i09 commenters on femme Doctor cosplay: A response

Cross-posted at The Cosplay Feminist.

As a researcher of cosplay, who often makes conclusions about the feminist (conscious or unconscious) intentions of cosplayers, I am used to having people say my research and/or conclusions are illegitimate. I often have people tell me I’m “reading too much into” cosplay, that I’m assuming too much about cosplayers, that cosplay isn’t even more than women wearing pretty clothes (all women care about!), so what the hell is there to study?

The comments on my interview at i09 were no exception. I didn’t comment over there, because you have to pay me money to get me to go below the line at major websites, but I will respond to some of the “threads” of comments that were common over there. I also chose these four because I’ve heard them all before, and they are common objections or reactions to my research.

Reaction #1: People can cosplay without having motivations! As exemplified by this comment:

While there are many fascinating points about this interview, saying ‘…but even the ones who were less conscious were clearly making up for what they saw as a lack of female protagonists.’ it is too broad a brush to paint everyone’s motivations with. Sometimes making a costume for fun is just fun without any deep, psychological motivation behind it.

Pretty much everything human beings do creates meaning. Fashion is no different (and neither is costume). To say, “Some people just wear clothes for fun and without having other motivations!” is as silly as saying, “If I wear a suit to work, it’s because I have fun wearing it, not because my boss will then interpret me as professional and qualified.” Clothing has meaning, both personal and cultural. Cosplay is rife with meaning, determined by the wearer, the fan community, and the culture within which the cosplayer exists. The femme Doctors are using certain sartorial choices (like corsets, which may have overlapping meanings on the personal, fan community, and cultural levels) to create different meanings.

Cosplayers don’t always know why they make cosplay choices, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t subconsciously making decisions based on the meanings they want to convey. My interviews with cosplayers have borne this hypothesis out. At first, many want to say that they cosplay “just for fun.” And “fun” is a motivation behind their costuming, but it’s not the only motivation they have. When pushed, they are usually able to come up with all sorts of motivations for what they do. Or their choices conveniently match up with their interpretations. (Take my question to Niki La Teer, who dressed in a femme TARDIS costume and just happened to interpret the TARDIS as female.)

My short answer? No, people can’t cosplay without having multiple motivations and without trying to convey multiple messages/meanings. Everything in my research has led to this conclusion.

Reaction #2: Ladies cosplaying is for fapping. An example:

I would do unspeakable things to most of these doctors. Yep.

Not to mention the TARDIS.

Just…gross. Stop it, fans, because it’s not as endearing as you think.

Reaction #3: The companions are heroes, too! By saying they aren’t, you’re saying they aren’t awesome. Exemplified by this comment:

River Song isn’t a hero? I’d argue that Rose becomes a hero in her own right, too. Though I have problems with the direction they eventually took Martha Jones in, she certainly became her own woman, and a hero. We haven’t followed their solo adventures, but then Doctor Who isn’t their show- it hasn’t depicted Captain Jack’s independent exploits, either.
Sarah Jane may have started out as merely a companion, but her solo adventures have been covered.

All these characters play second fiddle to the Doctor, but since it’s his show, so that criticism seems invalid to me. Batman is a secondary (or tertiary) character in the new Batwoman series because it’s her book!
Like CJ, I applaud how this kind of fan activity can criticize or just recontextualize gender and how it works in the Whoverse, but it seems unfair to these great female characters to say that they’re mere sidekicks.

This comment even mentions why I said that the companions are “definitionally” sidekicks in Doctor Who: the show is about the Doctor. It’s not a two-man show, it’s a one-man show. Notice how there are no episodes in which companions appear, but no Doctor. But there are several episodes in which the Doctor appears with no companion. That’s because the show isn’t about them. They can’t be “heroes” in a show that makes them play “second fiddle” to a dude. You can’t actually have it both ways.

Here’s the thing: this show does not have to have a White man as its hero. It’s not a requirement to be on TV (even if it may seem like it). The producers have choices they make, and they choose for this show be focused around the subjectivity of a person played by an actor in a particularly privileged set of social and political categories. The people who say, “But the show’s about a dude, thus you aren’t allowed to be mad the ladies aren’t protagonists!” are completely missing the point. The show. Doesn’t have to be. About a dude. Even if they wanted to keep the Doctor a White man, it’s possible to have a leading duo in a television show where both subjectivities are at the center of the show, and one is not secondary to another. (See: The X-Files, Castle, Warehouse 13, Bones, etc.) Doctor Who chooses not to do this.

