Crossplay and Cosplay: Troubling Gender and Identity

Today I want to talk about the ways in which cosplay, especially crossplay (the act of dressing as a differently gendered character than one's own gender), can help shape our understanding of gender identity.

First, let's take my definition of crossplay: the act of dressing as a differently gendered character than one's own gender. This seems like a mouthful, but I've deliberately avoided using the term "opposite gender" so I don’t reinforce the binary of male/female. Stating “opposing gender” often assumes the crossplayer is cisgender, and it also closes down the range of options that someone can choose from when they crossplay. Gender is a spectrum, not two fixed points that bounce off one another. In the same way that Indigo from Sovereign Seven can be viewed as gender neutral, the body of the person cosplaying can also inhabit a nonbinary identity.

Most instructors are familiar with the concept of sex/gender where sex is biological and gender is a social construct. But as Julia Serano and many other transgender theorists state, there is also a third aspect of this system: gender identity. The social construction of gender is labelled "gender expression" in this new system as "gender identity" (the internal sense of felt gender) emerges. These three—gender expression, gender identity, and sex—often align in cisgender people. A man feels like a man, acts like a man, and has all the right "parts" to be a man. As Judith Butler has outlined, some people cause "gender trouble" by altering their gender expression via the way they perform in everyday life. A woman may feel like a woman, may have the right "parts" for a woman, but by dressing butch, she alters her gendered expectation. This is how countless theorists have viewed drag. Really, this is how most people have viewed crossplay, too; as a minor gender disruption, but one that will go back to "normal" at the end. For transgender people, however, their gender expression is more than just a form of “trouble”—it’s a very real part of who they are.

For transgender people, their internal gender identity is out of line with their sex. A transgender man may feel like a man, but he has been declared female at birth. What transition does for transgender people is to alter their gender expression to make themselves feel more comfortable. Sometimes this involves surgery, hormones, and a name change, but sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes a transgender person’s gender identity falls in with the male/female categories, but there are people who identity as nonbinary, agender, bigender, or genderqueer.

What cross- and cosplay effectively does is engage in that "troubling" notion that Judith Butler discusses in her work, but it adds in the element of play. We cosplay because we have fun doing it. This aspect of fun and pleasure, I believe, will better help those who are cisgender effectively understand the way in which transgender people feel. When you're trans, you're constantly performing in your birth gender/sex as something you don't want at all. Can you imagine loving Deadpool—but are forced to be Spiderman? For a transgender person, longing to transition can be about pleasure, fun, and living a life they want as someone they want to be.

So often understanding transgender identity is looked at as yet another obstacle to learn about as instructors. We ask for preferred gender pronouns or we worry about transphobia. If we study cosplay, learning about identity can become fun again. By engaging in cos- and crossplay, we not only have fun with our gender expression—but we also call attention to the fact that there is a more complex and nuanced understanding of our bodies, our relation to them, and how we express ourselves when we play.

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