Recognized Membership through Cosplaying
By Jennifer Hina, May 2005
Recognized membership happens when a person is identified as being part of a community. Cosplayers, the group I have been studying, achieve this identification by wearing costumes. At its basis, the act involves dressing up as a character from some kind of work of fiction and displaying this publically, usually at a convention held for these works. The Japanese coined the word “cosplaying” by combining the words “costume” and “play.” Most costumers who consider themselves cosplayers are therefore interested in Japanese anime, comics, and video games. Cosplayers wish to be recognized as fans of these objects and dress in costume in hopes of finding a community of people who will recognize them as such and be able to bond with them. This cultural model can be seen through research, conversations, interviews, and surveys given to the cosplayers that I studied.

Almost no literature is written about cosplaying at all. Likely, it is too new a concept. In Japan, where fiction and fantasy are more mainstream, more research on cosplay has been done. However, Japanese fans and cosplayers differ very greatly from those in America. As one of the women I researched stated, “The Japanese fandom is just. . . different.” The two cultures are too dissimilar for any research to cross over from one to the other.

The most detailed explanation that I can find about cosplayers in literature is that they attend conventions, “mainly to show off their efforts at Costume Contests,” a category of people that the cosplayers I studied did not fit into at all (Trimble 106). The same article goes on to say, “Many fans who do not consider themselves “costumers” wear hall costumes - not for costume competitions, but just because it’s fun to wear a costume at a SF convention” (Trimble 106). The statement is also untrue, as the cosplayers I met do not always feel the need to enter contests, and yet still consider themselves costumers. The fun time they have wearing costumes is also much more involved than how this simple statement presents it.

Obviously, much more research needs to be done to understand cosplayers more completely. The group I worked with over a period of four months contains on average six females, a few of which live in Utah, and the rest of whom live in Colorado. At its largest, the group contained 18 people, with a core group of about four women with sewing abilities holding them together. Currently the group is fading as many of them are graduating from college, moving out of state, and entering the working world. The study I did on this group was influenced by the works of Roy D’Andrade, H. Russell Bernard, and Naomi Quinn.

To understand these cosplayers and their ideas on recognized membership, one must first be familiar with the different aspects of cosplaying and how they interrelate. These concepts are fan, costume, character, convention, and community, and all of these words are used frequently in conversation between cosplayers.

Coplayers define themselves as fans. Most of them admit to being obsessive about things like anime, games, Japanese comics, and voice actors. Every single one of the cosplayers who took a survey I crafted, identified herself as being a fan. However as for what exactly a fan is, various definitions for the term exist. Even among anthropologists describing fans of the same material, the word is explained in different ways. Cheryl Harris, in the book Theorizing Fandom, presents a definition for fandom which describes my cosplayers most accurately. She says that fandom is:

"[A] spectrum of practices engaged in to develop a sense of personal control or influence over the object of fandom (such as a star or text), in which the outcome of one’s involvement is not as important as the involvement itself - recognized membership and interaction centering around a common object." (6)

In terms of cosplaying, wearing a character’s costume and acting like that character definitely gives one a sense of influence over the object of fandom. The cosplayers I researched also support fanfics, or fiction written by fans of characters about those characters. One cosplayer, whom I will refer to as Lynn, admits that the reason she is interested in the anime series “Prince of Tennis” is because of all the fanfics, fan created comics, and discussion about the series rather than the anime series itself.

The involvement in these activities, as the quote indicates, is far more important to cosplayers than any other outcome. For instance, a few of the cosplayers have won prizes in contests for their costumes, however this topic rarely enters conversation and seems almost irrelevant to cosplaying in general.

Recognized membership is an extremely large motivation for involving oneself in these activities. The word “recognize” comes up frequently as cosplayers speak of their activities. Recognition is key to cosplaying itself, since a costume that a cosplayer wears must be identified as a certain character to the conglomeration of people at a convention. A fan who recognizes the costume of a cosplayer instantly knows that they both have something in common: a shared involvement in the object of fandom.

