Because of the fantastic positive feedback from the Leaving Mundania documentary, I’ve decided to post my 2008 academic paper on cosplay.
Identi-play: Cosplay, Camp, Cons and the Carnivalesque
J. M. Frey
Originally presented on April 15th, 2008; updated April 11th, 2013
Theoretical Approaches to Media And Culture
Cosplay: people donning home-made costumes patterned after fictional characters. A Japanese portmanteau of “costume” and “play”, Cosplay exhibits characteristics of both – dressing up like a fictional character, but also ‘inhabiting’ the character’s world; the filtered life of someone who does not exist, and an attempt to capture it for a fleeting moment. Photographer Elena Dorfman (2007) calls it a blurring of fantasy and reality, where identity is exploded, narrative is privileged and persona paramount.
What draws amateur artisans to Cosplay and the convention events that propagate it? Theorists (Butler, 1998; Mercer 1994) posit that switching, trying on, and performing other identities, genders, and in the case of Cosplay, personas and species, allow Cosplayers to fluidly define, stretch, discover, and augment their own sense of identity. Like other performative groups studied by identity theorists – such as gangs or drag queens – Cosplayers slip in and out of identities by slipping in and out of costumes, and perform themselves by surrendering to play. That the concept of identity is itself in flux is perhaps a sign that in an age of virtual hobbies and connections, we no longer know who we are. Cosplay allows participants to create and participate in the physical world, to move a hobby that is primarily screen-centric into a concrete medium.
I elucidate the passion for the art by drawing on Susan Sontag’s treatise on Camp, illuminating the excruciating work and joy Cosplayers wring from a pastime that makes most onlookers squirm, and Mikhail Bakhtin’s study of the carnivalesque in comparison to the festival atmosphere of the convention hall. Straddling the gap between is an insightful essay by Paper Magazine editor Carlo McCormick (Dorfman 2007), which serves as a stark entry point to the cacophony of voices that is Cosplay.