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A comic by Peter Birkett, from Punch magazine on 5 August 1981. The image is a simple black line drawing on white. In it, a small group of Daleks are at the bottom of a short flight of stairs, looking toward the top of the stairs. At the bottom text reads, “Well, this certainly buggers our plan to conquer the Universe.” The comic is signed “birkett.” Source.
I’ve never much understood fear of the Daleks. They’re clunky and awkward, and way more adorable than frightening. (As a friend pointed out, the cutest thing about them is the way they sound increasingly frustrated. “Explain. EXPLAIN! EXPLAAAAIIN!!” Adorbs.) But the show and many fans insist that they are scary. They were even voted the scariest Doctor Who villain in a 2007 BBC poll. I find this confusing, because so many fan works (like crafts, fan art, cosplay) represent Daleks are humorous, cute, and/or silly. And it’s not like all villains are vulnerable to this. How many crafts do you see that make the Silence look adorable? Or that dress up the automatons from “The Girl in the Fireplace” as tiki-themed? Do people make plushies of the water monsters from “Waters of Mars”?
And it would be possible to read cute fan-made versions of the Daleks as studies in juxtaposition. We can create humor by making something truly horrifying look loveable or sad.
A photo shows one of the Silence sitting at the end of a table. The table has a birthday cake on it, as well as several brightly colored paper plates and cups set on the table. The Silence wears a brightly colored striped party hat, and sits beside a bunch of colored balloons. He is the only one at the table. Text at the bottom reads “no one every remembers my birthday…” Source.
The humor of this image comes from two different contrasts. It riffs on the fact that the Silence can’t be remembered by anyone, and that would make it difficult for them to have normal lives. They couldn’t have friends, or dates, or jobs. But imagining villains (and particularly monsters) having normal lives is a weird contradiction, and that contradiction is funny. Imagine the Joker buying toilet paper, or the Silurians walking their dogs. Further, by giving the Silence the same kinds of feelings that normal people have, by making it seem vulnerable and lonely, the picture invokes the same kind of humor. A sad Silence is also a contradiction. Taking evil villains and monsters outside of their evil-doing contexts is funny, but not because it makes the actual villain/monster any less threatening. It works because they’re frightening; if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be any contradiction, and the humor wouldn’t be there.
Some Dalek fan works operate with the same kind of humor, but most do not. Popular themes are mocking the Daleks’ lack of motor functions, ridiculing the Daleks’ appearance, and poking fun at the Daleks’ catch phrase.
Can the Daleks do anything? Unlike the Silence picture, which makes fun of the Silence’s inability to have normal lives (not actually necessary for villainy), Dalek works often make fun of the Daleks for being clunky and awkward. The comic at the top of the post is a prime (and rather famous) example of this. The comic makes it explicit that the Daleks’ inability to navigate stairs would actually make them incompetent (and not that frightening) villains. One doesn’t need to have memorable birthdays to conquer the world. Stair-navigation, however, is probably necessary. We can see another example of this type of humor below.
The detail on a dark grey t-shirt. In the image, a bronze-colored Dalek stands confused over a boxed light bulb on a table. His plunger and whisk “arms” are poised over the light bulb, and a think bubble above his head reads, “…how the heck?” Source.
While Daleks don’t need to change lightbulbs to be good villains (probably), the t-shirt is ridiculing the Daleks’ lack of motor functions. I mean, they have a plunger and a whisk. No fingers. No hands. They can’t pick anything up, or manipulate anything manually. That makes them a little less threatening as villains, which this t-shirt picks up on.
Why do they look like that? The Daleks’ clunky and low-budget appearance has been made fun of almost universally. Even people who think the Daleks are scary rarely think they look scary. The Daleks literally look like they were put together with scrap metal, stuff lying around the house, and some tape. It makes them hard to take seriously.
