How Online Communities Encourage Gender Exploration Through Cosplay

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How Online Communities Encourage Gender Exploration Through Cosplay

The increasing popularity of cosplay, where fans costume as their favorite character, has naturally supported a growing movement exploring gender identity. There are essentially two forms of gender fluidity in cosplay; either the cosplayer adapts their gender to match that of the character they are emulating, or the gender of the character is changed to match that of the cosplayer.

Dr. Ian Lamond of Leeds Beckett University explains: “In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler developed the idea that gender is performative, a doing of gender, rather than gender being something beyond the doing of it. Cosplay can thus be seen as a performance of gendered identity.”

Although it became known as “crossplay,” not all appreciate the term, believing it limits inclusiveness within the hobby. “A lot of cosplayers are starting to take issue with the term ‘crossplay’ because of its connections with slurs towards trans people and the lack of inclusion of nonbinary folks,” says Holly Swinyard, editor of The Cosplay Journal.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when in-person conventions were not possible, the cosplay community migrated online. Online communities and virtual conventions allowed cosplayers to explore their gender identity through characters of different genders and sharing their creations with others, from the safety of their own homes. “People during lockdown, when they couldn’t get out or go to the events, explored a bit more,” explains Joanne R’rith, commanding officer of the Galactic Knights. “The beauty of a costume is that if you don’t like it, you move on to the next one.”

TikTok initially became a haven for cosplayers, as short-form video proved an ideal platform for displaying the costumes and characterisations of cosplay. However, due to the open nature of the platform and inability to curate audience, there was also a significant amount of online bullying. Fans and other cosplayers were engaging with the clips, but so too were abusive online trolls.

This led to the rise in popularity of closed groups, where cosplayers could share their creations without harassment. One such online community, SheProp, was initially intended for only female cosplayers, but soon expanded to include trans and nonbinary people.

“SheProp was born out of frustration, because I wanted to have a place where I could go and talk to my peers,” explains Beverly Downen, founder of SheProp. “Inviting the trans community happened because I realised that this community could touch a lot more lives and that we needed to open it to community groups that were underrepresented and didn’t have a safe space.”

The key to SheProp’s success has been a legion of administrators moderating conversations. The group is constantly evolving, to better promote inclusivity, such as refraining from using gendered pronouns. “We realised that it was hurting a lot of our members and they were feeling excluded,” explains Downen. “We had a long conversation with nonbinary folks in our admin groups to suss out what we needed to do.”

Whilst SheProp is also on Discord, the core group remains on Facebook. The platform has proven to be an ideal place for communities, as moderators can automate blocks on posts when certain words are used, as well as sending reminders regarding the group’s rules.

But concerns remain about online safe spaces. “With spaces like Twitter or TikTok, you don’t have any admin to look out for folks, but you could also be in a group on Facebook or Discord that doesn’t have admin up to the job,” says Swinyard. “Some spaces will be amazing, but, as with everything in life, human error happens and nothing is 100%.”

Since conventions have returned, such as the recent Sci-Fi Weekender in the U.K., cosplayers are able to meet in person and wear their costumes again. As conventions are generally ticket-only events, the risks of negative reactions to a costume are greatly reduced.

Given the carnivalesque atmosphere of SFW and similar events, attendees are encouraged to put extra effort into their costumes. As such, gender fluidity becomes far more acceptable. When it is expected that everyone will be in their flamboyant best, gender almost becomes irrelevant.

“Conventions are safe spaces on the whole,” explains R’rith. “You might find an individual that will be judgmental, but the majority of people are accepting and there to have a good time, just as you are.”

Although conventions have returned, cosplay continues to act as a tool for exploring gender identity in a safe space, whether it is online in a cosplay group or in person.
“It’s becoming more socially acceptable to be trans, genderfluid or nonbinary, even if it’s becoming politically more difficult,” says R’rith. “When it comes to conventions, we’re going to see more of it, because at the end of the day having a safety net is important, and cosplay gives you that.”

Peter Ray Allison is a freelance journalist and has been covering science, technology and culture for more years than they care to remember. When pressed, Peter will admit to having once owned a ZX Spectrum home computer.

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