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.