Growing up, I loved to play dress up. The concept of trying on new items of clothing and new identities at once appealed strongly to me. As an adult cosplayer, dressing up as someone else remains a fun way to explore myself. As MacKenzie Patterson says, “I like cosplay because it’s basically like playing pretend! You get to dress up and be a different person for the day.” Just like a child dressing up as a chef or a ballerina imagines what it might be like to be in that role, fictional characters present cosplayers with possibilities, different selves we could embody, different lives we could lead.
When I cosplay characters who are meaningful to me, I get to embody the possibilities they offer me. All the characters I cosplay are incredible, powerful women who are overcoming different forms of hurt and trauma. As a sexual assault survivor, trying on those women’s identities for a while allows me to imagine that one day I will feel as strong and brave as them. By taking on who they are, I am able to see more of who I might be. Patterson says cosplaying Stevonnie from Steven Universe allowed them to take on that character’s persona. They say, “Cosplay makes me feel confident!...I noticed while I was cosplaying Stevonnie, I could just be silly and have a good time and no one would bat an eyelash because it was in character, it was very freeing!”
Other cosplayers agree that cosplay brings confidence. Laurel Detkin says cosplay helps her have, “Confidence with a capital C. Both characters [I cosplay] strut around everywhere they go and part of cosplay is adopting their personalities for a little bit. So I get to strut around and be confident the whole time I am in the costume.” A bravado that might feel unnatural or inaccessible as ourselves becomes easy to embody when it’s part of someone else’s personality that you’re trying on for the day. Whether or not you can feel confident as you, you can feel the confidence of your character.
This confidence carries over to playing with gender presentation as well. As Collier Phillips who cosplays Pearl from Steven Universe says, “Being queer is a very central part of my identity, and as such I consider gender a very performative activity, and I think a lot of other cosplayers do as well.” Cosplay brings out the play in gender, celebrating the ways we can change how we feel and how we are perceived by changing our appearance. Phillips continues, “When you cosplay someone who may not be your gender, you’re seen as everyone else at the con as that gender. It’s really affirming. It’s not like I can go out in the street in pink short shorts and a crop top that matches without getting hassled, but not at a con!” In a space in which everyone is playing with identity and presentation, there is an opportunity for marginalized gender identities to be embraced.
Detkin plays with gender by queering a cishet male character in her cosplay of “Mal the Riveter” a feminine take on Mal from Firefly. She says, “I love combining those two because I feel like Mal would really look up to Rosie and the women of the Industrial Revolution had he gotten to work with them. Plus it gives me a chance to be cutesy without losing any gendered strength.” By playing with the gender presentation of a more traditionally masculine, heterosexual character, Detkin is able to queer her performance of Mal.
While queering characters can be fun, it is also meaningful for LGBT individuals to see ourselves reflected on the screen. New representations bring new opportunities for fans to see themselves and cosplay someone who actually resembles them. Patterson says, “I was first drawn to Stevonnie because they look a lot like me! I don’t see many characters I relate physically with so that was really cool.” Phillips saw themselves in Steven Universe as well. They say, “As someone who considers myself non-binary, I love that all the gems are essentially genderless and behave in whichever way they want.” Seeing one’s self in a fictional representation opens the door to envisioning one’s self embodying that character’s strengths. Representation allows us to see ourselves, but also to see ourselves in new ways.
Cosplay gives us the option to be whoever we want and to present them however we want. It lets us celebrate the characters we see ourselves in while also discovering new parts of ourselves we didn’t realize were there. Dressing up as someone new is a chance to explore our identity and make new selves, if only for as long as we wear the costume.