The cosplayers whom I have been researching take this definition of fandom one step further to describe the particular kinds of fans they are. In the words of Lynn, “It's the ability to be emotionally attached to the character. [. . .] The ability to see that character and to be attached to what happens to that fictional character.” She goes on to explain how this differs from other people in that:

"It's the reason some people can't read fantasy books, I think. Or because they see this as [. . .] "this is a story, this is a story, this is made up, this is a story, it's not real people, it doesn't matter," and I've seen a lot of people watching anime have that problem too because, “it is drawn, it isn't real, not real people, it's not real actors, it doesn't look real, it couldn't be real,” there's no attachment. And they can't understand why other people feel attachment to the series, cry, or spend hours and hours talking about the philosophy and the psychology behind a made-up show. And I think that is the difference between fans."

Supporting this, in a survey I asked cosplayers, anime fans, and other people who were not cosplayers or anime fans if they could relate to various types of fictional characters. Cosplayers responded that they can generally sympathize and relate to characters in anime, fiction books, video games, and live action movies, whereas other respondents said that they could only relate to one or two of the categories, or none at all. All cosplayers reported the ability to relate to animated characters, whereas only five out of the ten people surveyed who were not anime fans said they could do the same.

To explore the extent of sympathy, I asked on the survey if anyone found themselves wishing a character were real. Nine out of ten cosplayers responded, “yes,” and eight of those said they would want to date a character if he or she were real. Six out of ten anime fans shared this outlook, but none of the other respondents could, and some even wrote comments on the survey to this question such as, “Get a life!” or “Who would do that?”

Fictional characters are the objects of fandom that cosplayers seek to achieve recognized membership with. Other fans who can sympathize and relate to these characters are those whom the cosplayers want to be recognized by.

The desire for recognized membership is equivalent to the need to bond with other people who share similar interests. There are various means people use to associate themselves with their interests in order to attract people who are similar. For instance, a T-shirt that says, “Pink Floyd” on it will automatically associate the wearer as being interested in Pink Floyd music. This person will be easily identified by other fans of the band. Someone who doesn’t wear such a T-shirt, but still wants to be recognized as being a Pink Floyd fan may go out of their way to point out the person wearing the T-shirt and starting a conversation with him or her. Cosplayers also use this technique for gaining recognized membership at a convention, only with a full costume.

A costume can include anything from average clothing and a hat, to a full suit of armor, so long as it is based off of a character. Some cosplayers, even among those I researched, make costumes based on characters that they design themselves, but this is less common and Lynn refers to the act as, “cheating.” She describes very potently what makes a cosplaying costume:

"Cosplay has a level of the evil ‘accuracy’ word. You need to have a source. [. . . .] Anime cosplay, the way I see it, is that you’re taking a character, it is a specific character, it is not just “this outfit would look cool.” I’m not one to talk about accuracy. I think you can change a lot of things, coming from the original picture. Because, as my mother loves to point out, anime is drawn. And so the artists don’t have to add seams, or zippers, or hooks, or any of that. You don’t see the eight layers of corset. There doesn’t have to be a way to get in or out or actually put it together, or have gravity treat it the way that it actually behaves. Um, so of course there have to be changes[. . .]”
When the cosplaying group conversed casually with each other about costumes, many adjectives came up describing well crafted costumes. Among these were “exact”, “perfect”, “recognizable”, “full”, “amazing”, and “photograph-able”. A costume differentiates a cosplayer from a regular anime fan. This is easy to see at a convention, but signifies only one important difference. Cosplayers must dedicate a lot of time and expense to create a costume, and other people just don’t have the motivation or willingness to go through with that."

To explore potential reasons why some anime fans become cosplayers and some don’t I asked on my survey, “Do you like to sew?” Lynn, her friend Kat, and other members of the cosplay group like to sew. Lynn’s mother was once a professional seamstress and helps out once in a while to create elaborate costumes for the group. Another cosplayer, Amy, says that sewing is the only artistic activity she does where the results please her. However, on the survey only six out of the ten cosplaying respondents said they liked to sew, and five out ten anime fans liked to sew but have never cosplayed. Among other people, six out of ten liked to sew who had no interest in anime or cosplaying. Clearly, a desire to sew doesn’t necessarily motivate someone to cosplay. On the survey I also asked if the respondents were artists or craftsmen. Four out of ten in all groups consider themselves artists, and almost everyone marked themselves as craftsmen. These things don’t make a cosplayer either. The only real motivational difference for constructing a costume was the desire to modify ones dress, hair, and actions to express appreciation of admiration of a fictional character. All cosplayers expressed willingness to alter their appearance on the survey, whereas for the most part the other groups showed little interest in doing so.