The detail on a bright blue t-shirt. The image is a simple white line drawing. It shows a salt shaker, a plus sign, a plunger, a plus sign, a whisk, an equal sign, and a Dalek. Source.
This popular t-shirt posits that the Daleks are literally slap-dash. They humor comes in part because each of the objects is a domestic object (a salt shaker, a plunger, a whisk), which places the construction of the Daleks (or at least the aesthetic of the Daleks) squarely in the home. This makes them feel less threatening, because they are portrayed not as alien machines, but as objects that are extremely familiar. Further, the objects chosen here are, individually, so benign it would be difficult to imagine someone hurting you with them. How would you even attack someone with a whisk?
This kind of fan work doesn’t normally rely on contradiction; it’s a straight-up mocking of what the Dalek looks like and what parts he’s made of.
EXFOLIATE! ELUCIDATE! PONTIFICATE! The catch phrase for the Daleks is, I think, supposed to represent their horrifying, single-minded focus on killing all non-Daleks. But when you repeat a word enough, it starts to lose it’s meaning. I think this is what has happened to EXTERMINATE. Partially because the Daleks are so ridiculous, fans have easily and frequently taken the catch phrase and played with it for humor.
The detail on a dark blue t-shirt. The image is a simple bright blue line drawing. It shows a a Dalek lounging on a recliner. He is watching TV, using a remote, and eating popcorn on a side table. There’s a can on beer on its side on the side table, and one on the arm of the recliner. On a bulletin board next to the Dalek are pinned three different sheets of paper. One shows the sonic screwdriver, one is a technical drawing of the TARDIS, and one is a “To Do List” with three items, all reading “EXTERMINATE!” Source.
The detail from a handpainted white greeting card. A bronze-colored Dalek sits in the suds of a bathtub, with soap hanging from a rope on his plunger arm. Text above the image reads, “EXFOLIATE!” Source.
These examples rely somewhat on the contradiction of Daleks having normal lives (watching TV, taking a bath), like the Silence example. They are also showing, though, the ridiculousness of the way the Daleks approach actions. If the Daleks want to do something (or want someone else to do something), they just yell commands. (Explain! EXPLAIN! EXPLAAAAIN!!) By showing how humorous it is to do that in real life (PROCRASTINATE! EXFOLIATE!), these fan works reveal the ways in which the Dalek catchphrase is silly, in part because it unnecessarily narrates the Daleks’ actions. Instead of just, you know, shooting the Doctor, they yell EXTERMINATE about 10 times while looking at him first. That’s about as stupid as screaming EXFOLIATE while you’re in the bathtub. The PROCRASTINATE image is even funnier, because it seems to directly comment on the way the Daleks say actions to delay doing them, as the “To Do List” on the wall makes clear. This is certainly a characteristic that makes a villain less threatening (like a Bond villain who explains his whole plan to you and walks away after putting you in a slow-moving death trap).
Soft Dalek, warm Dalek, little ball of hate. There are, however, some fan works that seem to resemble my Silence example, that rely on the contrast between scary killer monster and domesticity/everyday life, snuggliness, and/or vulnerability and loneliness.
A screenshot from spastasmagoria’s Tumblr blog. The post, from 4 May, has an image that is a close-up of a bronze-colored Dalek’s head. His glowing blue eyestalk is central, and text below the eyestalk reads “I am alone in the universe.” A comment from Tumblr user missrenholder reads, “’‘Help me.’ Poor little thing.” Spastasmagoria’s commentary reads, “LET ME HOLD YOU, LAST DALEK IN THE UNIVERSE. LET ME CUDDLE YOU AND WE CAN HUG THE GENOCIDE OUT.” Source.
