Going back to our discussion earlier of the affective turn in fandom studies, you place a strong focus in the book on the “affective process” of cosplay. For you, this process includes the factors that shape the selection of a character and the ways this choice brings to the surface issues surrounding the body, the social community, and in particular, notions of gender and sexuality. You describe the spaces surrounding cosplay as “restructured around pride and generosity as well as shame and jealousy.” How would you describe the ways that these spaces have evolved to help participants work through some of the affects they are experiencing?
This is a very relevant question and yes, intervention is sometimes needed. Conventions had to do active work the past years to protect cosplayers and create an inclusive environment. After several incidents, like the “cosplay is not harassment” incidents, conventions started to put up posters with instructions on how to treat cosplayers. Different conventions that I volunteered for myself, such as YaYCon, strengthened their code of conduct and policies. Some conventions have introduced listeners by now to help fans feel protected and safe when incidents emerge.
The community was also self-regulating to some degree the past years. We held different panels discussed inclusivity and cosplay in Europe. I even sat in with some, for instance a panel on cosplay and age at Animecon moderated by my fellow-cosplay researcher Karen Heinrich. In open conversations and panels, people addressed problematic aspects of fandom.
Fan conventions can still be problematic spaces, though. That’s why conventions and fans need to make a fist and strive for inclusivity together.
Does cosplay necessarily involve identification with the character being constructed? What are some of the other ways that fans might relate to these characters?
Cosplayers relate to the characters in numerous ways, as my informants showed me. Some choose a character design, rather than a character, because they are looking for a creative challenge. Others cosplay in a group, and choose the character that most befits them or is not taken. Again others make a choice in terms of identity – age, body type. Though you can play with age and size in cosplay, as many do, some want their cosplays to be aligned with their appearance.
Cosplay is a very versatile hobby, and it’s amazing to see that fans really explore different characters as they continue to cosplay. Some professionalize and engage in competitions, and they also have a very different approach to their cosplay choice. They look for something that can tell a story, be an interesting performance or skit, and the costume should also impress. People often don’t see the share amounts of creativity goes into a cosplay. That is one of the parts that I find most attractive about it, really. There is such a strong creative drive in this community.
Cosplay is a rich example of transcultural exchange within an increasingly globalized fan culture. What has changed within cosplay as these practices move back and forth between Japan and the United States?
I can’t speak for the United States at all, but here are some small insights. Some changes that I observed in Europe the past years is that there is a strong global cosplay community emerging around many different international competitions, such as World Cosplay Summit in Nagoya. There is a tendency to standardize skits more in local competitions, to prime them for bigger, international events. Whether I’m in The Netherlands, Belgium or Germany, I see similar cosplay skits in terms of content and pacing. That used to be very different.
Furthermore, the fan economy of cosplay is booming. Cosplay and other fan practices are increasingly an economy in their own right. Fan fashion is sold on Etsy, eBay and elsewhere. Some of it is fan-driven, other objects are official cosplays sold by companies. Many online shops have emerged in Europe that sell to cosplayers specifically with specific fabrics and crafting supplies.
Actual fashion is becoming a lot like cosplay, with high-level brands launching collections inspired by popular culture. This fashion sometimes caters to a very privileged audience and may exclude the fans, which I write about in the edited collection Sartorial Fandom which will come out next year. I look forward to that book a lot since it will offer different perspectives on costumes, accessories and fashion, and their significance in fandom.
Throughout the book, you offer accounts of different fan conventions you have attended -- each of which represents a somewhat different set of practices, a range of fan identities and materials. What continuities do you see across these fan gatherings, despite the differences you identify? What do these case studies help us to understand about the local particulars of fandom?
I have learned much about these cultures, but what continues to surprise me most is that all over the world - ranging from the United States to Japan, Germany and the Netherlands - fans find a common ground and expression. Although fan practices emerge in particular local contexts, fans around the world share these creative and social practices. At fan gatherings across the world I see a love for characters, stories and play. But they also mean business, even if the events are fan-driven.
While these communities are meaningful for many fans, we always need to ask: ‘For which fans?’ I just came back from Worldcon, where Archive of Our Own won a Hugo. The ceremony ended with a “loser party” for those that didn’t get a Hugo, and because the party was full, several authors (including non-binary ones and authors of color) could not attend their own party.
These communities are not perfect and they draw a specific group that can afford to meet up offline. When I was in Atlanta for DiGRA and Dragon Con, I had a really good chat with the waiter at my hotel. He had spotted my membership, and was a huge geek who had lived in Atlanta all of his life. He was excited to share his favorite films, shows and comics with me. But he also admitted that he had never been to Dragon Con. He simply could not afford it. Hierarchy and privilege are very real in these spaces.
You begin the book by saying that you are refusing to create “essentialized” fan identities around issues of race and ethnicity. But this perspective flies in the face of contemporary trends to focus more attention on the ways race and racism shapes the social dynamics of fandom. Can these two approaches be reconciled?
That’s a very difficult question I’ve been grappling with it a lot this year, believe me. I absolutely think we can find a common ground, for instance through interdisciplinary work and an intersectional approach. I am a social constructivist, and that is also where the argument that you refer to came through, and what’s explained in that section. Again, essentialism is about reduction but I am in favor of looking at all the axes of someone’s identity, including race, gender, sexuality and age. I like to look at each person in an audience as an individual. I want to give a voice to them. This is a big drive in my work.
You are right that we should emphasize race more. Fandom studies is increasingly critiqued for its cultural assumptions, and rightly so. Many fandom studies present an imaginary fan, and hardly spell out what cultures these fans come from. What is presented as a kind of global fan is actually a Caucasian, native English-speaker, most likely from North-America. These assumptions are painful to watch for many fan scholars who come from different countries and traditions, who do spell out that they study Japanese, Indian or Polish fans. Being specific helps, and that has always been my credo. But that perhaps also has to do with the nature of my fieldwork, across many different countries and language traditions. But I think that for everyone in our field needs to spell out which fans they are actually studying.
You recently had a blog entry by Rukmini Pande that touched upon these issues too. We had a Twitter incident earlier this year, for which I apologized, and I could not stress this more: I wholeheartedly agree with her and I am so sorry that I did not show more empathy. The incident still bothers me, especially since I’m a queer European woman who is so invested in making this field better. And I do believe we can do better in terms of cultural research. Much better. The way forward requires solid research, but also empathy and kindness within our community.
We need to be kind to each other as we work through a difficult time, globally. No country or region is the same. Because we all struggle with local problems and contexts too, we don’t always zoom out. As I’m writing this blog, the humanities are slowly being defunded in The Netherlands, and every day I worry whether we’ll even media or cultural studies bachelors in the next few years. In such a context, it’s easy to become blind to systemic problems in our field. I have been in survival mode the past few years, and it’s hard to see a future in academia some days.
The way forward requires solid research, but also empathy and kindness within our community. You never know what other people are really going through behind the screen. That’s why we need to be kind.
Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.