Sunday, December 1, 2013

Cosplay Is More Than Just a Hobby, It's A Life Style

Ryan Licht

1. Abstract

Have you ever wondered about the artistically talented culture of cosplay?   In this research paper I reveal the history and culture of where cosplaying came from. I investigate what differentiates a cosplayer from art to just wearing a costume.  the results on how people outside and inside view the group of people who cosplay. I also inform the reading audience of the discrimination that imposed on to cosplayers. Other accounts of cosplayers and cosplayer writers will be noted on how they feel on being a cosplayer. By studying the psychology of bullying, discrimination, and cosplay, the audience will have a better understanding of how people think. I elaborate on the different reactions that were observed during my survey in the public. This research is important in informing the audience of this sub-culture group of what cosplay really means to those who participate and how people who do not, view eachother. 

2. Intro & Thesis

Picture yourself in a place filled with all of your favorite movie characters walking around like it was just a normal day. These places exist as conventions where cosplayers dress as
characters from every media source.  Cosplay is far more than just pretending to be a fictional character. It is a way of escaping reality and becoming someone else. It is both an art form and entertainment. The costume and the process involved in designing and making or choosing an outfit is art. The act of wearing it and acting out the character is entertainment. Cosplay is a way of being creative and unique through costume role playing, socializing, and having fun. But how much of cosplay is truly art and how much is entertainment? What makes cosplay different from merely wearing a costume as a school mascot or a kid on Halloween? It is a lifestyle which uses identity to enhance performance as a way of expressing self and making connections with others. Through my research, I will investigate the cosplaying history and culture to reveal what cosplay is to cosplayers and others who do not partake in this sub-culture.  

3. History of Cosplay

Cosplay has a complex and confusing history. It is debated amongst cosplayers whether it started in North America or Japan. Cosplay grew out of costume fandom which started at the first Worldcon in 1939. For several years, this kind of costuming was only found in science fiction and fantasy conventions in North America. It wasn’t until Nov Takahashi first coined the term “cosplay” that the phenomenon of “costume play” came to be. He started an entire Japanese cosplay movement with his coverage of the 1984 Los Angeles Sci-Fi Worldcon in Japanese sci-fi magazines. The idea took hold in Japanese readers, imaginations and in turn they made it their own by dressing as their favorite anime characters. In a matter of a few years, fans began to dress as these characters at comic book and sci-fi events. Cosplay was then reintroduced to America in a much larger scale than before in the mid-1990s as manga and anime began to become popular and spread across the nation (Flynn 2012).  Cosplay in North America started with costuming. In North America costuming was heavily influenced by the long history of masquerade in Europe and the creation of the holiday Halloween. Therefore Americans have separated cosplay with earlier costume costume-wearing traditions such as masquerade and Halloween by East (Japan) and West (North America) (Napier 2001). For Americans cosplay is all about making your own costume and competing or showing it off for pride at conventions or events. There is a heavy emphasis put on being original and creative with your designs. It is practiced by people of all ages and from all different circles of life (Flynn 2012). For a while cosplay in North America has been associated with what some may consider geeks, nerds, weird-o’s, and freaks. However, according to my friend Anthony Tinnermon, most cosplayers are younger and for the most part just average people. Apparently he isn’t the only one that thinks so, when interviewed by The New York Times, this is what one person had to say, “The fans of this genre are getting younger. It’s not the stereotype of a 40-year-old male fan living in his mom’s basement. It’s actually a lot of women.” (Lamerichs 2011).  In my observation at DragonCon, I found most of this to be truth. Most of the cosplayers at the convention were indeed younger and mostly women. I could tell that originality and creativity were very important to the cosplayers there because there was so much variety in people’s costumes and even ones that were dressed as the same character had their own variation or unique twist to the costume. For instance, stormtroopers may look similar in design, as most try to have some weathering or unique piece of material that makes them stand out amongst the rest. The concepts of competition and pride were also evident because there was a costume contest that several serious cosplayers decided to be a part of and everywhere I looked, people were posing for pictures and showing off their costumes. 