A hand drawn set of images on white that parody the “Soft Kitty” song from Big Bang Theory. In the first panel, the text reads, “soft dalek” and a red Dalek is covered in something white and fluffy. In the second panel (“warm dalek”), the Dalek is on a lounge chair under the sun. In the third panel (“little ball of hate”), the eleventh Doctor casually looks at the Dalek, who is much smaller, about waist-height. The Dalek has little “hate lines” above his head. In the fourth panel (“happy dalek”), the Dalek is look upward, with his “arms” raised. In the fifth panel (“sleepy dalek”), the Dalek’s head and arms are facing downward, and a talk bubble reads “zzz…” In the last panel, the Dalek’s head and arms are facing upwards, and a talk bubble reads “EX-TER-MI-NATE.” Source.
Both of these examples contrast snuggliness with hatred and violence. The first image is funny because spastasmagoria explicitly juxtaposes hugging with genocidal creatures, and the second because it pairs a “little ball of hate” with kitties. Like the Silence example, this kind of fan work functions best if the viewer sees the Daleks as frightening and threatening. That way, the contrast is at its highest. Unlike the Silence example, however, these two works feel the need to explicitly remind the audience that the Daleks are genocidal murderers (“WE CAN HUG THE GENOCIDE OUT” and “little ball of hate”). I would suggest that they do this because without doing so, the audience(s) might see the Daleks as ridiculous, as already adorable, and then these works would be less humorous.
A silver-framed cross stitch on a striped wall. In the cross stitch, a dark red Dalek faces an R2D2. A speech bubble coming from the Dalek had a pink heart in it. Source.
A chubby red felted Dalek. He has twisty metal arms, and is holding a banner reading “EXTERMINATE” in stamped letters in front of him. Source.
Many examples of snuggly/lonely Dalek fan works, however, don’t rely on humor at all. They’re just cute. There are knitted Daleks, plush Daleks, crocheted Daleks, felted Daleks. There are cookie Daleks. There are Daleks that just want to love. There are baby Daleks. All of these examples aren’t really meant to be funny. They’re meant to be adorable. And that there are so many of them suggests that a lot of fans already think the Daleks are adorable, or at least think the Daleks are non-threatening enough to be fashioned as adorable.
A “tiki Dalek” at Gallifrey 22 in 2011. The Dalek has bamboo trim and a straw “skirt” trimmed in green grass and Hawaiian flowers. His bumps are half coconuts, and his eyestalk is made of one, too. He has a cocktail umbrella behind his eyestalk, and his whisk arm is a tiki torch. The other arm holds a drink topped with Hawaiian flowers and cocktail umbrellas. The rings on his “neck” are plastic leis. Source.
So are the Daleks scary? My exploration into Dalek fan works suggests that even fans don’t really think so. When at least half of fan works of a villain mock or domesticate that villain, it seems unreasonable to say that fans are truly frightened of it. We seem to think the Daleks are ridiculous, silly, and cute at least as often as we think they are scary.
The upcoming part 2 of this post will explore how the Daleks are similar to H. G. Wells’s Martian in The War of the Worlds, and how that comparison affects how scary, or not, the Daleks are to modern audiences.
Cross-posted at The Cosplay Feminist.
I just returned from the PCA/ACA conference in Boston this year. I’ll be doing a write-up on the other fan studies/geek presentations I saw, but I wanted to post mine first. I think it is relevant to our interests here.
My presentation had a powerpoint. I’ve embedded it below. You can also download it, if you like.
In July of last year at Comic-Con (the largest media convention in the country), a panel titled “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” purported to address the trend of female geeks dressing “sexy.” From the panel description:
Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? When geek girls show off, are they liberating themselves or pandering to men? Do some “fake fangirls” blend sex appeal with nerdiness just to appeal to the growing geek/nerd market, or is that question itself unfair? And what’s up with all the Slave Leias?