Further, it’s ridiculous to recognize that all the women in Doctor Who play “second fiddle” to the Doctor and then tell me they are heroes/protagonists. I should point out that the reason I used “heroine” as the label here is because, in my mind, the use of “heroine” to describe a secondary character is mainly rhetorical. Obviously, women doing femme Doctor cosplays are not of the opinion that companions are simply not awesome. But they want more. They want women to be the protagonists, the main characters, heroines.

The women of Doctor Who have been amazing. They’ve been complicated, flawed, funny, brilliant, and resourceful. I think they could be pretty fabulous heroines. But the show? It does not frame them as heroines. They may buck against the label “assistant,” but that’s what they are in the show. They are helpers and sidekicks. Their subjectivities, their storylines, their very existence on the show (and in River’s case, their very existence full stop) are predicated on the Doctor. They wouldn’t be there, and we wouldn’t see their stories, without him. Which is why they can never be called heroines.

Reaction #4: Cosplay is derivative, and thus not creative (enough). It took a while for this guy to come right out and say this, but he finally did:

The problem with fandom is that it wants to own the thing it loves and then transform it into their own image. Nu Who is a living testimony to this, but what’s wrong with just liking something for what it is?

If you want to be creative, create your own stuff. Fandom is inherently parasitic these days.

[Emphasis added.] I’d like to point out, first, the privilege inherent in the statement, “What’s wrong with just liking something for what it is?” Oh, you mean a pseudo-imperialistic show that often marginalizes women, people of color, asexual folk, and GBLTQ people? Yes, I suppose I could “just like” that if I was so privileged that I had my head up my own ass.

So, fan culture does indeed take raw material (a TV show, a film, a comic book, a novel) and (irreverently) rips it apart. Fans mine these texts for what they find relevant to their experience as a human being. And they transform that text. They recreate, re-imagine, reinterpret. Bourgeois values are against us doing this, in part because when fans recreate, they are refusing to accept the values, interpretations, and perspectives that are given from the Powers That Be (in this case, authorized creators like actors, directors, and writers). Going against power structures has never been okay with bourgeois value-systems, particularly when those interpretations (like femme Doctor cosplay) makes apparent the structures that oppress particular classes of people.

I’m going to guess this commenter is a straight, White, abled, cis-gendered man. The reason I’m guessing that? Because the show would already have to speak entirely to your (privileged) existence for you to say you’re a fan without irreverently reinterpreting the show yourself. (Or, he’s not, and he does reinterpret, but he assumes that because he doesn’t write fanfic or cosplay, it doesn’t count or he doesn’t do it.)

Let’s address, then, his statement that cosplayers should “be creative” by “creat[ing] their own stuff.” This is a common sentiment about fan works. People act like fan works are derivative, and thus they are less-than. I’ve got news for you, folks: Everything ever written down is derivative, except maybe cave paintings. (Maybe.) Every song you hear on the radio is derivative. (Yes, even the “good” music.) Every piece of artwork, every fashion creation, every architectural masterpiece, every piece of choreography: all derivative. That isn’t a critique; it’s descriptive. Fan works are simply more honest than most about their derivative nature.

So sure, you can draw an arbitrary line between, for example, fanfic and “real writing.” But that line is a construction, not natural truth. There’s nothing more creative about writing something not based on Doctor Who (or Harry Potter or Supernatural). You could argue that most fanfic is terrible, and thus it’s not real writing, and I would laugh at you. Most of the fiction that’s been written down in the world is just as terrible as the vast majority of fanfic. Perhaps you want to argue that because fanfic has not been published, it is not “real” or “creative,” but then you’re just being an asshole.

Fan works and productions are creative. Hell, the works you are deriding, those that reinterpret the text to fit their experiences, may even be more creative, if simply because they are more interpretive. Cosplay is not parasitic, it is productive, like all other fan production.

Examples of creative processes are analyzing a text, reinterpreting a text, and critiquing a text. Fan works do all these things. An example of a non-creative process is “lik[ing] something for what it is,” or passively accepting others’ interpretations.

13 comments

  1. Sally O says:

    Mildly lost here, as I’ve not heard the term “cos-play” before. However, I’m interested to know what you make of the MALE companions the Doctor has had? Ian, Harry, Turlough, Jamie, Ben and co did also play second fiddle to the Doctor, no? Or am I missing the point entirely?