4. Cosplay and Japanese Culture

Cosplay is a large part of the Japanese culture of youth today. In Japan there isn’t as much emphasis put on making the costume and competing as it is on having fun and taking pictures (Flynn 2012). But the Japanese also take cosplay more seriously than Americans. There can’t just be a casual fan of something. They are so serious about cosplay that they even have their own chain cosplay costumes stores, where people can go buy professionally made costumes. Most Japanese find the appeal of dressing up as an anime, manga, or game character as normal, largely because they see these characters all the time on TV and they are therefore glorified and treated just like pop stars or famous icons. However, unlike famous actors or rock stars, the fans can’t actually meet these characters, so they dress as them instead to give themselves a chance to become them. Unlike in North America, cosplay in Japan is not thought to be restricted only to video games, manga or anime characters, but can encompass dressing in all sorts of outfits: maid, nurse, schoolgirl, etc. (Napier 2001). Also, cosplay in Japan is a huge hobby of teenage females (Flynn 2012).  Naturally, this popularity of cosplay has heavily influenced Japanese fashion with the creation of Gothic and Lolita stlyes.  Lolita fashion first had its start in the early to mid-1990's. It first started among Japanese schoolgirls inspired by the band Malice Mizer and in particular by the band’s guitar player whose unique style consisted of black and white ruffled dresses, elaborate bows, false eyelashes and heavy white makeup. Over time this look and the Lolita style of fashion became closely associated with cosplay (Holson 2005). In fact, it has become its own type of cosplay and thus is not just about clothing. Teenagers who wear Lolita engage in activities such as tea parties, ballroom dancing, and playing children’s games like hopscotch, jump rope and hide-and-seek. It is these innocent and cute activities that explain how Lolita reflects a lifestyle of modesty and youthfulness (Neko 2008). Lolita is an example of how cosplay is not just costuming or fashion; it is a lifestyle. People choose to act that way and participate in those activities because that is how they express themselves.  Another type of fashion or style closely associated with cosplay is steampunk. This style has a distinct Victorian look to it. What sets a steampunk character apart from just standard Victorian garb are the accessories. In cosplay, a steampunk character has several elaborate, ornate, and detailed accessories usually clashing modern or futuristic technology with old steam-powered technology. An example of this would be a ray gun made of wood and metal. Just as a cosplayer’s character is a part of a separate fantasy universe, steampunk has its own universe which allows people to act or do improv within usually in group. Cosplayers do this as well. They get groups of cosplayers within the same series or universe and create scenarios to act out and play in (VanderMeer, Chambers 2011). Another Cosplaying group that has become famous for its charity works would be the infamous 501st Legion. The 501st Legion (Albin 2011) is a Star Wars fan club dedicated to celebrating the Star Wars universe through costuming; specifically the costumes and characters of the stormtrooper and other Imperial forces, as well as non-affiliated villains and denizens. The Legion is an all-volunteer organization formed for the express purpose of bringing together costume enthusiasts under a collective identity within which to operate. The Legion seeks to promote interest in Star Wars through the building and wearing of quality costumes, and to facilitate the use of these costumes for Star Wars-related events as well as contributions to the local community through costumed charity and volunteer work. 

5. The Costume & Identity

The costume is one of the ways a cosplayer expresses him or herself. It is a form of visual expression. The costume is used to build character, concept, and physical movement. The costume is not just made or chosen to be simply looked at, but to create the best visual representation of the character chosen (Cahill 2006). In choosing or making a costume, a cosplayer is taking on an identity and is genuinely becoming a character. Therefore, when picking a character, a cosplayer must think about choosing a character they are attached to and can play well. Anthony Tinnermon explained to me in our interview that he chooses to buy his costume because he knows if he tried to make it he wouldn’t be able to successfully portray his character.  However, there are several cosplayers out there that can make better costumes than you could ever buy. These cosplayers express themselves through creativity and being unique. They consider costume making an art. By manufacturing their costumes themselves, these cosplayers express themselves artistically and share their interests and inspiration with others thus allowing them to make deeper connections with people. People will appreciate the work and effort you put into the costume and thus compliment you on the costume because it is interesting to them. They will recognize your character and thus engage with you socially because they share a similar interest. When interviewed by The New York Times at a convention in San Francisco, a woman said, “You don’t know everyone, but you know their characters, so it’s a good icebreaker,” At this same convention a photographer was very impressed with the way the individuals she observed could tap into so many genres to express themselves. She said, “They can float in so many different worlds that most of us don’t,” she says. “Gender, culture, race. It doesn’t matter. It’s open-ended, really.” She goes on to explain how she felt a mutual respect between her and the strangers she was photographing.( Cahill  2006).During my observation at DragonCon, I experienced something very similar. I felt drawn to characters that I recognized and was more comfortable engaging socially with those people because I shared a similar interest in their character. I didn’t have any trouble asking to photograph them, because to me I only recognized them as the character and the identity they had taken on. So in a way I felt closer to them, than I would have if they hadn’t had that identity and been merely a stranger to me.  

 6. The Act of Cosplaying & Performing

The true essence of “cosplay” is really becoming the character and acting like them (Flynn 2005). This is the other way a cosplayer expresses himself. By not only taking on the identity of a character but by becoming them and acting just like they would if they were real, the cosplayer can almost become an entirely different person. According to a fellow 501st member, performing is about expressing your admiration for the character you’ve chosen to cosplay. It is about being able to temporarily become the character you think is admirable. In my interview, Kyle made it clear by saying, “I see cosplay as a good opportunity to be someone else for a little while, someone that I think is an amazing character and I can enjoy dressing up as. It’s also a great and fun way to socialize.”  During my time spent at DragonCon, I noticed several people who not only accurately looked like their characters, but were in character and interacted with people just like their character would have done. Also, whenever someone wanted to take a picture, they had a pose that went perfectly with their character. Several cosplayers, when one spoke to them, spoke with accents or dialogue that their characters use. Some people even acted out scenes together with other people who were characters in the same series. Others created scenarios between characters from all kinds of series.  

