In the spirit of Halloween and the everlasting appeal of occupying another persona, other than the clumsy, awkward one I normally inhabit, I have recently been scouring DeviantArt for inspiring cosplays of my favourite anime/video game characters – my particular nerd niche (you too can fall down this rabbit-hole). Wading through these embodiments of our millennial motto of rebellious youth – “I’ll be whoever the hell I want” – and putting aside the unintelligible fan-girl shrieking that is in most cases unashamedly happening concurrently in my head and sometimes otherwise, on a more intellectual note, cosplay can be a vehicle through which participants are able to derive feelings of personal achievement, confidence, and self-esteem from constructing a detailed costume and being able to wear it proudly in an environment that not only condones such behaviour but encourages it.
Considering the Asian-American male cohort of cosplayers, this venue of character and gender performance is a way for individuals to freely and fluidly express their self-perceived optimal selves in an environment dislocated from social mores and, by enacting these selfhoods in a communal setting, participants are able to understand their identities within their own embodied characters or in others.
In her book on Asian American Sexual Politics, Rosalind Chou voices in her chapter on “Asian American Masculinity”, that what she hopes for “is not that the definition of hegemonic masculinity grows to include Asian American men (but that) broader and wider positive representations of races, genders, and sexualities be created” (Chou 131). However, although it is already valuable that this huge resource of different subjectivities is available for Asian-American to utilise in efforts of constructing their desired image, it is also important to acknowledge the social contexts in which these characters were developed, the creative voice behind them, and the fandom surrounding in order to fully appreciate the “infinite” possibilities that may be formed (Shimizu 129). At cons, where the cosplayer is held to certain standards of authenticity such that costumes recognised as “good” are those that bring the clothing together with body features and behaviours in portraying the character, it is easy for the cosplayer to become an object to the spectator, existing only as a 3D version of a story. Therefore, the process of acting in a convention for an audience of peers, cosplayers must consciously negotiate the “totality” of their characters as they operate within a piece of work by encompassing a certain trope or stereotype, as a platform on which to form a mutable subjectivity (Shimizu 129).
Specifically speaking of particular popular genres such as Free! and Kuroko no Basuke that have garnered a significant fandom that enjoys pairing characters together in homosexual relationships that are otherwise, at best, only hinted at in canon, if the largely female fans request that the group of guys dressed as these characters engage in a more explicit expression of that hypothetical relationship, complying could either empower the cosplayer to be able to freely and safely express queerness.
However, if the cosplayers wished to capitalise on these fantasies of “something more” developing between characters in the homosocial setting of a sports anime without endangering their own sense of hegemonic masculinity, and they compromised by genderbending one of the characters as a girl, this particular cosplay would be subscribing to the same stereotypes of the more effeminate of the pair as the “bottom” with “supposed passivity and sexual compliance”, dominated by the more masculine trope of a character (Fung 117).
When multiple variations of the same characters are displayed by separate cosplayers, various perspectives interact and individuals have the opportunity to encounter selfhoods that are both incompatible and desirable in their presentation. The synthesis of largely foreign primary source material with transnational fandoms into an individualised expression of self creates an image that may be tied down to certain characterisations but is then developed through interpretations and challenges of lived experiences.
So, Let’s Play Pretend, eh?