Puzzling Over the Cosplay Paradox

I saw this, which led me to this, which made me ponder this:

Many of the designs of female characters were created specifically to be sexualized objects.  What Laura Mulvey’s essay on film and the male gaze says about movies applies in spades for the mediums of comic and animation, where female characters are literally objects created by and large by and for males .

If male artists and creators are contributing to and participating in rape culture by designing these over-sexualized and objectified female characters, are female cosplayers who choose to portray these sex object characters as a part of their hobby also contributing to rape culture through their celebration of these characters and their objectifying designs?

Avoiding victim blaming creates an interesting paradox:

If an image or portrayal of women is harmful to women, but it cannot be harmful to women if a woman is portraying the harmful image, how can we say it’s harmful without engaging in victim blaming? If the image is not allowed to be called out as harmful to women when emulated by women, can we say the image was harmful in the first place?

Is it the real woman with ‘boobs hanging out’, as it is so crudely put, or created object image of a woman with ‘boobs hanging out’ being emulated that we have a problem with?

There’s a conundrum in certain lines of modern feminist thought when someone has a problem with the created image but is unable to criticize celebration of the image by the very person that is victimized by or because of the created image when that person is victimized because the victim is not allowed a role in their victimhood. Therefore, creators of harmful images are able to hide behind the victimhood of others, those who are unwittingly playing a role in the culture that has made them victims by celebrating those characters who exist to objectify women.

God, feminism is rife with terrifying logic puzzles! Feel free to use any of this if there is an evil robot you need to destroy.

And NO, this is NOT an endorsement of or post in favor of victim blaming or victim shaming, playing devil’s advocate or anything like that. Just an attempt to articulate a confusing existential problem that faces the geek community with no solutions proposed or implied.


13 responses to “Puzzling Over the Cosplay Paradox

  1. I don’t have the psychological background to have a scientific comment on the subject, but I have a brain and an opinion.

    I don’t believe someone can “accidentally” rape someone else (I would probably have to attribute “mixed signals” and other misunderstandings to some kind of mis-communication but I’m really fuzzy on what — maybe negligence? Dang), and I am hesitant to give credence to concepts like “rape culture.”

    I take that last point back. I suppose if we have “suicide pacts” and “murder clubs,” we can have “rape culture,” but I think that some rapists — mainly the scary ones? — do it because there’s a psychological disorder involved that makes them not see other people as human beings. Sociopathy?

    All that was a roundabout way of getting to the point that I don’t think that objectifying human bodies creates rapists. I don’t think manga or pornography creates rapists. I think psychological disorders and rapists create rapists.

    So how would I resolve the conundrum? Cosplayers do not contribute to rape culture. Rapists are going to rape whether people cosplay or not.

    I honestly don’t know how much SEX or SEXUALITY contribute to rape. It seems more like the means than the motive to me. I think that focusing on the sexual aspect of rape is probably looking in the wrong place.


    • Well, this is less about rape than harassment that is attributed to rape culture, particularly at cons and in ‘geek’ settings. The definition of rape culture is one where, while rape itself is not always present, it is an omnipresent looming threat (which makes it seem like more of a boogeyman rather than a real thing, which is problematic, because it IS real). It has more to do with an endemic and pervasive sexism that is accepted to the point where it is normalized; various bits of cultural input and strata from a lifetime of various absorbed media, norms and mores that lead an otherwise perfectly well behaved and rational individual to gawp and speak aloud the phrase “Look at the ass on that Slave Leia!” in the presence of women who might be threatened by such a statement. One often sees complaints of how Frank Frazetta style chainmail bikinis are a part of rape culture and are condemned in the art present at cons, and creators of such characters are condemned for their participation in creating an ‘unsafe’ environment for females in the geek community, cons in particular.

      A blanket ban on victim blaming means that it is inappropriate to even suggest that a woman should be ‘down for the struggle’ and refuse to cosplay characters or redesigns of characters (like new Scarlet Witch) that are obviously created to be sexual objects.

      The question is: If a character was created for the express purpose of male readers/views to go “Wow, nice tits!”, and if that creation contributes to rape culture, does a woman choosing to celebrate that image by emulation via cosplay also contribute to rape culture because they are adopting an image created specifically for the purpose of soliciting male sexual arousal?

      For the record, I’m a bit iffy on a lot of aspects of modern feminism. In today’s society, victimhood (not real victimhood, but a perception of victimhood and the ability to create fear in others who do not want to victimize) puts one in a position of power over those who may disagree with their positions in a logical manner. Even a rational argument made by a male against a female can be shouted down as “mansplaining”, so there is a fear to express differing opinions. However that also means that people with no sense of shame (or filtration) are far more willing to engage in the debate.

      • Oh, but aren’t harassment and sexism completely different things entirely? I mean, sexism is a type of discrimination (which comes in all kinds of different varieties, with or without harassment), while harassment is mostly a bad choice/misuse of speech? (Or assault, when it comes to that?)

