Wednesday, August 09, 2006

[Essay] Cosplaying Part 2: Social Dynamics of Cosplay

In recent years, cosplaying seems to have become a staple at conventions, irregardless if it’s anime-related or not, in the Philippines. One wonders why it’s so appealing (or why so many people participate), and it’s executed so seamlessly that people don’t always realize the group effort put into cosplaying, even if there’s just one person on stage.

Obviously, cosplayers like to cosplay but the real question to cosplayers isn’t why they love cosplaying, but rather what part of cosplaying do they love. It might not readily be apparent to people, but cosplaying is a long and complex process. Cosplayers typically like or prioritize a certain aspect of cosplaying , while there are cosplayers who love more than one stage of cosplaying (and perhaps even rarer is someone who loves and excels at all the facets of cosplaying), which is just as well since as human beings, we’re all born with different skill sets and interests.

Babbling about it won’t do much good so I’ll give examples of each stage in cosplaying to illustrate my point.

Everything begins with a concept and it’s just as important in cosplaying. Whether as an individual or as a group, cosplayers have a certain concept for their character or group of characters. It might be cosplaying a certain character who’s never been done before, or it might involve bringing together certain characters together. This is also the point when a cosplayer realizes whether he or she will start and end the entire process by themselves, or with companions. There’s a certain satisfaction in brainstorming an idea, and an even greater satisfaction in making it come true. You might not be the person strutting your stuff on the catwalk, but as long as you helped make the vision come true, from providing moral support to your friend to helping create the costume to choreographing a specific scene, there’s a sense of joy and fulfillment.

Then we move on to the actual pre-production stage. This actually involves several roles, and anywhere from one person to ten (or higher number) can be involved in it. Costume is one half of cosplay, after all, and for the most part, the costume begins and ends in pre-production. I mention roles because everything can be done by one person, or by a group of people. Roles involved in pre-production include designing the costume (since certain costumes need to fit certain body types, or if there’s a particular style you want to emulate as characters will usually have several variations), crafting the costume (whether it’s sewing the costume from scratch or literally building it using exotic materials), making props, scavenging for accessories (which might include the main “body” of the costume), finding the appropriate make-up, etc. This is an important step, and is also a good example of how cosplayers can diverge in interests. Some people take pride in the various roles of this process, such as finding a certain cloth in some far-off shop in the middle of nowhere, or building from scratch a paper mache replica of an accessory or prop. And indeed, there is great satisfaction in the act of creation. However, this need not be true for all cosplayers. There are, in fact, some who see this process as a chore, a necessity that must be dealt with but given the choice, would do away with it. This can be seen by having someone else make the costume, or hire a seamstress to make the outfit. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that, and simply goes to show how cosplayers might have different tastes and interests. And in way, these differences between people make it possible for a team to work in cosplaying. For example, you might have a group of four friends. One is interested in choreography, so he goes about planning how the character will act on stage. Another might be interested in creating the costume, and he focuses on that. The third person might find stage performance to be the most appealing, and so he agrees to be the model to wear the costume. The last person might be an all-around guy who has a passion for all those steps, and helps out in all three phases. In a certain sense, I’ve been using the term cosplayer erroneously because well, all those people mentioned are involved in the cosplaying process. Without one, the cosplaying process isn’t complete. Sure, you might have a model with the appropriate personality for the character, but without a costume, that’s not cosplaying. Usually, we assign the term cosplayer to the model, to the person who wears the costume and acts on stage. If you did the entire process by yourself, that’s well and good, but if not, your friends and crew deserve some of the credit as well.

Of course sometimes, it’s also a matter of skill set. Like a seamstress might be talented in making costumes that involve cloth, but what happens when he or she wants to don a mecha costume? Cloth can only go so far, after all, and while he or she may be interested in making the costume by themselves, they simply don’t have the optimal skills. So they go about asking their friends who are skilled in everything from paper mache, crafting, or home economics. Sometimes it’s also a matter of time, especially when you’re going about it with just a few people. Coordinating people and resources is a skill, and some cosplayers might just want to focus on one certain area (such as simply making the costume and not having to worry about gathering the materials). Pre-production has several niches, and you don’t have to like all of them (but it helps).