To make a costume, therefore, requires only that the person be motivated. Talent and ability have nothing to do with it. Lynn expressed this very clearly when I asked her what kind of suggestions she would give to an aspiring cosplayer. Her words were:

"The most important thing is to go, okay, before you think of anything, before you think of how you're going to make it, how you're going to afford it - Who's your favorite in all of anime? Can you get that costume? Like, because you will have a ten times better experience if you do it for a character that you love. You can put up with anything for that character. You can endure blisters from your high heels or the bleeding, stabbing yourself with needles, or anything, if it's all for the love of your character."

Characters, being the objects of fandom, are very integrated into the motivation for cosplaying. For almost all of the cosplayers in the group I researched, their cosplaying experience began with a character they admired so much that they had to make a costume. Kat felt that she identified very well with the first character she cosplayed; a girl named Anthy from a show called Revolutionary Girl Utena. Kat says that:

"I always felt a special connection with Anthy. Just because I always felt very out of control of my life when I was in high school and everything. I had an amazing friend I always joked was my Utena, and she pulled me out of a lot of that. And so our roles as far as Utena and Anthy went were very similar. She was always trying to get my out of my shell and get me to go out and do stuff and I was always very quiet and withdrawn and in high school so I identified with that. And I loved her dress."

In general, Kat cosplays characters who are quiet and withdrawn. Kat is a rather quiet person herself. She describes herself as being intellectual, nurturing, but also withdrawn and uncomfortable in large groups of people. She not only feels more connected to characters who feel the same way, but also can act as them more naturally when in costume. Most of the characters she chooses to cosplay end up being very similar to her.

Lynn warns against cosplaying as someone who’s too much like oneself, though. She says:

"Cosplaying someone who’s exactly like you is boring. It’s like role playing. If you try to make a role playing character that’s exactly like yourself, it’s so boring to role play. Because then you’re trying to think “Well now, how would I act in this situ - oh wait.” There’s just nothing interesting going on there."

Lynn tends to cosplay characters whom she aspires to be like. Of one character she has cosplayed, she says, “He has this inner strength to him and this desire to protect people and this ability to just calm people and heal people’s suffering that is really, really amazing.” To another character, Hokuto, she says, “I love her. She’s possibly my favorite in all of anime. She and Subaru are twins, but she’s the older sister. She’s, you know, taking care of him and making his clothes and making sure he eats and doesn’t collapse into a pit of angst.” At the end of this, Lynn turns to the girl sitting next to her and asks her, by the way, if she has eaten breakfast. The girl rolls her eyes and gives a satisfactory yes and Lynn continues. “[Hokuto] is also a lot more outgoing and happy than I am, and yeah. I love Hokuto, I love her a lot.”

Identifying with a character and wanting to be like a character are both reasons that members of the cosplaying group love certain characters. It is the love or admiration for a character itself which motivates a cosplayer to choose a character to dress as, rather than actually wanting to be that character. As Lynn insists, “Cosplay is love.”

At the end of the survey I added an optional item where respondents could circle their interests from a given list of words. Cosplayers on average circled more character related items than others, including character driven video games such as role playing games and dating simulators, and also were more likely to circle actors and voice actors than other people. Lynn says that, “The characters are what you see. The characters are what you get attached to.”

But the love for characters is only part of the process in choosing a costume to dress in. The second part involves the community of fans at a convention. Conventions are social events, where many fans come together to watch anime, play video games, buy merchandise, and generally have a good time together. The cosplayers I researched have been to conventions in Colorado, California, and even Japan. When they discuss cosplaying, they usually don’t mention actual conventions at all, though. To them, conventions are merely a medium for cosplaying, just as a television is a medium for programming and movies. Since, however, cosplayers are dressing for a public event, they keep in mind the idea of recognized membership when choosing a character and costume.

