Take Back the Cloth: Empowerment Through Cosplay
Halloween is around the corner and people are preparing for costumes. It seems that walking into a Halloween store, however, is indicative of walking into a Victoria’s Secret: scant cloth and seductive poses are all that women often have to choose from. There is acceptance of objectification of women in the cosplay realm because it’s “just a costume”. Nonetheless, it is a desolate landscape for those cosplayers looking to empower themselves without the need to be sexualized. A Mighty Girl has developed a wonderful come back to the scarce selection, though I think it’s prudent to discuss the general cosplay community and the growing notion of “sexy cosplay” used to empower women.
When I came across the Girl Empowerment Halloween Costume Guide, on A Mighty Girl’s site, for all ages, I was impressed by the initiative. What A Mighty Girl has done is take back Halloween for those of us who want a variety of choices. They have costumes from a multitude of styles: fairy tale, humorous, literary, historical, animals, etc. The costumes aren’t limited to gender, either. Above, they show a woman in Faora (Man of Steel) costume. Below, they show a girl dressed as Robin Hood.
As a cosplayer and an attendee of several conventions, it is rather difficult to find costumes, or even inspiration, that don’t involve your lady parts on display. I make almost all my costumes and so I can afford to be more picky about how it fits, how it covers my body and what material I use. However, not everyone wants to tackle sewing, ergo their options are far more limited if they do not embrace what has now been termed “sexy cosplay”. Before I discuss my views, please let me explain that this is not meant to attack anyone. This is intended as a discussion so we can learn from both sides what it means to be empowered as a female cosplayer and why it’s important.
I mentioned above that there is nothing wrong with embracing sexuality, however, I have found myself and other cosplayers the victims of an over-sexualized culture. Let me reiterate, it is NOT the woman’s fault. That is not what this is intended to convey or should be used in such a way. While many arguments are made that women should take the good with the bad when dressing sexually, it assumes that it’s okay for anyone to comment on how a woman dresses. It dismisses people’s behaviors, the person as a human being, people’s comfort levels and the grueling work put into a cosplay. For example, some women like the cosplay, but they do not want to tease, flirt or “get into character”. They chose the cosplay because they love the character and/or it has technical merit and demonstrates their skills. How, then, should we approach the obvious issues with over-sexualization and objectification in cosplay? There is no denying some women do indeed feel empowered by “sexy cosplay” while others feel diminished by the type of attention it garners. Cosplayer Kat, interviewed by Kotaku, is one such cosplayer that enjoys the sexiness of her favorite characters, but noticed that for some it is not an empowering experience.
“I find it’s a hard balance because I am a very sexual person and I enjoy characters like Ivy and Black Cat where I get to play around a little bit with that, but at the same time I know a lot [of] cosplayers aren’t like me and I don’t want to perpetuate this idea that if you’re in a ‘sexy’ cosplay, you HAVE to be flirtatious and want to flirt….making some people think it’s okay to assume all the other cosplayers at the convention are going to act the same and be okay with that kind of interaction.”
Other cosplayers are empowered through the new skills they learn or enjoy the problem solving that goes into the development of a cosplay. Chaka is one such learner enthusiast and she mentioned that cosplay was “constantly presenting new problems for me to solve, new skills for me to learn, and new trades to acquire. I’m always learning something new, and it keeps me going.”
Our brains are trained to categorize and so we focus on physical traits because this is what our eyes see; yet this is merely the status quo, the accepted way. Instead, we can train ourselves to focus beyond the image we see, to see the human being underneath the costume. What skills did that person use for creating their costume? How did they deviate from the character, if at all? What do you see reflected in that person’s personality because of their cosplay? From the male perspective, a Bane cosplayer quoted from Advanced Media Writing 2014 mentioned that ““Sex sells, that person looks good but they only see just the costume and that’s all they consider, that’s a problem. You need to say ‘yes I like your costume and your character but I like the fact that you put the effort into it’.” His comment supports the idea that we can venture beyond the image that is fed into our brain,and that there is more to appreciate. As he said, we often see the cosplay but we rarely see the person. Mandy Caruso has had a generally positive experience cosplaying until recently when she played Black Cat. Her words reflect a sad fact about conventions for women: women are accepted into the cosplay community only if they fall into the “sexy object” men desire.
“It’s because many people at these cons expect women cosplaying as vixens (or even just wearing particularly flattering costumes) to be open/ welcoming to crude male commentary and lecherous ogling…”
When I cosplayed Morrigan from Dragon’s Age, I got a lot of requests for pictures from both men and women. While I am not an attention seeker, this was a somewhat empowering experience for me because people could appreciate my costume. The thought of people enjoying the costume because it was revealing, however, was not a comfortable feeling for me. I made my costume modest (see below), but there were still unwarranted looks. I am not flirtatious like Kat, though, so I didn’t attract attention to myself. My behavior was not the catalyst for said looks. While my experience was overall positive, unfortunately not everyone’s experience is positive or empowering.
I believe it is important to embrace sexual freedom and be comfortable with your own sexuality, but I find the idea of “sexy cosplay” used as an empowering aspect for women disheartening. It encourages geek culture to perpetuate this expectation that women are merely sexy objects to be regarded, judged and ogled. Is it possible this phenomenon is causing or encouraging objectification? How do we change the culture to allow women their freedom to cosplay without stigmas? There is this assumption that because it is “just a costume” or fantasy that women should have to put up with lewd behavior, that it is the only form of flattery or that women should feel empowered because of that “flattery”.
Finally, there is a great lack of non-sexy costumes for women to purchase. Nevertheless, there is an upside to this double-edged sword of cosplay for women despite the lack of choice and A Mighty Girl has shown us that it is possible to fight back against the commercialization of “sexy cosplay”. Women deserve a variety of options and the voice to demand them in the cosplay world. What I love about conventions is the diversity you see in costumes and the courage with which people wear them. I hope eventually, through empowerment and a change in the cosplay culture, that people will wear their costumes not with courage but with comfort. A culture in which women can choose whatever cosplay they wish without demeaning comments and instead be seen as the individual, human being they are. I encourage companies such as A Mighty Girl to help change that dynamic and disparage the acceptance of “sexy cosplay” as the sole form of flattery or recognition of women in the culture.
I would love to hear from all you readers, men and women. What has been your experience as a cosplayer? If you choose “sexy cosplay”, how do you feel it empowers you? Why? If not, why do you choose different cosplay? How would you like the cosplay community to change? Please be honest, polite and respectful.