Why Halloween Isn’t Enough: The Psychology Of Cosplay

Posted Friday, October 28th, 2011 09:30 pm GMT -4 by

Guest Post by @ArkhamAsylumDoc 

I’m a cosplayer.

I’m a full-grown adult with a 401K, and I dress up in costumes all year round. This shouldn’t sound like a confession, but when I say it, I feel like I’m revealing a secret.  It’s an admission I rarely make to others in both my personal and professional life. So what’s the big deal? Why the secrecy?

Here’s the most common scenario when I bring up the word cosplay at the office:

Colleague: “You’re a …what is a cosplayer exactly?”

Me: “Well, I dress up in costume, as a fictional character from comic books and then go to con-ven-shuuu…” (As I say this out loud, I realize how ridiculous my explanation sounds.)

Colleague (if hasn’t walked away in disgust): “Isn’t that what Halloween is for?”

No.

The difference is that everyone dresses up at Halloween. There’s a great degree of social expectation and acceptance with Halloween costuming.  When it comes to cosplayers, we’re fully aware that it’s not for everyone. We know that only a fraction of adults have the desire, imagination, and confidence to strap on the brightly-colored vinyl and spandex and publicly parade themselves smack in the middle of July.

What’s the underlying appeal of cosplay?

We’re fully aware that we’re celebrating our fandom in a very campy way. But there are all types of reasons people cosplay. Some like constructing the costumes, perfecting the fit, emulating with exactness the look of the character.  Others enjoy the performance of cosplay: walking the con floor, displaying their craftmanship, peeking through masks, stealing glances from fans, the flashing lights.

Some like the secret identity….

Dr. Robin Rosenberg, web writer at Psychology Today and editor of The Psychology of Superheroes, is a board certified clinical psychologist who also shares my curiosity about the underpinnings of cosplay. She believes that cosplayers are a diverse community of people and that cosplay is done in a wide variety of ways. “Some cosplayers are folks who don the same costume each year for a local convention, whereas other cosplayers have closets that contain multiple costumes, each made by hand and worked on for a year. For folks in this latter category, cosplay is an engrossing and sustaining leisure activity throughout the year.”

Over time, the engrossing lifestyle can develop into an alter identity, complete with an alternative gang of friends, events, and even travel devoted solely to costuming.  This lifestyle may be in contrast to a person’s “everyday” routine. The degree to which someone’s life is “compartmentalized” this way may indeed vary.  I know a successful lawyer who has created an elaborate Star Wars Imperial Officer costume complete with Imperial citations. His legal work and intergalactic domination plans never intersect.

The Female Furies and Darkseid at San Diego Comic Con 2011

Birds of a feather…vinyl…spandex…leather…

Forget about the idea that “nerds are loners.” Oftentimes, cosplayers make their costuming events quite social. From planning costumes together, consulting with each other on designs, and walking the convention floor as a themed troupe, cosplayers are more cohesive than competitive. They share resources, skills, props, and costume pieces. From personal experience, cosplaying in pairs or groups is considerably more fun. I’ve felt a huge level of support from my co-cosplayers. If a stocking rips, a prop breaks, or a stiletto boot gets unbearable, a masked friend is nearby to sew, glue, pin, and hold you together. And to clarify–cosplaying is slightly different than its cousin, Role-Playing (also called LARPing.) When in costume, cosplayers are still themselves. Yes, we try to emulate the appearance of a character like Catwoman, Han Solo, Wolverine, or Amy Pond. Just like the wigs, masks, hoods and props, the character is like a colorful accent rather than a complete identity replacement.

De-identification, re-identification, and objectification

Doctor Who Crossplay led by @TheNerdyBird at NYCC 2011

Although we are still ourselves while in costume, there’s an active play with self-identity, especially based on the knowledge that we are in “front of an audience.” Through interviews with cosplayers, Dr. Rosenberg found that not all cosplayers are seeking the spotlight. “You might think cosplay would primarily appeal to folks with an interest in acting or performing; there are some with that background. But at least as frequently there are cosplayers who say that they are generally shy; cosplaying gives these folks an opportunity to be different than themselves.”

