Ever since I started hanging out with my sister-in-law, grand master cosplayer SuperKayce, I’ve heard people both inside and outside this community of dresser-uppers asking this question. Of course, you’re more likely to hear the people who are sharing your convention space ask the question in these words, than the cosplayers themselves—for the uninitiated, this question can be more of an accusation, while for those on the “in” it’s more philosophical. And yes, the question is mostly for women. If you’re a man dressed as a character that is also a man, then you probably haven’t been accused of being slutty or deviant, by anyone else, or by yourself.
So, is cosplay about sex? For me, the obvious answer is: yes? But only in the sense that about 90% percent of the things that human beings do and make are, to one degree or another, sexual in some way (PS-that’s a statistic from my imagination). Sure, there’s a spectrum of sexual-ness in art, of both “serious” and popular types: on a scale of one to ten, one being a macaroni necklace, ten being actual pornography with people having oiled-up foursomes, most cosplays probably rank somewhere between a two and a seven, depending on what the cosplay is. It IS about sex, but it’s also about sewing, fabricating, problem solving, studying your facial expressions in the mirror, budgeting, working with other artists, making connections, and, for many, supporting charities and the greater community. In cosplay you connect with people through what is really a shared fantasy, which might be a fantasy of a sexy sort, but is also usually a fantasy about many other non-sexual things. They are fantasies of being effectual, of helping others, of being cherished, of being a child again, of being part of a family, of living up to your own expectations of yourself—of being not just physically, but ethically, morally, spiritually the thing you want to be, in spite of your circumstances, and in spite of past failures.
I think we have a sort of cultural assumption about fantasizing, that it is, at best, a waste of time and mental energy, and, at worst, dirty and deviant. We’re better off, though, if we embrace our desire to fantasize. It’s not a waste of time—rather, it’s a way to connect with other people about things that are actually really important, especially to young people. Modeling yourself after others, real or imaginary, trying on different characters to see how each feels—this is what we do when we form or re-form our identities. We try different things, and see how it sticks. Often the way we “try” these identities is through fantasizing about them (which can happen when you are alone in your car, or reading, or playing a video game). Sexuality is often at play in these fantasies because sex is part of our identities, but sexuality in-and-of-itself isn’t dirty or deviant (does this need to be stated? I don’t know, sometimes I think it does). Community fantasy can help us know ourselves and others better, which doesn’t sound like a waste of time to me.
Another aspect of this that I think I shouldn’t ignore is the aspect of audience, and the role perception plays in whether or not cosplay is a weird sex thing. I wear some costumes that I think are sexy. I wear some costumes that I don’t think are sexy. But regardless of how I view myself, I find myself the subject of critique–we all do, and especially if we’re women. In a way, when I cosplay I almost feel like I have more control over this critique than when I wear regular clothes—what I wear is so stylized that I can almost force the reaction of the audience. That is, I get to decide (to a degree) if this cosplay is about sex, whereas when I when I wear normal clothes, people pick out my character for me: she’s dressed like a mom, or like a slut, or like a dude. I think part of why I like wearing costumes is because I’m reaching for control over the way I’m perceived, which is so often filtered through a patriarchal lens in my regular life. I may not be achieving this control, but I think that might be an underlying impulse for me, and maybe for others of us.
So there’s my answer to this self-reflecting sort of question. Cosplay is a way to play with identity through fantasy, and, for me, it’s a way to play with gender and sex, and control and subvert perceptions of my identity. There are probably cheaper ways to do this, but hey, I really like cartoons. I like sewing. I like bumming around with the otakus, the Pokémon Professors and Star Wars zealots. It makes me joyful, and joyfulness is always super hot.