The thing about cosplay is that it is many things, and therein lies the controversy. It’s a relatively new art form (dating back to the ancient 1970’s) that exploded within the last 10 years. Most people within the nerd community have jumped on the bandwagon at least once. There are many others that have revolutionized cosplay by bringing to life characters and creations we had only seen in a 2D format before, and rightfully so, they’re recognized for their craft. There are some who prefer to be a hobbyist cosplayer, pulling out one costume here or there when the occasion arises. Many love that this gives them new opportunities to help the community, raising spirits among children and adults alike. And like any other hobby, some want to make it a career. Anything with such a diversity of opportunities will cause trouble eventually.
The Thing About Cosplay is…Money
It’s an ongoing battle within many communities about whether a hobby/product/skill should be monetized. However, as time moves on, everything eventually becomes an industry. There was once a time when every sport played was done so for fun in a playground or empty field and now we have incredible major leagues featuring cultivated talent that pull in billions each year. To say cosplay will ever do the same feels far off, but the truth is it just might.
Many have a problem with professional cosplayers as a whole. The stigma that most of them are women and either get or expect to attend events, namely conventions, for free is largely unfounded. I, as a female professional cosplayer, am here to dispel any rumor regarding that. Being featured in any capacity at a convention means being part of the show, providing a service to the overall show. Attending a convention on someone else’s dime implies that I get a pass and walk around the convention, doing as I please. That has never been the case. More often than not, myself and other cosplayers are expected to put on panels, help with various contests, attend pre, post, and current promotional events, and find a way to manage a table the entire show. With the average convention being 3 days long, this adds up to roughly 30 hours dedicated to the con (those are the exact amount of hours I will be working this weekend at a convention as a cosplay guest.) While I will enjoy myself thoroughly at the con this weekend, I don’t remember the last time I worked that long for nothing. This is what has recently sparked cosplay controversy (if you haven’t heard, search “Santa Fe Comic Con”). To sum up, a convention PR organizer posted a hypothetical conversation he’s had with, what is assumed, at least one cosplayer in the recent past. Needless to say it has not gone well. If you’d like to read a fantastic piece on the subject, professional cosplayer Kamui has written one here.
Whether or not you cosplay completely for fun or if you want to make a career out of it, the truth is, cosplay brings in people. The more extravagant the costumes, the more spectacle and awe they create. This alone develops into name recognition among communities and begins a demand for their presence at shows. The majority of cosplayers get their names out there by cold-emailing conventions. If they’re contacted in return, negotiations are made between the two parties to determine what is fair for everyone involved. Often convention expectations, travel, lodging, table fees, and a per diem are mentioned to some degree. Very rarely is all of that offered to any one guest, especially cosplay (usually all of that is given to those deemed celebrities). Therefore, you can safely assume any cosplay guest has paid at least some of those fees to be there, maybe most if they’re out of town guests.
If you feel that capitalizing on cosplay is wrong, you’re not alone, but that group is getting smaller and smaller. Not only do cosplayers make money off of it now, but so do companies. There are plenty of big name companies who have begun to market strictly to cosplayers by making costumes ahead of time, creating patterns for difficult pieces, and carrying hard to find products like various thermoplastics. Monetizing cosplay was an inevitability, but it shouldn’t take away from anyone’s enjoyment of the practice.
The Thing about Cosplay is…Exclusivity
For one reason or another, many believe they can’t cosplay. Usually it’s because they feel as if they shouldn’t expose themselves to such attention and that fear is generally based on a body dismorphia that is far too common. The actual truth is that everyone can cosplay. There’s nothing stopping you. What’s exclusive about the cosplay world is the level of fame you may or may not achieve. Your page likes, your YouTube hits, your Instagram followers – it’s all a combination of hard work and luck. If your costumes are stellar, you’ll get your recognition. I have personally seen it happen. It may happen literally overnight; it may take years of dedication, but if you’ve got the goods, then you’ll get somewhere in this world.
An argument I hear constantly is “it’s always the hot 20-something female who wins the prizes and thinks she’s better than everyone else.” Yes, sex sells. That’s Marketing 101. But look at the top 2 cosplayers in the country: Jessica Nigri and Yaya Han. Both put out high level, detail oriented cosplays every year that put others to shame. They’re also intelligent business women who have valuable brands that literally a few million people are invested in. And while there may not be any male cosplayers on the same level they are (you’d be hard pressed to find a male fashion model in a similar position), digging a little deeper will show you that male cosplayers take home just as many prizes as the female ones. So, yes, sex sells; but talent is king here.