The discussion at Comic-Con was framed in terms of individual choices, not structural influences, and this limited the conclusions the panel could come to. The dichotomous choice offered—“Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? […] are they liberating themselves or pandering to men?”—fails to take into account the complexities of women’s positions in geek culture, the politics of cosplay, or how cultural ideals of beauty influence women’s fashion decisions and choices.Geek cultures—centered on video games, science fiction and fantasy, and comic books—are traditionally thought of as boys’ clubs. Even though women often make up half of geek populations, their roles in geek culture(s) are limited by the perceptions and actions of advertisers, producers, designers, marketers, and fans. Women are considered valuable additions to many geek cultures, but usually as decoration. Which means that most of the women “celebrated” in geek cultures are conventionally beautiful, thin, white, abled cis women who position themselves as sexy objects for male geek consumption, usually via cosplay. For the uninitiated, the term cosplay is a combination of “costume” and “roleplay” or “play,” and refers to when fans costume as characters or objects from their favorite media (like video games, movies, and TV shows). Cosplayers usually wear their costumes to conventions, and the “roleplay” aspect of cosplaying is often minimal in North America, and limited to the poses struck for photos or occasional interactions in the convention hallways.
This presentation will explore the ways in which female geeks’ choices are limited by geek cultures, how the trend of self-objectification among geek women can signal both a hostility towards women as equal participants and a resistance to that hostility, and how blaming women’s performances is a hand-waving exercise intended to gloss over the culture(s)’ problems.
The sexism that persists in geek communities is not special. It is not separable and inherently different than sexist institutions and behaviors in the “real world.” This means that the sexualization and objectification of women is not unique to geek cultures, though it is particularly severe in geek media. Video games, comics, science fiction, fantasy—these media forms are often at fault for promoting unrealistic (and, pretty regularly, physically impossible) standards of beauty for women. They fashion their female heroines and villains as sexy objects to be consumed, unlike male counterparts. Further, geek industries bring the objectification of women into the real world, hiring, for example, booth babes for conventions. Booth babes are conventionally attractive models hired by media companies to wear skimpy clothing and entice convention-goers to their respective booths. Geek women exist within this culture, which devalues their contributions as producers of media and meaning, but values their contributions as adornment.
This project is about self-objectification, not objectification by others, but the two are not wholly separable, any more separable than my putting on makeup and high heels this morning and the objectification of women in advertising and fashion magazines. Just as media representations of women influence women’s decisions to diet, wear cosmetics, get plastic surgery, lighten their skin, relax their hair, shave their legs, and wax their bikini lines, geek media representations of women influence geek women’s decisions to dress in “sexy” cosplay.
By “sexy” cosplay, I mean cosplay that appeals to heterosexual male fantasies, participates in the objectification of the cosplayer, and (purposefully or not) positions the cosplayer as an object for consumption by male geeks. There are two ways to participate in sexy cosplay; one is to choose a character whose costume is already sexy, and another to alter a character’s costume in order to make it sexy.
First, let’s look at cosplayers who do not alter their costumes. A rather visible example of this kind of sexy cosplay is women who costume as “slave Leia.” The Star Wars character has two main costumes that cosplayers choose from. [Next slide] The first, and least popular, is the costume from A New Hope. This is the costume with the iconic buns. [Next slide] The second, and more popular, Leia costume is “slave Leia,” the bikini-style costume worn by Leia in Return of the Jedi when she is the prisoner of Jabba the Hutt. At major science fiction media conventions, like Comic-Con and Dragon*Con, it is common to have an official group slave Leia picture, because of the popularity of this costume with cosplayers and other convention-goers. In the slave Leia cosplay, we see a classic example of sexy cosplay in which the costumer chooses a costume that is already heteronormatively “sexy.”
