Monday, December 30, 2013

What Makes "Good" Cosplay Good and "Bad" Cosplay Bad?

A good friend of mine once told me a story about a Psychology Professor at our university teaching a class in which he showed a video of cosplayers that presented them as disturbed, fanatical creatures (not people). Instead of explaining how this video presented a certain image of cosplayers, he agreed with the video unquestioningly. The environment in the classroom was tense as my friend, a cosplayer herself, found that she was under fire. She was being called crazy and absurd. She was being put down by an unquestioning person of authority. And, worst of all, a person who should know better-- a psychology professor.

What made him say those things? What made him show that video? Why did he think there would be no cosplayers in that room? This story and its accompanying questions still pop up occasionally as I move through my own world. I've wanted to write a post about it but I haven't found the words until now, thanks to my growing interest in the Bodies and Embodiment section of the ASA.

When he looked out into that room of psychology students and thought "I have something these students will enjoy," I have no doubt he saw what I see in all of my classes. He saw a room full of mostly white, able-bodied, thin, well-dressed, twenty-somethings staring back at him. To him, these were people who didn't cosplay. They didn't fit his mental image of a cosplayer: still mostly white, but fat and middle aged, dressed in clothes that didn't fit or flatter, and so obsessed with media that they had no time for school.

As I put together this post I wanted to find some images of cosplay to show you. Images that would allow my target audience (people who know little about cosplay, but much about the sociology of bodies) to picture cosplayers as normal, upstanding citizens. My own biases were at play here.

So I searched for "Good Cosplay" on Google. The page was immidiately splashed with images of then women dressed in provocative clothing, and a smattering of male cosplayers. This was number six on my search:

There were also a few "funny" coplay images: a woman dressed as a sock monkey, a gender swapped Leia and Han Solo, and a green army man ready for action. But what caught my eye was Google's suggested search at the top. It suggested I search for "Good vs Bad Cosplay."

Intrigued, I clicked.

This is the first image on that search:

The images are almost all like this: to the left, a fat person (or a man) doing cosplay "wrong" and to the right, a  thin person (usually a woman) doing it "right."

I did my due diligence and preformed this search again on Chrome, a browser I never use, and after I had deleted my cookies and trackers. The results are the same, untarnished by what Google thinks I mean when I search.

The message in these shaming images is clear: "Anyone can dress up like their favorite character, but if I don't like the way you look physically I will tell you you're wrong and bad."

These statements about cosplay permeate and spread. We begin to associate cosplayers only with the "bad" kind. Instead of saying that those cosplayers are beautiful, they are hard working, and they are as important (or more important) as the characters they emulate, we say they are ugly, don't work on the "right" projects, and are unimportant to our society. We, as a society, present these norms of body type and femaleness as inalienable truths about cosplay. We perpetuate what is "normal" and what isn't.

So when a psychology professor looks out on his classroom and sees fit, hardworking young people he doesn't believe that they might enjoy cosplay. That they might love being creative, engaging with media on a different level, or participating in a community that spans continents. It doesn't even occur to him as a possibility. Because to him, cosplayers are "bad" and mentally disturbed because they are fat people who think they are important, or beautiful, or talented, or creative. All things that society tells him fat people aren't allowed to think about themselves.

I love to see the creativity and diversity that fans can produce. Maybe someday our cultural norms will shift, and that creativity will be more important than the shape of some fans' bodies.


  1. this is really interesting - i've always found it a little sad that it's only acceptable within a fanbase to cosplay as someone that you physically resemble. so limiting!
    in my mind, the only thing that should be required when rating a cosplay 'good' or 'bad' is the quality of the workmanship.

  2. A serious cosplayer or cosplay fans should read this article. It gives me some new thoughts.

  3. Absolute nonsense. That is just as much a narrow minded view of cosplay as the people you argue about. Let's call it down the middle here. You created a character like Superman. He's buff and good-looking by social standards or whatever you choose to call it (let's face it, nobody will say Superman is an ugly man). Then an overweight gentleman goes to a Con dressed as Supes with his belly hanging out. If he did this on purpose to poke fun... great. That was funny. This guy is making a statement against the stereotype. But if he was seriously saying, yeah I'm Superman today.

    That is absolutely insulting. It's insulting to the artists and writers who created him as a false representation of a 75 year old icon and it's insulting to those who look at the character as a role model for themselves. I'm not arguing good vs bad, I'm defending the fair use of representing an art that has become a culture in and of itself. I'm a black male, skinny with a mustache. I will never go to a Con dressed as Batman because that's not what he looks like. THAT'S BAD COSPLAY. You're supposed to BE your character. Simple.

    1. Your comment does a good job of proving my point, so thank you! You raise some interesting considerations about the meaning of cosplay. To you, it seems not to be about fun or an expression of one's creative power. Rather, it is merely about looking exactly like the character. This would of course exclude women from playing men, and vise versa. It would also exclude black men (like yourself) from playing any non-black character, which make up the vast majority of characters to play. There are many ways to "be your character," such as through upholding their ideals, acting as they act, and making the same decisions they would. Simply looking like this is a very narrow way of being them. If you went as Batman and espoused his values (protecting the innocent, forgoing murder, secrecy) then you have made a good Batman because you understand his values, not simply what he looks like. Looks aren't everything, which is why it's possible to have many incarnations of the Doctor, or to have many different actors play James Bond--ostensibly the same role.

      The fact that you say a fat man can't go as his hero precisely because he is fat, unless he intends to make himself/his hero a joke, is precisely the point my post is making. He isn't doing bad cosplay. He's just fat and doing cosplay.

    2. thgame9, it's a real shame that your view of cosplay is so limited. I would argue that you SHOULD cosplay as Batman to protest the fact that 95% of superheros are white. Spot on great cosplays draw attention, but so do unique/funny variations. Crossplay draws so much attention whether it's a male playing a female or a female playing a male. It must really suck to tell yourself you can't have any of that fun.


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