For some, the most exciting part of cosplay is casting aside their everyday identity and celebrating a characteristic they’d like to have if they were indeed a Superhero. Personally, one appeal of cosplay is the element of anonymity.  If there is a mask or helmet involved in the costume, it can be very liberating to assume another role or exaggerate an existing trait. This new role as a Superhero may give you characteristics that are certainly a part of you but perhaps didn’t have an outlet for.  Leadership, power, wisdom. And yes, sexuality.  In many ways, cosplaying is participating in an act of re-identification–an opportunity to embrace and express parts of you that may be unacceptable, stigmatized, or dismissed in other settings. For some women, expressing their sexuality during cosplay may be particularly fulfilling because they may not feel it is “allowable” in other contexts.

Fandom and Femaleness

Unfortunately, some women are questioned for wearing cosplay outfits that may appear to be salacious and therefore demeaning to women. However, dressing up is an exercise of fandom–cosplay is celebrating your fandom in that it is one way to share your passion for a genre that is very important to you. If another person doesn’t share that fandom they may not understand that experience. Can a woman wear a costume that shows a lot of skin and still consider herself a feminist? I say yes. What better way to express your freedom as a woman than to choose to dress as a character that you admire and relate to? Although I prefer a blaster in hand, I do not criticize female Star Wars fans for opting to wear the more recognizable Slave Leia bikini costume. The experience for that cosplayer might be empowering and expressive rather then oppressive. And let’s not forget who strangled Jabba to death in ‘Return of the Jedi’!

Real-Life Superheroes

During last week’s New York Comic-Con, I was joined by Dr. Rosenberg on a panel that focused on the physical and psychological realities of comic book Superheroes. Our co-panelists, psychology professor Dr. Travis Langley (author of Batman in His Belfry) and neuroscientist Dr. Paul Zehr  (author of Becoming Batman and Inventing Iron Man) discussed the human possibility of Batman and Iron Man.  These are two superheroes who lack the cosmic rays, magic rings, or mutant genes but rely on extreme training and technological enhancements.Their human frailty is what make them relatable. The truth is, as Dr. Zehr pointed out, the physical toll of a superhero lifestyle may not be sustainable. While someone may have the psychological motivation and drive to clean the streets of crime, this may simply not be possible.

Not everyone agrees. 

Phoenix Jones AKA Benjamin Fodor in downtown Seattle

Indeed, some real-life costumed folks have taken their fictional identities to another level. The Rain City Superhero Movement, led by Phoenix Jones, are self described “ordinary men in extraordinary costumes” who have banded together to ensure the safety of Seattle’s citizens. This crime-fighting group has been receiving increasing attention over the past month due to Jone’s recent arrests.  While this group may represent hundreds of self-proclaimed “Real Life Superheroes,” their motives and goals differ greatly from convention cosplayers.

Cosplay, in its simplest form, is a public extension of my geekery. It allows me to express my passion for a particular geeky genre through physical display.  The more elaborate or impressive the costume, the louder the message is: “This character has meaning in my life.”  In addition, the knowledge that I can assume *any* role–male, female, young, old, etc, is very empowering. There are almost no limits with cosplay and crossplay, which can be very liberating for women who may feel restricted in their day-to-day lives.

Psychologically, I believe it is an adaptive, healthy exercise to assume the physical role of a character that you can relate to or admire greatly. I find it nothing short of empowering to assume the role of a character who is independent, cunning, agile, and confident. Showing a lot of skin does not necessarily negate all of those amazing qualities in a woman!  If I’ve ever felt secretive about talking about cosplay, I’ve learned that this comes not from shame or guilt, but from the desire to preserve an important part of my identity.


@ArkhamAsylumDoc has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and, when not cosplaying, is toiling away in a science lab at a well-known West Coast University. 

  • SodaVampire

    Amazing!  Such a true article!  I love it when people write well researched articles about cosplay, because it is a complex community that can’t be explained in just a few words or sentences.  

  • I’m currently debating about majoring in Psychology just because I want to do research on the psychology of fandom. I might have to use this article for class sometime.