Cosplay is, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood and overlooked literacy technologies. Observers from outside the community dismiss cosplay as escapism, a sign of the participants’ refusal to grow up. But from my first introduction to the hobby—even before I made any costumes—I knew it was more than that.
Back in 2015, I created a Pinterest board to save pictures of cosplays I admired, and I already felt the need to justify the hobby. I added this description to the board: “[Cosplay is] not about trying to be someone else. It’s about using someone else to show who you are. And having fun.” I expressed a truth that I’ve now learned through experience: Cosplay is a tool for participants to “write” and express their identities by embodying and enacting elements of popular media. It is a literacy technology because it facilitates meaning-making by allowing participants to define, craft, grow, and share themselves.
Defining Cosplay and Literacy
Cosplay is short for “costume play” (Lundström, 150). It combines the wearing of a costume with some degree of acting, and is most often done at pop culture conventions. The skill of the costume and the level of acting vary with the cosplayer, but the goal is to embody a certain character from popular media. The source media can be almost anything: movies, TV/web shows, anime, comics, manga, video games, and more.
It is important to draw a distinction between cosplay and other instances of costuming. At Halloween, for example, people wear costumes as part of the festivities, especially to parties. But in such situations, the costume wearers are rarely trying to become a character; they’re merely representing a character. Cosplay also tends to involve far more investment in the costume itself; ordinary costumes are cheap imitations, but cosplays attempt to be as realistic as possible (often an expensive endeavor).
While cosplay research is edging into the scholarly world, very little attention has been given to the connection between cosplay and literacy. Even the existing research is often based on interviews and secondary sources, not personal experience, which makes it easy to miss or misunderstand the way that cosplay facilitates literacy. It’s time for a cosplayer and scholar, like myself, to connect what scholars are saying about literacy to what cosplayers have always known about their craft.
Literacy has been defined in many different ways, but my working definition is as follows:
Literacy is the skill to read and write, as well as to communicate and engage with the world through images, sound, gesture, and crafting, at a level of expertise consistent with society’s demands and involving competent interaction with modern technology for the exercise of these skills. Literacy skills are often the method for creating, managing, and designing experiences in world.
This definition immediately reveals several ways that cosplay facilitates literacy: images and visuals, sound, gesture, and crafting literacies are all present in the cosplay process and/or act. Cosplay often involves interaction with modern technology, from online tutorial videos to social media posts of the finished products. But the primary focus of this article will be analyzing how cosplay facilitates literacy as a “method for creating, managing, and designing experiences in the world.” Cosplay allows participants to use their literacy skills to create meaning in the world, specifically by expressing and shaping their own identities.
Cosplay and Me: A Personal History
After doing research in the Amish community, Suzanne Rumsey wrote, “[The Amish] ascribe to a pattern, a set of signifying symbols, and are ‘read’ as Amish by their choices of clothing, hairstyle, and head coverings” (576). Similarly, cosplayers like me painstakingly craft their costumes to reflect their own identities through the use of characters and symbols recognized by fan culture. My personal history as a cosplayer demonstrates how cosplay is used as a literacy tool, and how a cosplayer’s effectiveness in using cosplay to write identity can grow over time.
The cosplays I’ve made so far fall into three “rounds” that correspond with fan conventions I attended during the last three years. Two of my best friends began cosplaying before I did, and they not only got me interested in the hobby, but convinced me to attend my first fan convention with them in 2015.
For that convention, I created a cosplay of Steve Rogers (the secret identity of Captain America) from the Marvel comics and films. I made the costume as accurate to the original as I could, but I did a type of cosplay called a “fem” (short for female), “genderbent,” or “genderswap” version. In other words, I adapted the costume to be a female version of the character, because I wanted to maintain that aspect of my identity while cosplaying. (“Crossplay” is cosplaying as a character from the opposite gender and maintaining the look of that gender.)
