Independent Scholar (MA in Information Studies, University of Tokyo, 2015)
A portmanteau of the words “costume” and “play,” cosplay refers to the practice, hobby, and subculture of dressing up as and portraying a character. Intertextuality is crucial to cosplay; thus, cosplay is defined as the portrayal of existing characters and is different from other forms of costuming and dress up, such as a generic Halloween costume that is not associated with a particular character. Alternative fashions such as Lolita, steampunk, and Visual-Kei are not cosplay either.
Characterization, the “play” aspect in cosplay, is of extreme importance. Cosplayers (the term for practitioners of cosplay) are not expected to be in character the entire time that they are dressed up, but they are expected to be so when posing for photos and performing skits. Thus, an accurate portrayal consists of not only getting the appearance—wig, makeup, costume details, and other physical aspects—right, but also capturing the character’s personality.
Contrary to misconception, cosplay does not strictly refer to portraying characters from Japanese media, neither is it a new practice. Japanese writer Nobuyuki Takahashi coined the term after seeing costumed fans at the Los Angeles Science Fiction Worldcon in 1984 (Winge 2006, 66), but such fans were already a fixture at American science fiction conventions as early as 1939 (Lotecki 2012, 1). In Japan, however, cosplayers began appearing at dōjinshi (fan-made comics) and science fiction events around the 1970s (Lunning 2012; Okabe 2012, 229).
Coming a long way from its niche beginnings, cosplay has become a global phenomenon in recent years, thanks to the power of the media and internet. Whereas devoted fans such as cosplayers were once largely stigmatized as being strange, socially awkward, and immature (Kinsella 1998 quoted in Lunning 2012; Lotecki 2012, 22–23; Taylor 2009, 42), society and media have shown increased awareness and—in some cases—a more nuanced understanding of cosplay, even though it is still not completely regarded as a mainstream or socially acceptable practice.
Cosplay is actually quite social and collaborative (Okabe 2012, 331; Lunning 2012; Bainbridge and Norris 2013; Winge 2006, 74). All over the world, cosplay communities have formed, consisting not only of cosplayers but also of photographers, event organizers, tailors, props makers, and more. The main avenues for cosplayers to gather and network are fan conventions (“cons” for short), photo shoots, and the internet. In 2012, Edmund Hoff (2012, 158) estimated that over eighty countries regularly hold cosplay conventions. As of 2018, thirty-five countries and three regions are officially part of the World Cosplay Summit (WCS), an annual international event for which participating nations and regions send representatives to Japan to compete in the culminating event, the World Cosplay Championship.
Like many other communities, cosplay communities may not always be “stable and harmonious” (Duffett 2013, 249), as they are usually loose knit. Moreover, conflict (or “drama” in contemporary slang) often comes with the territory, usually due to clashing approaches to cosplay, conflicting opinions, and/or an overlap with personal issues. Cosplay communities are thus “not a homogenous entity but a place of negotiated meaning” (Okabe 2012, 331). Nonetheless, as these communities are comprised of individuals brought together by a shared enthusiasm for cosplay, they function as a “support network” (Duffett 2013, 249) for the fan base.
Despite cosplay’s existence for decades, it only started gaining scholarly attention in the early 2000s. Using the case of the popular Japanese cosplayer Reika Arikawa (hereafter referred to as Reika), I shall discuss some recurring concepts in cosplay studies and introduce an additional concept, which I hope can serve as a springboard for further research.
Reika is the alias of an Osaka-based fashion designer and photo editor who has been cosplaying for over twenty years. While her name may not ring a bell to mainstream audiences, she gained quite the following among cosplayers for her portrayals of handsome male characters. As of September 1, 2018, she has 409,733 likes and 406,768 followers on Facebook, 101,000 followers on Twitter, 199,000 followers on Instagram, and first place in user rankings on WorldCosplay, an SNS for posting cosplay photos. She actively engages with her fans and frequently receives messages and presents from them. Considered as a celebrity of sorts in international cosplay communities, she has been a guest at conventions in over thirty countries and regions as of 2015.
In an interview, Reika said, “I don’t completely become a character. I think that I’m just myself dressed as a character, but of course, I imitate [their mannerisms and personality].” This statement reflects the oft-brought-up idea of cosplay as a performance of identity, an idea largely inspired by Judith Butler and Erving Goffman. Cosplay, in playing with identities (Lamerichs 2011; Bainbridge and Norris 2013), shows that identity is fluid rather than fixed and stable.
