Summer is a good time to be a geek. This week is San Diego Comic-Con—the country’s biggest nerd convention—plus there’s the Anime Expo in Los Angeles, Otakon in Baltimore, the Official Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, Dragon*Con in Atlanta, and, at summer’s end, Geek Girl Con in Seattle. All of these conventions mean summer is an especially great time for geeks with one particular hobby: cosplay. Full disclosure, that includes me.
For the uninitiated, cosplay is a hobby where fans of a piece of media create costumes and dress up as characters from the show, comic, movie, etcetera. The creative fans often wear their costumes to conventions like the ones mentioned above, but also to photoshoots, meet-up groups, and a variety of other venues.
I started cosplaying when I was 12. I love transforming myself in appearance and in character. I love figuring out how to translate a costume that only exists in drawn form into physical garments, and the feeling of satisfaction that results from feeling like I’ve done it well. When I put on my costume and makeup right before going to a con and see myself in all of it put together for the first time, I feel incredibly proud seeing my hard work come together—especially when I’ve done so well that I barely recognize myself. I feel good about myself when someone tells me I look great in a cosplay. Most of all, I love showing off my talents and making nerdy friends. I’ve met people while dressed up at conventions that I would never have wound up talking to in my day-to-day life.
So I’ve had overwhelmingly positive experiences with cosplaying. But unfortunately, not everyone can say the same.
As with the geek community in general, the cosplay community often reproduces the same inequalities injustices that exist in the world at large. A short run-down: conventionally attractive women get ogled by men and/or treated like they’re only dressing up for male attention; women who are unattractive by conventional standards are mocked for their appearance and told they’re wrong for the character; and people of color, who have a very limited range of representation in media, are heckled for cosplaying characters who are depicted as white. All this can be exhausting, especially when you’ve put so much energy into getting a costume right.
On top of that, we don’t get a lot of love in mainstream media. Galleries of “best-of” cosplays from recent conventions are often dominated by thin, conventionally pretty women (and some men) in sexy costumes, rather than showcasing the full diversity of creative and intricate costumes created by people off all genders and body types, not excluding the sexy and skimpy nor singularly focusing on them.
The ogling, the non-consentual touching, and the perception that only folks who look like Hooters waitresses should be allowed to show off their bodies can all suck the fun out of cosplay.
But I’ve personally been impressed with the many awesome parts of the cosplay community. Cosplayers at conventions often rally around each other when someone’s being an ass. And there are pockets of organized resistance against sexism, racism, and general nastiness, like the Cosplay is Not Consent project and Cosplaying While Black.
What cosplay offers its participants depends on who you ask. For me, it’s an amazing community and a heckuva self-esteem boost. I know a lot of girls (and a few boys and trans* folks as well) who feel that cosplay has helped them feel more positive about their bodies and/or disabilities. Cosplay can make you feel more confident even when you’re not in cosplay, it can teach you useful crafting skills, and it can lead you to make friends you will keep for life.
For every negative comment or leering glare, there are tons of compliments, friendly requests for photos, and helpful tips on how to improve cosplay quality. Wired has a great post on how not to cross the line at ComiCon this week and it’s possible to imagine a convention someday where everyone would feel safe dressing up as Rogue or Catwoman if they want to.