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August 08 2011

London burning: history just went sci-fi

Images of the city's looted, burnt-out streets conjure not so much the 1980s Brixton riots as a new, dystopian reality

In HG Wells's novel The War of the Worlds, an attack by overwhelmingly superior Martians drives Londoners to flee their city. Mad columns of panicking people fight for space on roads out of the capital. When the narrator enters the abandoned metropolis he finds an eerie wasteland, where only a few derelicts and drunks remain on the deadly streets.

There was something a bit Wellsian about photographs of riots and looting across London this weekend. Pictures of burning shops and broken windows, and young men confronting uniformed police, included crowdsourced images snatched by witnesses in the rapid, unexpected diffusion of trouble. The most dramatic, of Tottenham on fire and the blackened aftermath, are positively apocalyptic. To me, it all seems uncanny and reminiscent of late Victorian science fiction. Even the place names have that quality of ordinariness that Wells exploits in his fantasy of a London apocalypse: Tottenham in flames, insurrection in Enfield, anarchy in Leyton and Islington ...

This sounds melodramatic – it was not the end of the world – but it is important to recognise the surreal and eerie sci-fi image of London in these pictures of the rioting and looting. It might even be a corrective to the mis-application of history.

For many observers, especially in Tottenham and Brixton, the weekend conjured echoes of the 1980s, when accusations of racist policing combined with the Thatcher government's economic harshness to bring communal protest and violence to British streets. At a time when a Tory-led government once again stands accused of treating young people as economic cannon fodder, the echoes are there in the underlying context. But do the events themselves summon up such history? The mostly teenage protagonists in pictures and eyewitness accounts suggest that, for these rioters, the 1980s are an extremely remote historical period. You may as well compare this weekend with the Gordon riots in the 18th century.

History always repeats itself, said Hegel. But he forgot to add, commented Karl Marx, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. What Marx meant in his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is that history does not repeat itself at all. It only appears to, because human imaginations cannot keep up with the speed of change, so they dress it in costumes borrowed from the past. It is not the 2011 rioters who are dressing in history's robes – they appear to have modelled themselves more on recent zombie movies – but commentators, who are reaching for analogies of 1980s socialists to attribute these troubles to familiar causes.

It is worth looking at images of London's violent weekend and asking how they make you feel. Far from fitting into any historical model, they seem to me to come from an imagined London, a horror scenario of the city as a blazing wilderness. Sci-fi nightmares of urban catastrophe resonate with these pictures because this is a city made strange. Whatever is going on here, it is not familiar, and will not be easy to put right.

• Walking out in my neighbourhood after writing this, I found that Gay's the Word bookshop on Marchmont Street, one of central London's best-known gay landmarks, had its window smashed last night. A substance seems to have been thrown at the window before it was broken. This was the only business attacked on the street. So much for any attempt to see radicalism (at least of a cuddly leftwing variety) in these events. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 18 2010

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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