Mouths agape, my co-worker and I took in the sight of a woman dressed as the slave version of Princess Leia (from Star Wars). We were managing a booth at Toronto’s recent FanExpo, and were amazed at the substantial amount of leg on display.
I wouldn’t consider myself a prude, but the abundant partial nudity at FanExpo took some getting used to (it was my first time at a fan convention). Once I adjusted, I began to see the costumes as what they were: another instance of the camaraderie that I found so enjoyable about FanExpo. Troupes of men and women passed by, enthusiastically chatting with us and each other about our fan-related obsessions.
Often they were dressed to the hilt as anime or video game characters in stunningly creative costumes. It was amazing to see the unadulterated enthusiasm of these fans. Irony, something that frequently colours my quasi-hipster existence, was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t miss it in the slightest. And yet, these costumes, worn by women of all ages, were definitely very revealing. The street clothes worn by non-cosplayers seemed to run along the same lines.
I take no issue with wearing revealing clothing, which for many women is an expression of confidence and a celebration of physical beauty, whatever its form. However, I suggest it can be problematic in a place like FanExpo that is populated by a large number of older men, and who appear to be free in taking photos of these girls and women. Alarm bells went off in my head. Surely these men weren’t just moved by the creativity of their costumes.
This isn’t just a FanExpo phenomenon. There’s actually a Tumblr called Comic Con Pervs, where an indignant man recently wrote in to say, “Woman who want nice guys do not where [sic] skanky fucking slut clothes … If I see you and I like what I see I will take a fucking photo. That is the point.” This is deeply disturbing.
Revealing clothing does tend to generate attention, though this is often expressed as respectful appreciation. I reject the notion that a woman exposing her body makes her a slut who’s asking to be disrespected. It’s just flesh, people, attractively presented, not an invitation for sex, right here, right now.
And yet, there are always cases like Mr. Indignant who don’t get this. For the average woman, this must be part and parcel of the costume play (cosplay for short) experience (but harassment, such as this cosplayer describes, is completely unacceptable).
What happens when teen cosplayers experience this, especially given the trend for young cosplayers taking their outfits out of the cons, and into the malls?
I spoke to a dedicated cosplayer named Trin who disputed the notion that young women should dress in revealing costumes, as she felt “kids should be kids.” But, to see a woman dressed up as Cammy from Street Fighter IV and getting plenty of attention for it, makes it fairly hard not to want the same thing.
Not that there isn’t room for less sexualized forms of cosplay. I saw plenty of women of all ages rocking costumes that either weren’t revealing or weren’t meant to be sexy at all. And yet Trin cites that dressing as (even more) risqué versions of characters is increasing in popularity (sexy R2D2, anyone?).
Not that many of these characters (often created by men) aren’t already anatomically enhanced. For Trin, these characters are more representative of her curvy physique than most women portrayed in the media. This makes sense to me.
It also makes sense that these characters can be sexy and also be women cosplayers can identify with. I was very much intrigued by a disabled cosplayer’s identification with Oracle, a female superhero who uses a wheelchair. Oracle’s beautiful, and she’s also smart and talented.
This all goes to show that there’s nothing inherently dangerous about fandom and cosplay, but in the end, it also can’t be denied that it’s a world where women are highly sexualized.
Obviously this is a part of a larger cultural phenomenon, but then again Lady Gaga’s pantless revolution pales in comparison to the butt-floss worn by some video game characters. While it can be fun and daring, and a way to participate in a community, sexualized cosplay isn’t and shouldn’t be a given. That said, it’s a route to approval that female fans must find impossible to ignore.
Bronwyn Kienapple has written for such publications as Canadian Notes & Queries and Eye Weekly. You can find her on Twitter (@B_Kienapple) tweeting voraciously about politics and books.