Thinking Through Cos-Politics

Photo credit (left to right): Ed Litfin / Zipdodah, KNP Photo / Colfox Cosplay & Photography, Craig's Cosplay Corral, KNP Photo / Colfox Cosplay & Photography.
Photo credit (left to right): Zipdodah, Colfox Cosplay & Photography, Craig’s Cosplay Corral, Colfox Cosplay & Photography.

I’ve been cosplaying and attending conventions for over ten years. Sewing is a way for me to release stress and I’ve been able to meet some absolutely wonderful people through this hobby. But it isn’t always pretty and it isn’t always fun.

To be blunt, the cosplay community (at least in southern California, where I’m from) can be vitriolic, spiteful, and filled with people who thrive on putting others down. I’ve experienced both sides: being hated and being hateful. Neither is healthy and it’s important that cosplayers (especially those who have amassed any kind of following) participate in the conversation so these behaviors can change. In the past few years, the community has shifted from a place where you can meet like-minded people and build friendships to a competition where too many people hope to attain “cosfame” to the detriment of others.

There has been a growth of conversation around cos-positivity and cosplay bullying – rightfully so. But I’ve also noticed that some of the people promoting cos-positivity are precisely those who also perpetuate cosplay bullying, shaming culture, and a hostile environment for both fans and creators.

Anastasia cosplay by Caitlin. Photo by Geri Kramer
Photo credit: Geri Kramer

This is not endemic of cosplayers but rather of the systemic competition, gender politics, and overall power inequalities in modern society. When we think about the classroom, the workplace, and even some family dynamics, there is always-already a culture of competition even among ‘equals.’ From my personal experiences, there’s little room for actual collaboration that does not result in something that benefits one party over the other(s).

In the cosplay community, it seems to me that collaboration doesn’t occur among friends. Instead group cosplays or collaborative projects become more of a business transaction: if you do this with me, it will help grow your brand. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of interaction, as long as everyone involved knows. People want the ‘A,’ the promotion, the parent’s favoritism, but no one wants to admit when it causes them to belittle and degrade their peers, colleagues, or siblings. And, within the cosplay community, many who want prestige and fame have a tendency to seek it out to the denigration of others.

This happens all over the place. I didn’t watch Heroes of Cosplay but I’ve heard that the SyFy cosplay reality series focused on the competitive aspect of the craft. And, as a reality series, the show likely manufactured drama among cosplayers, highlighting animosity among the community (an animosity that seems to be running rampant now). Similarly, costume competitions are gaining attention at conventions. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to showcase your craft but that isn’t the only reason to attend a convention. When I started attending cons, they were more like a geeky meet and greet than a catwalk. Exhibit hall, artist alley, various panels, game rooms, etc. are all part of con life. Making cons only about showing off your cosplay means that you miss out on so much. More and more cosplayers want to be guests of honor and cosplay competition judges without recognizing how detrimental that can be to the community. The connotations behind the word “judge” are enough to wreak havoc.

Additionally, too often we start to think “Well, mine will be better” or “So-and-so did it better so why should I even bother?” Of course we should bother because it’s not about being the best – it’s about doing something you love.

I’ve been on both sides of this equation. I’ve been part of an “in group” that criticizes other cosplayers out of jealousy and anger. I regret the ways I engaged in privately criticizing other cosplayers because it seemed like it was the thing to do. I regret the ways that I allowed myself to be pressured into contributing to this negative environment. It isn’t healthy and it doesn’t belong in this community.

Photo credit: Estrada.

I’ve likewise been the object of antagonism, accused of using my friends for whatever they can give me in some desperate attempt to amass fame. I’ve been cosplaying for over ten years and, at this point in my life, I don’t care about having a following. That’s not why I cosplay. If you like my work, great. If you don’t, that’s great too.

You may be thinking “Okay Caitlin, so what do we do?” That’s a great question. How can we change behavior within the cosplay community? We start by changing our own behaviors – both within cosplay and within other social groups. We have to point out when our friends and acquaintances are perpetuating a cycle of toxic attitudes. We have to be willing to say “this isn’t okay” right next to “here’s how we change it.”

I’m ready to see something shift. I’m ready to promote cos-positivity while acknowledging the fact that I used to participate in the negative snickering about people my friends didn’t like. I don’t want this community to be a place of hostility, antagonism, and competition anymore. Do you?

Photo credit: Colfox Cosplay & Photography