The Dynamic Interplay of Cosplay, Gender Performance, and Collective Achievement in Art Worlds


In recent years, cosplay has gained worldwide recognition as a performative art form where people dress up as fictional characters from anime, comics/manga, or games. While some scholars argue that cosplay shows gender-specific performance and can even be an innovative way to understand social interactions in general but they do not look at the way gender is represented in cosplay. Combining the interactionist and cultural views of gender, I show that cosplayers exhibit gender-specific sensibilities through conventionalized body movements. Contrary to the prevailing emphasis on the individual cosplayer, I explore the ways that makeup artists, photographers, and photo editors all contribute to the effectiveness of gender play in cosplay. Contrary to simplistic accounts of donning hyper-masculinity/hyper-femininity, I argue that cosplay participants’ pursuit of authenticity makes singular orientation to the sex category insufficient and demands a version of masculinity/femininity that also attends to the character’s personality. My research is situated within the realm of cosplay’s art assessment and production. I encourage experts to consider my research as a tool that helps us to pay attention to the work of all gender-based embodiment. This multi-authorship is often overlooked.


Cosplay is a mix of “costume” (Winge 2006, Kelts 2007, respectively). It is an integral component of ACG (anime comic/manga gaming) fandom. In China, it first came to prominence in the form of ACG conventions in the latter half of the 1990s and has seen rapid growth in the past decade, and now has an online presence that is strong (Liu 2006; Wang 2010). Cosplay is a kind of fan art that combines the production and consumption of culture with a high-interactive process to promote circulation. During cosplay, fans become co-authors of fictional characters as they put on costumes, wigs, and makeup, with the help of a team composed of makeup artists, photographers, as well as photo editors (Fung and Pun 2016; Ruan 2018). They also share and read, discuss, and consume cosplay photos made by each other on the internet. The “authenticity” of their cosplay photos can be determined by their devotion to the characters they are based on (Matsuura and others. 2015; Rahman, et al. 2012).

It is important to note that the “play” in cosplay is more than just role-playing, as well as a gender play. the character cosplayers attempt to impersonate may be a different gender, and gender-crossing is common within the cosplay world (Norris and Bainbridge 2009). Unlike other gender-bending communities, gender-crossing cosplayers–sometimes called “crossplayers”–bend their gender for their love of characters, rather than for an explicit political agenda or for externalizing an internal gender identity that does not match their sex assigned at birth (Lamerichs 2011; Leng 2013; Tompkins 2019). Although there are different motivations, some scholars consider that cosplay is comparable to drag and exemplifies gender performance. Some take a more radical stance. Seeing cosplay as an alternative to drag, they believe that cosplay could assist us in identifying new heuristic tools for thinking about social interactions. Just as “performance” served as “a structuring trope” for human action in the period of broadcast media and the service industry, “animation” arises as “an alternative model for human interaction” in the digital age and the industry of content (Silvio 2010, page. 423), a model that allows us to “see what … [the trope of] performance has been obscuring” (Manning and Gershon 2013, p. 107). Footnote 1

As a subcultural art form, What can cosplay do to help us to pay closer focus on the largely ignored aspects of the achievement of gender? The answer to this issue requires an investigation of the process of creating gender embodiment in cosplay–only then can we take our findings from a specific case to the more commonplace arenas that we encounter every day and determine whether similar processes are taking place but aren’t being recognized by our existing theoretical lenses. But, until now the research literature on cosplay provides few examples of the ways people interact as well as how to cosplay participants stage gender performance despite constant authenticity assessments (for critiques, please refer to Kirkpatrick 2015). This gap shouldn’t be overlooked by scholars of culture or area specialists who are interested in the globalization of Japanese ACG culture but should also concern feminist sociologists as well as social scientists looking for new ways to think about gender.

In this piece, I draw upon interviews with cosplay players in China, including not only cosplayers but also makeup artists, photographers, and photo editors–to situate cosplay into its “art worlds” (Becker 2008) of production and assessment. I look at how gendered pictures of characters from fiction are recreated by human bodies and pay close attention to the impression-managing methods used by participants to create characters with different genders, as well as the division of labor that goes into the production of such gendered representations. Contrary to the emphasis on cosplayers, I discuss that the support team is crucial in the success of gender-play when it comes to cosplay. Cosplayers need to convey gender-specific sensibilities through their poses and facial expressions. The crew supporting them must be able to impart these messages onto cosplayers’ bodies. Both types of bodywork–body movements and body modifications can create an impression of genderedness in the audience in response to the emotions cosplayers’ body movements evoke. But a singular orientation to gender is not enough to “authentically” portray a character. Instead of donning hyper-masculinity/hyper-femininity, participants display an additional orientation to the personality category and strive to stage a version of masculinity/femininity consistent with the character’s placement into these categories.