The first thing one must keep in mind is if the costume will be recognized by the community. If the wrong colors are chosen, or the hair doesn’t fall the way it should, it could cost the cosplayer the recognition he or she desires. Lynn says that she once had the accurate costume for a character, but left her hair long and dark whereas the character’s hair was curly and blonde. No one recognized her for who she was meant to be. Another point to consider is if there will be a community at the public even that will recognize the character. Lynn has a strong desire to cosplay a boy from the anime, “Prince of Tennis,” who wears shorts and a polo shirt. At an average convention, there may not be anyone who would even recognize her as being in a costume. Lynn intends to wear this at a convention geared toward fans of this and other similar series where there will be a much larger community of people to recognize her.

The cosplayers I studied do not necessarily want to dress in costumes that a particularly large amount of people will recognize them in, in fact most of them prefer cosplaying more rare and obscure characters. In this way, each encounter with a fan who recognizes the character becomes that much more special. The less common a character one cosplays, the more selective a group of people will recognize it. Each cosplayer has a specific group of people that he or she wants to reach out to and meet at a convention.

For an example, last summer the group cosplayed from a dating sim called Angelique. A dating sim is a game crafted similar to a choose-your-own-adventure book, where the idea is to end up dating one of the males in the game. Lynn’s favorite character in the game is named Olivie, a man whom she claims she would marry if he were real. Lynn likes him because:

"We have a lot of the same outlooks on life in terms of, like, “Don’t take things too seriously.” Even if you’re worried about something, don’t think about it because it’s just going to ruin everything else for you. So, just walk away. The best thing you can possibly do when you’re having trouble is take a break for a minute. Go have fun, don’t think about it, come back, and keep trying your best. And yeah, I completely love him for that."

Olivie also happens to be a transvestite, and isn’t very popular among fans of Angelique. Dating sims themselves aren’t very popular among gaming or anime fans in America. And also, Angeliqe is a Japanese game which not only creates a language barrier between American fans, but it only will run on Japanese region coded systems.

When Lynn dressed as Olivie for a convention, she was not only expressing her love for Olivie, but was identifying herself as someone very specific. She is a person with access to Japanese games and gaming systems, who knows a good deal of the Japanese language, who enjoys dating sim games, and who is accepting of transvestites. Without her having to say a word, the costume conveys a lot of detail about Lynn’s personality. On the other end, only fans who also know Japanese, play dating sims, and are familiar with Angelique will recognize the Olivie costume. While this may be only a very slim portion of people at a convention, these fans will have much more in common with Lynn that those she’d attract with a more popular character. While Lynn may get less recognized membership, the recognition she does get is far more meaningful to her. As one cosplayer explained this, “The people who recognize me are only the ones who deserve to recognize me!”

Unfortunately, Lynn wasn’t able to meet the kind of Angelique fans she had hoped to. Her character was just too obscure and she did not find any fellow Olivie fans. She says that,

"Wearing a costume, especially for a [convention] is reaching out to a community you think is there, or a community you hope is there, in hopes of making contact and making real, meaningful relationships. And maybe a lot of times the community you think is there just isn't."

But despite this, Lynn still enjoyed cosplaying Olivie. She says, “I loved being Olivie. I loved representing Olivie..”

When there really is a community to reach out to, though, the outcome can be very rewarding.

"It's all about the fact that you're already in a really small chunk of the population. you're in this niche mindset, this niche market. And yet within that, there are just so many people you can't just walk up to anyone [and say] “Oh hey you like anime, oh odds are we'll be best friends.” [. . . .] You're not just gonna find people who share the same interests as you just by liking anime. And, so you cosplay as something in hopes that someone will recognize you.
That's what we got - at [Anime Expo] we ran around in Inori and Shimon costumes and there had been this group had done a HaruToki group in the masquerade. We literally met about five out of seven of them because they came up and “Oh my gosh you're Inori!” They never recognized me because I had the wrong hair [. . .] so like they'd run up to Kat and be like, “Oh my gosh you're Inori, oh my gosh I was in this group.” And there was a bonding over that."

