Cosplay and identity

How cosplay creates an identity and how personal identity feeds cosplay.

Cosplay: the idea of dressing up as a favorite character and walking around as them. From the outside looking in, it’s ridiculous. Grown adults should have better things to do than wander around in costumes that they spend ridiculous amounts of money or time (or both) on, right? From the inside looking out, it’s a whole different story. Cosplay allows the cosplayer to enact a character. Whether that be a favorite character, a character that they strongly identify with, or one that they feel is different from them, or just one with a cool costume, it doesn’t matter. Noted cosplay blogger OMGlitzy encourages readers to “[p]ick something you love” and to go from there when selecting a character. The point is that cosplay opens a world of possibilities to participants. Not only are they capable of enacting differing identities, but they are able to, temporarily, strip themselves of their own identity in a real life setting.

Before cosplay, the only mainstream way of completely disassociating yourself from personal identity was online. Online gaming, chat rooms, and faceless forums provided a sense of anonymity. Becoming anyone that you wanted to be was not only feasible, but common. The popularity of MTV’s Catfish is proof. However, as Catfish highlights, once the screen is taken away and the façade of internet is taken away, personal identity comes rushing back. Cosplay provides participants with a unique way to escape their own identities. In the setting of a comic convention or “Con”, cosplay participants are understood as their character, personal identity is thrown by the wayside in favor of seeing just how far cosplayers will take their characters.

Stripping away personal identity is also a major idea in LARPing (Live Action Role Playing). However, there is a key difference in cosplay and LARPing. Cosplay involves the enacting of a pre-constructed identity while LARPing focuses on the creation of a new character. Both operate with the understanding that role portraying is expected and that personal identities outside the character are irrelevant. The intersection between both cosplay and LARP and reality is that both cosplay and LARP involve enacting identities different than the identity the person was born with. LARPers and cosplayers could be 15 or 55, the focus is on the alternate identity, not the one that they were born with.

Video from Terrence Wood

While those who self identify or are anointed by society as “nerds” tend to be considered “not creative” as they thrive on worlds created by others, this is strongly not the case. While fan culture is rooted in the original, it has taken on a life of it’s own. Cosplay is a prime example of this. Most cosplayers take extreme pride in the creation of their costumes, spending many hours and hundreds of dollars on achieving their looks. Creation as a self expressive art is important to note. As cosplay has progressed, creative costuming and interpretation has blossomed. A degree of artistic license is taken by most cosplayers. One of the most utilized versions of this is in the “gender bent” cosplay or crossplay. This opens an entirely different avenue of portrayal of favorite characters. (For more on gender in cosplay see M. Miller).

Cosplayers adopt different identities in order to enact them. Character choice is a selective process. Criteria can be based on physical resemblance, personal preference, or character’s attitudes. As Du Gay, Hall, et. all note, identity is aimed at “establishing an identification between particular groups of consumers”. Identity as a character as well as a cosplayer is founded within character choices which to cosplay. Additionally, within the cosplay community, there is an added element of sexuality and sex appeal. There is a significant portion of cosplay that focuses entirely on the hypersexuality of female characters and ubermasculinity of males. This means that all of the issues related to feminism as well as the gender gap are, if anything, intensified within the cosplay community. Sexism and ageism are justified as “staying true to character aesthetics”.

Image c/o Google Images
Images c/o Google Image search

It is the identity and the character adoption that attracts many to cosplay. Cosplay communities tend to be highly encouraging of newcomers or those just starting out. Emphasis on creating a great cosplay is thrown by the wayside in favor of creating a cosplay which the cosplayer is comfortable in. The Watchmen subculture is not an exception to this. Cosplaying Dr. Manhattan can make one feel infinitely powerful, The Silk Spectre enhances a feeling of distinct sexuality, The Comedian highlights one’s hypermasculinity. Choosing a character to cosplay is, like choosing a lipstick. Put on a different color for each mood. One must simply pick a character that embodies the trait that they feel they embody or lack.