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Cosplay: the sincerest form of flattery

Dressing as one's favourite character is not mere imitation – cosplayers often subvert the artwork's gender and add meaning

Walking down the hallways of conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con, fans can admire their favourite characters from video games, anime, TV shows or comic books come to life. Cosplayers, who dress up as various characters, concepts, or even inanimate objects are a huge draw to these conventions. They show off their handiwork, have their photos taken and do roleplay. What motivates these fans to don costumes, wigs and makeup varies from person to person, but one trend emerges: cosplay offers a uniquely public way to respond to published artwork and fan communities simultaneously.

For the uninitiated, the term cosplay is a combination of costuming and roleplay, a practice that originated in Japanese fan cultures. In the UK and US, however, the roleplay aspect has become less vital. What does seem to matter is where a cosplayer gets their inspiration. Many of the cosplayers I have spoken with define it similarly to Abby, from the US: "The important thing about cosplay is that it is derived from a specific work already in publication. A steampunk [Victorian sci-fi] outfit, for example, would be cosplay if it was based on a specific outfit in a Jules Verne novel, but not if you randomly throw steampunk accessories together."

Cosplay is never a purely original creative enterprise, but a reaction to an already published oeuvre. However, this does not mean that it is a brainless copy of other authors' creations. Quite the opposite. Every well-done cosplay is an individual work of art.

While most cosplayers do not usually believe their creations directly affect published texts, they do expect reactions to their character interpretations by fellow fans. Allison, an American cosplayer from Georgia, enjoys crossplaying (dressing as a character of the opposite gender), in part because "it's really satisfying when you play your part so well that an observer doesn't realise you're a crossplayer until you speak". Fans such as Allison challenge gender presentation in their fan communities, illustrating the fluidity of gender in the context of their subcultures.

Female cosplayers are often challenged by source texts that don't offer interesting, independent, or strong female characters, or make these characters minor. One solution is to crossplay, but some are unsatisfied by this option, preferring to change the gender of the source character. For female cosplayers, this activity is often referred to as "femme-ing" a character. Women who go this route choose a male character and interpret it as female. By doing so, they directly address and correct gender inequity in their chosen works of art.

A popular example of femme cosplay is the femme Doctor: female cosplayers choose a doctor from the Doctor Who series and interpret him as a woman (in contrast, female crossplayers would costume as the Doctor as a man.) This cosplay of a femme fourth Doctor (originally played by Tom Baker) and this one of a femme fifth Doctor (originally played by Peter Davison) both include skirts, but some femme cosplayers, like this femme ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), opt for trousers, while still maintaining the "femme" feel of the costume.

The blogger Nightsky in Doctors with dalek bumps: femme doctors, argues that the femme Doctor trend is a way for geek women to reclaim their femininity as legitimate, in a subculture that often denigrates all things "girly". She is absolutely right, but cosplaying as a femme Doctor also allows female fans to portray and play the role of the main protagonist: they remind us that female characters in Doctor Who are perpetually sidekicks.

That femme-ing is so popular in geek fan cultures marks the fact that, as a whole, these subcultures' original inspirations overwhelmingly favour hero-men over hero-women, and frequently cast women only in the limited roles of mother, lover or trusty friend. But not all cosplay is subversive: it mainly offers a space in which fans can appreciate, criticise and deconstruct what they love (some times all with the same costume).

• This article was requested by reader gembird in a You tell us thread © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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