- “Cosplay Is Serious Business”:Gendering Material Fan Labor on Heroes of Cosplay
Cosplay, or costume play, the practice of constructing costumes and props inspired by fictional characters and embodying those characters in real-world spaces such as fan conventions, remains undertheorized within fan studies. Although scholars have considered cosplay as a mode of identity performance and geek culture bloggers are increasingly engaging the identity politics of convention culture for cosplayers, the labor and materiality of cosplay as a mode of fan production, as well as how that labor is gendered, is rarely addressed.1 This is perhaps because cosplay occupies a conflicted positioning within preexisting discourses around fan production and performance. Fan studies as a field has historically focused on female fans’ transformative textual production through the creation and circulation of fan fiction, fan vids, and fan art. Cosplay, by contrast, typically presents itself as a form of mimetic fan production. Mimetic modes of fan production—a term I borrow from Matt Hills—seek to replicate what is seen on screen, and thus do not “create radical mash-ups, or ‘read’ in provocative ways, nor transformatively rework the object of fandom.”2 Hills nonetheless makes a compelling case for a consideration of mimetic fan production, like replicating props, [End Page 146] as a transformative endeavor—one that has the capacity to deconstruct “the separation of supposedly female-centered transformational and male-centered affirmational fandoms.”3
Cosplay, as a form of mimetic fan production popular with both men and women, would thus seem to present an ideal site for navigating ongoing, and distinctly gendered, anxieties surrounding the professionalization and monetization of fan labor. Although, as Hills suggests, mimetic fan practices might allow us to complicate many of the gendered binaries of contemporary fan studies, I contend that these gendered binaries around fannish professionalization not only persist but also are often used to reentrench the notion that male fans are more adept at professionalizing their labor and discursively discipline female fans who make similar efforts to monetize their mimetic fan works.4 To revisit some of the core concerns of the 2009 “In Focus: Fandom and Feminism,” I consider how the SyFy Channel’s reality series Heroes of Cosplay (2013– ) genders professionalization and material fan labor, and how fans have responded to those representations via the Tumblr Heroes of Cosplay Confessions.
Too often, labor is marked only when it aligns with the interests of capital. Compared to textual forms of fan production, cosplay is expensive, but it is precisely this expense (the purchasing of items such as fabrics, materials, and makeup), as well as the tactile nature of the product within material fan production, that allows it to be more culturally legible as a form of labor. This, coupled with the growing array of cosplay retailers online and burgeoning legal battles over licensing and the sale of fan crafts on sites like Etsy, creates a fertile space for revisiting and expanding on Abigail De Kosnik and Karen Hellekson’s 2009 “In Focus” exchange surrounding the future of fandom’s gift economy and the professionalization of fan fiction.5 Hellekson, framing fandom’s gift economy as a form of legal and social protection, argued that fandom constructs “a new, gendered space that relies on the circulation of gifts for its cohesion with no currency and little meaning outside the economy, and that deliberately repudiates a monetary model (because it is gendered male).”6 De Kosnik countered with concerns that female fans might be “waiting too long to decide to profit from their innovative art form,” contending that “women writing fanfic for free today risk institutionalizing a lack of compensation for all women that practice this art in the future.”7 I don’t intend [End Page 147] to take sides in this ongoing debate but rather to expose an additional layer to Hellekson and De Kosnik’s initial exchange. As both Heroes of Cosplay and submissions to the Heroes of Cosplay Confessions Tumblr reveal, the question isn’t merely whether women should or should not professionalize their fan labor, but how professionalized female fans are received and scrutinized differently from their fanboy counterparts, who are rarely interrogated about their capacity...