What is it that inspires people to cosplay? Despite the heat, despite the extreme discomfort of costumes that can include metal, plastic, craft foam, fun fur, and fabric in shapes like wings, antlers, spiked shoulder pads, and armour, cosplayers make the decision to wear their costumes. When I am at events like Fan Expo Canada, I wonder about what brings so much fulfillment to these players about their costuming.
Cosplaying is a costume play, a play with characters and, I would argue, with identity itself. By dressing as a fictional being, a creation of imagination and speculation, cosplayers imagine themselves as Other, the play with the fluidity of identity itself and point out to us that any identity is a mask, any claim of a stable identity is a fantasy, and that we can learn something about ourselves by playing something other than ourselves.
Costuming provides a Dionysian space of transformation, a playful engagement with the various identities we wear to operate in a world that all to often tries to force a conformist mask on us. This is a carnivalesque chance to push the boundaries of a mundane and limiting reality by asserting the immaterial, the ‘fictitious’, and the playful.
As I watch cosplayers engage with each other, I can see the power of a community of fans, interactions that are partially based on the characters they play, but also an acknowledgement of a certain resonance between them, as though the character they are playing has served as a mediator recommending them each to one another. Characters playing Deadpool (Marvel Comics) will high five one another, characters playing Hogwarts students (Harry Potter) will raise wands in salute to each other, princesses will twirl and bow to each other. Their fandoms provide spaces of connection, and, as I learned from a Klingon (Star Trek) couple, the connection of fandoms can become romantic. Fans embodying their characters bond through a shared experience of excitement and love of a certain media, but also some of the ideals contained within these fictional representations of a personality. Klingons mentioned that those who play Klingon identities know that others who share that performed identity believe also in shared ideas of forthrightness, honesty, and the idea that confrontations can be productive in defining one’s perspective. Deadpool cosplayers noted that they tend to share a certain playfulness and a desire to disrupt things. There is something fascinating about a shared culture based in a fictional culture or character that allows one to make assumptions about others who share that performance.
There is also a delightfully subversive quality to certain cosplay performances. Players often recognize that their characters are limited by the world that has shaped them and seek to push identities and assumptions by wearing modified costumes. From BroVader’s desire to both occupy and mock as “bro” identity to zombie Jesus’ desire to subvert and play with religious assumptions, characters can push the limits of the characters they wear. Some of the most powerful of these costumed cultural subversions and plays with identity come in the form of alt gender cos plays – taking a character of one gender and making their costume another – Lady Loki, male Elsa, Femme Immortan Joe – these players play with gendered assumptions in a way that points out social limits in the representation of pop cultural icons.
For many of these cosplayers, there is a feeling of isolation in the normative, “real” works outside of the convention, but within these halls there is a chance to embrace that marginality.
I should point out here that not everyone challenges norms, not everyone finds a place for their outsider selfhood. There are cosplayers who reinforce those gendered norms or use their modified bodies to reinforce those body structures that resist change and push normative notions of identity… But there is also a potential here, a potential to push and shift and change those limits of our “real” world and tell it what it could be. Cosplay can imagine a new relationship between the worlds we can think of and the real masks we are forced to wear to get through a world that tells us there is only one way to be “real”.