My next “round” of cosplays included Quicksilver from the Avengers: Age of Ultron film (another fem cosplay) and Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Unlike my Steve Rogers cosplay, which only required tracking down the right clothing, Quicksilver and Rey required a lot of DIY work to get their costumes right. For instance, I made my Quicksilver shirt by purchasing a plain gray exercise shirt, then buying additional material, attaching it with fabric glue, and finally adding the line work with hand-brushed fabric paint.
When I actually wore Quicksilver and Rey to a convention, I also did some acting for the first time. As Quicksilver, I encountered a cosplayer representing Hawkeye from the same film, and we exchanged some lines from the movie. With these cosplays, I used acting to incorporate more of the characters into my experience, but also exerted more of my own creativity on the characters through my DIY crafting of their costumes.
My third and most recent round of cosplays exhibits even more modification of the original characters to suit my own identity. Both cosplays I made were “mash-ups”—cosplays created by combining two different characters or themes.
The first mash-up I created combined Loki from The Avengers (and other Marvel films) with Elsa from Frozen. Both characters have winter-related superpowers and dramatic personalities. Making this cosplay involved blending the costumes of the two characters, as well as adopting a persona that reflected their drama and vulnerability.
The other mash-up blended Nora and Ren from the web show RWBY. While I love Nora’s character, I don’t like her outfit much, but I do like Ren’s ninja-style clothes. So, I combined the best of both worlds by cosplaying as Nora cosplaying as Ren, the guy she likes. The hair and prop are Nora’s, while the costume is Ren’s.
My cosplay history demonstrates that, over time, I’ve learned to use cosplay effectively as a literacy tool. When I began cosplaying with Steve Rogers, I only made one change to the costume (the gender) for the purpose of expressing my unique identity. By the time I created my mash-up cosplays, I not only added my own touches through DIY elements, but modified the characters to represent the attributes I most wanted to portray.
Cosplayers and Literacy Practices
Despite the stigma that cosplay is merely escapism, other cosplayers also demonstrate intentional use of the hobby to facilitate their literacy practices. Moreover, they primarily discuss cosplay’s usefulness as a tool for identity writing.
One of my good friends, Casey Covel, wrote an article entitled “Fiction on My Skin” to express her experience with cosplay. She discusses cosplay “as an identity-shaper” and says, “every time I set aside ‘Casey Covel’ and became someone else [through cosplay], I was figuring out who ‘Casey Covel’ actually was and who I wanted her to become.”
Another cosplayer, Shelby Mongan, sees cosplay as one way that people represent themselves through clothing and behavior in daily life. Speaking about “costumes” in terms of cosplay and everyday apparel, Shelby concludes in “Finding Truth in Playing Pretend” that, “The choices I make to wear a different costume every day aren’t contrived or artificial; they’re magnifications of what I already have. This is the way people experience the world, and joy can be found in it when you embrace it.”
In addition to identity writing, cosplayers also mention that the hobby facilitates their crafting literacy. In her article, Casey describes her intentional design of a cosplay, saying, “no two L’s [from Death Note] are alike…My L totes a massive cross over one shoulder.” Shelby writes that, because of cosplay, “I’ve utilized my meager sewing skills and learned rudimentary crafting and prop-making.”
From personal experience and observation, I know that cosplay also facilitates image literacy—through creating a visual representation of a character—and sound and gesture literacy through enacting the character. Moreover, this article, as well as Casey’s and Shelby’s, demonstrates that cosplay can also facilitate reading and writing.
Performing Power Through Cosplay
Nicolle Lamerichs writes that, “wearing a costume is a performative gesture” (114). Because cosplay facilitates performance, it also allows cosplayers to portray power through their identity writing.
When I wear my cosplays, there is always at least one personality element I’m trying to portray. With Quicksilver, it’s his playfulness. With my Loki and Elsa mash-up, it’s their drama and confidence. Becoming a character who is known for certain attributes gives me the power to dig into my personality and express the traits I have in common with the character.
In her article, Shelby says of a cosplay, “I loved being Lilith…not because I could pretend I was strong, but because it reminded me of how strong I actually am.” Expressing power outwardly through cosplay creates an internal subjugation of any fears and doubts the individual typically has, allowing them to more easily express identity traits they’ve always had.
