A Crack at Cosplay: Autoethnography and Digital Asia

https://claudialouisemuller.com/2018/10/26/a-crack-at-cosplay-autoethnography-and-digital-asia/

Hey hey there, if you have somehow stumbled upon this blog post and are wondering how to find your way back, please, do sit for a minute and I will walk you through something you might be interested in. You see, for one of my third-year classes – Digital Asia BCM320 – I was tasked with exploring a segment or part of a culture that I had little to no history with and use the experience to shape an account online detailing the process. Sounds odd, but trust me, you’ll want to read on.

There were several topics that interested me, including aspects of Asian culture such as anime, traditional cuisine, meditation, the JDM car scene, JRPGs, and Chinese floristry. None, however, that interested me nor fit this task as well as cosplaying did. And so, here we are. In a previous blog post I detailed the reasoning behind my interest in the area; “I have always been aware of its existence and acknowledged its seemingly large following purely from interactions online, but with friends recently getting into it and my club having several interactions with the Universities’ Cosplay society, my interest has been peaked.”

What resulted was an in-depth study into cosplay through primary and secondary research, both looking into its origins and identification and attempting to form an understanding through participating in the activity itself. Detailed in my second blog post, I quickly realised the uneasiness I felt heading into this project – sure, I wanted to have an authentic go at my field site and wanted to detail the experience through @cosplaystudies – but I was quite nervous about the whole scenario; “As I went on to have my first swing at cosplay, or whatever it was that I deemed a variation of it, I began to realise that the research project was as much about myself as it was about the topic; “..autoethnographies offer a diverse body of works, with many often producing essentially autobiographical accounts of the self as both researcher and the researched” (Kien, G. 2007).”

Armed with determination, the Internet, and the benefit of employee discounts on clothing, I set out to collect primary data to collate on @cosplaystudies and bring it together with more formal understanding right here on my blog.

Previous to this study, I had little to no interaction with cosplaying whatsoever. My very narrow view of the area was limited to a far-off activity that was popular in Korea(?), and some distorted view of a very white-washed and watered down Marvel costume convention that was an iteration of the practice. I’m sure you can see why it intrigued me so much. I was moved to combine the field site with my fondness for Studio Ghibli, as a quick search of popular Cosplays revealed several familiar characters from the anime studio.

Cosplay was originally coined in Japan, first appearing across magazine pages in the 80’s; whereby the practice spread globally, taking foot most firmly in North America. A global craft nowadays, there is a strong subculture in Japan for cosplaying, which I discovered has unique in the sense that there is a stronger focus on aesthetics rather than authenticity (Lee, C. 2015); “The origin of cosplay was in those really old sci-fi conventions or renaissance fairs, where people started making their own costumes,” “Asian cosplay has been a lot about face value, makeup and looking good, looking pretty. But western by comparison has always been an emphasis on creating costumes, elaborate props, creating gimmicks and innovation in what you wear.”

Creators like Anya Panda, HerszloCast, and this special from the Try Guys (this, in particular, came across as a trusted source which is a component of the makeup for my cultural framework of understanding), gave me the starting point I needed and encouraged me to cosplay. This video in particular from Anya Panda was a fantastic starting point, and a warm welcome of encouragement to start somewhere.

My first attempt for Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle was somewhat poor in terms of authenticity upon reflection, however, I was so intimidated by the whole notion of going out to take photos in character that I felt this was a good starting point. Being in front of the camera and the whole process of coordinating my roommate to come out and take photos was very daunting, and I have an enormous amount of respect for those cosplayers friends and family who are behind the camera for them whenever they need. This was a valuable insight into a part of cosplay that I had previously never considered before.

My second attempt was much more driven and had a purpose beyond the project, whereby I had a cosplay-themed event to attend. The event saw many people cosplay western superheroes from the Marvel and DC universe, and very few anime/manga costumes. There were three as far as I could tell; myself, as Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service, a friend as No-Face from Spirited Away (!) and a friend who arrived as Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender (arguably, an Americ-anime). Even though the majority didn’t recognise me and No-Face (not for authenticity, but for lack of knowing the films themselves), it was the most heartwarming thing when people who did recognise us, fanned over our choice of cosplay. The feeling was quite indescribable, and many of them said they had wished they would have thought of doing something similar.

In many ways I could relate to Adam Savage’s Love Letter to Cosplay, in the sense that it truly is an extension of the characters themselves, and I fawned over the potential of a metanarrative and alternate universe where maybe, No-Face and Kiki might be friends, as we joked around and got into character; “...We are all of us on that floor injecting into a narrative that meant something to us, and we are making it our own.” I can definitely see how there would be a grand sense of community, particularly at conventions and online. There is, however, quite a bit of tension amongst the cosplaying community that I became rapidly aware of in my research.

Youtuber Akidearest summarises this unrest that is rampant throughout the cosplaying community, begging for the community to reign in their criticism and encouraging them to not be so hypocritical by welcoming so many to the world of cosplay, only to shame them for poor efforts or drag them down in envy. I also stumbled across several unpopular opinions on Reddit showcasing this attitude; where users criticised the practice for moving down a more accepting route of those at all levels and condemns those who have strayed from traditional cosplaying forms;

 

I hate cosplay “culture” from r/unpopularopinion

 

“Wearing a costume allows a person to tap into confidence they didn’t know they had” Mindy Weisberger from LiveScience states, studying the psychology behind cosplay and the ability for it to be empowering – an idea also raised by HuffPost. I can completely see post-project how it does, in fact, empower and is a fun and creative outlet for both young and old, that in my own opinion, is a safe and prosperous past time. There are dozens of resources that reiterate the enabling power of cosplaying and is a direction I would have liked to take this project further if given the chance.

This project was the very tip of the iceberg I believe, and I can see myself more invested in the idea more so now than ever. It became clear to me the true value of an autoethnographic approach to researching a topic like this, in the sense that I have experienced emotions similar to those in practice that I never would have been able to purely from secondary sources. I can see how the practice of cosplay has become a global phenomenon, not bound to a singular culture but a subculture in itself. My lack of knowledge in the area let me try it out with an open mind, not without first breaking down some – very nervous – barriers. This layered account (Ellis et al, 2011), as I said in my earlier post, allowed me to utilise my own cultural framework to gain a better understanding of other cultures around me, and in turn, was a reflexive and malleable research project that melded to time constraints, personal limitations, and new directions as I saw fit.

 

References

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