The Future’s Been Here Since 1939: Female Fans, Cosplay, and Conventions

Part of the draw of sci–fi, fantasy, superheroes, anime, and just really good stories has always been the desire to be someone else, to live a life more fantastical, to go on a journey outside ourselves. Cosplay’s draw is to bring that dream to life, to put on a costume and pretend to have an aspect of or be that character.

Need a little charisma? Maybe you’re Tony Stark. Want to be the ordinary girl traveling through time and space? Dress like Doctor Who‘s Rose Tyler. Fascinated by the Old West, but want a raygun too? Try Firefly‘s Zoë Alleyne Washburne.

When I put on my first real cosplay in 2010 as Alice from Batwoman, it took me on an incredible journey. It gave me more confidence, and I made new friends. It also swept me down the rabbit hole to join and become one of the many founders of GeekGirlCon, a convention celebrating geeky women, where I served as President for two years. Conventions and cosplay changed my life. And I believe it empowers others, and serves as a powerful medium of self–expression and community–building.

Even in that short amount of time since being Alice, I’ve observed the convention space change and grow, and notably, the entire space has moved away from white men being the default geek demographic.

To say that cosplay is a new feature of conventions is a lie. To say that cosplay hasn’t been around since the dawn of fan gatherings and conventions is also wrong. So what’s the big deal about cosplay today? Why did Denise Dorman infamously call out cosplayers as a reason for her artist husband’s lacking sales at comic cons? Why did other male artists join her in saying they won’t exhibit at conventions with large cosplay communities? How has cosplay actually become more prominent and impacted conventions?

Cosplay: It’s Not a Newfangled Convention Takeover

Cosplay has been around since the very first science fiction fan conventions in the 1930s and before the word “cosplay” was invented. The first recorded cosplayers, Myrtle R. Jones and Forrest J. Ackerman, wore what they called “futuristicostume” during the first Worldcon in 1939. They sparked others do the same. Masquerades to show off costumes and hand out prizes started the very next year. These early conventions mostly focused around books and a few drawings in pulp magazines. But as comic books, film, and television became powerful media with strong visual components, who didn’t want to dress up like their favorite character?

By 1974, Worldcon’s masquerade had over 100 participants. People dressed up like the characters from Star Wars, Red Sonja, covers of fantasy novels, and more. Fanzines and even early 8mm home video recordings from the 1970s show spectacular costuming. Changes in technology and fabrics made creating one’s own cosplay easier than before. Masquerades and costume contests became even more popular and were considered a mainstay of conventions.

Recently, video recordings were recovered of the creators of Elfquest, Wendy Pini and her husband Richard, putting on their show called “Red Sonja and The Wizard” in 1978 at San Diego Comic–Con. Wendy wore her handmade Red Sonja chainmail proudly and inspired many other women to follow in suite. The 1970s even saw the rule “no costume is no costume,” as people got more daring and more naked in their costuming.

In June 1983, the word “cosplay” was coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi, an anime film editor, in the Japanese magazine, My Anime. He used a Japanese language technique, in which a long word pair is contracted to create a shorter form, and combined the Japanese phonetic adaptations of “costume play” to create “cosplay.”[1] While cosplay had been referred to as costuming and specifically costuming for masquerades in the US, Takahashi found the translation for “masquerade” to be too old fashioned and elite.

The popularity of anime and manga across the globe helped spread “cosplay” into fans’ lexicons. Most cosplayers of all types now embrace the word, especially as the hobby grows.

In recent years, major corporations have pushed to take cosplay commercial, and in 2008, Japanese cosplay manufacturers made 35 billion yen ($29 million US).[2] This is big business, and why there are now cosplay celebrities. The SyFy channel even made an attempt for cosplay reality TV with their ill–fated Heroes of Cosplay.

While one can spend major dollars buying exact replicas for cosplaying, much of today’s costuming is still DIY. The internet provides a medium for exchanging tips and tricks about cosplay. From basic sewing tips to hunting for that realistic prop, cosplayers often freely share knowledge and encourage one another. Forums like therpf.com are full of inspiration and how–tos. Pinterest boards are dedicated to the dreams of future costumes.

Changing Convention Demographics and the Erasure of History

Like cosplay, women’s participation has also been important to conventions since the beginning. Women’s contributions were largely downplayed until their numbers became too large to ignore. Sociologically, when a minority or marginalized group reaches 30 percent or more of attendance, everyone starts commenting on that group’s equal presence at an event.[3] There may even be claims of that group dominating the event, even if numbers are still well below 50 percent.

Today, large commercial conventions such as San Diego Comic–Con, Dragon*Con, and PAX Prime see around 30–45 percent women attendees.[4] Smaller, niche fan conventions, however, can vary widely. Many of them, such as GeekGirlCon, GeekyCon, WisCon, and Wincon, were created by women, programmed for women, and see 65 percent or more of attendees self–identity as women.[5] However, they do not get the widespread press, commercial sponsorships, or celebrity appearances that the larger conventions get.

While there are many male–identified cosplayers, cosplay is seen as something female–identified fans do. Whether it’s the sewing, arts and crafts, makeup, or dress–up act of cosplay, the two are interlinked. Sadly, this makes it unsurprising that cosplay’s history and importance in the shaping of conventions is overlooked or forgotten. For example, even most cosplay history solely credits and shows photos of Ackerman as the world’s first cosplayer, leaving out mentions entirely of Jones and her contribution.

