Cosplay and wearing our character

People who elaborately dress up as comic book, sci-fi or fantasy characters and attend entertainment conventions are used to being called nerds or geeks, but the official term is cosplayer. We usually get glimpses of them when the media covers events such as the recent Comic-Con 2012, but cosplayers occasionally show up at big movie premieres in costume as well.

For those of us content to wear our ordinary clothes, this adult penchant for dress up seems a little odd. Why would anyone spend time and money going around to hundreds – yes, there really are hundreds - of conventions to parade around dressed as an Imperial Storm Trooper? We may do Halloween or put together something for a costume party, but unless we were going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, we don’t quite get why someone would want to dress in an elaborate costume to watch a movie.

Robin Rosenberg, a psychologist and writer for Psychology Today, is investigating the psychology behind cosplay. She believes identity play is the most important factor, noting that many cosplayers are passive, shy, introspective people who are able to express greater confidence and communicate more readily when dressed as a strong character.

Not every cosplayer has deep psychological motivations, however. Respondents to this question on a number of online cosplay forums also cite creativity as motivation. Many enjoy the challenge of constructing a costume, doing the makeup, creating props and then experiencing the thrill of having others appreciate and enjoy what they have created. In fact, most of the threads at are devoted to costume creation. To a great extent it does seem like a hobby not very different from that of model railway enthusiasts.

An anonymous cosplayer describes the experience on one of these forums: “it can be very liberating to assume another role or exaggerate an existing trait… I find it nothing short of empowering to assume the role of a character who is independent, cunning, agile and confident.” It does seem that to choose a character and invest so much time and effort to emulate that character one would have to identify strongly with some aspect of the character’s story or personality.

In the Old Testament there are times when God tells His people or His priests to put on specific articles of clothing, such as sackcloth or robes, to symbolize an attitude or commemorate an event. Putting on these items contributes to the attitude God wants them to take. How many times does Scripture tell us to “put on” intangibles like peace or righteousness, or other character traits? Does the visual of dressing in traits help us own them?

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It’s a hobby. You know how people spend thousands of dollars on tickets to sporting events and even paint their bodies in the colors of the teams (you might even say they look like the turtles in the picture) and no one bats an eye? That’s because doing that is a socially acceptable hobby, and dressing in cosplay is for “weirdos.” I go to comic conventions and although I don’t do cosplay, I enjoy the costumes, and the vibe of the shows. It’s a community, and a place of acceptance. Kind of like what church is supposed to be, and so often isn’t. I’m not saying it replaces church. But it’s just a hobby.
For me, it’s nice to go to one place, a Star Wars convention, and have no one make fun of Star Wars. In fact, everyone likes what you like!
The 501st Legion, the Stormtrooper group, does tons of charity work, and people adore them.

I was going to draw the same analogy as obiwen; when people dress like athletes with players’ names/numbers on jerseys, paint faces and bodies, etc., that doesn’t mean they’re too passive to express themselves without taking on the identity of the athlete. It’s an accepted expression of their interests. That’s how we geeks are, too! If I were to dress in a TARDIS or Dalek costume, it’s because I love Doctor Who. I’m not trying to temporarily acquire missing traits, I’m just a fan, enjoying time with fellow fans. (My family dresses up for ren fairs as well… I wonder what Robin Rosenberg would say about that?)

I love the connection between dressing up in a football jersey and body paint with dressing up in a turtle suit and body paint.  Sports and SyFy are both fantasy environments that enact stories of quest and conquest. We want to participate in stories and root for heroes, whether as Urlacher or Thor.

It’s a deeply human impulse to be in a story—we need to be going somewhere. We find meaning by being in motion. Few true nihilists can say “There is no grand problem with the universe—not sin, not ignorance, not suffering—stuff just happens and it means nothing.” The rest of us need to be headed somewhere.

Cosplay is a reflection of our basic human need to reflect God and participate in his story.

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