While my empirical findings center around the collective production of gender embodiment within the Chinese cosplay scene and may not be directly transposable to different contexts other than the ACG fandom, they offer the opportunity to consider theoretically how cosplay as a heuristic can enrich social theories. As I will elaborate at the end of this article, insofar as theory can be understood as hermeneutics and ways of looking at the world (Abend 2008), looking at gender as a cosplay (after decades of looking at gender as a drag) invites us to theorize gender as an artwork–collectively manufactured in its art worlds–whose multi-authorship is often obscured by neoliberal individualism. Cosplay could be utilized as a heuristic, integrating theories from sociology (Goffman 1976, West and Zimmerman 1987), and sociology (Peterson and Anand 2004,). This will enable us to determine the theoretical possibility of a single-authored gender presentation of the “authentic self” although they may not play the same roles or perform the same types of bodywork as team members.

Join the cosplay scene

Cosplay is becoming more and more popular in the world, there is very little scholarly writing about cosplay (Kirkpatrick 2015, Leng 2013 and Rahman et. al. 2012). Some scholars wonder if cosplay and animation offer new ways to conceptualize, theorize, and theorize human activity (Silvio 2010; Manning and Gershon 2013, Silvio 2010), but much of the research currently on cosplay focuses on the reasons people play with each other (Bainbridge, Norris 2013, Lamerichs 2011, Peirson Smith 2013; Rahman, et al. 2012; Tompkins 2019, Wang 2010; Winge 2006.) instead of the way people interact. This imbalanced attention comes at an intellectual cost. Since it is through studying the latter that it is possible to look at the similarities and differences between cosplaying with fictional characters, such as Uchiha Sasuke in Naruto as well as the act of playing the abstract concept of “hegemonic masculinity” and other everyday interactions. Becker (1953) famously demonstrates that the focus on “why” could lead to pathologizing the activity being studied and the people involved. But, shifting our attention to “how” can allow us to identify social processes that can help us understand participation in other activities.

To be fair, the topic of gender roles is a prominent theme within this small body of work. It’s not surprising that gender-crossing cosplay is common and well-respected if it is done in a correct way (Leng 2013). Much of the academic debate centers around whether or not cosplay is subverting gender norms (Bainbridge & Norris 2013, Gn 2011, Lamerichs 2011, Loke 2016, Norris and Bainbridge 2009, Tompkins 2019,). Some of these studies highlight cosplay as an example of Butler’s (1990) theory of gender performance and draw attention to its embodied elements (e.g., Bainbridge and Norris 2013; Gn 2011; Lamerichs 2014). Yet, they tend to be reticent regarding the way exactly gender is performed/embodied in cosplay. Sometimes, they simply characterize the performance as an individual, hyper-feminine/masculine displays. Leng (2013), page. 90, says that in her study on male-to-female cross-play, “men don’t just don femininity, they also display hyper-femininity whenever they play as females. This exposes the socially constructed nature of the act and reinforces their gender-based identity.” My research focuses on how cosplayers represent gender and the labor divisions that enable it.

Motivations for cosplay are not insignificant when it comes to understanding these processes. Winge (2006) observes that the majority of people engage in cosplay due to their love of characters as well as for socializing with others ACG fans. The many shared reasons for cosplay influence cosplay in a variety of ways. Cosplay should aim to express the cosplayer’s affection for the character of the source. Cosplayers should “inhabit the role of a person both physically as well as mentally” (Norris and Bainbridge 2009) in addition to dressing up in exotic costumes (Kirkpatrick (2015); Leng (2013)). Cosplay can foster social interaction between cosplayers. Participants learn from one the other and judge their costumes (Bainbridge & Norris 2013; Bainbridge & Norris Lamerichs 2011 Matsuura Okabe 2015, Rahman et all). 2012). Cosplay, therefore, is not only integrated into the dyads of a character and participant but is also part of an ensemble of spectators and performers (Lamerichs 2014).

One central concern in this performer-spectator network is authenticity. The quality of cosplay can be assessed by authenticity as a measure of cosplayers loves their character. Sociologists of culture have for a long time argued that authenticity isn’t inherent, but socially constructed that is recognized, acknowledged,, and achieved (Peterson 1999; 2005; Hughes 2000). As such, it must be “performed in a staged, staged or otherwise created” (Grazian 2010, page. 192). When it comes to cosplay, since authenticity is judged by “commitment and commitment to the original character,” participants need to be attentive to the character’s physical attributes (e.g. costumes, makeup) as well as mimetic characteristics (e.g. facial expressions, body language) in their performance (Rahman and co. 2012, 326; Norris & Bainbridge 2009). Otherwise, they may be viewed as not having made enough effort to recreate the manner of dress and appearance of the character (Lamerichs 2014). If a cosplayer does not effectively portray themselves as having the identical gender to their character, it could even be seen as a joke that pokes fun at the character (Leng 2013). Because authenticity is vital that it is essential to research the gender dynamics in cosplay through an interactivity lens. This lets you record not only how an individual behaves but also how they respond collectively and reflexively and anticipate how their performance is assessed.

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