Beyond Heroes and Villains

Investigating the nature of good guys and bad guys in fiction and real life

Heroes of Cosplay, Part 1: Can We All Play Together?

Cosplayers dress up and role-play for many reasons and face scrutiny for it.

Wizard World New Orleans Comic Con 2014. Heroes of Cosplay screencap.
Heroes of Cosplay episode 12. http://www.syfy.com/now/heroes-of-cosplay/full-episode/wizard-world-new-orleans-part-2/29417990788

If you don't risk misrepresentation, you're unlikely to get representation.

The Syfy television series Heroes of Cosplay follows cosplayers, people engaged in cosplay (costume play), as they prepare creative character costumes and compete in costume contests at various comic-cons. Competition is only a little bit of what goes on in the cosplay scene. Viewers unfamiliar with cosplay might overestimate the importance of the competitions for most cosplayers. Heroes of Cosplay offers only a sliver of what goes on in cosplay. That sliver is important. It's a valuable step in helping people who don't know anything about cosplay come to understand it a tad more and to sympathize with these creative individuals who put a ton of work into their craft. The show is not perfect, but nothing in life is perfect. It is progress. It opens dialogue and can get people to thinking. I've overheard some of my students in the psychology lab discussing the program and how powerfully it inspired them.

I know some of the cast members past and present, and I got a kick out of spotting myself in the background in a New Orleans episode. When I've seen Jessica MerizanHolly ConradVictoria, and others catch grief from those who just want to stir things up, I admire these gutsy cosplayers even more. They are heroes. The series title means something bigger than viewers might realize. They're putting themselves out there and helping to educate others about this unusual thing they do. 

Wizard World New Orleans Comic Con 2014. Heroes of Cosplay screencap.
Heroes of Cosplay episode 11. http://www.syfy.com/now/heroes-of-cosplay/full-episode/wizard-world-new-orleans-part-1/28826937991


Throughout the so-called cosplay community, reactions to Heroes of Cosplay have ranged from enthusiastic praise to vitriolic condemnation. It's easy to say, "They deserve whatever they get because they chose to go on that show," but if nobody ever stepped forward and let the cameras offer glimpses into the cosplay life, no viewers could learn from them at all. Those who criticize the series should distinguish the show from the cast. They can criticize the series without making attacks on living human beings, and they need to remember that reality TV is never exactly reality. Then again, what is? Certainly not the evening news. Even when television crews seriously strive to be honest and to present some truth, they must do so within the limits of editing minutes of footage together out of all the hours involved and while presenting a narrative that viewers can follow. As actor Norman Reedus once noted regarding complaints about Boondock Saints writer-director Troy Duffy, "If you have enough footage of Santa Claus, you can edit it to make him look like an asshole." Santa's elven editor might not even see that the selected snippets make Santa seem snippy.

The laws of physics themselves hold that whatever we observe is changed by the observation. Recording the cosplay contests and activities is intrusive and does alter what's going on, possibly to extreme inconvenience and potential unfairness to everyone around. That can improve. It has to start somewhere, though. When a friend of mine became Miss America back in the 1950s, the process must have been far simpler and maybe more fun before cameras intruded progressively more and more to mutate the competition into a sprawling spectacle on TV.

The majority of you have never attended a fan convention, so you've not witnessed the kind of cosplay I'm talking about, and that's perfectly fine. Some might even wonder why this is worth discussing at PsychologyToday.com. Drs. Andrea Letamendi (quite the cosplayer herself) and Robin Rosenberg once surveyed nearly a thousand cosplayers to learn more about who cosplays and why they dive into activities that can become expensive and quite time-consuming. What motivates them? “The top reason people cosplay is because it’s fun," Letamendi reported. "You can't pinpoint an abnormality in that. It's no different than someone who plays in a band or plays sports 

While I don't cosplay, many of my favorite people to hang out with at conventions do. I love their energy, their life. They have their fun in a way that livens up the cons for us all. We need to show these individuals appreciation, support, and basic respect. If you'd rather hate on them, if you'd rather spit on their fun and poison your own soul with venom, please reconsider your priorities for all our sakes. Life's too short to spend it hating. Celebrate! Have fun helping others have fun! 

New York Comic Con 2010.
Personal collection. Photo by Travis Langley
 

"Fun," of course, is hard to define. Is it healthy? What benefits do cosplayers derive from these activities? We can talk about the psychological issues involved in role-playing, disinhibition, escapism, self-esteem, self-perception, self-presentation, sublimation, confidence, community, bigotry, steretyping, prejudice, discrimination, alienation, affiliation, introjection, identification, identity, inclusion, exclusion, ingroup differentation, outgroup homogeneity.... Oh, the list goes on, and later this year, I will explore this list.

Wizard World Chicago Comic Con 2013. "Batman and Psychology" audience.
Personal collection. Photo by Travis Langley.
 

I raised these issues online and warned people not to message me in public forums if they weren't willing to get quoted at PsychologyToday.com. For whatever it's worth, here's how some of that exchange went on Twitter and Facebook.

@Superherologist: Contemplating psychological topics related to cosplay: role-playing, disinhibition, self-esteem, self-perception, alienation, affiliation...

