Cross-dressing is a centuries old cultural practice, and cosplay in relation to popular culture can be traced back to sci-fi conventions of the 1930s. Recently, however, cosplay culture has witnessed an explosion in crossplay costuming at fan conventions and elsewhere. Nowhere has this been more apparent than within Star Wars fandom, where Bearded Leia and other gender flipped crossplay has become a hugely popular phenomenon. Sci-fi in general, and the Star Wars universe in particular, lends itself very well to crossplay. The range of easily recognisable iconic costumes, props and hairdos offer limitless potential to create gender flipped and gender fluid characters.
However, while cosplay culture is frequently celebrated for its artistry, there have also been heated debates around the gender politics of the more overtly sexualised cosplay costumes. While some cultural commentators argue that cosplay is all about creativity not sexuality, others highlight the transgressive potential cosplay has to challenge normative gender binaries, and to provide a safe space for individuals experimenting in crossdressing culture. In particular, the practice of male-to-female crossplaying has been valorised as a challenge to cultural norms.
So, can crossplay be understood as a ‘political’ act? I contend that it can, in three distinctive ways. Firstly, in that it facilitates the performance of non-binary and gender fluid identities, allowing crossplayers to experiment, and providing solidarity and the potential for collective action. Secondly, interviews with crossplayers indicate the political dimension of this practice – for some - extends beyond the performative, becoming a subversive act that challenges heteronormative forms of sexual harassment within the public sphere. In this context, it is the combination of facial hair with overtly ‘feminine’ costumes, such as Leia’s gold bikini, that challenges heteronormative forms of sexual objectification. Finally, in the instance of crossplayers who frame their practice as art, professional labour or ‘just good fun’, refuting the notion that it constitutes a political statement, I suggest this reactionary response is – in itself – a political statement. In summary, crossplay offers a cultural practice that highlights the constructed nature of gender norms and facilitates a meaningful disruption of restrictive gender binaries.