Next, let’s look at an example of a cosplayer who alters their costume to make them sexy. [Next slide] This is LeeAnna Vamp as Chewbacca from Star Wars, who is on the left. This cosplay was featured on IGN, a website about gaming and entertainment. Notice how Vamp positions herself compared with the actual Chewbacca. Chewbacca stands firmly and aggressively, feet apart to keep him stable. LeeAnna, on the other hand, stands off-center, with her legs together and crossed: a passive position. In the kneeling photo, her position suggests sexual availability and exposure (not sexual aggression), with a slightly open mouth and legs parted. These positions, along with her revealing costume, position LeeAnna as a sexual object for consumption. [Next slide]
In both altered and unaltered sexy cosplay, we thus see a desire to be seen as attractive by straight men. These women visually signal to a viewer (there’s always a viewer for cosplayers) that they are conforming to heteronormative beauty standards. They do this by positioning themselves as sexually receptive and passive; by wearing costumes that emphasize body parts that our culture associates with sex appeal, like breasts, hips, buttocks, and navels; and by emphasizing their femininity and conformity to beauty standards.
As Naomi Wolf points out The Beauty Myth, women in the U.S. are rewarded for capitulating to narrow and often impossible beauty standards. She claims that beauty is a currency, with which “women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves” (12). Ariel Levy’s exploration of raunch culture in Female Chauvinist Pigs demonstrates, however, that women must often do more than merely perform beauty work. She argues that “hotness doesn’t just yield approval. Proof that a woman actively seeks approval is a crucial criterion for hotness in the first place.” In a world of booth babes and sexy cosplay, this is apparent. What makes the sexy cosplay sexy is not merely that the cosplayers are thin, young, and buxom, but that they are performing and actively seeking male approval. [Next slide] For a particularly egregious example of this, I’m going to show you the video created by some geek women, mostly actresses, who formed a group called Team Unicorn. [play to 1:28] The video is very repetitive, so we can stop it there.
Almost everything about this video marks it as a performance in the service of geek men. Of course, the participants in the video, Team Unicorn, consist of young, thin, light-skinned women who conform to cultural beauty standards. There are a number of particularly porn-like shots, in which the young women are naked, strategically covered by light sabers, video game controllers, or DVDs, and on piles of geek toys, movies, or comic books. Meanwhile, the men in the intermittent shots do not match cultural standards of male beauty or masculinity. They wear cheap costumes and dance in awkward or silly ways. The women in the video wear sexy and high-quality costumes, and their dances mimic those of pop stars, which is to say, their dances are meant to appeal to straight male viewers. The video is also framed by Seth Green saying, “Hello friends. Don’t you want to meet a nice girl?,” positioning the video as an introduction to women as dating partners or sex objects. The video is not meant for geek women to view, and feel empowered by seeing representations of other geek women. It is meant to be viewed by men who wish to believe that, despite their own inability to meet cultural standards of masculinity, there are geek women available to them who are “sexy” in two ways: 1. These women do fit a physical standard of beauty, and 2. These women want to please men, want to be sexually appealing to them.
The video’s YouTube description claims, “This music video parody proves Geek and Gamer Girls really do exist.” Since, at the time, there had been multiple headlines proclaiming that women make up 50% of gamers and Comic-Con attendees, this description seems disingenuous. This is because geek women who are not “hot” are routinely ignored or erased in geek culture. This video would more accurately describe itself as “proof that conventionally sexy women who are also geeks want to have sex with you, presumed straight geek male viewer.”
