it’s heart, the “fake geek girls” phenomenon is driven by the same instinctive push-back against cultural appropriation that you’d see in any subculture.

    If you look at gay subculture you see a very similar pattern of gay men (especially queens) objecting (rather vociferously) to the presence of straight women in their cultural safe-spaces (gay bars, dance clubs, etc). I’ve actually had women ask me on more than one occasion why they, “hate us so much even though they have more in common with straight women, than straight guys”, but if you look at it from their perspective the answer is obvious: an attractive straight woman has had everything a queen could ever want (and will never have) handed to her on a silver platter. Without even trying (or even really realizing it for that matter) she has been given desirability, opportunity, social mobility, and acceptance for who-and-what she is, and the relative freedom to safely express her sexuality where she may so choose, yet she still feels the need to push her way into that one last hard-won bastion of gay solidarity, and claim it as her own.

    Geek subculture exists precisely because geeks are not popular: they carved out their respective fandoms and conventions exactly because they weren’t pretty, and they weren’t accepted, and they had no where else they could go to be themselves. Knowledge of arcane trivia is just the window dressing, what makes a geek “real” in their minds has much more to do with the fact that the individual in question has been denied the privileges associated with desirability and social acceptance, yet managed to dig their heels in and carve out an identity independent of social acceptance. The reality of that situation may not make their hatred any more justifiable, but it I do think it makes the frustration and anger they are experiencing somewhat more reasonably understandable.

  16. Kat says:

    I was feeling really down about the changes to the costuming scene last year when this blog was written. I got started in costuming 11 years ago, so it’s been enough time to see some changes and have feelings about them. I missed the days when it felt as though there was appreciation for all costumers attending conventions. I missed the days of it being about community, and not about individual “celebrity” status. Sure, there were always the cute gals people wanted to meet and snap a photo with them. Or the costumer known for turning out excellent show stopping craftsmanship and we were all excited to see what they’d created. We just didn’t have the platform of social media and the internet in its current form to catapult specific individuals into a celebrity spotlight. So along the way, costuming at cons became more of a “hot or not” phenomenon. A set of cultural values (which were always there as people have noted) have become extremely heightened in relation to costuming.

    I do think the more we can talk about all of this constructively we can do things to shape our community. I probably mentioned it in a comment a year ago, but we can all choose to support one another a bit more rather than feed into the celebrity craze. No, I’ll never be a cosplay celebrity and I don’t strive to become one. But I do want my community to remain in tact and not taken over by concepts of “celebrity” and “beauty” to the extent that others feel so marginalized they leave the community due to lack of support. I felt very encouraged at a recent convention this year as I had many genuine compliments and questions about the costumes I created and wore. Nothing was revealing, the costumes were nothing that were going to land in a blog/photo site and get thousands of likes, I’m over 40 so I’m not in the category that people want a photo with me for my looks. But there was a lot of true costume appreciation going on at this convention and I had not felt that in a while. I even ran into a gentleman handing out cards that said “Thank you for cosplaying” He was not promoting anything, no URLs, no e-mail address – he was just promoting good costuming will which was pretty cool.

    The only thing I would say I’ve seen take hold since this article was written is the way that unfortunately, some conventions are now fully buying into the “Celebrity cosplayer” craze in such a big way that their actions literally, are marginalizing groups who have contributed a lot to the craft costuming phenomenon at conventions. No longer is free table space made available for costume clubs or fan groups. Instead, that free table space is given to a single celebrity cosplayer. I don’t blame the cosplayer for taking the offer from the con. Free badge and a table – why not. However, It proves to me that convention promoters do not fully understand why people go to conventions. It’s usually for the group experience, not to celebrate an individual cosplayer. I almost can’t imagine if I would have ever gotten as involved in costuming and attending multiple conventions if it had not been for conventions encouraging/supporting these groups to have a place there. I don’t know, I just find that promoting a few individuals at their fan tables to be far less appealing to me as a convention goer than knowing there will be a group/club there for me to meet and potentially be involved with.

  17. I agree with you while heartedly. Cosplay use to be about being in costume an having fun with people that had similar interests as you . And if people did know you it was based off of your craftsmanship and construction skills not how much skin you can show an how much you can flirt with boys for attention… It’s sad

  18. Tommy Neeson says:

    Well said! I’m also a 501st/RL/MMCC member and I’m just now starting to branch out into other areas of costuming/cosplay. While the celebrity of some can be troubling what bothers me more than anything else is the elitism. And more often than not it’s not the “celebrities” who are exhibiting the elitist attitudes. It’s the people who are not in the spotlight. Those folks who are in the margins with the rest of us. It happens all the time within the clubs but you see it and hear it out on the con floor as well. It’s noting new and I don’t suspect that it is something that will ever go away but it definitely casts a shadow over everything we do.

    One thing I see a lot is people saying “…that’s why I stopped cosplaying/costuming.” Brothers and sisters that is the worst thing you can do! When some elitist wannabe celebrity twit pushes you out of your hobby they win. Don’t let them! As with all aspects of life the elite are in the minority. Which means there are more people on the fringes to hang out with. So hang out and troop with your merry band of social outcasts and have fun! Don’t let the elitists make you feel uncomfortable in your own house. Strap on your gear, go to the con, and have a blast!

  19. This. Just all around this. Thank you for writing what so many of us have been trying to voice over the last couple of years as the mainstream brings cosplay further and further into the lime light.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,432 other followers

%d bloggers like this: