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Gender Exploration and Cosplay

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

The popularity of cosplay has grown exponentially in the past decade, to the point where most people have heard about it in one way or another. For those who don’t understand what the craft is all about, cosplay can seem strange and maybe a bit silly; but for those who engage with it, cosplay is an incredibly creative outlet with a diverse and engaging community attached. Even with most conventions being recently cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic, cosplay is alive and well in Alberta. The cosplay community is ever-growing, evolving, and bright, and contains people from all walks of life; but by its very nature, cosplay especially attracts 2SLGBTQIA+ folks.

Kit, a cosplayer living in Calgary, says that the support they found in the cosplay community was what fueled their desire to explore gender. Kit started making costumes to wear to attend conventions in 2012. While Kit has won multiple cosplay contests and been a guest at various cons, Kit’s cosplays didn’t start off complicated.

In fact, Kit says that the majority of their first cosplay costumes were simple outfits assembled from Value Village finds. Though Kit’s cosplays quickly became much more complex, they believe that having “that freedom to just be someone else without the pressure of making some elaborate costume” was what really kickstarted their “exploration into cosplay and gender”.

Cosplay got more serious for Kit in 2015 when they decided to create Garrus from Mass Effect, for a mask-making course they were taking under Gideon Hay, a sculptor in Vancouver known as The Monster Man. Kit explains that the entire creation process of the Garrus costume was a “huge trial run” as they “had never made armour out of EVA foam, never made a painted costume with so many floating pieces, and the character design is barely humanoid at all.” Kit says that, although they would likely approach the process of making that costume differently now that they have more knowledge, they are still proud of the result. For Kit, it was satisfying to wear the costume they had laboured over, despite seeing more skilful renditions of the same character online.

Kit’s Garrus cosplay spurred them to grow in their skills. They started picking up tips and tricks from fellow cosplayers and online. Every new project had Kit trying out new materials and learning new skills. Kit “rarely used the same material twice, but that is very much how projects are, even in the film and tv industry. Each project is so different from the last.”

While the point of cosplay for Kit really is just having fun, they admit that they “do have a history with going all out with costumes, especially when [their] partner or friends are involved.” Which is a bit of an understatement considering the elaborate Mass Effect Andromeda cosplays Kit created with their team. They won Best in Show at Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo in 2017 wearing those cosplays and even got the attention of BioWare, the video game developer behind Mass Effect. Bioware invited Kit and their cosplay team to meet one of the creators of the video game as well as have a professional photo shoot for the BioWare website.

The work Kit did to create and sculpt their cosplays definitely helped pave the way toward Kit’s career in film. Kit currently works in the IASTE union sculpting large-scale scenic elements and props. And although they can’t mention any of the recent shows they’ve been working on, they’re very excited about the amazing projects being filmed here in Alberta right now. Passionate about the film and entertainment industry in Alberta, Kit believes that Calgary can be an entertainment powerhouse just like Vancouver and Toronto.

(Mass Effect cosplay works in progress in Kit’s home studio | Photo credit: Kit)

Back to cosplay, Kit believes that “apart from making the costume or assembling a costume, how the costume makes you feel is really what cosplay is.” For Kit, that means mostly cosplaying the ‘boyfriend characters.’ Almost all their cosplays are exclusively male characters, beginning with Garrus and moving forward with characters like Marvel’s Starlord from Guardians of the Galaxy, Handsome Jack from the Borderlands video game franchise, and Nathan Drake from Uncharted.

“I think my brain wanted me to explore this side of my identity,” explained Kit about this consistent pattern in their cosplay choices. “I grew up suppressing my masculine side, and after so many failed relationships where I was forcing myself to be ‘the best girlfriend’; there was an opportunity to get into costume. Finally, with cosplay, I was given the opportunity to be something that felt so natural for me.”

The friends Kit made through cosplaying and fandom communities gave them a supportive, safe space to express themself. Dressing up as a male character is empowering for Kit, who says they are closer to transmasculine than females and identify as non-binary.