Because geek women are often clearly aiming their performances at geek men, geek men and women often place blame on the women who dress this way. [Next slide] A comment on Geek Tyrant, written by a blogger who is posting a collection of “cosplay cleavage,” is illustrative. Venkman writes, “And ladies, maybe some of you will find these images offensive, but these are women that are dressing like this. We didn’t ask them to, they do it on their own, and if women dress like this, the fact of the matter is…guys are going to stare [sic].” This sentiment lands the blame for the objectification of geek women squarely on the shoulders of women, and characterizes men’s responses to these women as inevitable, natural, and uncontrollable. [Next slide] Needless to say, however, the images included in the blog post make it clear that these geek men feel they have nothing to apologize for. The blogger is not suggesting that men do not objectify women (after all, they go to cons to see “cleavage,” not to meet women or fellow geeks), but he refuses to accept responsibility for this. Rather, he suggests that women need to just accept that “guys are going to stare” at women who perform a certain version of “sexy.” It is thus women’s responsibility to prevent their own objectification. [Next slide]
There are some obvious problems in this kind of hand-waving exercise, but the most important one for us today is that one of the reasons geek women seek the approval of geek men is that geek men have positions of power and privilege in both geek industries and in geek fan communities. While women understand that sexy cosplay won’t get them respect, per se, they also know that it is most likely to get them positive attention, recognition, and limited acceptance in geek communities. Women who do not or cannot seek sexual approval from the male geek community are more likely to be ignored, derided, or dismissed. They are more likely to be called harpy feminists or annoying squeeing fangirls than to get approval and acceptance. Team Unicorn, for example, was rewarded generously for their performance with relative fame and funding for a slick new website. They also managed to buy legitimacy in this video with the inclusion of Seth Green and Stan Lee. One has to wonder, would Seth Green have agreed to a video proving the existence of female geeks if those geeks had been fat, queer, or disabled?
The pressure is on for geek women to position themselves as sexy consumable objects for geek men. When they do so, their decision is framed as a freely-made choice. On the other hand, men’s behavior in reaction to sexy cosplay, like leering, sexual harassment, or other forms of objectification, is usually framed as inevitable and natural. The pressure women feel to perform “sexy” for their fellow geeks is usually ignored or dismissed, and the conversation becomes similar to the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel at Comic-Con, in which the problem is framed as about geek women, not geek culture. Are women selling out, or being empowered?
The answer to that question is that it’s more complicated. While women performing sexy for their fellow geeks are unquestionably doing so within a culture that encourages this performance and values women merely as decoration, they may also be using sexy cosplay to subvert that culture’s objectification of women.
In John Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture, he describes jeans as objects of popular culture that can embody contradictory meanings. Jeans, he argues, have multiple meanings given to us by jean producers, such as associations with heteronormative femininity, youth, toughness, and/or hard work. These meanings come from the top, and represent the interests of those in power. People can tear their jeans (or write on them, or bleach them, or cut them off) to subvert and resist those meanings, but this doesn’t mean that the original meanings just go away. Rather, both meanings coexist in the garment simultaneously. According to Fiske, this means that popular culture objects, like jeans, “can entail the expression of both domination and subordination, of both power and resistance. So torn jeans signify both a set of dominant American values and a degree of resistance to them” (4). Sexy cosplay works in the same way. There are ways in which individual sexy cosplayers incorporate meanings resistant to the culture’s demand that they proffer themselves as consumable objects.
[Next slide] Olivia Waite, a geek and erotica writer, wrote about her personal experience with the slave Leia cosplay, after I had blogged a version of this essay at the Geek Feminism blog. Waite was a big fan of Star Wars when she was a child, and her favorite character was Leia, who she describes as “badass, intelligent, and passionate.”
She writes that when watching Return of the Jedi,
as soon as [Leia] shows up in the gold bikini, with the high ponytail and the neck-chain, every cell in my being went, She must be so pissed about that.
Because what people forget, when they talk about Slave Leia outfits, is that it’s the one costume she doesn’t choose for herself. She’s forced into it, compelled to wear that bikini for Jabba’s dubious and slobbery pleasure. And I can see why people are upset that this happens—because if there’s one thing we do not need to gratify so much, it’s the male gaze in film—but at the same time, I think it’s important that this happens to Leia, because it happens to plenty of women, all the time, every day, around the world, with or without help from a gold bikini.
And here is what Leia does, when you force her into a scanty outfit and choke-chain: she takes that chain, and she kills you with it. She doesn’t let her clothing get in her way or limit her more than she can help—she waits for her moment to strike, and then she conquers her would-be conqueror and saves the day.