Butler’s theory of performativity uses drag and cross-dressing to illustrate that gender is a tenuous social construct that needs a “constant and repeated effort to imitate its own idealizations” (2006, 175–97). Researchers conducting studies on cosplay in relation to gender often use this theory to understand crossplayers (those who cosplay characters of the opposite sex), like Reika. While Butler’s theory has been significant in understanding gender identity, she argues that gender is merely the product of repeated actions, thereby leaving little room for individual agency. This is where Goffman’s (1959) concept of self-presentation as a performance comes in.
While Goffman also questions the existence of a stable, true identity, he stands in contrast to Butler by describing the expression of identity as a self-aware act, not unlike theater. He makes a distinction between front-stage behavior, which is visible to an audience, and backstage behavior, or how an individual acts when no one else is around. Applying Goffman’s theory to cosplay, Natasha Nesic (2013, 7–8) says that a cosplayer has three states: the self, the character, and the cosplay persona. In short, the self-aware cosplayer reconciles the two extremes.
Reika’s response not only demonstrates this self-awareness but also subverts the commonly held misconception of cosplayers as wanting to escape reality and become someone else. Rather than fully taking on another character’s identity and being completely immersed in their performance, cosplayers often act in character only for photos, videos, and on-stage activities. As Alexis Hieu Truong (2013) gleaned from his informants, cosplaying is neither seen as a part of everyday life nor actually believed “to be the fantasies that were played.” It is “something in between, the mundane enchanted through other ways of understanding, doing and being.”
This brings me to the commonly held notion of cosplay as a subculture. A subculture is commonly defined as a norm that “arise[s] specifically from a frustrating situation or from conflict between a group and the larger society” (Yinger 1960, 627). As cosplay has been regarded as an unconventional hobby for quite some time, it is quite easy for observers to conclude that cosplay is a subversion of various norms—mainstream standards (Taylor 2009, 14–15), gender, and more. Yet nowadays, with cosplay being increasingly thrust into mainstream consciousness, some have questioned whether cosplay is still a subculture.
Although cosplay definitely has subversive potential, caution should be taken against overestimating it. Cosplay can indeed be empowering, especially for those who have been bullied or ostracized for factors such as appearance and sexuality. However, oftentimes, it is not a conscious political statement against the dominant social order; subverting social norms is usually an incidental byproduct of cosplaying. This is why Jason Bainbridge and Craig Norris (2013) propose that subcultures be seen not as resistance narratives but as “more playfully disruptive [. . .] expanding ‘the definitions of what is possible.’” Patrick W. Galbraith summarizes this as follows: “[Cosplay and Lolita] are in the process of naturalisation within global fan culture and beyond [. . .] However, we should not be too hasty to close down contested meanings by stressing either the radicality or normalcy of cosplay. We need to interrogate what people are doing and the impact of their practice on them and the world around them” (2013, #).
To add to these points, I propose that the concept of microcelebrity also be used to understand cosplay, especially in light of the rise of so-called cosplay celebrities, cosplayers who are considered popular enough to be invited as convention guests, contest judges, or official models/endorsers. Theresa Senft (2013) defines microcelebrity as a form of online self-branding and identity that combines celebrity status with the perceived authenticity of an ordinary individual. It reflects how the internet has lowered the threshold of celebrity, blurring the lines between the traditional notion of a celebrity and online fame.
Alice Marwick adds that microcelebrity is “a state of being famous to a niche group of people” and a “behavior: the presentation of oneself as a celebrity regardless of who is paying attention” (2013, 114). She goes on to say that microcelebrity can be attained through deliberate self-presentation—such as by cultivating a persona—or through one’s own accomplishments (ibid.). Similarly, Nesic explains that cosplay fame happens when a cosplayer “manages to saturate [the online] viewing pool with his or her own image or cosplay persona” (2013, 78). Regardless of how one gains this status, being a microcelebrity entails producing content as a form of “immaterial labor” (Senft 2013, 350) to attract and maintain fans.
Reika can be considered as a microcelebrity who attained fame through her accomplishments. By sharing her photos online, she gained attention for her androgynous features, makeup skills, close resemblance to her chosen characters, attention to detail, and accuracy level—both in terms of costume and characterization (Roongwitoo 2013; Taffel 2014). She has earned praise and respect for her determination, hard work, and passion and for making her costumes herself (Roongwitoo 2013; Taffel 2014).
