On Love, Scholarship, and Costume
Unless we know each other very well, if you've met me, you've probably met me in costume. Considering that costume is one of the technologies through which I like both to interact with and to examine the world, this isn't really surprising. If you've seen me playing independent academic , genderqueer writer, businesswoman, retrogirl, Regency dancer or actress, you've seen me in costume. But for a lot of you, if we're talking about my relationship with costume, we're talking about cosplay.
Despite the fact that I talk about cosplay on con panels a lot, it's only adjacent to, as opposed to central to, the fanthropology stuff I do. And, despite my love of costume, I've only ever cosplayed two characters: Severus Snape and Jack Harkness.
Cosplay is, perhaps, the element of fan-behavior most poorly received by those outside of fandom communities, and perhaps even by some of those inside many fan communities (although, as has recently been pointed out to me, more a function of Western fandom culture, and Western fandom properties, than Eastern ones). It is, after all, fairly easy to go, "Oh, you know, those people and their Starfleet uniforms," and never think about what those people and their Starfleet uniforms are on about.
There are a lot of things that make people uncomfortable about cosplay. One of the primary issues is that it is play, something that in the West we've been told very specifically is in conflict with adult status (a status that is increasingly difficult to prove by any means other than by what it is not).
Another issue, that's closely related to play, is that cosplay is often deeply earnest. But cosplay is also a mode of criticism -- of source materials and their representations (e.g., a TV show is just a representation of the work by a writer) certainly, but of also of matters outside of the cannon, including society, fandom, and the self.
Perhaps most troubling for people outside of the world of cosplay is the inability to look at a costume and know what it is: is it play? or is it criticism? does the person doing the cosplay intend it as criticism? and how necessary and/or appropriate is it for us to judge someone else's act of play? Cosplay freaks a lot of people out because it's incredibly hard to divine from the outside what the hell any particular instance of it is about.
While it's no secret that I'm a cosplayer, I often feel it's supposed to be. As someone who is as a guest at some cons and a fan at others, I get a lot of lectures about how it's not done for pros to wear costumes. I certainly don't wear them when I'm working a con as a guest; I certainly do wear them when I'm being a fan; and the notion that it's not appropriate at events where I am not and have never been a guest and am there solely to hang out and have a good time galls me.
The severity of that attitude differs between fandoms and media. My own experience is that I hear admonishments about costuming more often from static media pros (i.e., novelists, comics artists) than from folks who work with the moving image; and those admonishments are a particularly awkward thing for someone like me who's become a pro by, through, and about my fannish activities. But my main point here is that the discomfort of others tends to obscure or prevent frank discussions of cosplay, especially when that cosplay is about matters – such as love and criticism – other than just play.
The fact is, that no matter what anyone tells you, we don't all put on our pants quite the same way. One leg at a time, sure. But the mood of dressing and undressing, of constructing an identity, varies from person to person and identity to identity.
I find tending to my menswear very calming, and, sometimes, sorrowful; it is lonely packing myself away in one fashion when I dress, and in another when I undress. I find feminine business wear makes me feel efficient and that 1940's dresses make me want to go shopping using only paper sacks. I find putting on the costume I wear for Snape makes me want to have a lot more physical distance from people than I normally do, and that when I cosplay Jack Harkness, that costume feels truest to me when I'm half dressed and my braces are still hanging 'round my hips. And all these things tell me something: about the properties and characters I study, about the world I study in, and about myself.
There is little doubt that I engage texts as the "enchanted" believer that I posited in "A Tangible Reality of Absence," an academic paper that is part of my ongoing work, that I wrote about fannish mourning responses to character death for a conference, “Desiring the Text, Touching the Past: Towards and Erotics of Reception”, at the University of Bristol. In engaging in this “enchanted” manner I am not just experiencing a passionate relationship with text, but with myself in a reality I've consciously chosen for the duration of an act of play, as opposed to one foisted upon me, or one I only pretend to believe in (i.e, the "ironic" believer).
Snape was never a costume representing some Other outside myself I longed to be, but a representation of the power I believe my personal uglinesses (an unconventional face, a deviant gender, a difficult manner, an inconvenient intellect) have given me. Similarly, the Harkness costume has certainly never been about the man I wish I could be, but the one I fear I am: gregarious and yet terribly alone; preoccupied with the past; and unable, too often, to appreciate the affection around, and directed at, me.
Of course, it's highly likely that such an explanation of costume and cosplay serves, not to make anyone reading this more comfortable with the idea, but less. After all, I talk often enough about how we all secretly fear we are, or everyone else on the Internet is, one of Snape's Wives.
Today Henry Jenkins tweeted regarding this discussion of the acafen perspective, which in passing addresses notions of costume and generally argues against the acafen perspective, by essentially saying that love is a blindness.
And yet, it is only the people who know me best, who care the most for me, who love me, that have seen me without costume. It is these people who unavoidably know my flaws,and who seek to understand why I have them and how they hurt the person I am both in private and in many different publics.
The idea that love is an obstacle to critical thinking and rigorous scholarship, especially in Fan Studies, and fields related to pop-culture, is one that, while I can certainly process the arguments for, ultimately make no organic sense to me. In love, we know the details, get the layers; in love, we peel off the skin.
Love makes me a better scholar and a more persistent one. It is the ever so risky sin of sentimentality that opens more windows of thought for me than any other, and perhaps, even more importantly, is the angle through which I'm able to cultivate a receptiveness to those ideas. It's surely not a style of scholarship that suits everyone as a producer or a consumer, and I am not advocating a conversion of others to this mode so much as I am advocating a push-back against the shame culture that says love is dangerous because it obscures ideas, when I have always known that love is dangerous because it breeds them.
I wear costumes and am many men who never were. I am also scholar and a fan and a woman and a self-critical blogger and a total geek. And not only do I have absolutely no idea why all those things supposedly aren't compatible, I also know that I can read all the theory in the world and still come to only one conclusion about my existence in this regard: I am as true as any fiction.
Which is to say, yet again (and for surely not the last time): Stories Matter.
And so does how we feel about them.
Stories don't matter less because they never happened. They don't contain less meaning because we love them. And they don't go away or sit in the corner or become less noticeable because we shame them.
CONTRIBUTOR: Racheline Maltese
DATE ADDED: 2010-08-30 11:07:57
COLLECTION: Gendered Bodies
ITEM TYPE: Document
CITATION: Racheline Maltese, "On Love, Scholarship, and Costume," in HACKGENDER, Item #65, http://hackgender.org/items/show/65 (accessed December 6, 2013).
About the Work
- Racheline Maltese
- Creator's Site