And I was a little kid, not yet desensitized to violence […] Jabba’s death scene freaked the hell out of me. It wasn’t a clean blaster shot to the chest or a slice from a lightsaber that sent sparks flying or made you turn invisible. There were struggles, and flailing, and twitching limbs. The shots are close-ups, and very dark—it’s vicious, and vengeful, and physical, and very very personal.
So for me, wearing that gold bikini does not mean Here I am, a sexy toy for your amusement and gratification.
To me, that gold bikini says, If you fuck with me, I will end you.
It says, What I wear is not the same as who I am.
Waite’s is a particularly powerful example of how women can create subversive meanings in their sexy cosplay. Hers doesn’t even require an alteration in the costume, though it may include a more aggressive stance for pictures, or even a performance of the chain choking. But it is, all the same, resistant to the cultural meanings put onto the costume by the producers of Star Wars and by the powers that be in fan communities. In Waite’s cosplay, the gold bikini is a symbol of female power and resistance to objectification. At the same time, it holds those dominant meanings as well. It contains the raunch culture assumption that women are primarily valuable for their performance of “sexy” and a resistance to that gross objectification. It symbolizes the titillation of women in sexual slavery and a challenge to women’s subordinate status as the sex class. From my own experiences in geek fan cultures, I don’t believe Waite is an anomaly, a pioneering feminist geek who uses sexy cosplay to challenge the messages found in geek media and geek culture. There are others like her, whose sexy cosplays are also challenges to the status quo.
It is also important to note that not all cosplay (sexy or not) is progressive or oppositional, either. As Henry Jenkins points out in Textual Poachers,
To say that fans promote their own meanings over those of producers is not to suggest that the meanings fans produce are always oppositional ones or that those meanings are made in isolation from other social factors. Fans have chosen these media products from the total range of available texts precisely because they seem to hold special potential as vehicles for expressing the fans’ pre-existing social commitments and cultural interests; there is already some degree of compatibility between the ideological construction of the text and the ideological commitments of the fans and therefore, some degree of affinity will exist between the meanings fans produces and those which might be located through a critical analysis of the original story. […] Readers are not always resistant; all resistant readings are not necessarily progressive readings; the ‘people’ do not always recognize their conditions of alienation and subordination. (34)
That is to say, not all geek women recognize their conditions as alienated and subordinated members of geek cultures. Not all sexy cosplay is (or can be) oppositional or progressive, as Waite’s reading of the costume is. However, this does not mean that geek women are somehow to blame for their objectification. As Jenkins notes, fans make their choices in the context of their cultures, and not in isolation of social factors. The beauty myth, raunch culture, and the male domination of geek culture(s) all contribute to female fans’ choice in sexy cosplay, even if they choose to resist the meanings handed down from those in power. In order to fix the culture of objectification in geek culture, we cannot look to individual women and cosplayers, but rather to those in power, whether they be content creators (like George Lucas, Stan Lee, Felicia Day), influential commentators (like Chris Hardwick, Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik), convention organizers, or forum moderators. The problem here is not “self-objectification,” as my essay title suggests, but the pressure to perform sexy (or be ignored, derided, or dismissed). The fact is, “sexy” is not the only way that geek women represent themselves; it is merely the representation recognized and rewarded by geek culture at large. That has to change before the position of women in these culture(s) can change.
Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Kindle ed. New York: Free Press, 2005. AZW file.
“Oh, You Sexy Geek!” Panel at Comic-Con, 21 July 2011, 10:45 AM. My Comic-Con 2011 Sched*. Comic-Con, n.d. Web. 25 September 2011. < http://mysched.comic-con.org/event/c31518fe1aa3bb6b788ba63757b84fba>
Venkman. “Collection of Cosplay Cleavage.” Geek Tyrant. Geektyrant, 15 July 2011. Web. 9 April 2012.
Waite, Olivia. “In Defense of Slave Leia.” Olivia Waite. Olivia Waite, 29 August 2011. Web. 8 April 2012.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991. Print.
Let me know what you think! And keep an eye out for my PCA/ACA write-up.
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.