Ever busy with work, cosplay, and even their hobby of painting, Kit is working toward starting up a personal training business focused on the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Kit says “the gym can be a super scary place for a lot of people in the pride community, so I want to create a safe comfortable space where it’s not scary to talk and workout without the fear of people judging or harassing.” Kit is specifically interested in designing regimes and routines to help trans folks “reclaim their body and get the look that they want most.”

Kit believes that “the ability to express one's self as femme or masculine and everything in between is so important, but gender roles are fabricated by us” both within and outside of cosplay. The societal expectations of gender are different between cultures and are always changing, so they shouldn’t be treated as constraints. Kit doesn’t want people to be put in gender boxes and says we “can’t expect people to fit in those boxes without sacrificing something about themselves.”

Cosplay was Kit’s way out from trying to fit into that gendered box; “from my experience, the cosplay community goes hand in hand with the 2SLGBTQIA+, and there is a whole subcommunity of people who are exploring their identities in general, and I think it can be very therapeutic. Whether it's the acting, the costumes, the social aspect, I think people can have the flexibility to explore who they really are with the help of cosplay.”

While the characters Kit chose to cosplay ultimately spurred them to further explore their identity, Kathleen, a Calgarian cosplayer who has been cosplaying around the world for two decades, is more interested in the costume than the character. Kathleen chooses a character to cosplay based on the costume’s design. When Kathleen is watching a TV show or movie, she will see a character wearing something and think “oh, that’s beautiful fabric”, or, “the way that drapes is very interesting” and that will be all the inspiration needed for her to get started on another cosplay project.

Kathleen’s love for cosplay came from an interest in historical fashion that really took off with the release of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy in 2001. Kathleen does both screen-inspired cosplays as well as more original designs inspired by book characters. When designing a cosplay after a character from a book, Kathleen asks a lot of questions like “what’s the vibe of the book? Is the culture obvious? Is there a real-world culture to take costume design cues from? Does [this clothing or accessory] feel like it belongs to that character?”

An orange-washed photograph of Kathleen's Thranduil cosplay from the Hobbit book
Cosplayer: Kathleen | Cosplay: Thranduil: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien | Photograph from Kathleen's Private Collection

The cosplays Kathleen creates are almost always historical or Tolkien-inspired. One amazing example is Kathleen’s Thranduil cosplay, which holds a very special place in her heart. She created the original, book-inspired design for Thranduil well before The Hobbit movies were released.

“The Thranduil cosplay holds a lot of positive memories for me,” explained Kathleen when asked about her favourite cosplay, “it was one of my firsts and turned out great. The fabric I used was very expensive. I was in university, so I had to save up for a very long time to buy it.” Kathleen wore the cosplay to a convention in Toronto for the premiere of The Return of the King in 2003 and it has become something of a go-to cosplay for her ever since.

As a classically trained singer, Kathleen runs the Elf Choir at DragonCon with assistance from a few friends, including Celia Sullivan, another prolific cosplayer who works as a costumer in the movie industry in Atlanta, Georgia. Kathleen also runs the Lantern Elf Procession at Dragoncon.

Kathleen has gotten a fair bit of attention online for a number of her cosplays. Despite this, Kathleen is not interested in the popularity that comes with being one of the most skilful members in the cosplay community, both locally and around the world. While she has both participated in and been a judge for various costume contests at multiple conventions in Alberta and across the world, Kathleen mostly attends conventions simply to have fun with her friends.

Kathleen took a costume design and pattern drafting class as an elective back in university, but otherwise is mostly self-taught through many years of practice, some YouTube tutorials, tips from fellow cosplayers, and simple trial-and-error. While Kathleen has worked with all sorts of mediums for cosplay including resin and foam, she prefers to wear fabric cosplays that simply fit like clothes. “I go to conventions 100 percent to hang with friends, for that reason I gravitate to soft costumes that are easy to move around in,” explains Kathleen. “I hate carrying props. I don’t want to carry an axe around a convention for an 8 hour day.”

