Cosplay (to many fans, a hobby defined as the act of dressing up as one of your favorite characters from books, television, films and more) is more popular than ever on the convention circuit. But every joyful activity comes with a dark side—gatekeeping and bullying can often prevent people who would enjoy the chance to cosplay from stepping into the limelight.
New York Comic Con has several panels to help cosplayers hone their craft this year. But two panels in particular were available on Thursday to address the tougher issues at hand and encourage con-goers to enjoy the art of cosplay no matter their fears or concerns.
The first panel—”Cosplay Rule 63″—dealt with the trials of genderbent cosplay, specifically discussing why the ability to crossplay is meaningful to many and the trials that can come with it. (This panel was of particular interest to me, as crossplay is my default about 80% of the time.) On hand to discuss the matter was Tony Ray, Brayan Vasquez, and Jay Justice, and the conversation ended up extending itself to all manner of inclusiveness, moving to critiques of whitewashing and addressing issues of bathroom use and designation at conventions.
“When you’re cosplaying as a different gender, do you guys ever feel that we need a gender neutral bathroom?” asked Vasquez during the Q&A portion of the panel. The conversational audience was quick to affirm the suggestion, with one member saying that it should be mandatory across the board for the sake of ease and convenience. Another attendee relayed that she was once kicked out of a convention for applying makeup to her male friends in the convention bathrooms, making it clear that a gender neutral space could have put a stop to that problem.
But safety is obviously a concern in these cases, no matter how desirous it is to press forward for the sake of the appearance of progress. “It’s a one step at a time kind of thing,” Ray added, “because I also feel that many con-goers aren’t in the headspace to where someone comfortable using a gender neutral bathroom is actually safe in the gender neutral bathroom.”
With the prevalence of cross-gender cosplay, there is even even more danger of misgendering trans and non-binary people, however. When an audience member asked how best to refer to a cosplayer without knowing their pronouns and gender identity, Jay Justice brought up the preference of a trans friend on the topic, which served as an incredibly helpful piece of advice:
“They prefer to just be addressed by the costume they’re wearing, that way there’s no confusion about you misgendering them as a person… …You know what’s a gender neutral term? ‘Cap.’ That’s fine, go with that.”
The topic of racebending cosplay was also considered (with the consensus being that racebending cosplay was welcome provided that the person did not attempt to alter the color of their skin), as well as the acknowledgement that cross-gender cosplaying has seen an incredible surge in popularity, even in the past five years. “The audience has always been here, but we’re finally being acknowledged,” said Justice. The panelists then encouraged fans to continue to fight for that representation, not only in cosplay, but in all the media they consumed.
The second panel—”Body Confidence and Positivity in Cosplay”—had four cosplayers take the stage to discuss the many surprising ways in which cosplay had managed to empower them, despite their own personal histories dealing with low self-esteem and bullying. Panelists Ivy Doomkitty, Robert Franceze, Bernadette Bentley, and David Baxter encouraged the audience toward taking the dive into cosplay—noting its joint effect on both the cosplayer themselves and the audience that they are bound to interact with.
“In the 80s, I was really into Planet of the Apes,” said Baxter, “and being six foot eight, when I was in high school everyone was pointing at me, I felt very self-conscious. But when I put on a mask it was kinda cool.” He then detailed how he eventually didn’t require the masks any longer, and how cosplaying made him more comfortable with his height and himself. While he shied away from straight up advocating cosplay as therapy, Baxter did point out the social value of cosplay, it’s ability to make interaction a little easier and build relationships between people who might never have met otherwise.
Both Doomkitty and Franceze struggled with fat-shaming growing up, and Doomkitty stayed away from cosplay for years before getting up the courage to try it out. After assuming that she would get made fun of, she found the reality was happily quite different. “I made my costume, I walked the con floor. It felt like a breath of fresh air. You feel alive, you feel connected with people that can relate with you. I felt like I was with family.”
It should be noted that when the panel asked how many of the attendees sitting in the room had been bullied at some point in their lives, practically everyone raised their hand. The need for a panel promoting the confidence to step out onto the show floor in costume was clear enough in that moment.
The personal triumphs of cosplay were the topic of in-depth conversation during the panel, with Bentley describing the rush of self-possession she feels while costumed. “I’m still me,” she said, “but I feel stronger, I feel sexier, I feel creepier—if I’m in a creepy outfit—it’s just fun.”
But for all that the personal benefits of cosplay were touted left and right, the group was quick to focus in on one of cosplay’s most indelible qualities—it’s ability to allow the cosplayer to brighten someone else’s life. Baxter talked of being a hero to little kids when they saw him in costume, the awe they felt at being in the presence of a character like Albus Dumbledore or Gandalf. Bentley talked of how many queer women sobbed on her shoulder when they found her dressed as Xena, a character who helped them to realize their own sexuality.
After telling the hilarious origin story for his Peter Griffin alter ego, Franceze made it clear what the real value of cosplay was to him: “From then on I realized that I had something on my hands, and I felt like I owed it to the world… for all the stuff that we hear on the news, and all the craziness, it’s just nice to get to a show and make people genuinely happy, and if I can do that, I’ll keep doing that ’til the day I die.”
Cosplay is meant to be an activity for all fans of every conceivable stripe—but it can only be enjoyable when everyone who engages in the activity feels comfortable giving their own spin on a beloved character without fear of harassment or abuse, and actively bolsters their community. If more panels like these begin to crop up at conventions everywhere, it’s likely that the hobby’s landscape will see a seismic shift in the near future… making the environment more welcoming and uplifting than ever before.