clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

"I feel like a force no one can stop": How cosplay empowers women

Women Cosplay at the Comic Con International Convention
Women Cosplay at the Comic Con International Convention
Frazer Harrison/Getty

Catwoman doesn't have an ounce of fat on her body. Her legs are infinite and thin. Her waist is almost as small as her neck, and her breasts are too big for her tiny, delicate back to support. Her butt swells from hip bones that are too full to exist in real life, and on top of that, she has great muscle definition.

Catwoman, like Barbie, is an impossible ideal for women to compete with.

catwoman dc #28

Catwoman as drawn in Catwoman #28 (DC)

"Women have always loved comics," Kelly Sue DeConnick reminded audiences at one of her New York Comic Con panels last week, "but they haven't always been accepted into this world." Despite the female fandom, women in comic books fit the same impossible beauty standards we see throughout American pop culture. To be loved and important and powerful, these images suggest, a woman must have a perfect body. But that perfect body is usually an unrealistic standard

But being a part of the female fandom isn't worthwhile if it makes women feel bad about their bodies. Luckily, the women who love comics have found a way to feel empowered by celebrating the human body without body-shaming: cosplay.

Cosplay, or costume-play, allows women to channel what is sexy and powerful and brilliant about their favorite heroes by dressing up as them. Cosplayers can find room to embrace their bodies and themselves — and in the process, they build a community.

Women in comics are sexualized

cosplay 4

Comic Con attendee Jessica Caamano poses as Quicksilver during the 2014 New York Comic Con at Jacob Javitz Center on October 10, 2014 (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

"Comic, game, and illustration companies are as much to blame for objectifying women (and in some cases men) … as the fans are," Alexa Heart, a cosplay artist said. "They’ve made the characters sex objects by giving them overly enhanced chests, tiny waists, and sexy outfits that barely take a yard of material to make a cosplay out of."

For some cosplayers, the sexualization of women in comics is something they can own in real life when they are in costume.

"Of course, I'm uncomfortable with how unrealistic some of the drawings are," Meredith Simmons, a cosplayer at New York Comic Con who was dressed as Poison Ivy, which happened earlier this month, told me. "But I like wearing this costume anyway, because it makes me feel sexy."

Unlike some drawn women, the real-life women who cosplay choose to wear their costumes, and choose to own their sexuality. And that's powerful. If women are made (drawn) sexy, so that men can stare at them, it treats women — all women, not just the fictional, sexualized ones — as a product of the male gaze, instead of as people. What's empowering for women about cosplay is that 'sexy' can be defined by a woman choosing to wear something for herself, regardless of how it affects men.

Cosplayer Aly Chu told me that she can "put on a costume and pretend I was someone else. I didn't have to deal with the bullying, I didn't have to deal with fitting in because I was surrounded by people who enjoyed the same things I did."  Despite the sexualization of women, Chu found herself in cosplay. "I feel so beautiful and amazing and I feel like a force no one can stop. And it's an amazing feeling," she told me.

That's empowerment, not objectification.

But finding cosplay empowering is easier for some than for others, not because comics is a flawed industry with flawed depictions of women (though it is), but because the world is a flawed place that reinforces a very specific, very skinny, very big-busted version of women.

Body shaming is common for women at comic cons

"Body shaming was something I was made aware of the instant I became aware of cosplay. I was told it's part of ‘what to expect.' It's one of the reasons I balked at the very idea of putting on a costume at conventions," Shoshana Kessock wrote on her blog. "I've personally witnessed fat shaming as well as ‘ugly' cosplayer shaming from folks at conventions of all kinds, from snickering behind hands to flat-out snarky, nasty comments aimed at people while they were in earshot."

At a New York Comic Con panel titled "So They Say You Shouldn't Cosplay" four women talked to a packed room, composed mainly of cosplaying women, and talked about the barriers they had faced and the difficulty they had had putting on a costume for the first time. Every single woman on the panel talked about body image. Chu said that after she cosplayed for the first time, "a post went up that was picking away at my body saying that I was too fat, and for a while I believed them."

"It's easier to remember the one bad thing that was said than the dozens of supportive comments," Chu continued. And she's not alone. Stories about women being called names and whispered at during the cons are written again and again and again.

"It wasn't until I started putting my costumes on the internet, [that] I saw how bad the community can be, with backlash and trash talk and keyboard bullies," Chu told me. "It killed me. It destroyed me. I stopped for a bit, because everything that I went through as a child, everything I thought I overcame, was coming back and biting me in the ass."

Cosplay 2

A couple dressed up as Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones.( Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images)

New York Comic Con this year particularly tried to combat this standard. In front of each entryway to the con were six-foot-tall signs that read, in large letters, "Cosplay is not Consent." Below that was a disclaimer reminding visitors to "keep your hands to yourself," and, when taking a picture, to "ask first and respect that person's right to say no."

These standards are important, but they don't stop other forms of harassment. As I walked through the main conference area behind women cosplaying, I could easily hear men comment on their bodies. The men I heard weren't slut-shaming; they were body-shaming.

"If you're a woman seen as conventionally attractive, you'll probably be creeped on, regardless of your costume, but many female cosplay options (especially superheroines) seem to invite more unwanted creeping than, say, Princess Mononoke," Joanna McQuade wrote for Geeklatarian. "So, while the decision of what character to cosplay is definitely a loaded decision for geeks of all shapes and sizes, fat geeks definitely have a disadvantage."

"I've been in earshot of people who snicker and laugh at the plus-sized Batgirls or other cosplayers who don't fit the skinny actresses they're portraying," Tabitha Grace Smith wrote for Doctor Her. "Once I asked one of these curvy girls to pose for a picture, and genuine shock crossed her face."

Cosplay can give people a reason to love their bodies

cosplay 3

A cosplaying fan at New York Comic Con (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Cosplay, despite the tribulations, can be incredibly satisfying for some women.

"I grew up the 'fat kid,'" Chu told me. "When I wasn't getting ridiculed by my family, I was always picked on at school. I was always told how I needed to lose weight, and I idolized skinny girls in magazines. I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be beautiful [...] I went through a lot of phases when I was a kid and fell through depression because I couldn't identify with anything other than being unwanted and gross because of my body."

Those feelings of self-hate continued for Chu throughout her childhood and into adulthood, but cosplay — even though it brought back the same feelings sometimes through mean comments — became a way to combat them.

"I want to show people, who are struggling with body image that they are beautiful, no matter what anyone says. That they can do it too," Chu said. " Cosplay has been less about me over the past year. It's about sharing the love, sharing the hobby, because that's what cosplay is about."

She struck a similar note at the NYCC panel, tears welling in her eyes: "Remember to cosplay for yourself because you're the only one who matters. Your opinion of yourself is the only one worthwhile."

Cosplay, then, can be more than just an expression of fandom for a beloved character or franchise. It can, in a very real way, be a powerful expression of self — and maybe even of hope.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.