In a post for the Oxford University Press Blog titled “Cosplay is Meaningless”, G.R.F. Ferrari, a professor of Classics at Berkeley, argues that cosplay is just about perfecting the art of dress-up. He writes:
Cosplayers … are not out to intimate something about themselves, or, for that matter, about anything else.
As an occasional cosplayer myself, I have to say that I couldn’t disagree more with what Ferrari says. Cosplay is much more aesthetically, socially, and personally important than he gives it credit for.
Ferrari starts by arguing that there is a difference between cosplay and acting. (Which – yes, is obviously true.) He suggests that cosplay is more like “what a guest at a fancy dress party might get up to.” Okay, so what is the point of doing that stuff? Here’s what he thinks.
Cosplayers are dressing primarily for beauty, or at least for visual impact. They are out to capture the sheer excellence of a very particular look — the look of a known fictional character. Of course, which character they choose to reproduce implies something about their enthusiasms and helps them meet fellow enthusiasts. But to say that this is the point of their efforts would be like saying Monet’s paintings of water-lilies were made to show the world his enthusiasm for gardening and to score an introduction to the local horticultural society. No: instead, cosplayers are aiming to perfect the pure art of dress-up. Their art is pure in the sense that it is free from the need to send messages, to make meaning. Its beauty is delightfully meaningless.
I suspect that Ferrari is unfamiliar with actual cosplay. Let’s start with the phenomenon of crossplay, cosplaying across gender lines, starting with my own foray into cosplay.
I happened to be in LA for a wedding the same weekend as the biggest anime convention in North America (Anime Expo). As a long-time anime fan, I wanted to go and do something fun for it, by which I really mean cosplay.
But I had a surprisingly difficult time trying to pick a suitable character. It was surprising because I like so many characters in different anime series, but I found myself having too few choices rather than too many. I wanted something with some visual impact, but I didn’t want to do a super feminine cosplay. Let me be clear, there are MANY anime that feature scantily clad women – from the ditzy and helpless to the clever and powerful. Nevertheless, I had a hard time thinking of a character that was interesting enough, fun enough, bold enough, or somehow me enough.
I landed on the central shinigami (a kind of death spirit) from the manga-anime Death Note. And I’ll emphasize that it was no part of my aim to meet fellow enthusiasts. I honestly hadn’t even considered this when picking a character to cosplay.
In a way, it was an opportunity to not be objectified in a female body. I won’t say it was an opportunity to not be objectified at all, because I think that’s complicated in this sort of case. But it was a way for my body and my “look” to be assessed and (potentially) appreciated aesthetically, but in a non-standard way, governed by non-standard ideals. And for me, that was a refreshing escape from everyday life. In fact, I joked to friends that on Saturday (the day of the wedding), I wore one costume, and to the Anime Expo, I just wore a different costume.
Using my own case as an example, I want to return to Ferrari’s claims. First, to say that my primary aim was beauty seems completely false. Construing my primary aim as visual impact is much more plausible. (Though I think my primary aim was more about doing something fun.) But there were important side constraints on my choice, side constraints having to do with my own identity, my embodied experiences, and socio-cultural expectations.
But there is a real leap in logic from the claim that cosplay’s primary aim is visual impact to the claim that cosplay is “pure [art] in the sense that it is free from the need to send messages, to make meaning.” It is the difference between saying something is the primary aim and saying it is the sole aim.
Ferrari says that “to dress yourself is inevitably a matter of choosing” and thinks that, because the sole aim of cosplaying is beauty (or visual impact), there is little choice – and thus little meaning – involved. But if this were true, all cosplayers would pick whatever costume would make them most beautiful, or whichever costume they could most beautifully reproduce. But there’s so much more to it than that. Even cosplayers have important choices to make.
We can see this, too, by examining how race relates to cosplay. Dark-skinned people who cosplay as light-skinned characters are often ridiculed or marginalized and excluded from cosplay communities. As one man interviewed for a recent New York Times article says,
“It’s harder for you to be seen when you don’t look like some of the characters that we see in the comic world,” he said. “You take it in stride, but we always put our own black twist on it when we perform and dress-up.”
Another cosplayer notes that, in contrast, nobody gives a second thought to white people of European descent who cosplay as Asian characters – i.e., a huge chunk of anime cosplay in North America.
The New York Times article, which focuses on Black Panther cosplay, implicitly highlights another choice: when excellent and recognizable Black characters become available, Black cosplayers now have the choice of whether to cosplay along or across race lines. One man does both, saying that the presence of Black characters doesn’t mean that he’ll stop cosplaying other characters. But having Black characters available opens up lots of resources for dark-skinned cosplayers. Several people interviewed discuss the social and personal ramifications of this. One woman says:
“We’re helping people see us as heroes … And I think black cosplayers are changing cosplay because we are now opening up a conversation about inclusion. We’re a subculture within a subculture, and we’re hoping the nerd community can be more inclusive toward us.”
“When I’m in cosplay, it’s the enhanced version of when I’m dressed in my regular clothes,” she said. “When I wear these costumes, I get to be more than who I am.”
Another man recounts his experience cosplaying as T’Challa, the Black Panther:
“I went to the San Diego Comic-Con and a little white kid who walked up to me and said, ‘You’re the Black Panther!’” he said.
“He couldn’t see me, but I was tearing up inside of my mask,” he added. “It was powerful.”
How can we look at these cases and say that cosplay is “delightfully meaningless”? That it “is free from the need to send messages”? In his post, Ferrari writes that our day-to-day clothing choices involve choosing a look,
… and the look will trigger inferences about the actual person wearing the clothes. It can’t simply be to choose beauty—not unless you take extraordinary measures. Cosplayers take those measures. For the rest of us, sending messages with our clothes—intimating something about ourselves or about the situation in which we find ourselves—will be a normal part of why we wear clothes in the first place.
Why think that cosplayers – or anybody, in any situation – can abstain from sending a message with their clothes? Furthermore, because it’s an opportunity to choose attire when you know that lots of people will be looking at you and taking pictures of you, this sort of choice plausibly has much more import than our daily attire choices. Choosing what to cosplay involves choosing an embodiment of one’s self, valorizing an image, character, or narrative, and taking a stance in a larger social discussion. Such decisions are anything but meaningless.