Social Benefits of Cosplay
Cosplay also provides power by facilitating social interaction, particularly at events like fan conventions where many of the attendees cosplay. Because cosplayers represent characters that are familiar to other fans, the costumes serve as nonverbal icebreakers, revealing something about the cosplayer’s identity even though they are a stranger to everyone else. The visual signals of cosplays act like neon signs to attract like-minded people to one another. In the words of Casey’s article, cosplay is “a physical social network that connects lives and stories through the faces of familiar characters.”
Cosplay is a wonderful tool for breaking down barriers between individuals. Cosplayers are judged by the familiar face of a beloved character that they put on. Any negative social hierarchies or strained relationships with other cultures feel minimized at fan conventions. The most important factor is how well the cosplayer represents the character. Cosplay allows for barrier-bending by swapping a character’s gender, changing a character’s race, or even combining characters, which means that cosplayers can become almost anything they want. The hierarchy is determined by the cosplay skill that is demonstrated.
This can, of course, create barriers through gaps in skill. However, the cosplay community is generally quite good at welcoming and supporting newbies, especially through a plethora of Internet tutorials and videos. Much of my personal growth as a cosplayer has come through the support of my friends who also cosplay, and most of the cosplayers I’ve met at conventions are thrilled to interact with other people who share their passion for the hobby.
Economic Roadblocks to Cosplay
Unfortunately, impressive cosplays usually don’t come cheap. Material costs add up quickly, and this can create a barrier to the literacy tool if an individual can’t afford to make or commission a cosplay. I usually have to save up before working on a new cosplay project.
However, the cost is not always prohibitive. Much depends on which character is chosen. My Steve Rogers cosplay, for example, was mostly created by searching thrift stores and raiding my own closet. Minus the shield, the cosplay probably cost me around $30 (and most of that was the jacket).
Most cosplayers utilize inexpensive resources and materials, such as thrift stores for clothes and craft foam for armor construction, and modify them into a stunning result. On rare occasions, exceptionally skilled cosplayers are able to turn pro and earn income from cosplay instead of losing income to it.
Despite scholars’ lack of interest and the general population’s skepticism, cosplay continues to prove itself a valuable literacy tool in my life and the lives of other cosplayers around the world. Lamerichs claims that “fan costuming is a particularly global hobby, one that is popular in Japan, the United States and even Brazil” (114). The hobby grows as fans discover the ability to write their identities through cosplay, and when they are “read” by other members of the community, social barriers break down and new relationships can be forged. Cosplay combines literacy practices to empower cosplayers to make their own unique identities known to the world.
Note: All photos in this blog article were taken by friends of the author and are used by permission. Photos that contain cosplayers besides the author were taken with the cosplayers’ consent at public conventions.
Covel, Casey. “Fiction on My Skin: Connecting Through Cosplay.” Area of Effect, Geekdom House, 7 Dec. 2016, https://geekdomhouse.com/fiction-on-my-skin. Accessed 1 April 2018.
Lamerichs, Nicolle. “Costuming as Subculture: The Multiple Bodies of Cosplay.” Scene (2044-3714), vol. 2, no. 1/2, Oct. 2014, pp. 113-125. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1386/scene.2.1-2.113_1.
Lundström, Stefan and Christina Olin-Scheller. “Playing Fiction: The Use of Semiotic Resources in Role Play.” Education Inquiry (Co-Action Publishing), vol. 5, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 149-166. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3402/edui.v5.24049.
Mongan, Shelby Fawn. “Finding Truth in Playing Pretend: A Reflection on Cosplay.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 18, 2015. EBSCOhost, login.ezproxy.net.ucf.edu/login?auth=shibb&url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.net.ucf.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2017309213&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Rumsey, Suzanne Kesler. “Heritage Literacy: Adoption, Adaptation, and Alienation of Multimodal Literacy Tools.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 3, 2009, pp. 573-586. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20457082.