What is a workable definition of cosplay?
Cosplay is an incredibly popular phenomenon of culture, and while it has so much in common with other costume based art forms, there are some specific characteristics of cosplay that have turned it into the unique beast that it is today. People dress as characters from movies, comics, books, fanfiction, and anything that is recognisable in pop culture. They put immense amounts of time and effort into their art, and have their pictures taken, all to varying degrees of expense and professionalism. The cross-overs of creative industries and rise of conventions for fans of sci-fi, anime and fantasy have helped in the boom of cosplay, and the people involved in it define it by what it is – and what it isn’t.
Cosplay as defined by Mountfort, Peirson-Smith, & Geczy, (2018) is “…a performance medium in which embodied textual citation and photographic practices come together and sometimes collide.” So… let’s work on rephrasing that. It’s about bringing characters to life through costume. However, in this medium, it’s not necessarily any character. There is a reason people go to cosplay conventions as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), but not as the same character from the Pride and Prejudice BBC series (1980). It’s hard to pinpoint, but it seems to be to do with the “camp” nature of cosplay. Camp, as in the “spirit of extravagance”, that doesn’t take itself too seriously. (Singh-Kurtz, October, 2018) Let me be clear here – cosplayers themselves can be very serious about the effort they put in to their art, but the artform itself is intrinsically playful. Genres like science fiction and fantasy lend themselves more to the visual medium of cosplay far better than literature and “high art.” It is similar in this way to Drag- and indeed, “Crossplay” is a subgenre of cosplay- Drag being a hyper-exaggerated form of gender costuming, and cosplay a form of character costuming. (Nichols, 2019)
Speaking of Drag, which has also enjoyed a recent boom in popularity, the competitive side of the two artforms is worth looking at as we decide on our definition. Drag history is deeply rooted in pageantry, offering queer people a safe place to play with gender and costuming, then adding a competitive element for the sport, and for audience participation (Firkus, 2018). Cosplay often feels similar to drag in many ways, there is an acceptance of weirdness and artistic licence, and respect for the story that a costume can tell (Nichols, 2019). However, when cosplay competitions are set up, often the judgements can be problematic; sexism and body shaming came into the mix when the reality series Heroes of Cosplay (2015) aired, and while there are plenty of different versions of cosplay competitions out there, criteria for fair and unbiased judging just haven’t reached the level of nuance that Drag competitions have managed to find (Christofí, 2015). Cosplayers seem not so much to look for validation through of a panel of judges – the satisfaction from cosplaying is largely in the audience it reaches – through the lens of a camera (Mountfort et. al, 2018).
Photography is to cosplay what milk is to cereal. You could enjoy the cereal alone, but the experience is not as satisfying. There is a catharsis that comes from having a photograph of oneself in the garb of a fantasy world – everyone who’s ever dressed in a Halloween costume knows this. Of course, there is a dark side to the symbiotic relationship between cosplayers and cos-photographers – birthing the movement known as Cosplay is not Consent, which aims to remind people that touching and taking pictures of those in costume must be consensual (Romano, 2014). One (less sinister) reason for this is that often, costumes have been styled so that they work best from a certain angle- it can be very disheartening for cosplayers to work for weeks and months on a design and a synchronised pose only to see a photo of themselves online in said costume with their shoulders slumped over as they check their phone.
So, we put all this together, and what have we come up with? The main themes are of creativity, costuming and playfulness. As with all art-forms, there is a sort of bleed into other popular current mediums, and the flexibility of cosplay is one of its many charms. Perhaps a good working definition of cosplay is this: A modern form of costuming art centred around pop culture texts, created for pageantry and widely consumed through photography. Even that could be tweaked a bit. One could call it post-modern in many ways, if one were inclined to sound clever. I won’t, though. I’m not that serious. In truth, Mountford et. al. nailed it right out of the gate – but as with all art-forms, there’s always plenty of different ways to say the same thing.
Christofí, H (2015). Cosplay Contest Judging Criteria, Cyprus Comic-con. Retrieved on September 30, 2019 from http://cypruscomiccon.org/cosplay-contest-judging-criteria/
Nichols, E. (January, 2019) : ‘As if’: women in genres of the fantastic, cross-platform entertainments and transmedial engagements. Retrieved 01.10.19 from https://www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy.aut.ac.nz/doi/full/10.1080/10304312.2019.1569410
Mountfort, P. Peirson-Smith, A. & Geczy, A. (2018). Planet Cosplay: Costume Play, Identity and Global Fandom. Chicago University Press.
Singh-Kurtz, S. (October, 2018) Susan Sontag’s 54-year-old essay on “camp” is essential reading. Retrieved on October 6th, 2019 from https://qz.com/quartzy/1419465/susan-sontags-54-year-old-essay-on-camp-is-essential-reading-to-understand-culture-in-2018/
Firkus, B. (September, 2018) InQueery: Trixie Mattel Breaks Down the History of “Drag”. Retrieved on October 6th from https://www.them.us/story/inqueery-drag
Romano, A. (October, 2014) Cosplay Is Not Consent: The People Fighting Sexual Harassment at Comic Con. Retrieved 6th October 2019, from https://mashable.com/2014/10/15/new-york-comic-con-harassment/