Once you’ve gotten over the shock that, gasp, some cosplayers aren’t as enthusiastic as others in making the costume themselves (don’t worry, you’re not alone), we’ll move on to the next step. It’s the event itself where you cosplay. Again, while there’s only one person wearing the costume (or two if you have something really big and/or fancy, such as cosplaying as a horse), that doesn’t mean you need to be alone when you’re at the convention. It could mean hanging out with fellow cosplayers, especially if you agreed to go about it as a group. It could mean having friends assist you in wearing an elaborate costume. It could mean having someone help you in applying make-up, or to carry your props. Much like pre-production, there are niches to fill that need not involved actually wearing the costume, but still helps in the overall presentation. And of course, there’s acting out your role, in your full glory complete with costume, on stage and when the cameras are flashing. Again, there are people who live for this role, the actual act of being in character, screaming a phrase or two in front of a large audience, or performing a special move or two. In group scenarios, this might even involve acting out an entire skit. These are people who want to cater to an audience, or impressing friends that they actually pulled the entire stunt off, or agreeing to act as a favor to an acquaintance. Or they could be doing this for themselves, simply for the heck of it. But like pre-production, there are also cosplayers who are reticent of this role. I mean I’ve met a couple of shy cosplayers who don’t seem like someone who would walk in front of a catwalk (especially when it comes to revealing outfits). But they do it anyway, because it’s part of the cosplaying process. Maybe it’s because they resemble the character (or more likely, their body type fits the character) and thus they agreed to do so. It might be because they were coerced by their friends and fellow cosplayers. It might be because well, they like everything else about cosplaying except this part, so they might as well go along with it. It might be in taking pride that they’re wearing the outfit that they themselves made. There are several reasons for reluctant cosplayers to actually cosplay. But the important is that they do, or rather they try to do so (I can’t blame people who try since we usually fail the first time). Some might overcome their stage fears over the years, and some simply don’t. But that doesn’t stop them from cosplaying. Nor should you feel weird if you’re one of these people. Again, cosplaying is layered with many stages, and what makes us individuals is the fact that certain aspects appeal to us more than others. Having said that, don’t be surprised if the cosplayer you’re talking to is shy, even if he just cross-dressed in front of several hundred people, or she walked down the ramp in a skimpy outfit.

The fourth stage of the cosplay process is the judging. If you’re in a convention, you’re most likely participating in a competition, and in a competition, there are winners and losers. This is a case of two faces of the same coin. On one hand, there will be cosplayers who enjoy winning. Who doesn’t, after all? There’s a sense of accomplishment after all when you manage to outdo 99 other participants (and having an actual prize doesn’t hurt either). On the other hand, there will be cosplayers who enjoy cosplaying for the sake of cosplaying, competition be damned. Heck, some of the best cosplayers I know don’t even formally register for the competition, and just show up at the convention to mingle with friends and meet the crowd. It’s also possible that a cosplayer is feeling both emotions, or perhaps alternating between them depending on the event. Both really are valid reasons for cosplaying, and goes to show how people can gain fulfillment from cosplaying, even if their reasons are opposite of each other.

Once everything’s said and done, cosplaying seems over once the convention has ended and the awards have been given. However, there’s still the cleaning up that needs to be done, the packing up, and looking like a civilized person once again. Again, you can go about it alone, or have some friends with you tag along and help bring your costume to the car, or chat with girlfriends in the washroom. Now you can take a deep breath, and you and your companions can rejoice in a job well done. You went through the entire process, from conceptualizing an idea to making it come true. If you did everything alone, from canvassing materials to making your costume to wearing what you’ve made, then congratulations: that’s a tall order for any individual. And if you’ve enjoyed the entire process, then good for you. That in itself is a kind of a reward.

Of course as elaborate as the cosplaying process has been, and how there’s several avenues for enjoyment, that’s not the be-all and end-all of cosplaying. There will be other people and roles not mentioned here, such as the act of actually hosting a convention (without which, the cosplay event isn’t possible), acting as emcee and/or judge for the competition, or simply helping run the cosplay. Cosplaying is a diverse hobby, and different people will give you different reasons why they like to cosplay.

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