Diversity is incredibly important in the world of cosplay. If you bring anything new to the table, whether it is your lifestyle, your costuming style, or just who you are as a person, then your work is more likely to be recognized. Cosplayer Misa on Wheels has made herself a pinnacle in the cosplay community by promoting acceptance among cosplayers. By not fitting a mold, you bring a new perspective to a world ever changing. There’s always something new to create and appreciate.
What if you don’t have “the goods” or your talents lie elsewhere? Well, have you thought about looking at cosplay from another angle? Instead of becoming an internet famous cosplay model, you could try making props for cosplayers. It’s an incredibly difficult task for many that leaves wide open opportunities for others with the skills to take. If that doesn’t work, how about a cosplay podcast or blog? We’re all looking to learn and laugh from others’ experiences. You can use it to feature other cosplayers (something they’re always clamoring for) or featuring particular photo shoots. A new trend is graphic artists offering photo editing skills to cosplayers to add that extra oomph to their portfolio.
The truth is, every form of art has room for everyone to partake. Will everyone become a famous artist? Of course not; that’s never the case. Will your work be enjoyed by someone else? Of course it will. Most likely by me.
The Thing about Cosplay is…Safety
If you’ve been to a convention within the last few years, you’ve probably seen the Cosplay is Not Consent signs everywhere. What exactly does that mean? It means don’t touch someone just because they’re in costume. The costume is cool. It’s clearly a spectacle and cosplayers want attention when they wear them. But by no means does that mean they want to be touched. This goes for adults and children. I know it may be difficult to tell your kid he can’t hug Elsa or hold Thor’s hammer right away, but we all deserve a “please and thank you.” If you were at the grocery store, you wouldn’t randomly hug a stranger there; don’t do it at a convention either.
It also means that you should ask for pictures. It’s just polite. For some, that cosplay may be the only public image of them and I’m sure they want it to be a good one. They’ll pose and you’ll appreciate it more.
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s legitimately dangerous at times being a cosplayer and by following the rule of “Asking before Acting,” can put a cosplayer at ease. Before the Cosplay is Not Consent movement, it was fairly common for cosplayers to be violated. Breasts touched, butts grabbed, taking up-skirt shots… It’s incredibly disgusting what some people went through (I say people because I’ve seen male cosplayers be ogled and groped too). Even with that rule in place, there are still hundreds of cosplay events outside of conventions where these things can occur.
It’s no revolutionary statement to say that the internet is a dangerous place either. Cosplay opens you up to a myriad of opinions, and everyone has one about your costume. You can stick to the nicer of the sites, Deviant Art, Facebook, Instagram, and still receive ignorant, hurtful feedback. Sometimes, you’ll be, what I like to refer to as, “collected.” This is when complete strangers send you personal requests in hopes of seeing more of you. Literally. They want nudes. And they’ll ask. A day where I don’t wake up with dick pics in my inbox will be a good day. They often forget you’re a person with feelings, opinions of your own, a life. They can be upset with you if you’re in a relationship, or angry when you don’t message back right away. It’s a dangerous world when you’re seen as just an object and no longer a human.
My recommendation is to set your page on an extremely private setting and send everyone to your public page for cosplay shenanigans. Block trolls. Report harassment. Stand up for yourself. Don’t work with skeezy people. A public life is not an easy one, but it is manageable.
The Thing about Cosplay is it’s Everything
Cosplay is so incredibly important to so many that it was likely to stir up drama from the start. When you have a group of people who are so passionate and so dedicated to one thing, feelings are bound to get hurt. How dare someone tell you your way of doing something is wrong because it’s not their way? How dare someone say you can’t do what you love because you don’t fit XYZ criteria? Cosplay breaks people out of their shells. It opens doors for weirdos like me to meet other awesome weirdos like you.
Cosplay controversy will never end. We’ll hear the “do you think it’s okay for people to charge for selfies?” and “is sexy cosplay even cosplay?” as long as the industry continues. But hopefully it will continue to grow because, when in costume, cosplayers can feel special, and that’s everything.
Tell me your cosplay stories in the comments!