@Professor_Just: @Superherologist Identification? ...

@Superherologist: Identification and introjection definitely figure in for some cosplayers.

@abbydarkstar: @Superherologist is there a term for "lumped in" and "assumptions"?

@Professor_Just : @friisey @Superherologist Mechanism for development, growth and change, but equally a defensive shielding mechanism for identity. Cosplay's variety of purposes reflects the iconic motives for costumes in the figures they identify with?

@friisey: @Superherologist @Professor_Just Could potentially help find self but could just as easily keep one from finding self.

‏@Blackmasks: @Superherologist one, if not THE, favorite part of going to cons for me.

 @GundamRX101: To some it's a passion to represent a character you love, there shouldn't be a hard time given.

@BonzoBeckett: @Superherologist Folks like to dress up! I would say anyone who hassles someone who is dressed up is the one who needs to be examined. IMHO.

@Shadowbat: @Superherologist The only ones who would ridicule cosplayers are the ones without enough imagination to step outside themselves

@elizabeth_ann: is there a psychological freedom gained from cosplaying?

@Professor_Just: Finding out why good actors act, and how, is a massively complex and rewarding subject, though.

@friisey:  I'd have to use the quote "Obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated" (or passionate). I don't know how many x someone has told me I'm "obsessed" with a show/character because I love/enjoy it/him/her

@StayclassySDCC: @Superherologist "escapism" comes to mind

A.R.G.: At the same time, I'd submit that there's a difference between personal attacks on individual cosplayers and concerns about what the show allegedly does to increase the spotlight on the cast, even if it means becoming a bother on non-show cosplayers at conventions. ETA: I think we might disagree on some things here, Travis, but I support your sentiment.

A.S.K.:  as a kid, putting on dark sunglasses made me feel a bit protected. I wonder how that might've enhanced if I'd had mask I could put on as well.

J.K.: Something wrong with your mind .....

T.L.: J.K., for wearing a costume and having fun? Try Halloween.

J.K.: You know it .... Calm down. Only a LIFE

M.S.: Why cosplay? Depends on the cosplayer. One or more of the following quotes or paraphrases from different cosplayers I've known can apply to different degrees: passion (loving a character so much it feels great to bring it to life); attention; challenge oneself; competition internal (self-competition) or external (e.g., rivalry; winning a prize); communion ( if that is the correct conjugation of experiencing community); belonging (to join with friends or to make new ones); escapism; disinhibition; profit (rarest of motivations, I'd wager)

Why give anybody a hard time about it? From other Cosplayers: jealousy, elitism, conflicting beliefs/values/definitions (generation gap?), fear of annexation or co-opting. One of the most common causes I have seen for some to hate the show "Heroes of Cosplay" seems to me to be because they think the show is supposed to be a documentary (nope!) and does it poorly, or fear people will mistake it for one and get false impressions about the community. This fears or assume so that people have no media literacy and don't take 'Reality TV' with the appropriate grains of salt.

A few months ago someone wrote that the concept of a gaming community is a false one that should be abolished. Maybe the same can be said for the concept of a cosplay community.

M.S.: Non-cosplayer hate: fear of the unknown, hostility towards those seem as Other.

R.C.S.:  Are you asking? Our basic dna, basic fear of death.. leads to ego and illogical rationalizing like "maybe if I leave a legacy" or in this case "maybe if I be someone that already has a legacy" and you get your picture taken, get in blogs and videos and thats enough to feel immortalized.. Why do they make fun of each other? Same reason our dna makes us jealous of lovers.. you want to protect your legacy

J.W.: Why cosplay? In my case it may be some combination of unique escapism and looking up to/wanting to be a part of an expansive world that is far and away more fantastical than our own.... [Reply is essay length. The rest is on my Facebook page.]

San Diego Comic-Con International 2008.
Personal collection. Photo by Travis Langley.
 

In part two of this feature, I'll describe specific psychological adaptations as they relate to the mental health benefits of cosplay and maybe a few risks as well.

Cosplay - 'cause play!  

Follow-up

* Haunted by Sigmund Freud: Adaptation or Defense Mechanisms? 
  (prelude to part 2)

Related posts

* What is Superhero Therapy?

Superheroine Recovery: An Interview with Batgirl's Therapist

* WonderCon: Batman vs. Jason! Kirk vs. Vader! Who vs. Holmes!

Cortex Crusaders Put Comic-Con on the Convention Couch

Comics Arts Conference Brings Psychology to Comic-Con 2013

WonderCon Psych 2013: Comics and Zombies and Sith! Oh, My!

Wedding, Funerals, Reboots - Capes and Cognitive Dissonance

* Legends of the Knight Documentary Explores Power of Stories

* Psychology of Cult TV: Better Living by "Geeking Out"

Who Are Your Heroes?

WonderCon 2008. "Shadow of the Bat" audience members with the speaker.
Personal collection. Photo by Alex Langley.
 

You can follow me on Twitter as @Superherologist or find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/BatmanBelfry. I'd love to hear from you! 

Travis Langley, Ph.D. is the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.

more...

Subscribe to Beyond Heroes and Villains

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.