With the moronic furor over the Star Wars trailer’s “black Stormtrooper” in the recent past, this seems like a swell time to revisit the strangely controversial topic of cosplay. I’ll be honest; the crux of this article rests on the fact that I have had some small discomfort with cosplay myself. Nothing hostile, of course, but a primal discomfort with entire notion of making any sort of costume. There was a time when seeing a cosplayer would trigger something like a phobic reaction―or, more exactly, the feeling of looking for too long at the event horizon of a black hole. A sight that strains the limits of mental programming. I couldn’t fathom why any human being would invest the time and effort required to make something like that. I couldn’t care less about how “faithful” they were to the original. I just didn’t want to think about all those hours in front of a sewing machine. Writing a novel? I could deal with that. Sewing minute stitches or cutting straight lines belonged to the unfathomable.
Yeah, so that was entirely my problem. The process has taken several years, but I can now walk the halls of CONvergence and truly enjoy the pageantry on display for all that it is. I’ve learned to find a place in my world for the acceptance that some people enjoy that as much as I enjoy endlessly pounding the same 101 keys of my laptop.
My attitude took yet another turn while I was watching a video of CONvergence’s 2014 Masquerade, which I think was triggered by seeing two Maleficents a short time apart. I’m not a fan, so I couldn’t tell you how accurate the costumes were or what the key variations were. I can tell you that the people who wore them looked very different and carried the costumes very differently. (At this point, I expect the cosplayers who have made it this far will be sighing and getting the Master of the Obvious ribbon ready for me.) I understand that some aspect of cosplay is inventing the character for yourself, whether it’s for fantasy fulfillment or geek peacocking, but cosplay is as much about the inner world as it is about showmanship. Obviously, as thousands of uptight teenage boys have commented, there are many people watching and making their judgements. The economy of the gaze is hard to ignore.
Choosing to laugh at how “wrong” someone is or how “wrong” they have gotten a costume is a stupid first reaction. Understandable, though, as we plummet further into a world defined by swift and simple iconography. The music video age has evolved into the era of personal branding. If you look like a television character, people will like you more. The Internet hasn’t defeated the trends of conformity. From yoga pants to hipster plaid and all the way down to choosing a beer as part of your identity, the things we dress our meatspace avatar in are essential parts of our own commodity. This is all a fact of life and probably the bread and butter of many geeks themselves, but when we celebrate only cosplay that faithfully mimics the Hollywood expectation, we’re robbing it of an important potential. That amazing Iron Man cosplay is worth celebrating, but it’s the costume equivalent of a rock tribute band. Everybody knows the best cover songs are the ones that create tension or texture with the original. That clunky steampunk Iron Man? That was awesome.
Now, the Internet being what it is, someone is probably thinking that what I’m saying is that people should stop creating costumes that are faithful to the original. No―the real point I’m getting at is a little more personal than this. People who mock creative cosplay often mention that the slight paunch on a Spiderman, for example, kinda kills the costume. This is a pretty literal view of what cosplay should be and also points to both the problem and inspiration that cosplay can provide. People, and characters, can surprise you.
When I worked on the railroad, my supervisor was a real-deal, born-again badass. He smoked like a chimney and took every opportunity to “supervise” us as we spiked down the track in the hot sun. He was blatantly racist. He also seemed like he could keel over at any minute. I wasn’t the best spike pounder, and on one sunny morning he got fed up with the time I was wasting getting each spike in. He walked up to me, cigarette still in mouth, and shoved me away from the track. In a move like you might see in a martial arts movie, he grabbed the hammer from me, fell into the perfect posture, and dropped the spike down in one swift swing. “That’s how you are supposed to do it,” he said.
This didn’t help my technique any, but it did help me see my supervisor in a very different light. I still think he was an asshole, but he was an asshole who had a very impressive talent. Why can’t your heroes be like that? Soldiers and warriors have to have a certain physical stamina, but they don’t all need to look like they were sculpted from marble. Look at photos from any war and you’ll see a variety of body shapes, sizes, and fitness levels.
So consider cosplay as a way to think outside of the Ken-and-Barbie approach to protagonists. People come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and they’re pretty good at adapting to what their bodies may do over time. The characters you imagine can be the same. Writers are not as beholden to casting the way a movie might be, and we can cast people who aren’t professional actors in our roles. We should cast a diverse set of body types and backgrounds; in the end, it will make the stories more compelling and more original. That skinny guy in the Punisher costume is telling an entirely different story than some buffed-up supersoldier. In some ways, his look is possibly more threatening. He can wreak mayhem and disappear into the crowd afterwards. He presents a smaller target. He’s so obsessed with his endless mission that he gets his exercise through constant action, not lifting weights or stopping in at Lifetime Fitness. That’s scary Taxi Driver stuff right there. He might not look good in spandex tights. However, those war weary eyes say much, much more than an outfit that looks like it came from a Mexican wrestling ring.