Gender Expression through Cosplay: Creative Explorations of Identity in the “Nerdverse”

Continuing the conversation of diversity within film and related industries, I am extending my emphasis to expressions of fandom. Specifically, I am focusing on cosplay and how it both encourages diversity through identity exploration and still raises some important concerns. The art of cosplay does not fix issues of diversity, and can in fact exacerbate concerns when individuals choose cultural appropriation over respect, yet the flexibility of gender expression and “playing” another character can help some explore identities beyond socially constructed “norms”.

One dictionary definition of cosplay states: “short for ‘costume play’: an activity in which people dress up as characters from books or films, often acting out role plays,” although the often fictional characters cosplayers may choose for their cosplaying can extend beyond these mediums. This acting or playing different characters can therefore allow individuals to explore these character identities as well as their own. For example, “The Ol’ Switcheroo: A Consideration of Gender-Bending in Geek Culture” by Becky Chambers describes a woman who cosplayed as Captain Malcolm Reynolds (from Firefly and Serenity), not by trying to pass as a man but by embodying the essence of the role as a woman. Chambers thus describes the popularity of gender-bending that extends the possibility of characters and allows for a suspension of disbelief, especially considering the diversity within sci-fi and fantasy universes. Just because a character has not been represented as a certain gender, sex, etc. doesn’t mean you can’t embody the character that way through your personal identity and/or expression. This experience of experimenting with gender can be especially poignant for some. For instance, I was able to attend Alexa Heart’s (Heart and Soul Cosplay) panel at the Des Moines Comic-Con, who described personal experiences of coming out and exploring a transgender identity through cosplay.

J.A. Micheline also discusses this issue in “Cosplaying While Trans: Exploring the Intersection Between Cosplay and Gender Identity” through personal stories from Robin Wright & Veronica Sanderson-Smith, who identify as trans, as well as other authors and activists. Wright notes the freedom of experimentation that cosplay provides, particularly for those who identify as queer (as seen through Sanderson-Smith specifically describes cosplaying “black versions of popular female heroes” as well as characters of different genders. Based on their responses, Micheline notes:

“Just as there is no single way to cosplay, there is no   single way to be trans. Veronica is happy to smash the      limits of gender and race in cosplay, while Robin remains   focused on celebrating her womanhood . . . . Still, the two agree: before anything, cosplay has to be fun.”

Micheline additionally specifically quotes Ellen Kirkpatrick’s connections between the superhero genre’s model of identity and trans cosplaying identities: “The same ideas come up . . . visuality of the body, changing identities, and people’s practices—they change names, locations, they change the way they look, the way they talk, the way their body moves.” Thus, the environment of cosplay could allow experimentation before choosing to come out. However, J. Skyler also notes the harassment and hostility that occurs for those within marginalized communities, even in the supposedly all-inclusive environment of cosplaying and geek culture at large. Along with these concerns, the time and money required to cosplay often limits the accessibility of cosplaying.

As these articles show, as mainstream awareness and diversity grows within geek culture, interest in learning more about both positive and problematic elements (such as #Gamergate) rises. Therefore, along with personal stories, an interest in cosplay has been developing in the academic world, including Many case-studies, articles, and books have been written, analyzing this exploration of gender as well as the implications for comic-convention and gaming culture through fan and media studies lenses.

Natalie Wilson, in “Comic-Conned: Gender Norms in a Carnivalesque Atmosphere,” uses an academic approach to describe concerns such as sexism and misogyny within cosplay and comic-con environments. She specifically notes that comic-cons “echo larger societal shifts in gendered norms and expectations that some welcome (feminists, progressives, social justice advocates) and others disdain.” This leads to what she describes as a “’masculinist’ vibe . . . [that] sometimes transforms carnivalistic revelry into dehumanizing objectification, predatory gazing, . . . sexual harassment and assault” within the comic-con environment. Therefore, although awareness and welcoming of women and marginalized groups may be increasing, representation still often centers on the male gaze (leading to the sexualization and objectification of women) and other socially constructed norms (such as cis, heteronormative expectations). Nevertheless, Wilson also notes the continuation of gender progress amidst regressiveness, especially regarding representation on comic-con panels and the exploration of sexiness beyond sexualization for female characters.

As with any community, there are both positive and negative aspects; however, within any level of involvement we can be powerful social justice voices that encourage inclusivity.

Along with the exploration of these ideas, you may also be interested in joining in the practice of cosplaying. You could explore more about the comic universe and how to cosplay (, join an ISU student club (, attend local events (, or even check out upcoming Comic-Con opportunities (

– by: Sarah C


About Margaret Sloss Women's Center - ISU

The Margaret Sloss Women's Center promotes equity on the Iowa State University campus. Through a feminist lens, the center advocates for individuals and groups; provides support, referrals, community and programming; and maintains a safe space in the Sloss House.

Posted on March 2, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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