        It seems to me like they’re all different things motivated by different things. I have issues with what little I recognize as modern feminism — that appears in many ways to be “reverse-discrimination.”

        One of the many problems with getting your cause second-hand from the people who started it… Or the people *they* handed it off to.


      • It can be sexism, in that sex of the person determines your behavior around them. Dudes are statistically less likely to come onto dudes wearing costumes than ladies wearing costumes. It’s sexism that allows people to feel comfortable with engaging in potentially harassing behavior.

        And yes! A lot of harassment may be misperceived compliments, but because of the culture, compliments might be more likely to be perceived threats. I suppose that if a woman were less used to hearing “hey, hot stuff, I like what I see!”(or worse; pretend I wrote something worse), they’d feel less threatened by genuine compliments. Perception is reality, unfortunately.

        (also, note that I’m largely arguing academically and rhetorically; I’m not sure I’ll ever know where I stand on the issue, so you can also pretend that I wrote “supposedly” and “allegedly” before or after every statement 😉 )

      • I did take a philosophy – logic – class (failed it, but learned a lot), so I can recognize and acknowledge the difference between fights and arguments, academics and rhetoric and whatnot. (Gets me into no end of trouble.)

        From an ethical standpoint — it seems to me like any comment, compliment or not, must be considered a threat legally — while socially it’s the sort of thing that people regularly let slide with familiarity.

        Society and Ethics seem to me like axes in an alignment system. One scale describes reputation and the other describes law. While they interact with one another constantly and compliment each other, they seem at odds.

        Fascinating. Hm.


    • It also means wording must be carefully chosen. One cannot simply say “If Frank Cho wants people to oggle Scarlet Witch’s breast, does a woman dressing as Frank Cho’s depiction of Scarlet Witch want people to oggle her breasts, and can she complain when they are commented upon?” That would be highly inappropriate! 😮

      • Good grief.

        Let me think about that a moment.

        Yeah, ogle the illustration all you like, right? But ogling real people falls under harassment, doesn’t it? Regardless of what they’re wearing?

        It’s like… objectifying people has to stop with the audience. If you’re enjoying the scenery — if you’re being entertained, then it’s your responsibility to keep your hands and your eyes to yourself?

        I think socially, we should assume that everyone is a responsible adult — even if legally we don’t. So yeah, someone can be subject to a complaint if they’re ogling a 14-year-old dressed as Rikku. Or a 30-year-old.

        Not a perfect solution, but I’m trying to think of how someone might argue some kind of “entrapment” case. I don’t know enough about law to have a complete answer — just the opinion.


      • If anything, I think that there may be a deeper psychologically rooted problem going in cosplay that no one really wants to come out and admit.

        Female: These cosplayers enjoy looking cute, like making costumes, and look at it as an enjoyable hobby celebrating characters from various media who they identify with.

        Male: These cosplayers are the living embodiment of various female characters that they have fetishized and made objects of desire; the blurring of fantasy and reality when certain men see the objects of their desires brought to life triggers an oversexualized response when seeing real women in the form of the object-women that they have fantasized about, unable to separate the two in their primal mind.

        In a way, it might be seen as a muddled modern evolution of the ancient rituals of pagan forebears where participants would wear masks of various deities, and they could say “I had sex with Frigg/Astarte/Whatever!” Only now, instead of a sex-priest/priestess posing as imaginary figure of desire, we now have unwilling or unwitting participants who are harassed by those who still have an ancient drive to copulate with imaginary figures of desire.

      • Whatever the purpose or intent of the cosplayer, it inevitably DOES play into a voyeurism that is a deep seated psychological issue perhaps beyond even culture (rape or otherwise)..

      • Wow… that is a fascinating idea right there. What if sexual rites were a form of social engineering designed to placate some of the stranger fetishes in a society that valued every individual?

        You have to figure that on some level, trying to survive on a day-to-day basis may well have meant that you had to care about everyone *somehow* due to their contributions to the society?



      • And in a way, many of our modern ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ whose icons and images we worship are the ones that pop-culture has produced in the mediums of graphic art.

        I’m not super well read on on the subject, but there’s always been a concept of mask and masquerade, that when one puts on a mask, one becomes that person. In ancient and primitive rites, it was to become a god for purpose of a ceremony, in ancient theatre, it was to become the person portrayed, in modern masquerades, it is to cease to be who one is as much as it is to become something else.

        If comic and anime conventions are an extension of this, there’s a lot of wild anthropological stuff going on that goes way back to the ancient days…

      • Somewhere in my list of anthropological hypotheses, there’s the “convention theory of civilization,” where humans decided to create permanent settlements because then it would be like “a convention every day!”

        I’m of the mind that people have really changed much… ever. xD


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