Sunday, August 28, 2011

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Sci-Fi Romance: A Great Source For Cosplay Inspiration

Photo © Shannon Cottrell

At Geekfeminism.org, Courtney Stoke shared her observations about “Geek girls” and the problem of self-objectification (via SF Signal):

I’ve been researching and thinking about cosplay for a while now, and one of the most distressing trends I’ve been grappling with is how women will choose characters, costumes, or costume constructions based on how “sexy” the costume will appear on them. This is not just a cosplay problem, but a geek problem. And until we start having an intelligent conversation about it (preferably a conversation that starts with the assumption that it is a problem), it’s not one that geek communities will ever be rid of.

Remember those cadres of Slave Leia cosplayers that parade through Comic-Con on a yearly basis? Yeah, that’s basically the self-objectification at issue.

The article gave me a lot of food for thought. Specifically, I started to wonder why the ratio of super sexy cosplay (of which Slave Leia is one subset, albeit a large one) was so skewed. I mean, as one commenter pointed out, where are all the Bounty Hunter Leias? I’m telling you, Bounty Hunter Leia had a much bigger influence on me in terms of empowerment than Slave Leia. Why don’t more women do that kind of cosplay?

Naturally, there are some very practical reasons for such a cornucopia of Slave Leias. First, it’s Star Wars and the franchise’s cultural impact, which is practically incalculable. Second, if you approach the choice of a Slave Leia outfit from a merchandising/marketing perspective, it becomes clearer why so many women choose it. It’s a lot easier (and probably cheaper) to obtain a Slave Leia outfit than a Bounty Hunter Leia outfit (if you’re going to do it well, that is). Third, it’s probably much more comfortable than a full-body armor outfit (San Diego gets pretty darn hot, you know). Fourth, it gets more attention, because sex sells. And so forth.

Here’s the thing: I don’t mind the devotion to Slave Leia cosplay. Male or female, sometimes we just want to express our sexuality. But it does seem as though the overabundance of sexed up cosplay edges out and marginalizes other choices, other ideas, and other characters. That, I do mind.

Yes, there are plenty of women who attend cons dressed as characters that focus on the chosen character’s strength or personality rather than overt sex appeal (even male superheroes, in a bit of delightful gender subversion). But why don’t they get an equal amount of attention? Why don’t convention attendees find them as interesting? Why can’t we seem to find many of them in existence at all?

Right now, the sex card trumps a lot—except, perhaps, the draw of an exceptionally well made costume. But it doesn’t always have to be like this.

Now I invite you to read a post at SF Signal by author Joel Shepherd called The Secret to Successful Female Action Hero Films. The key point he makes is that

…audiences, male and female, want a hero story. Sex appeal you can get from the internet, where hot women will do all sorts of things that Hollywood just can't compete with for teenage erections. What Hollywood can do much better than the internet, or better than anyone else in the world, is tell a tale about a great and unique individual who faces insurmountable odds, and conquers personal demons, in pursuit of justice, truth and inner peace. Or something like that. If Hollywood would actually tell that story, with women in lead roles who were allowed to be genuine heroes, audiences would turn up -- they have in the past, on the rare occassion Hollywood (meaning James Cameron) made this kind of movie, and would again.
[Emphasis mine]

This is not to say that sex appeal is not important, quite the contrary. Christian Bale's Batman made many millions from female movie goers due to sex appeal, and straight male viewers like to see that their hero's 'got it' too, for street cred purposes. But sex appeal can't be the focus of any dramatic narrative, because it tells no tale worth telling -- which is of course why porn movie plots are so bad. I hear.
See the parallel here? Slave Leia=sex appeal; Bounty Hunter Leia=a “tale worth telling.”

(On a side note, I’m not one of the “many millions” who watched Christian Bale’s Batman for the sex appeal. I went because it’s a hero tale).

Until I read Ms. Stoke’s article, I never thought about the connection between cosplay and science fiction romance. But now I’m thinking that as a fan of SFR, I have both a desire and a responsibility to help increase awareness about how this subgenre could have a positive impact on cosplay.

I agree there’s a problem with self-objectification in geekdom. Therefore, I’d like to propose a possible solution. By talking up my favorite heroines, I can advocate for the idea that SF/F/SFR heroines are more than the sum of their sexual parts. If enough people add their voices to mine, in time we could make serious inroads (not just for us, but for future genre fans). Rather than devolve into an endless parade of Slave Leias, conventions could become places where many types of cosplay outfits are accepted and valued.

Enough with the mentality that only sex sells because there's so much more to our favorite characters than sex appeal.

Toward that end, I can totally see science fiction romance approaching heroines using a “hero” framework to widen their appeal (which many of them do right now, so it's more a matter of continuing the trend). In turn, given successful stories, awesome characters, timing, and lots and lots and lots of luck, SFR might even inspire cosplay based on a new generation of “Bounty Hunter Leia” heroine characters and give those assembly-line Slave Leia’s a run for their money (yes, I’m a big dreamer, but so was George Lucas when he was starting out, heh).

Even better, sci-fi romance could become a source of inspiration for cosplay based on characters of various ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, physical disabilities, etc. Then there’s the idea of joint cosplay involving SFR couples. How cool is that? Sci-fi romance's niche cred has the potential to counteract marginalization in cosplay.

When cosplay becomes inclusive rather than exclusive, everybody wins.

Joyfully yours,

Heather