Close up of hand-stitched gold embroidery on blue fabric for Kathleen's Sleeping Beauty dress
Close-up of a work in progress | Photograph from Kathleen's Private Collection

But don’t let that fool you into thinking Kathleen’s costumes are anything but phenomenal. Because of Kathleen’s attention to detail and love of hand-sewing, many of her costumes have hand-sewn, embroidered, and beaded details that give them an extra level of beauty. Even when creating cosplays based on characters whose designs are simplistic, Kathleen pays close attention to detail. For example, while creating her Sleeping Beauty dress, instead of a simple white collar like in the cartoon, Kathleen overlaid hers with white metallic lace with interwoven roses to add depth.

Kathleen’s cosplays are interpretations, and she takes pride in “bringing to life what they would be like on a real, living person.” This includes making things look dirty and worn. Kathleen explained that a character “living in the woods, or a blacksmith, or a character who works with horses isn’t going to look pristine”. So, Kathleen uses stage dirt to rub into her costumes, she will “even put rips into cosplays and then stitch them back together to make them look like they’d been torn and repaired.” She went on to tell about how she had even lit one of her costumes on fire so that the fabrics would look singed around the edges. When asked if she was afraid to light her hard work on fire she said “it can be nerve-wracking to spend hours making something beautiful and then to have to make it look old and wrecked in an aesthetic way.”

Kathleen says that to her, cosplay is a creative outlet with many benefits; “You get to spend hours working on something you love and when it’s done, you get to show it off. People get excited and want your picture. It is uplifting to get to feel pride in something you’ve made.”

Kathleen posing as an original Hobbit character
Cosplayer: Kathleen | Cosplay: Heatherbell Buttertrap: Original Hobbit Character | Photograph from Kathleen's Private Collection

Kathleen personally doesn’t identify as anything other than “somewhere between ace and bi” because she finds labels to be restrictive. Kathleen believes that the vast array of new terminology in the modern queer community can be very helpful, especially to those who are questioning. However, Kathleen found that assigning titles to her sexuality and gender identity was ultimately unhelpful for her. She is more comfortable with who she is and where she stands without putting a label on it.

She did try on they/them pronouns, but later found that it wasn’t what she needed. Kathleen explained that putting so much weight and importance on the pronouns people used for her was “starting to have a noticeable negative impact on my mental health.” So, Kathleen decided to “take a step back and ask why this particular segment of language had become so important”. After a lot of thought and self-reflection, Kathleen decided that “somebody else's perception” should have “absolutely no bearing on who I am and what I think of myself. Pronouns neither make nor negate my internal identity and self-perception; I'm comfortable with who I am, and no outside force is going to be able to change that."

She’s made her peace with she/her pronouns and finds them to be most accurate for her simply because she was “raised socially as a woman and having that shared social experience with other female-bodied people is a significant social burden. Society doesn’t opt me out of being a woman. I feel non-binary but I don't care if a random dude at the bus stop recognizes that.” As a final thought on gender, Kathleen says “masculine and feminine are made-up societal concepts, so don’t let masculine or feminine coded things stop you from enjoying them. I’m a human, I have human interests.”

Even though Kathleen doesn’t let gender hold her back or even play a role in her cosplay choices, there are times when she gets frustrated with how that is perceived from the outside. As an example, Kathleen said “I did have a guy at a con come up to me while I was cosplaying and go ‘excuse me, are you a boy or a girl?’ and I was just like ‘no.’” Kathleen explains that there is a distinction between cross-playing and genderbending when cosplaying a character. This is something that seasoned cosplayers understand but has enough nuance to be easily misunderstood. A gender-bent cosplay is when the gender of the character being played is purposefully switched as part of the cosplay’s design, while crossplay keeps the character’s canon gender intact despite the wearer being a different gender.

A photograph of Kathleen cosplaying Tony Stark
Cosplayer: Kathleen | Cosplay: Tony Stark: Marvel | Photograph from Kathleen's Private Collection

Kathleen believes that the main reason she cosplays so many male characters has more to do with how many fully-developed male characters there are in the fandoms she’s interested in. The gender imbalance in large fandoms like Marvel and Tolkien remains an ongoing issue even in 2021. As such, these male-dominated fandoms have a direct impact on character choices in the cosplay community. Kathleen was quick to point out that there are even worse diversity issues for BIPOC who cosplay.