    • (Cosplay has a Wikipedia article, and I would also suggest reading the interview I refer to at the beginning of the post, to get the context you need for this discussion.) White abled men have a variety of characters to choose from in cosplaying, and one of those characters is always the hero, the protagonist, the Doctor. Despite his having 11 actor portrayals, he is always of the same privileged social and political categories. So, whether the male companions have played second fiddle (and of course they have) is irrelevant to the discussion of femme Doctor cosplay, because this is about women not seeing someone who looks like them as the hero, but always as a sidekick. Men (White abled ones, anyway) get to see people who look like them as the hero and a variety of secondary characters. That is a fundamentally unbalanced situation, and one that the femme Doctor cosplay trend counters with a radical appropriation and reinterpretation of the main character.

  2. Brass Cupcake says:

    I support your decision not to comment on i09 as the comment area (like most Gawker blogs) is not traditionally a safe welcoming space for women. Plus cosplay as a hobby is generally maligned and misunderstood within the geek community, at least by a vocal group. Geeks (particularly male geeks) either treat it like Suicide Girls or like the hobbyists are “too geeky” and embarrassing to the rest of “real geeks.” So there’s a lot to overcome and educate there, which makes it difficult to have a decent conversation about gender AND cosplay.

    – “Cosplayers don’t always know why they make cosplay choices, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t subconsciously making decisions based on the meanings they want to convey”

    I’ll add to that that they are making subconscious decisions based not just on meanings they wish to convey, but also in response to the messages they’re receiving that them may not even understand yet (or even be aware they’re responding to).

    Cosplay as a whole is a very, very young hobby. Most of the participants are tweens and teens, with a secondary larger group being college age. The sci-fi and comics fans tend to skew a bit older, including people in their 30s-50s because these are the people who (a) have the income for the films/comic books/merchandise and (b) became fans in their youth before “geek” was a cool word or a market category. Older fans are more likely to be aware of their motivations for cosplay, as well as the social messages they are responding to, simply due to their life experience and ability to recognize and articulate their thought process.

    My observation is that the average audience (the tweens to 20s) often don’t acknowledge underlying motivation or response beyond “I like the character! The show is fun!” mostly due to the fact that their age and limited life experience mean they don’t yet have the skills for that level of self-analysis or media literacy, let alone the ability to articulate either. Which is not to say they aren’t smart, simply that it’s unreasonable to expect a 13yo to have the same social and personal awareness or academic understanding as a 33yo.

    So while they may say there’s no underlying influence or goal, it’s more likely that many of them simply don’t know how to articulate the very fuzzy and fluid process that leads to creative inspiration or social response. Because, in fairness, people have been trying to understand and express that process for thousands of years. A dozen ivy league scholars with masters on a particular artist will still argue a dozen different views on what the art means, or what the artist intended.

    If we were able to spend a half and hour interviewing each cosplayer my bet is that after some probing we’d find that the underlying purpose of their cosplay is different than what they originally admitted. They may say “I just like the character,” but when you start asking *why* and what that character means to them it would be become clear that there is more going on than mindless fandom.

    So when people dismiss dress-up and costuming as entirely superficial and devoid of any social or personal context I think they are demonstrating either great naivete or ignorant dismissal.

    – “Ladies cosplaying is for fapping.”

    This goes back to the belief that women’s bodies are for sexual objectification and the male gaze. So of course women dressing in costume means those women’s bodies are soley for male consumption, like free fetish (soft)porn. Yep, these bottom feeders exist, aplenty. Not much you can say there.

    – [commenter] “I would do unspeakable things to most of these doctors.”

    You’re right, that’s not sexy nor flattering and it needs to stop. I imagine that these guys think a hyperbolic expression of their sexual desire is funny, but in reality it makes it sound like the plan of a sex criminal. “Unspeakable things” sounds like he wants to hang her from a meat hook and wear her skin as a hat. It’s creepy and it brings a non-consensual, horror element to the sexual objectification that is simply not funny.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

      My observation is that the average audience (the tweens to 20s) often don’t acknowledge underlying motivation or response beyond “I like the character! The show is fun!” mostly due to the fact that their age and limited life experience mean they don’t yet have the skills for that level of self-analysis or media literacy, let alone the ability to articulate either.