7. Discrimination against Cosplayers

Throughout my research and participation in cosplay, I have come to notice resentment from people who do not cosplay. These discriminators are people who follow the mainstream social norms. Unlike the culture in Japan, most Americans view sub-cultural groups or out-groups negatively. Because social discrimination results from the generalization of in-group attributes to the inclusive category, it becomes a criterion for judging the out-group. (Mummendey 1999)  “I feel that it is important to express your feelings about something you love instead of hiding it.”(Anime-e 2011). Being a cosplayer and a writer, the author known as Anime-e felt as if her particular group was being discriminated against. Her group is an anime group which likes to dress as their favorite characters from their favorite shows. The writer states that there are many people who laugh or make jokes about the people displaying in public and believes this is discrimination. As a cosplayer, the author has also experienced being bullied by people, being called horrible names and insults. Anime-e gives many examples of this discrimination across the country. Being insulted for something you love can be stressful on the individual because all they are doing is enjoying and expressing their feelings about something that they are passionate about. To prove that this discrimination was truly happening, I took it upon myself to experiment with people in public for testing grounds. I took the opportunity to wear my stormtrooper armor at the Best Buy where I work. There I stood in front of the store in full armor and greeted shoppers, while my girlfriend, on the side, wrote down the expressions and reactions I received. This particular day also happened to be the day for the Star Wars bluray release, so my being there was not totally unexplainable. Out of all the reactions and expressions I received, I found them to be surprisingly rude! I was either told that I had "too much free time" or to acting like I did not exist. But there was hope from the data I received; some appreciated what was doing! I had many fathers and mothers come up and say that they would come back and bring their kids. These people made me feel like a celebrity versus the majority that made feel like I was scum or invisible.  Street preachers are some of the few that also take it upon themselves to preach in front of conventions, literally telling cosplayers and fans alike that they are going to hell because of the activity that they are taking part of. This is just another form of discrimination towards cosplayers who may or may not believe in Christ. Why should cosplayers be any different from artists and actors who are usually glorified in the church community? It is our constitutional right under the First Amendment to wear clothing that displays writing or designs. In addition, the right of an individual to freedom of association has long been recognized and protected by the United States Supreme Court Counstitution thus, a person’s right to wear the clothing of his or her choice, as well as his or her right to belong to any club or organization of his choice, is constitutionally protected. Discrimination not only comes from outside the cosplaying group; it also comes from the inside. Some cosplayers believe that cosplay is about dressing as anime characters or anything that derives from Japanese culture and nothing else. They do not consider Star Wars cosplay since it is a film of US origin. But Star Wars has been mostly accepted as cosplay from the majority. 

8. Entertainment, Social Connection, & Fun

The cosplay lifestyle consists of two parts: creating or choosing the costume and becoming the character and performing as them. The costume construction is a form of visual art. The acting out of the character is performance art. Ultimately, the performance is the key element of cosplay that allows the cosplayer to fully express himself and make social connections. This is because it is simply not enough to just wear a costume of a character and not portray them and feel any desire to become them. The cosplay lifestyle is not about costuming but about costume roleplaying. It is necessary to have both parts, but the truth is, the costume just adds to the performance aspect. The costume is chosen or made to add more authenticity to the performance of the character and help not only build the outside appearance of the character but to the build the character from within the cosplayer (Cahill 2006). A costume expresses what interests a cosplayers might have, but it is only the performance that explains why the cosplayer has interest in their character and how it expresses who they are. Although cosplay is art, at its core the role of cosplay is to entertain. And just like actors in a theater production, a cosplayer’s performance and portrayal of a character is significantly more important than his costume. A person is not actively engaging in cosplay if he or she is not attached to a
character to know enough about them to act out their character. By performing or acting as the character, a deeper social connection is created between cosplayers. This is because the viewer can connect on a more personal level with the character itself than they can with just how they look. Whether it’s through certain mannerisms, dialogue, or emotions, a cosplayer makes his character relatable by performing. If the character isn’t relatable, then no social connection will be made. This social connection is absolutely necessary to make the cosplaying experience fun. Although the costume manufacturing or purchasing can be done individually, the performance must be done with or around others whether it’s in a small group, a large crowd, or just to one person. It is a public lifestyle, not private. Cosplayers must perform and share their characters with others in order to express themselves, socially connect to people, and have fun.   

9. Conclusion

 My research of cosplaying history and culture reveals what cosplay is to cosplayers and to others who do not partake in this sub-culture. Important pieces of cosplay revolve around these three things: expression of the self, making social connections, and having fun. These are the central elements of the cosplay lifestyle. Cosplayers participate in this lifestyle by choosing, making, and doing. First they choose an identity, then they make the costume for that identity, and finally they become that character through acting. The fun of cosplay is found in making a fictional character come to life by becoming that character. Discrimination is also found amongst cosplayers as they find themselves to be the out-group from society. Although cosplay is both art and entertainment, it is more entertainment than art because it is the performing of the character chosen that creates the ultimate form of personal expression and creates the strongest connections with other that share similar interests.


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