It’s unfortunate that Dorman and others chose to single out an activity associated with women and further call out activities associated with and criticized as female frivolity—selfies and calling attention to oneself—in their rants about artists’ waning sales. Writer Mark Ellis even went as far as body–shaming cosplayers. There’s no doubt that changing demographics create different demands on artists and vendors. And while it’s certainly sad to see artists struggling, such is the existence of commerce. Some artists may struggle, others may sell out. I met an artist selling stuffed, felted dragons at Seattle’s large Sakura–Con who by day two of three had almost sold everything she made. Lines for artists and writers like Katie Cook, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Amy Reeder, Erika Moen, Justin Hillgrove, and more have grown longer over the years.

Even the larger corporations struggle to pay more attention to the commercial wants of female fans. While the Japanese cosplay industry gets it, American corporations are lagging behind. There was recently a notable lack of merchandise featuring the female superheroes Black Widow and Gamora from Marvel Comics’s latest blockbusters, or even merchandise that wasn’t specifically labeled “boys.” Not everyone will don head–to–toe cosplay, but it can also be empowering to wear a T–shirt featuring a favorite geeky hero.

Cosplay, Female Fans, and the Future

As cosplay grows, geekdom becomes even more mainstream, and more female–identified people attend conventions, convention organizers and those who look to them for their livelihood, like creators and artists, will need change. Change is hard for everyone. Convention runners need to adapt their events and keep in mind the greater reason behind what they do.

At their core, conventions, even the mind–bogglingly large and commercial ones, have a mission to bring people together over shared interests. The internet has made it even easier for people to find each other and keep in touch long after an event is over for the year. I’ve personally made lifelong friends I first met at conventions, and I even met my girlfriend many years ago at a small Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan con.

Shifts in demographics have already resulted in many positive outcomes in con culture, with cosplayers often at the forefront of calling for these changes. The “cosplay is not consent” movement and conventions adopting anti–harassment policies have both made conventions safer places. Or at least made it more explicit that bad behavior will have consequences. Even large conventions, like Emerald City Comicon, have banned vendors from hiring so–called booth babes, attractive woman often dressed in scanty costumes serving as mere decoration. Within cosplay itself, minority cosplayers have worked to push against artificial boundaries around race and ethnicity, prominent examples being Cosplaying While Black and World of Black Heroes.

The growing number of women also means more children, and conventions have specifically created spaces (and ticket prices) targeted toward families. If vendors sell pornographic or overly violent merchandise, they often must cover it or keep it out of direct sight. “No costume is no costume” rules for cosplay have changed to reflect each convention’s own stance; some cons have also added policies like peace-bonding or assuring fake weapons are fake. All these steps are just beginnings that many fans have wanted for years.

There’s also been some backlash, such as some artists’ anti–cosplay stances and the rise of accusations against fake geek girls. As geekdom becomes more mainstream, cosplayers have become celebrities and celebrities have donned costumes. For example, Adrianne Curry, most well known for winning America’s Next Top Model, has been both criticized for being a fake–geek–girl and celebrated for her cosplay. At San Diego Comic–Con in 2014, she infamously hit a male fan with her Catwoman whip when he sexually assaulted another cosplayer. No doubt this fake geek girl gatekeeping is a byproduct of rage over change.

Additionally, the cosplay community has seen atrocities such as Darrien Hunt being shot and killed by police while wearing an anime costume and carrying a sword. This, in particular, hit the minority cosplayer space hard, especially as Black cosplayers struggle for respect in the space already. There is still plenty of space for improvement specifically concerning the treatment of women and minorities in geekdom, not to mention in the greater world.

At their heart, conventions are community events. People go to meet each other as much as they go to see a favorite writer, artist, actor, etc., or shop the show floor. The human connection will always be why people attend.

When a cosplayer makes a choice to put on a costume, they do so out of deep love and respect for a creation. When one spends hours crafting a look to match a character, it’s not an undertaking done lightly. Cosplay reflects an inner desire and connection. When someone is told they can’t dress up like Power Girl because they don’t have the right body type, the combination of body–shaming, close connection to the character, and work put into the costume, can easily turn those accusations personal.

What makes geekdom so powerful is the passion people put into their fandom. Cosplayers are an integrated part of the convention ecosystem, and they have been since the beginning. What’s popular today may not be popular tomorrow. And a geek dressed up like a Storm Trooper could be anyone.

[1] In Japanese, foreign words are spelled phonetically, so “costume play” is “コスチュ –ム プレ–, kosuchuumu puree” and “cosplay” is “コスムプ, kosupure.”

[2] The Rhetoric of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy in Global Contexts by Craig Hayden, pg 115

[3] “Research has suggested that only when a minority increases to about 30–35 percent does it become strong enough to influence the fundamental group culture and form the alliances that can give it a significant impact on the whole.” (Women in politics and decision-making in the late twentieth century by the United Nations, 1992).

[4] San Diego Comic–Con 2012 saw 40 percent of attendees identify as female.

[5] In my time serving as GeekGirlCon staff member (2010-2013), we saw 65–85 percent of attendees identify as female.

Erica McGillivray

Erica McGillivray spends a ridiculous amount of time being geeky, both professionally and personally. In the digital marketing world, she’s a senior community manager, wrangling 500,000+ people and co-running an annual conference MozCon. Erica’s also a founder of GeekGirlCon, a nonprofit run by volunteers that celebrates and supports geeky women with events. In her spare time, she is a published author, cosplays, and has a comic book collection that’s an earthquake hazard. Follow her at @emcgillivray.

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