      Okay, so I thought this would be the case too! When I started my interviews, though, I found that older participants were far less likely to attribute interpretive and political meanings to their cosplay. The younger crowd? The complete opposite. Many of them had very articulated and specific ideas about what their cosplay had to say about gender and the show. Not one of the older femme Doctor cosplayers I interviewed did, nor did any of the older other kinds of cosplayers I’ve interviewed. My sample size is small, though, and I don’t have any solid hypotheses about the discrepancy.

      • Brass Cupcake says:

        That is interesting to note. :) In my online interactions I’ve seen a distinct age divide, with the older (college age +) cosplayers discussing issues beyond matching color for accuracy and getting into how they feel about a character or cosplay creation. In particular I notice that older cosplayers appear to be more aware and more vocal about the issues raised by the trend to interpret “femme” genderbent cosplay as primarily “sexy” or “sexual” cosplay. While I frequently see younger cosplayers dismiss that as feminist nonsense or over thinking it. So I’ve seen age and experience play a role in that regard.

        However I think the differences in our experience just further proves that there is no single profile of a cosplayer, nor a single motivation — which means outsiders should not be so quick to dismiss the hobby or its hobbyists. As you said, many cosplayers (at any age) do have underlying reasons for their choices, because the hobby is quite individualistic and fandom expresses itself in a variety of ways.

        • I wonder if the difference in our observations are because of the different methods? Most younger cosplayers use the boards online as purely practical resources, not as places to discuss things. Whereas in my interviews, I ask them specifically about their interpretations, so they talk about them.

          But your absolutely right, there is not single profile. It’s why I’m writing a book about it, because the topic of cosplayer motivations is quite complex, and not easy to cover in an article or a blog post.

          • Brass Cupcake says:

            – “I wonder if the difference in our observations are because of the different methods?”

            I was wondering the same thing. Sometimes people open up more in-person because of the direct connection and social setting. Other times people feel more comfortable sharing personal info online due to the relative anonymity.

            I definitely don’t want to discredit your experience. Mostly I wanted to add to it with the idea that maybe some commenters are assuming that cosplayers don’t have deeper motives because they (the commenters) are ignoring the roles that age, setting and social styles play in communication.

            – “It’s why I’m writing a book about it, because the topic of cosplayer motivations is quite complex, and not easy to cover in an article or a blog post.”

            I didn’t know you were writing a book. Congrats on the venture, that’s exciting.

          • “Mostly I wanted to add to it with the idea that maybe some commenters are assuming that cosplayers don’t have deeper motives because they (the commenters) are ignoring the roles that age, setting and social styles play in communication.”

            Absolutely.

            “I didn’t know you were writing a book. Congrats on the venture, that’s exciting.”

            Thanks! I’m at a very early stage, but I’m excited and still pretty optimistic. :)

  3. I really enjoyed this post as cosplay is something I’ve enjoyed a lot from a distance and as an outsider/viewer. Though when I think about it, I am more actively involved too, not for myself but through my children. Making costumes, especially for my seven-year-old, has become a bit of a THING in recent years, and reached a Doctor Who crescendo this January, for Raeli’s birthday.

    She wanted to be Melody Pond and then River Song, which we always thought would be quite an easy costume, until with one week to go she decided she wanted to be ASTRONAUT River. Luckily she has a creative family & we all pulled together to make a triumph.

    http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/never-mind-domestic-science-parenthood-is-all-about-domestic-art/

    I think very much that who she chooses to dress as or play as is important, which is why I was delighted last year when Raeli did in fact start playing the Doctor at school, encouraging her friends to join her (often playing with younger children or girls her age who didn’t watch the show, I presume so they wouldn’t challenge her for the top role) and we once had a long conversation about how the Doctor could be female one day, which she interrupted with “Yes mummy, but when I’m the Doctor, I’m not a girl, I’m Matt Smith’s Doctor.”

    Which blew my mind a little bit, and delighted me utterly. Kids her age are so gender-policey that any sign of thinking outside the binary has to be good! She even kept her room clean for a month to “earn” a proper bow tie, which her Dad bought her.

    I keep a close eye on who she chooses to identify with/role play because it feels like it gives me an insight into who she is and what she wants for herself. And I love that she has ‘the Doctor’ among her repertoire, in with Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Batgirl, River Song, etc.

    Meanwhile, my 2 year old regularly tells us she is “Batman.”

  4. [...] Remember that bit I linked you about femme Doctor cosplayers? Courtney responds to some comments and criticisms here. [...]

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