Being Seen: Cosplay and Performative Identity

Curator's Note

In her work on beauty work and individual appearance, Nancy Etcoff observes that we all seek to have “an outer representation that matches our dreams and visions and moral aspirations.” This is why we paint, decorate and costume our bodies in order to project the image we hold of who we truly are. This is also why, I would argue, that cosplay has emerged as an avenue in which individuals can present a version of themselves that speaks to their most deeply held, or most passionately desired, dreams and ambitions.

The practice of cosplay represents a uniquely creative and fluid form of expression.  Cosplayers are free to choose from a wide array of canonical figures and forms but then are also free to engage in produsage- changing those images and appearances to suit their understanding of their true selves.

In the world of cosplay, one need not be constrained by the lottery of biological sex, the limitations of age and size, nor the canonical image of a figure from a game, television program or film.  Much cosplay celebrates the creative agency of the cosplayer to manipulate gender, genre and more. This allows a cosplayer to both “play,” ludically, with representation, and also to work very seriously at the task of crafting an outer representation that matches their visions and moral aspirations.

The work of cosplay in conceptualization, construction, and performance is one way, then, in which cosplayers can be “seen”- recognized by communities of fans, embraced by sympathetic peers and validated for their bravery, creativity, and skill. 

Aristotle noted that history only tells us what did happen, while drama tells us what should have happened. Costuming, performance, and presentation allow for cosplayers to perform the identity they should have on their skin and bodies. Cosplay also allows them a unique opportunity to be seen and recognized by others for their talent and the risk they take in showing the world who they want to be.


In cosplay, there is still a reward for most closely resembling the character, which is one of the reasons why body types and skin tones are criticized. There is always the risk of elitism, as there is no one set of skills that impresses everyone and more talented people appear all the time. It's an interesting space that constantly challenges the idea of what is "proper" and "good" and "right" when it comes to embodying imaginary characters. 

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