Bonding is one of the most rewarding results of recognized membership. Nine out of the ten cosplayers who took my survey reported meeting people whom they could relate to at conventions. Lynn says, “I’ve made friends through cosplay and often they’ve been very, very close friends or friend that I share ridiculous amounts of interests with.”

Kat and Lynn have also cosplayed in Japan together. They claim that recognized membership is much easier there because events are more focused. Since anime and video games are already a part of mainstream culture, it is more common to see conventions centered around specific games, companies, or anime. Lynn describes the experience in more detail:

"Kat was just at a HaruToki-only event. Everyone there was cosplaying HaruToki. So within that, girls would come up to her and go, “You're so cool, can we have you picture with you, oh okay, okay. So well. . . Who's your favorite character? Who's your favorite voice actor?” And she'd go, “Well Inori that I'm cosplaying, and Takahashi Naozumi who voices him.” And so “Oooh! We're together, we're together, we're the same, we're friends, yay!” Because of infinite levels of getting closer and closer and liking the same sorts of things."

When I asked people in my cosplaying group what sort of costumes they wouldn’t want to cosplay, the answers further established the idea that a costume represents the wearer as a member of a fandom. Cosplayers don’t want to wear costumes that will associate themselves with undesirable qualities. In a personal interview, Lynn expressed reasons why she doesn’t want to cosplay from the anime series Sai-Kano:

"I’m not sure that I want to be associated with that group, I’m not sure if I would like everyone that likes Sai-kano, because it has a lot of themes that I’m not sure I want to represent myself with. [. . .]Um, um, mostly just based on the themes and ideas of the show [such as teenage sex], and the people I think are likely to watch it. The only person I know who likes Sai-kano is Kat [. . .] I think that she’s in the minority and I think there’s a lot more guys and there’s people I’m not interested in really knowing."

Lynn says she is also wary of cosplaying from very strongly sexual series, even if it’s something that she likes. On the other hand, there are other anime series that Lynn wants to cosplay from for the sole reason of wanting to be associated with a certain fandom. She says that, “That’s one of the reasons I want so badly to cosplay Prince of Tennis, because I know there’s a community there and I want to meet more of those people.”

At it’s basis, the motivation behind recognized membership is to be able to meet similar people and make relationships. But there are more ways to do this than just cosplaying. Some people gain recognized membership from the kinds of cars they have or the T-shirts they wear. One might wonder why cosplayers turn to such extravagant and costly means of associating themselves with characters. The answer to this is likely found in one of the statements on my survey; I feel unable to relate to the lifestyle of the average person of my gender (strongly agree/agree/neutral/disagree/strongly disagree). Nine of the ten cosplayers responded that they feel unable to relate to the lifestyles of average people and the tenth person expressed neutrality toward this question. Seven out of ten anime fans and only one of the other people who are not anime fans reported being unable to relate. Cosplayers bond the closest with people who can share their sympathy with animated characters, their selective interests, and devoted hobbies. In the article, “Fandom as a Way of Life,” the author quotes a woman who says that a convention is, “The only place where you can walk into a big group of people and start a conversation” (Coulson 12). Kat backs up this statement by saying, “That’s why going to conventions is so cool – ‘Cause you know that you’re not alone.”

Cosplayers are a unique group of people who chose to dress in costumes of characters in hopes of finding a community that will recognize their membership of a fandom. The rarer the character, the more specific fans will be attracted to the costume. This recognized membership leads to bonding and friendships between cosplayers and other members of a fandom that share similar interests. This cultural model imbedded in the lives of cosplayers is helpful in understanding their lifestyles and interactions as a community.

Works Cited

Coulson, Robert. “Fandom as a Way of Life.” Science Fiction Fandom. Ed. Joe Sanders. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994.
D’Andrade, Roy. “Some Methods for Studying Cultural Cognitive Structures.” The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995
Harris, Cheryl. Ed. Theorizing Fandom. Cresskill: Hampton Press, Inc., 1998.
Trimble, Bjo and John. “Alternative Fandoms.” Science Fiction Fandom. Ed. Joe Sanders. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Funny story about survey results
Survey Question Analysis
Survey Results
My final paper
Cosplaying Schemas
The ability to Relate to Characters
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