Made rebloggable by request; you can see the original post here.
This is a really good question. It is one that doesn’t have a single answer, and likely one that cannot provide much in the way of guidance for young women (and men) who are looking for a clear-cut definition. It’s like asking “what does it mean to be human?” Everyone is going to have a different answer, due to different experiences, perceptions and attitudes towards the subject.
I feel like feminism is often misunderstood by young (or otherwise “new”) feminists. In fact, I’ve grown particularly skeptical of the term “feminism” itself, and somewhat prefer “feminisms,” though obviously the latter is unlikely to ever come into common usage. This is because feminists, like Christians, or democrats, or cosplayers, have different conceptions of what feminism is. I say feminism is misunderstood by young feminists only to suggest they are inexperienced: they are prone to “not true scotsman” arguments about what is or isn’t feminism or feminist, and try to make universal statements like “that isn’t what feminism is about” or “the only thing that matters is that women have choice” or “feminism is solely about equality between the sexes.”
While for many people that is true (and I would not deny their experiences) I do think it is important to recognize that feminists do not hold any universal opinion, or even any universal goals. There are feminists who do condemn certain choices made by women because those choices uphold aspects of patriarchal society; for example, they may feel that a woman choosing to become a sex worker (for non-survival reasons) is also choosing to uphold a system that abuses women. There are also feminists who do not believe feminism is about equality; they may believe it is about equity, retribution, overthrowing the status quo, etc.
There are many kinds of feminisms, and many kinds of feminists. They are all legitimate in my eyes, even if I do not agree with some of them. As a result, asking what it means to be a feminist is really more about asking: what kind of feminist am I? What principles do I uphold as feminist? What philosophical or theoretical frameworks do I position myself within and how do I want to use them to improve my understanding of the world?
Tricky stuff, I know. ;)
So: onto cosplay.
Social justice communities have taken a pretty firm root in tumblr, and as such, I don’t think there are many of us who haven’t come across them yet. I also think social justice has kind of hit a level of “vogue” with fandom right now, particularly with people who don’t have much of a background with feminist communities (or other anti-oppression communities.) As such, yes: the cosplay community is growing rife with a lot of young women (and men) who are testing their wings as feminists.
Here’s my take on it: I feel personally empowered to step into the clothing and “identity” of women characters I admire, but I recognize that these characters do not exist as “feminist” characters, nor is my perspective of them universal. In my opinion, it is absurd to dress up as a character like Supergirl, who despite her age and characterization is often the subject of pin-ups, pornography and sexualization (even in canon!) and not expect aspects of that to carry over. Cosplay is NOT consent, but so many women characters ARE designed with an element of sexualization or to be titillating. We live in an era where companies spend hundreds of thousands –– if not millions — on the media they produce. Sexualization is not accidental. When you’re spending that much money to produce a product that must inspire the product to spend money, you have to look at every detail. Why do you think magical girl shows are aimed at adult men just as much as they are aimed at little girls? We might not see Madoka Magica or other magical girl shows as inherently sexual (especially considering the main cast is comprised of girls 13-15 years old) but you have to consider the various lines of figures featuring the girls in tiny bikinis, the animation of Mami’s breasts, the target demographic of adult men. So much of the media we consume is problematic.
And I’m not saying we should accept those things or excuse them or whatever. What I am saying is that when we cosplay those characters, we can’t expect those aspects of sexualization, objectification, etc to not follow us. While we are living, breathing human beings with rights and thoughts and opinions, when we cosplay, we are presenting ourselves as characters who may carry sexual connotations. For people who do not cosplay or have difficulty separating costume from costumer, they likely see the characterbefore they see you. They may not see a human being, they may see the object you are portraying. They may speak to the object instead of you.
Everyone should be free to exist in fandom spaces without sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the whole gamut of inappropriate behaviors. However, it is unrealistic in today’s society to expect to dress up as an object who is very often subject to sexualization (if not intended to be wholly sexual) and expect none of those uglier elements to come with it. I wholeheartedly wish it could be another way, but that’s the truth as I see it. It is important to not get lost in feminism and see the world and society as “failing to be feminist.” The world and society are striving to become feminist. How you choose to help the world become more feminist is up to you, but I do think it’s important for feminists who cosplay to recognize that they’re willingly participating in objectification.
Again, willingly participating in objectification does not excuse being treated like a piece of sexy meat, nor does it mean one should be submissive to the desires of fans, but we are in a world that is striving to become feminist, not failing to do so. For many people (especially men who have had no experience with gender-based discrimination!) this is an act of naïvety. I often speak with male fans who get too handsy, personal or inappropriate with me; most of the time, the fact that they are being invasive doesn’t even occur to them, and most of them are extremely apologetic and concerned about their out behavior once it’s explained to them. While I understand the temptation and justification to be angry with these people, especially when you’ve just been mistreated by them, I (personally) feel that it is easier to just calmly but firmly call it as I see it and engage in dialogue. I don’t take shit, but I try not to dole it out in retaliation, either. I have always had better results by just assuming good faith, and when it proves that the fan is just an asshole who will defiantly continue to do it… well, scumbags are a part of living amongst humanity. Better luck next time. Treating all people who misstep as pigs isn’t going to win you any friends, though. Of course, this is also about harassment, not assault; when things cross that line, it gets very, very different.
And it’s important to recognize that some women cosplayers do feel empowered by being sexually desired. Feminists, of course, have different opinions on this; for some it is a matter of empowerment, liberation and choice, and for others, it is women engaging in denigration and upholding systems of oppression by encouraging men to continue treating women like meat. It all depends on your different brand of feminism. I get irritated when men immediately start asking me if I have a boyfriend, but I’m laid back when it comes to comments on me or my body –– even sexual ones, to a degree. Some women don’t want comments at all. Some women enjoy being told how desirable and fuckable they are. The problem is that none of these things are obvious from the outside, nor do they have much to do with what the cosplayer is wearing: line up a bunch of cosplayers and you can’t tell how any of them feel about sexually-charged interaction from strangers.
This is what “cosplay isn’t consent” means; you shouldn’t judge how to approach a cosplayer based on what they’re wearing, as they are not the character. However, cosplayers should be prudent about what they dress up as; if they’re not willing to deal with potential sexual harassment and undue attention, then they should choose their costumes wisely. It’s the same thing as the short skirt debacle, in my eyes. A short skirt isn’t consent and doesn’t excuse anything, but wearing a short skirt takes awareness and a preparedness to deal with the potential backlash. Meanwhile, men and women alike will make judgements about women in short skirts… it’s beyond patriarchy (which I feel is rather outdated and not necessarily relevant to much in the North-Western world anymore) and more about society as a whole engaging in oppressive actions. If you want to wear a short skirt (or cosplay), you can choose to either do it and handle the potential attitudes of others, or you can refrain from it and not participate at all.
What is more important is open communication, especially between cosplayers and photographers. It is important for photographers to ask “are you okay with sexualized content?” and/or for cosplayers to make clear what kind of content they are or are not okay with. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Man, I feel like this got rambling or otherwise confusingly written, but I hope I’ve expressed myself clearly enough. But in short, feminism is a complex and multi-faceted system of conflicting beliefs, not a single set of beliefs, and it has no definitive opinion on cosplay or women in costume. When it comes to cosplay, it is best to be pragmatic first and feminist second and handle incidents of sexual harassment on an individual basis, and to alwayscommunicate. (And not passive aggressively, holy shit no.)