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strange_doings ([personal profile] strange_doings) wrote2014-01-29 07:32 pm
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What is cosplay anyway

I've been having a knee-jerk ARGH OLD PEOPLE reaction to someone's essay on what cosplay is - according to a book their friend wrote - and I've been trying to calm down enough to write a coherent rebuttal that isn't all rage and snark. So far, not working so well. So perhaps I'll ramble a bit to myself to see if I can make intelligent and calm phrasing out of my ideas.

Now, to be fair, the person who wrote the article is actually someone I like and trust, and that just makes it harder to accept what they wrote. The president of the ICG is an intelligent and classy man who knows how to run the organization, and I like him. I really do. Which is why I can't help but bang my head against the wall to read the things he wrote about what cosplay "is" when I am myself a cosplayer, VP and founder of a guild chapter full of cosplayers, who knows how many other cosplayers are involved in the ICG. It was just wrong, all wrong, and I don't know if I should write a point-by-point rebuttal or just write my own article addressing the fundamental issue with such articles in the first point. That issue? That cosplay is costuming, and by painting it as something different or "other" from what the ICG veterans are used to is disingenuous and alienating. This, at a time when the ICG is talking about how to attract more people to the guild and figure out what good the guild is in the modern age.

To quote: "What sets modern Cosplay apart is that participants don’t just dress up: they actively participate, interact, and immerse themselves in the subcultures they represent. Cosplayers don’t just portray their characters; they know and become their characters, and strive to experience all of their emotions and feelings. It’s this level of emotional engagement and investment in their characters that drives many cosplayers to spend so much time creating their costumes..."

At the surface, this paragraph gives me the gut reaction of NO NO NO NO NO. Mainly, because it hearkens to the misconception that cosplayers want to be their characters and act in character all the time, and that's what makes them different from costumers. However, I can't think of many costumers who don't have the same level of emotional investment in their workmanship and in their overall costume, regardless of what label they use for their hobby or what they actually do while in the costume. I call myself a cosplayer, but I do not act in character. I don't think I have somehow developed a greater emotional connection to the characters I dress up as just because I changed terminology from the days when I used to do Jedi costumes. I don't become my character. Such a concept rankles me. Am I somehow more invested now in Sanji than I used to be in Qui-Gon? No, not really. Am I cosplaying Sanji to become him? No, no I am not. Am I cosplaying Sanji to know him and have some kind of different experience than I did back when I wore Jedi robes or a Moulin Rouge dress? No, actually, I am not. The experiences are exactly the same, only the buzzword has changed.

That, I think, bothers me more deeply than the reminder of the fallacy that "cosplayers are roleplayers." Surface fallacy aside, there is a deeper fallacy that what I am doing when I say I'm cosplaying is somehow different than what costumers have been doing for the past 75 years. Especially, the last 45, when media recreations started to grow and swell and become equal to, and then greater than, original costuming. There have been media recreations paraded at sci-fi and genre cons for decades longer than the word 'cosplay' has been around, and in fact, the term was coined by a reporter visiting the 1984 WorldCon in LA, about something the Japanese had never seen: geek convention costuming. Hobby costuming. Non-theatrical costuming. He used the word to describe that which the old-schoolers are (sometimes viciously) demanding be called "costuming" instead of "cosplay." But is it any different? From what I've seen, and heard, no. There is nothing different going on now than there was in 1984, or 1979, or 1965 for that matter. The types or genres of media from which people draw their inspiration may have changed, and the availability of materials has certainly changed, but the actual act of putting on a costume and roaming around at a convention has not really changed that much at all.

Haven't there always been people walking around at cons pretending to be who they're dressed as? Haven't costumers always traded book or movie quotes and effected an in-character bow or salute when addressed by character name? Haven't costumers always posed in a manner reminiscent of the character when asked for a photo? If this is what is considered "becoming" the character, then we've all had it wrong from the start. I maintain, cosplay IS costuming, and costuming IS cosplay. Whatever you want to call it doesn't change what it is: dressing up in a character costume. Whether that character is original or from a published media property, or merely inspired by a character or concept, it doesn't matter, what matters is that you have chosen to build and wear a costume to evoke that character or concept for all who view you. Cosplay does not have a different set of rules, it is the exact same thing.

Quote: "Cosplay is also about costuming as a performance art. Most costumers enjoy the attention that wearing a costume brings, but cosplayers take a special pride in being who they portray, and remaining in character at all times while in public."

This is where my gut roils. A thousand times no. This is a fallacy, and incorrect no matter whether it was a published author or a teenager on Facebook saying it. Cosplayers do not, as a general rule, remain in character. In fact, any time the question is posed by a newbie on most cosplay forums, the overwhelming response is something along the lines of "please no for the love of god don't do it." People are annoyed by those who act in character, who use character as an excuse to be a jerk, who won't drop character and be normal for five minutes to tell someone where to find the restroom. Those people are actually few and far between. There is sometimes a brief resurgence of the phenomenon in some regions, leaving younger, newer costumers asking whether this is something they should be doing, and they always get the same answer: no. Don't. Please don't. Please limit it. If you feel like this is something you'd enjoy doing, please keep it to photoshoots and other pre-planned events with other people who also want to playact, or keep it to the LARP, don't just do it randomly on the floor to anyone and everyone you meet. For the most part, the message gets through, and the roleplaying faction quiets down for a while. And that's all it is - a faction. A small subset among cosplayers. Not all cosplayers roleplay. No more and no less than you would find LARPing or playing at a sci-fi con. No more or less than that guy who spends all afternoon talking your ear off about his original Corellian Jedi character or his half-elf half-orc cleric and his hit-die stats. These people are everywhere, and not just confined to cosplayers. If cosplay were a Venn diagram, the circle encompassing roleplayers and character-actors would be small and intersect the larger circles of cosplayers and costumers. In fact, I may just draw said diagram.