With microcelebrities, there is often an increased sense of obligation to keep one’s audience engaged by acting closer to their audience (Marwick 2013, 118–19), which can lead to fans developing a “strange familiarity” (Senft 2013, 352)—a perceived connection or a feeling of perceived closeness. To their advantage, celebrities themselves have also started engaging with fans using microcelebrity strategies such as live videos on Facebook.
In Reika’s case, on top of the fact that cosplay celebrities like her are usually more accessible than traditional celebrities to begin with, she also posts candid photos, selfies, and behind-the-scenes photos and videos from events. Although she replies to fans and maintains a friendly demeanor in person, it can be observed that she still maintains some distance by not going into detail about her personal life and not responding to negativity. While this can be interpreted as Reika having to keep being in front-stage mode to maintain her image, this largely has to do with it being common for Japanese cosplayers to remain tight lipped about private matters in an attempt to separate cosplay from personal life—a way to manage multiple identities.
I have brought up several points, but this case study merely aims to serve as a starting point for further research on cosplay beyond identity and performance. The cosplay subculture is diverse, dynamic, and rapidly growing, which means that issues, practices, and trends also come and go quickly.
Although cosplay studies is still a new, underdeveloped field, it is rich in potential. There is still much room for discourse. For one, it might be worth seeing cosplay through the lens of gender studies, as there are several gender-related issues that come up in relation to it—sexual harassment and the male gaze, to name a few. As a cosplayer says, “Cosplaying is—on some level—about sexuality, whether or not it is purposeful” (Lunning 2011, 75).
Some more topics worth looking into are: gender issues, the economics of the cosplay community, the cosplay industry (e.g., professional cosplayers, costume-making services, event organizers), racial politics, privacy issues, and the role of social media in popularizing cosplay. Furthermore, as cosplay communities act as a microcosm of the broader society, researchers can highlight issues specific to and/or more prominent in their country’s community.
Original characters, or characters conceptualized by the cosplayer him/herself, are a gray area. Cosplayers have differing opinions on whether or not it counts as cosplay when there is no reference material for anyone other than the cosplayer and possibly his/her own networks to recognize the character. As cosplay communities do not have fixed rules, most take a “live and let live” approach and leave cosplayers of original characters be. However, for judging purposes, cosplay contests usually do not allow cosplayers portraying their own original characters to participate. ↑
It should be noted that WorldCosplay rankings are not necessarily indicative of actual popularity, as they are based on the number of liked submissions. It is common for cosplayers to like one another’s submissions as a form of reciprocity, and some cosplayers have even been alleged to create dummy accounts to increase their likes and, therefore, their rankings. Nonetheless, Reika’s frequent guest appearances at overseas conventions and number of likes and/or followers on her other SNS accounts can be considered a reflection of her actual popularity. ↑
Reika is said to be more popular overseas than in Japan—see these Japanese posts as examples of such a sentiment: http://kumasakahitomi.com/ archives/4307.html and https://matome.naver.jp/odai/2146032971793515701. A statement from Reika in a 2015 interview with The Cosplay Chronicles seems to corroborate this, as she said that she hardly felt a change in her usual routine when cosplaying in Japan. Perhaps this could be explained by the fact that in many Japanese cosplay events, the main activities are just cosplaying and taking photos. (Events like Comiket, Anime Japan, and Tokyo Game Show are different in that they are conventions that happen to allow cosplay.) While cosplay contests and guests of honor are common at overseas fan conventions, this is not the case in Japan. ↑
Marwick (2013, 119) says that while microcelebrities are expected to be more “authentic” than typical celebrities, they do not have to be truly authentic, as long as they can effectively seem the part by appearing down-to-earth, sincere, etc. ↑
Since photo sharing is a normal practice in the cosplay community, it does not necessarily follow that this is an attention- or fame-seeking measure. It takes more than just sharing photos to deliberately or unconsciously attain cosplay fame. ↑
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Hoff, Edmund. 2012. “Cosplay as Subculture: In Japan and Beyond.” Bulletin of Tokai Gakuen University 17: 149–67.
Kinsella, Sharon. 1998. “Japanese Subculture in the 1990s: Otaku and the Amateur Manga Movement.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 24, no. 2 (Summer): 289-316.
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Nesic, Natasha. 2013. “No, Really: What Is Cosplay?” Bachelor’s thesis, Mount Holyoke College. https://ida.mtholyoke.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10166/3217/395_thesis.pdf?sequen ce=6.
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