Change in media is happening, but comics and books are seeing progress a lot faster than TV shows and movies. Because of that, there’s push-back from certain fans who might not even realize the source material is more progressive than what they see on their screens. Kathleen asks “what does it matter to you if Superman is bi and Captain America is Black or whether James Bond is a woman … unless you have something against those people? It's a fictional character for Christ's sake. It's important to recognize that all sorts of people exist, and a Black elf isn't going to single-handedly burn down Middle Earth.”

Being on the anime-side of the cosplay community, Ashley, a cosplayer living in Edmonton, has had a somewhat different experience with fandom. Ashley found cosplay right out of high school and has been cosplaying and attending conventions since attending their first Animethon back in 2006. Animethon is an annual Japanese Animation themed festival held in Edmonton. Ashley’s fiance, Chris, also cosplays and they actually met through that mutual interest. Together, Ashley and Chris make their own Kigurumi anime head masks and, while they mostly cosplay just for their own enjoyment, are working toward possibly selling them in the future.

Having been part of the cosplay community for a long time, Ashley has been both a guest and a judge at previous conventions and has also inadvertently managed to become quite well-known in the fandom communities surrounding many of their interests. Being a cosplayer often means learning a diverse set of skills; like sewing, cosmetics, fashion design, acting, sculpting, carving, painting, wig styling, and photography. Ashley will buy a pre-made costume and alter it to better suit them or will create the entire costume from scratch. There used to be a bit of elitism in the cosplay community around whether or not cosplayers made their costumes, but Ashley was happy to note that attitude has mostly fallen by the wayside in most communities. Ashley says there’s no longer any place for elitism in the cosplay community. Instead, it is a place to bond with fellow fans, make long-term friends, and enjoy creative expression.

The characters Ashley chooses to cosplay are sometimes based on what their cosplay friends are doing. For example, they cosplayed as “Germany” for the Hetalia: Axis Powers panel they ran with friends at various conventions from 2015-2017 including both Otafest, Animethon, and their subsequent winter cons.

However, many of the characters Ashley chooses to cosplay are characters who have personalities and qualities that Ashley relates to in some way. Ashley says there’s definitely a specific character trope in any anime that will stand out to them every time. The “tall, attractive, put-together, masculine character” in any show will always grab their attention.

Of all Ashley’s many cosplays, their Sebastian Mykalus from Black Butler is closest to their heart. They were drawn to his “edgy, weird, goth presence and something about his character just clicked”. He was an outlet for “finding ways to feel masculine and be handsome, devilish, and well-dressed.” Ashley says they “love a good suit-cosplay” and through that has discovered that they just like wearing suits in general.

Like many people who cosplay, Ashley says that cosplay is an outlet for them. It is a way for them to let a seldom-seen part of their personality shine. When they cosplay characters they relate to, it’s like an extra side of them that’s always been there finally gets to come out to play. While Ashley was out as bisexual before they got into cosplay, they definitely feel cosplay and the open, supportive, community allowed them to further explore their gender expression in a big way.

Being part of the cosplay community and attending anime and comic conventions is important to Ashley. It brings them great joy to get to be part of a very accepting culture that allows so much exploration and evolution of oneself. Ashley explains that “when you’re at a con, you’re part of a big crowd of people all enjoying the same thing” which creates connection. Because the community is ever-connected, Ashley has had the privilege of witnessing the journeys of fellow cosplayers over the years and says it’s a great feeling to share in those journeys.

Ashley says they were a goth in high school, but they felt like a spectacle when they were just walking down the street. Now, at 34, Ashley loves that they can wear whatever they want to an anime or comic convention and not feel gawked at. Ashley identifies as non-binary now but didn’t have that sort of vocabulary available to them when they were younger. So, Ashley is happy to see how Animethon and the cosplay community have grown over the years and how the new generation of fans and cosplayers “get to be way more open with gender expression and have more freedom to be themselves. I love seeing people live their best life; having fun and making stuff.”