I have been a member of cosplay.com since 2003 and began using "cosplayer" to describe myself since around 2006 or so. I have watched the linguistics of our hobby evolve. While there are people who vehemently insist that what they do is not cosplay, or they don't want to call it cosplay, it doesn't matter. The word has entered the lexicon of society at large - you see it on TV shows and hear it referenced in articles about everything from conventions to video games. Even though they knowingly talk about something that has been going on at conventions for decades, they find it an easy and accessible word to describe the thing that people used to find the weirdest among the weird. Where they used to mock people who wore costumes to sci-fi cons, now it's probably cooler than going to the con itself. I won't say cosplay is respected, or entering the mainstream, or anything like that, but the public perception of it has changed since the word started to be used more widely.

Those who prefer to call themselves costumer are welcome to it. Those who only use cosplay to refer to their media recreation costumes, or only to their Japanese-media-sourced recreation costumes, are welcome to do so. But the kids who came into the hobby in the past 5-8 years who have only ever been to anime conventions, and are only now branching out to see that there is more out there (more conventions, more media, more reasons to wear a costume) are quick to use cosplay as a catch-all for everything they do in a costume. Instead of treating them like "the others," by using delineated terms and believing that cosplay is somehow this different animal, veteran costumers should be welcoming them in with open arms. Them? No, us. Because I call myself a cosplayer, any time someone talks about "those cosplayers" and how different, how weird, how unlike us they are, are including me in with them. That's right, the founder of an ICG chapter and voting board member of the ICG, am "one of them." But am I so different? No more so than the fursuiters, or the steampunkers, or anyone else who prefers a certain genre or media from which to costume.

But really, for the love of god, stop perpetuating this myth that cosplayers are different because all cosplayers perform in character! It's not correct. It never has been. The small handful of 15-year-olds dressed as Hetalia characters over there in the corner pretending to be their characters is not representative of cosplayers - or costuming - as a whole any more than the guys rattling off their characters' D&D stats are.

I'm sure the author of the book interviewed a lot of cosplayers and formed a lot of opinions based on whatever trends were hot at the time. But trends come and go. If they interviewed folks in a certain area or a certain con where in-character stuff was really popular that month, they might have gotten the impression that this was what all cosplayers everywhere did. But does that mean that I can go to SDCC, look at all the really well-toned bodies in spandex, and declare that the only real costuming is comic-book characters? Or to an anime convention and declare that nobody does live-action costuming anymore? It's all simply not true. Cosplayers are doing exactly what you - we - all have been doing for years. I'm doing the same thing in my Sanji outfit that some of you were doing in your Harlock and Star Trek costumes in the year I was born.

I know there isn't a deliberate intent to exclude, but by constantly "othering" cosplayers as different, and generalizing that they all behave a certain way based on a few, is exclusionary and unfortunate both for the cosplayers and the veteran costumers. Do you not want to keep the hobby of costuming going? Then don't exclude the cosplayers! Don't make them feel like you don't want them. Should I stop calling myself a cosplayer just to fit in with you?

Okay now I'm really just rambling. It gets my hackles up. Cosplayers are not doing something massively different from what people were doing at the LA WorldCon in 1984 just because we have this newfangled word for it. I've watched the evolution of the linguistics. The word cosplay might not have been heard outside Japan for a long time, since it was a Japanese reporter in Japanese media who made it up, but when the anime kids heard it, they re-incorporated it back into our own word for the hobby even though the hobby itself hasn't changed. They might have started using it because of some Japano-centric, ethnocentric need to use Japanese terms for everything, but now it's gotten away from them, and has evolved to be used for all things costume. It has now shown up on the Big Bang Theory in reference to the characters wearing Star Trek costumes. "Cosplay" has come full circle from the media explosion in the 1960's and 1970's. It's better to just deal with it and accept it than to continue this subtle exclusionism, to make out cosplayers to be different and unlike us so that we can justify not inviting them to our sandboxes. Because they're different. They wouldn't understand. They would bring their weird concept of what it is to be in a costume and get it all over us like glitter cooties. You know what? That's wrong. We cosplayers don't have a different or incorrect idea of what it is to costume, and we're not going to spread our cooties to you.

Whoa that got away from me again. Suffice it to say, I have a lot of feelings about this. Now, let's see if I can actually turn this into an intelligent article for the ICG newsletter.


I am also going to be featured in a book about cosplay, published by the writers from Kotaku. They will be printing my essay on the history of cosplay, which is posted here as well as my own website. In it, I tell the history of geek costuming since 1939, and why it isn't uniquely Japanese, which is exactly the opposite of what a lot of veterans would like to believe. If I can educate the anime-con crowd about this stuff, maybe we can turn around and re-educate the old farts about their own hobby.

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