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, 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). By using the base of the characters to explore other un-mentioned interests, fans are able to expound upon certain dynamics they would otherwise not see fully-developed within the story.
Specifically speaking of particular popular genres 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 empower the cosplayer to be able to freely and safely express queerness.
In Free!, the quieter male protagonist, Haru, operates with a slightly colder, more emotionless version of tsundere (tsun – aloof, irritable, dere – cute, lovestruck), a popular trope most commonly utilised for the female protagonists to show the gradual change of emotionality towards a male love interest – who often inhabits another familiar trope of the caring older brother: starting off cold and aloof, then falling in love with him and slowly revealing a cuter, squishier underside). Makoto, his lighter-haired, taller childhood friend, is frequently shown to take care of the absent-minded, swimming-obsessed Haru. Economising on Haru and Makoto’s representations of these tropes, fans of this series often pair these two characters together in popular fan-fictional alternate universes (AU) – such as the one where Haru is actually a mermaid. Using Hans Andersen’s model of a passive, quiet mermaid (rather than seductive, dangerous, and siren-like) and her heartrending relationship with Prince Eric (in the original fairy tale where she disappears into sea foam), cosplayers are able to utilise the tropes these characters represent in a generically different, tragically romantic spin; this mermaid AU is only one example of how the homosexual subtext between Haru and Makoto can be interpreted and centralised in fan-made material based on their existing characters.
Tiger and Bunny employs the homosocial element between the two main characters with more reservation, stably situating the two in firm heterosexual identities within this macho-superhero universe: Kotetsu (darker-haired), aka Wild Tiger, is a widower with a daughter with a strong sense of justice and his partner Barnaby (blond), aka Bunny, is a pretty boy who attracts a swarm of ladies wherever he sets foot and is completely focussed on exacting revenge for the murders of his parents. However, from this story of two archetypal Manly Men developing a strong working relationship, comes the fantasy that they cultivate something more than a purely public partnership, off-screen, while they are off of their superhero duties. Perhaps even to the level where the reserved, serious, younger Bunny allows the boisterous, charismatic Kotetsu to clutch his thigh in public.
Both aforementioned couples are especially prominent within female fan circles, as popular pairings in Boy’s Love manga, a genre created by women for women, mostly celebrated amongst female readers as providing a model which subverts gender and sexual norms for women that they can live vicariously through (Welker 2015). Male cosplayers proactively taking on these roles allows them to explore these boundaries from a masculine perspective. Biscuit Krueger in Hunter x Hunter, another popular shounen (marketed towards boys) manga/anime, however, falls outside this genre. She is a particularly unique character: she is a powerful Hunter (a prestigious and powerful vocation of characters in this universe) who trains the two main protagonists. Although she normally maintains the image of a ten-year-old young girl, her true form is that of an extremely buff and muscular masculine body, which she personally detests.
Although already interesting for featuring a physically imposing female character, the male cosplayer introduces the possibility of representing a more marginalised aesthetic: Bara (the following information is what I gleaned from Alex Furuya’s final project in the East Asian Masculinities class I took with him last spring), which was first developed by gay men in Japan as a reaction against Boy’s Love, a genre created by women for women, featuring effeminate male figures and questionable love stories (because you can only go gay for one person, right?). This cosplayer presents the possibility of circumventing familiar same-sex romances as established by women to represent the preferences of self-identified gay men. The character of Biscuit Krueger is thus especially versatile in giving both men and women a vehicle through which marginalised femininities and masculinities can be depicted.
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).
Although the first two relationship dynamics carry the same elements having one of the pair being obviously suited as the dominant one with the other naturally seen as the submissive, by being male, these cosplayers are able to actively queer both their own identities as well as that of their characters in comparison to Kuroko cosplay, which only serves to reinforce abject Asian/American female sexualities.
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?
Welker, James. 2015. “A Brief History of Shonen’ai, Yaoi, and Boy’s Love.” In Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan, edited by Mark McLelland, Kazumi Nagaike, Katsuhiko Suganuma and James Welker. University Press of Mississippi.