The decision to cosplay a favorite, yet leotard-clad, character did not come easily for Molly McIssac, who struggled as “a socially awkward geek [her] whole life,” and thus questioned the confidence she would have in donning her hero’s green leotard. The shift came with McIssac’s “acceptance of self as a sexual being,” and her desire to portray strong role models from her childhood: “characters that taught [her] to not take shit from anyone.” These feelings of confidence and autonomy are challenged when McIssac is photographed from behind without permission, divorcing her costumes from context and her body from her humanity, translating an act of performative art into dehumanizing objectification, leaving her feeling “violated and strange.”
The point here is not a condemnation of the appreciation of human anatomy – says McIssac, “If a man approached me and said: ‘You have a nice posterior. Allow me to photograph it,’ you know what I’d do? I’d pop my booty with a smile.” Rather, the subject of McIssac’s narrative is one echoed by cosplayer Vivid Vivka in an interview with Vice: “Cosplay is not consent. Just because I am dressed up, doesn’t mean I aim to serve your fantasies” (Linde). That is, cosplay is a performance intended to reflect personal interests, investment, and identity, and is not an invitation for the unabashed dehumanization by the viewer. While many cosplayers are happy to share their creative efforts with fans and conference attendees by way of posing for photographs and answering questions, they do so as fans, eager to represent themselves purposefully in the texts they’ve created, but not to serve the desires and fantasies of others.
The Cosplay is Not Consent movement, gaining major attention in 2013 for sharing and fighting narratives of cosplay harassment, has become a catalyst for vitriolic (and simply “trollic”) debates regarding cosplay, gender, feminism, and the objectification of individuals who dedicate their time and efforts to physically representing intellectual property. Mirroring mainstream American cultures, the cosplay community is plagued by exclusionary practices, including body- and slut-shaming, racism, prejudice and a hierarchy of fandoms. As such, an understanding of both the cosplay community and the reception it receives can inform an understanding of these practices in culture on a larger scale, and a critical analysis of this discourse has the potential to become a powerful pedagogical tool to inform studies of gender and human rights.
One such example is the physical and emotional abuse of female cosplayers representing sexualized characters. This abuse is recounted at large in personal narratives, and reaffirmed by critical social media discourse which often questions the choices of the victim. Just as popular audiences read cosplayed bodies critically and oppressively, I propose the reading of cosplay narratives and fan responses as a text and tool to consider identity and autonomy, and the reclamation of sexuality as a positive expression of a cosplayer’s humanity, emphasizing the difference between being a sexual being and a sexual object. Specifically, I argue that in the adoption of sexually-charged costumes cosplayers are not supporting the dehumanization of women in game-and-comics characters, but rather re-humanize them with their own agency.
Linde, Jess. “Cosplay is Not Consent: Exploring the Dark Side of Adult Dress-Up.” Vice. 14 Jul. 2014. Web. 19 Feb 2015.
McIssac, Molly. “Cosplay is Not a Permission Slip: A Rant.” XOJane. 26 Oct. 2012. Web. 9 Aug. 2014.
Women are not the only victims of such harassment. Rather, for that for the sake of the present study, I have limited my reading to responses to female bodies. Doing so will allow me to utilize my experience as a female costumer to inform my response. The abuse of any cosplayer is wrong.