A prime example of someone who does just that is Alison, a prolific cosplayer living east of Calgary. Alison says that cosplay can be “an act of personal affirmation” and “a safe space to explore gender expression.” Alison has been interested in costuming in one way or another for as far back as they can remember. Their love for historical reenactment has taken them to different events and venues around the world, and after discovering an online costume community, Alison later added cosplay to their list of passion projects. Alison went to their first comic convention in 2010 and has been active in the cosplay community ever since.

Alison has worked as a curator for a military museum for 11 years, where they do everything from researching and designing exhibits to tech support. Alison’s interest in history and the social context of historical artefacts is easily extended into their approach to costuming and cosplay. So, it is no surprise that research is Alison’s favourite part of costuming work.

Alison takes great care to consider the context of each outfit they create. Recreating a costume as realistically as possible is paramount and Allison says that “this is not just in terms of appearance, but in the experience of wearing it as well. An ordinary t-shirt won't do beneath the furs and leathers of a high-fantasy ranger. That ranger probably would have worn a linen shirt and braids. Under-layers affect the drape of over-layers and I've always believed the process of dressing also lends itself to the experience of wearing the clothing.”

Alison’s fastidious attention to detail and unique approach where they ask “what is realistic for their world” truly benefits their cosplays. There is a richness to each of their cosplays that really makes each piece a true work of living, breathing art. Adding to that richness is Alison’s fine-tuned, theatrical make-up skills which allow them to truly transform themself into each character. These make-up skills were earned in a similar fashion to many of Alison’s long list of skill sets, by interest-led research and discovery.

Alison was assigned female at birth, but mostly just thinks of themself as “a human, not necessarily a girl or guy” and finds that cosplay can often serve as something of a “gender euphoria fix”. There is definitely a visible pattern in the cosplay community for some AFAB cosplayers who constantly cosplay male characters and then later transition. It can be a safe space for them to contemplate and play with their gender expression.

Alison chooses characters to cosplay that inspire them either through their design or personality, but says that “there's also a deeper-rooted tendency to choose characters that share your own traits - both positive and negative.” Through cosplay, this can be done without the constraints of gender. Alison believes that their tendency to choose male characters can be partially ascribed to their being non-binary, but also is great as a result of a lack of well-rounded, well-written female characters in media.

Growing up, Alison experienced a lot of frustration with what was expected of the female experience, in their life and in media. And they hated how the men on-screen “got to do the good stuff” while the women were “love interests and set dressings”. Today, we have a lot more content to choose from and a lot more diverse voices are being heard. As a result, there are suddenly characters who aren’t simply straight, cis men who are interesting and dynamic and who are given interesting storylines.

Being able to present themselves in masculine and gender-neutral ways, both through cosplay and in the day-to-day has actually given Alison room to start to enjoy female-coded things without finding them oppressive as they might once have. And Alison is finding themself more open to cosplaying female characters.

Alison surprised themself by planning to dress as Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider franchise for Halloween this year. After recently playing the 2013 Tomb Raider video game, Alison was pleased to see how dynamic the character Lara Croft has become. While being newly open to cosplaying more female characters, one thing Alison still finds worrisome is the expectation that female characters need to be ‘hot’. This is a continuing stumbling block of performing femininity that Alison would like to see done away with, but they are going to take it as just another cosplay challenge and meet it head-on.

While they don’t usually put a lot of emphasis on Halloween being that they are usually “all costumed-out” by the end of the comic con season, Alison is looking forward to dressing up this Halloween to get that “cosplay fix” that they’ve been sorely missing with all the unfortunate but necessary comic con cancellations over the past two years.

Cosplay and costuming are awesome ways to creatively explore your interests and gender expression. So, if you are also looking to get a cosplay fix, check out our Spooktacular Costume contest! Submit your entries via Instagram or Facebook by midnight on October 30th. Your costumes will be judged by RDQCA staff and our very special guest judge, Kelli EleTrix.

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