Way back when I started teaching my Sex, Violence and Comics class, the students actually requested a class focusing on cosplay. Then a couple days ago I asked for people’s thoughts on the homework that I’d be giving for that class. We did it on Halloween. Some people asked if I could share some of the students’ feelings on cosplay, so I asked them and got permission.
First of all, I should point out that way back when I first posted about it, I asked what the Over/Under was on people dressed as Harley Quinn. Averaging out all the answers, the Over/Under was 8. Well, only 2 people did… or 3, if you count me (Which Joe Kalash specifically guessed I would do in the comments). So congratulations if you chose the Under… You win… well, nothing. So like… congratulations, I guess.
Anyway… It was an interesting class. As a general rule, the students are pretty open minded about cosplay (though most of them didn’t bother to dress up… which I expect accounts for the smaller than expected number of Harleys). The general impression is that it is an art and that it is amusing to watch (because people watching is fun) and that “haters” make to big a deal of it. It’s just people having fun, so why should anyone else care. Pretty refreshing there.
Some interesting points that came out of the discussion and the homeworks is that the student’s tend to praise accuracy and craftsmanship on more or less equal levels. They are impressed by cosplayers with fine attention to detail and who “look like the characters” but they don’t seem to be particularly concerned with the actual physical attributes of the cosplayers. For instance, in the picture I have posted here, Brooklin, who is white and blonde and therefore arguably looks more like Harley Quinn is “supposed to look” than Ayana (the other student) or myself, noted that the key to actually getting the cosplay right was “hairstyle, color scheme and symbol.” So, at least in her view, even though Ayana and I are both black, and I’m a boy, the outfits worked. (The students did appreciate that despite my hair being relatively short I did make sure to have Harley’s trademark pigtails… or as close as I could come)
On the other hand, their views of what constitutes authenticity and creativity were interesting. There’s certainly an amount of respect for people who can create a picture perfect replica of an outfit. That appears to be pride in craftsmanship. But they also intend to appreciate a certain amount of creativity. As a group they appear to be fairly accepting of the idea of modifying costumes in order to present the greatest level of creativity for the cosplayer or to take care of aspects that don’t necessarily “work.” In real life. For instance, in the case of portraying characters that aren’t realistic.
One of the most interesting stances was given by my student Alex, who used cosplay model Jessica Nigri as his example of both good and bad cosplay. And the reasoning that he used was pretty interesting. Nigri is known for her sexy cosplay outfits. In this example, where she is dressed as Gnar from League of Legends, Alex felt that the impersonation worked. Since Gnar is a completely not only non-human, but not even humanoid, Alex felt that here, Nigri captured the essence of the character. It felt like she was going out of her way to reinvent the character of Gnar as something that might be a human female and still remain true to the characteristics of Gnar.
On the other hand, Alex did not a all like Nigri’s similar performance as Pikachu. In his own words he felt that “Besides a pair of ears and an out of shot tail no part of the character is added or portrayed, I don’t think good cosplay necessarily needs to be high quality in fact I think some of the most memorable cosplays are sometimes the humorous low budget joke cosplays. But a lack of effort to capture or put your own spin on a character makes it somewhat ineffective.” For Alex, it isn’t so much that Nigri made either character sexy that makes the outfit work or not work. It’s that in the first example she is “sexy Gnar” but in the second example she is simple “sexy Jessica Nigri” who happens to be dressed in yellow and with Pikachu ears. I believe he is essentially arguing that in order for the cosplay to be effective some kind of transformation is necessary.
The students did not seem to have the level of distaste for sexualized costumes that I expected them to have. In fact, even those that hated the level of objectification that was prevalent during the Bad Girl movement of comics were relatively ok with sexualized costumes on both men and women. Not only were they ok with hypersexualized costumes in general (Powergirl, Witchblade and Starfire were all examples we spoke of) but they pretty much ok with the cosplayer hypersexualizing a character that is not normally portrayed in that manner. For instance, in this picture of slave girl leia style Disney princesses, they felt that this was perfectly ok. I expected some complaint about only having sexual options for female characters (they made similar statements about the Bad Girl comics when we were reading them), but instead they saw this as a means of allowing the cosplayer to express her own sexuality. Since there is certainly a non-sexualized version of the character available, the fact that the women CHOSE to be perceived this way was very important to the students. They also felt that it was somewhat clever to combine two disparate ideas (the Disney princess and slave girl Leia) into one. What they were not ok with, however was having Elsa in line with the other Disney princesses. Apparently Elsa should NOT under any circumstances be considered a Disney princess and some people have very real and very sensitive feelings about this.
As I predicted when Amber Love and Tara Polk asked about it on the previous post, they weren’t very big on body shaming. I knew from previous class discussions that this wouldn’t be much of an issue. There weren’t many people who addressed it at all really, and those who did mostly mentioned in only in passing (i.e. body shape isn’t important if the costume is accurate). They are also extremely accepting of gender bending costumes. In fact they appear to like them a lot. Several noted a connection to Mulvey’s male gaze theories, wherein women who perform in gender bended cosplay typically do so either in order to hypersexualize the character whereas males do so generally as a joke. They did acknowledge that there are some examples from both genders which simply does the gender swap with no real concern for humor or sexiness (my male Harley Quinn for example) but they noticed that pattern of “girl as boy is sexy… boy as girl is funny” more often than not. However, much like Nigri’s sexualized Gnar, they didn’t have a problem with the hypersexualization. If anything they praised the men who appeared in hypersexual costumes (gender bent or not) and wanted more men to try.
They didn’t seem to like sloppy costumes, or costumes that appeared to take little effort. I found this odd because, as I said, most of them did not bother dressing up (it was optional), though in the spirit of Halloween some did have a superhero t-shirt or a funny hat. But I don’t believe they would have considered themselves “cosplaying” instead they had a problem with costumes that appeared to be “trying” but weren’t put together well. More than one student referenced this homemade Ironman costume as being bad because it “made no attempt to get the essence of the character” and was sloppily constructed out of duct tape and construction paper. It is as though the perceived lack of effort bothers and offends the spectator. That said, one student, Steven noted that although “It seems like the person did not put much effort into being Iron Man. The mask and the tape also show that the person is not very crafty,” he still had to “commend the person though because he dressed up on a budget and has a humorous costume. He is obviously in a poorly done outfit and probably knows that his costume is poorly done….People will probably love this costume because of how bad it is. Sometimes people love seeing poorly done things because it might make them feel better about themselves or just might think it is funny.” So he appears to have some level of respect for the joke of having a poorly constructed costume if it is clear that the wearer is in on the joke.
All in all, it was a pretty interesting discussion. Even with the criticism that they were doing in the class (which, to be fair, is the nature of the class… criticizing is what they’re there to learn to do), the students do seem to have a great deal of respect for the idea of cosplay. One student, Elysse, specifically said in her homework journal that “I am going to interpret “effective” as being as close to resembling the character as possible. (As a note, I think pretty much any cosplay is good cosplay, just because I know I don’t have the time or money to be extremely detailed and on the nose, and neither do a lot of people. But there are people whose costumes are more impressive than others.)” A pretty excellent way of looking at it.