All Work and No Cosplay

Combining the words “costume” and “play,” the term cosplay is evocative of a hobby that occupies one’s leisure time. While many undoubtedly participate in cosplay as a leisurely pastime, what of those who have sought to professionalize these practices? And what of the media industries who use cosplay as a promotional strategy (for example, circulating representations of cosplayers for publicity or by hiring their own cosplayers to perform at conventions)? What about cosplayers who also work in media industries, often in below-the-line positions?

When describing fandom in the context of convergence culture, I would argue that what we are really talking about is the way fan productivity gets redirected towards labor for, with, and in the media industries. However, this relationship is not seamless or symbiotic and it is far from unproblematic. Examining cosplay, not just as a cultural practice, but also as a discursive construct, allows for scholarly considerations of the more problematic aspects of participatory and convergence culture; namely, the tensions—between labor and leisure, amateur and professional—which grow out of the uneven economic and cultural relationships between the industry and fans.

Take, for example, several recent and controversial statements made by comic book artists who feel that cosplay is encroaching upon their ability to enjoy and, more importantly, conduct business at conventions. In 2012, Tony Harris posted a misogynistic Facebook rant berating female cosplayers (“Yer not Comics. Your just the thing that all the Comic Book, AND mainstream press flock to at Cons [sic]. ”) and a number of other artists have echoed this sentiment. Pat Broderick, for example, situated cosplay as a fan practice that drains, rather than sustains, the comic industry: “You bring nothing of value to the shows, and if you’re a promoter pushing cosplay as your main attraction you’re not helping the industry or the comics market.”

Denise Dorman (wife of artist, Dave Dorman), wrote an entire blog post analyzing the ‘problem’ of cosplayers encroaching on the profits of comic artists and dealers. She writes, “I have slowly come realize that in this selfie-obsessed, Instagram Era, COSPLAY is the new focus of these conventions–seeing and being seen, like some giant masquerade party. Conventions are no longer shows about commerce, product launches, and celebrating the people who created this genre in the first place.” In an unapologetic a follow up to his original post, Tony Harris similarly emphasized the work of attending conventions: “Sorry, while you Cos”Play” Im actually at work. Thats my office [sic].”

These statements are very revealing in that they suggest that professionals are differently invested (quite literally) in conventions than many other attendees. For these comic artists, conventions have always been, first and foremost, commerce-driven spaces where fans are most productive and profitable when they act like consumers. However, the restructuring of the comic industry around intellectual property driven transmedia franchises, rather than actual comics books, means that corporations increasingly profit on the free or below-the-line labor of fans and cosplayers at conventions in ways that individual artists and dealers do not. Why, then, direct this criticism at cosplayers rather than the industry giants that could easily be targeted for exploiting the labor of both comic artists and fans to maximize profits?

I believe these reactions to cosplayers at conventions boil down to two key concerns: The first is a highly problematic and gendered anxiety about the increased presence and participation of women in a space/culture that has been traditionally male dominated. The second concern is undoubtedly connected, but more expansive: the confusing status of fan productivity and labor under convergence culture infuses audiences with an aura of power and control that they simply do not possess, at least not in economic terms. This allows them to become scapegoats for sea changes in the culture that are, first-and-foremost, industrially and economically motivated.

In addition to thinking about how fans and cosplayers identify themselves within their distinctive cultural groups, we also need to consider how these identities are shaped and reframed through popular and industrial discourses. In this way, scholars and educators might be better situated to critique the power imbalances that occur when leisure activities are reconfigured by the media industries as a form of labor. Similarly, a broader understanding of production cultures might identify how audience practices such as cosplay could be understood as part of the political economy of media industries.

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