Cosplayers challenge gender norm

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COMIC CON HIGHLIGHTS THE FLUIDITY OF COSPLAY

Deadpool is lying prone on stage. Even motionless, even feigning death, the 20-something X-Men surrounding him on the Cosplay Photo Gathering Stage can’t redirect the audience’s attention from the collapsed mercenary. His cosplay—a handsewn dress of black and red fabric expertly corseted, ruched, and pleated over a colossal hoop skirt—is magnetic.

Max Cruz arrived at Denver Comic Con 2017 on June 30 not knowing he would be the talk of a convention center crowded with 115,000 attendees. Though he planned to join events like the X-Men Cosplay Photo Shoot, he didn’t expect to be overwhelmed with photo ops everywhere he went. With incredulity, he revealed that a news outlet asked to broadcast his Victorian costume—which is sometimes completed with a glossy blonde wig that drapes lopsidedly over his mask—on live television. “I’m just Deadpool,” Cruz said. “Deadpool would actually wear this, but they put me on TV anyway. That actually happened.”

Throughout the weekend, other cosplayers who rearranged the gender performance of their favorite characters spoke with the same sense of disbelief. Even when their costumes weren’t handmade, people couldn’t resist getting a photo with Diana Prince turned Daniel Prince. Cruz’s costume appealed to something larger than aesthetic value—it seemed to tap into a cultural shift in the world of fandom.

Genderbending characters is a common trope in fanfiction, fan art, and fan conventions. Some artists, like DeviantArt user Sakimi Chan (whose profile has over 35 million page views) appeals to a base sense of curiosity—she captions her viral illustrations of Disney princess reimagined as men with offhand comments like, “This was fun to paint!” Others appear more interested in an in-depth exploration of the social ramifications of reversed gender roles. In 2015, author Stephenie Meyer debuted a 10th anniversary version of Twilight that was rewritten with a genderbent cast of characters. Bella Swan became Beaufort, Edward Cullen became Edythe, and the staples of fanfiction became canonized within the series proper. The novel was not well received. Instead of using the trope to demonstrate the fluidity of gender, Meyer’s original characters were unrecognizable in their new roles, and her book was accused of buying into sexist stereotypes.

Genderbending is not new to the world of cosplay, but its popularity is increasing as fans become desperate to embody their favorite characters in a novel way. “Costuming is a way for me to take something I love and really put my hands on it,” Ginny DiGuiseppi, a professional cosplayer who appeared on a panel about costuming hosted by CU Denver Live! on Oct. 3, said. “I express my love for various forms of media by adding something new to them.”

Translation is the key to a true genderbend. A woman who puts on a Batman costume is not automatically genderbending the character, but a woman who translates the superhero suit—who does the calculus of how a woman would need to reconstruct the wardrobe of Bruce Wayne in order to remain true to the character—is.

At Denver Comic Con 2017, Joseph Amaro—a recent graduate from Colorado State University—posed with fans of his masculinized version of Wonder Woman. “Wonder Woman has always been my favorite superhero and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I could genderbend her well,” Amaro said. “I thought it would be a cool challenge: How do I make [the costume] not too feminine, not too masculine, but somewhere in between?”

His adjustments to the first female superhero’s classic outfit were small but impactful: He turned the sleeveless breastplate into a high-necked tank top, lowered the hem of his armored skirt, and draped a Jon Snow-esque black fur cloak across his shoulders to complete the transformation. He wore his close-cropped hair as normal. “I wanted it to be just a little more like a Gladiator, a bit Spartan-ish,” Amaro said. But he was careful not to strip Wonder Woman of all her femininity. His costume’s differences would have been slight enough to not be noticed if worn by a female cosplayer. Often, cosplayers who genderbend don’t flip a costume from one side of the gender binary to the other—their efforts reveal a nuanced gradient in the spectrum of gender performance.

Unlike Amaro, a handful of men at this year’s convention played the Wonder Woman character straight and wore costumes designed for women exactly as they came, wigs and all. But many cosplayers who genderbend don’t just want to celebrate their favorite characters—they want to embody them, to insert themselves as they are into their favorite story worlds. This element is a commonly cited concern for women cosplayers, as some fandoms have so few female characters that to cosplay without the creativity of genderbending would be a significantly limited exercise.

“The Captain America movies are some of my favorite of all time,” Tiffany Hadnagy Kopp, a Denver Comic Con panelist, said. She didn’t want to be forced to cosplay Black Widow if she wanted to honor Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so she arrived to the convention in a feminized Captain America jumpsuit. Form-fitting but still battle-ready, the costume was modified just enough to show that she wasn’t trying to be a woman dressed as a man—she was being herself. “I love genderbending, and I usually use corsets to complete the look,” Hadnagy Kopp said. When she wears a corset with her Loki or Bucky Barnes cosplay, she does so to reject stereotypes about how heroes need to be constructed. She doesn’t want to be Chris Evans. “I’m happy to be a woman superhero.”

Taylor Kirby
Taylor Kirby

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