Often, I’ve chosen not to be pretty. “Pretty” has power but carries challenging consequences. It carries the weight of a sexuality that I don’t control. It’s a sexual acknowledgement that I didn’t seek, and when violently experienced, was blamed for inciting. “Pretty” is a sexual currency that I’ve opted out of because its price is too high.
Because I’ve learned that people view pretty and femininity as one, my choice not to engage in pretty erased my femininity for them. And because my definition of femininity did not match the society’s patriarchal version, it became a performance for me. I’d engage and disengage with feminine norms, but rarely, because it was too close to “pretty” and wielding “pretty” was still dangerous.
Then I learned about cosplay. It wasn’t the massive pop-culture fandom that exists now, but it gave me a space to play with the concepts of pretty and feminine in a space that felt safe. I have a dominant personality and a powerful presence, two things that misogynoir attempts to diminish. I’ve maintained tight control on my sexuality, not repressed but rather actively engaging in the activities I wanted. Ultimately, what scared me most about femininity was the powerlessness associated with it.
With cosplay, I could be these imaginary characters who were powerful, and I could play them as pretty as I wanted because they owned their power. And the more I played with my looks, the more confident I became in my choices. I learned to trust myself more and that has extended into many parts of my life. As a fat, Black woman, I can remember many times I was coerced into a certain role. Cosplay helped me walk away from what I was told femininity could be and helped me design what it is for me.
I still step in and out of pretty. I still step in and out of feminine. I choose to be beautiful, enraged, dominant, and vulnerable, antagonistic, heroic, spiteful, generous, petty, and graceful.
The important part is that it is my power to choose who I see and that suits me just fine.
Cosplay as subculture?
Great post, it's really interesting to think of cosplay as a means of opting out of normative, patriarchal versions of femininity. It reminds me of some subcultural identities in the UK when I was growing up, like punk and goth, when women and girls were often criticised for making themselves look "ugly" (I thought they looked great) because they didn't conform to feminine norms. I remember being chastised for 'dressing like a goth' and the criticisms were all along the line of 'it's not pretty or attractive'. It's empowering to reject those expectations through clothing and make-up, thanks for sharing.
I've also found the world of cosplay to be a safe space for breaking gendered norms (for both men and women). And I wonder why that is? What is it about cosplay that so often (not always, but in the main) allows people the freedom to be, as you so rightly say, "beautiful, enraged, dominant, and vulnerable, antagonistic, heroic, spiteful, generous, petty, and graceful)? Great piece -you're an amazing cosplayer!
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