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The Impact of Cosplay

Lauren Bell

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend San Diego Comic Con, one of the biggest comic and pop culture conventions in the world. I’ve been attending conventions for a decade now, and by far one of my favorite aspects of cons has always been cosplay. My cosplay closet is quite diverse in both genre (I’ve got book demigods, TV timelords, film wizards, and video game badasses) and in gender (male characters, female characters, gender fluid and nonbinary characters). As I decided on the cosplays I’d bring with me across the country (I eventually settled on Merry from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Ellie from The Last of Us video game and TV show), I began to contemplate the impact cosplaying has had on me as I matured and became comfortable with my identity as a queer and nonbinary person.

I was 13 years old when I got my first cosplay together. I thrifted a plain white button down and a tweed jacket from Goodwill, donned a red bowtie, and was gifted a sonic screwdriver. I was the 11th Doctor, the goofy time-traveling alien with two hearts and the ability to regenerate into an entirely new person from the TV show Doctor Who. One may assume I wanted to dress up like him because of his big hearts, his strong moral compass, or the way that he brings hope to the galaxy—and that would certainly make sense. Or perhaps it was subconsciously because of the Doctor’s fluidity in gender, both biologically and within the character’s presentation. But the real reason I wanted to dress up like him was because he and I had the same hairstyle, complete with a matching “swoosh” of hair on the top, and I knew it would be an easy first cosplay to piece together. As I looked in the mirror, pulling on my jacket and adjusting my bowtie, a wave of emotions rolled over me; I only now realize that what I was feeling at the time was a mix of pride and gender euphoria. I never could have predicted that this decision to dress up as the Doctor would have such an impact on my self esteem, confidence, and journey with gender. 

Thinking back on it ten years later, that cosplay not only was the first in a fairly large catalog of cosplays that I made, but it was also the first time I wore a shirt buttoned all the way up to the top. Before then, I hadn’t realized that that option was ever open to me. I felt so comfortable wearing this costume, disguising myself behind a character whom I adored (and still do!) and getting to wear masculine clothing. The 11th Doctor would become the first of many cosplays in which I dressed up as a male character. There was something about it that felt so empowering to dress up as characters that I love while also feeling so comfortable doing so. I was never alone in this “cosplay fluidity;” at conventions, everyone around me was dressed up in characters that didn’t necessarily match their gender, or were creating genderbent versions of the characters. Seeing people dress up however they wanted to, regardless of their gender or sex, encouraged me to dress more fluidly in my every day. It gave me the representation I needed to feel comfortable in my own gender and appearance, and would overall help me on my own discovery of identity. In other words, conventions provided me the space and cosplays the opportunity to explore my own style and comfort. 

When I am in public, I am often hyper-aware of how I am presenting myself and am being perceived in regards to my own gender. I typically have a pronouns pin on me and dress androgynously to hint to others that I am nonbinary (though of course one should never assume pronouns, and presentation does not equal identity. However, outside of queer spaces this is a lesson still being learned by many and as such we are often forced into a binary based on perceived gender. This is my way to encourage those who would assume one way or another with me to recognize that I am somewhere within the label of “other.” Okay, stepping down from my mini soap box now.) When I am in cosplay though, I find myself not caring as much what box people assume I fit in. Usually at conventions, people will either gender me “in character”, meaning that they’ll assign the pronouns of the character I’m cosplaying, which is absolutely fine with me, or they’ll assume incorrectly, which is also ok. If a little kid thinks that I’m a “boy Rey” or a “girl Doctor” then maybe that will give them the confidence to dress up as a character that doesn’t fit in with their own gender identity. That’s the beauty of cosplay: it’s for everyone, regardless of what you look like. And maybe it will encourage them, just as it did me, to find what they’re comfortable in, regardless of whether society believes they should be wearing “boy clothes” or “girl clothes.”

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