Female cosplayers are often the main attraction at anime and comic conventions, drawing novice and professional photographers with their intricate costumes and ability to maintain difficult poses. While the eye-catching sexiness of many characters is what initially draws onlookers, many women are motivated to cosplay because of a sense of empowerment. Female cosplayers have flourished through their ability to create their own costumes while building successful personal businesses.
Girls may have once dreamed of earning enough money to make cosplay a full-time profession, and figures like Yaya Han, Chloe Dykstra, or Spiral Cats have proven that what was once considered to be a hobby is actually a lucrative industry. Cosplayers like Yaya Han or Spiral Cats may fit conventional beauty ideals, including both western and Asian standards, but social media has helped to open up the world of cosplay modeling to all types of women.
Unconventional Beauties Paved the Way
Prior to the popularity of cosplay and the rise of alternative models, the industry was controlled by stringent, unspoken guidelines, which dictated who was worthy of posing before a camera or receiving sponsorship offers. Augmentations like colored wigs or circle lenses were frowned upon, in terms of modeling portfolios or look-sees (when models actively visit agencies or fashion houses). Women who were not suited for high-fashion or commercial promotion were faced with limited opportunities or rejected from lucrative, paid jobs. However, widespread use of the Internet and companies like SuicideGirls helped to revolutionize modeling, providing opportunities for all types of women.
At its height, in the mid-00s, SuicideGirls served as an online community where tattooed pinups with magenta hair were depicted in photo spreads alongside futuristic send-ups of Princess Peach from Super Mario Bros. The concept was innovative and thrilling, even for women who did not participate, as many recognized that the site and its platforms were providing a space for girls who may otherwise be overlooked by high-profile agencies or photographers. While the site eventually moved away from its cheesecake content to embrace harder material, SuicideGirls and its contemporaries paved the way for alternative models.
Early alt-models like Masuimi Max or Dita von Teese are now recognizable names within mainstream fashion. The bulk of their success was derived from their work within burlesque and often, aspects of the adult industry. Dita von Teese is essentially a vintage cosplayer and a figure at the forefront of the jazz-age pinup movement. However, their rise in corporate endorsements and products is far from the organic development of many top cosplayers of Japanese or western entertainment.
Cosplaying Anime and Manga
Women who look towards anime or manga for cosplay inspiration often depict characters that are a far-cry from damsels-in-distress. Even if they are magical school girls, they can deliver a good fight and often stand up for their rights, without the aid of male protagonists. While Japanese-influenced cosplay offers infinite possibilities of girl power and opportunities to embrace characteristics that are rarely reflected in western or American entertainment, with the exception of anomalies like Game of Thrones, Xena Warrior Princess, or the 80s animated series, She-Ra: Princess of Power. Franchises like Star Trek or Star Wars and comic powerhouses like DC or Marvel have traditionally featured few female heroines and those that are included were so few in number, that one used to be able to walk a convention floor and run into 20 Wonder Woman cosplayers, within 15 minutes of arriving at the location.
By contrast, Japanese manga and anime like Pretty Soldier and Sailor Moon have women who balance their daily lives with kick-ass superpowers, without necessarily needing men to come-to-the-rescue. Harley Quinn is the Joker’s zany sidekick while Asuka Langley Soryu is a teenaged fighter pilot. Brienne of Tarth is a revelation for many viewers but Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood’s Olivier Mira Armstrong could give her a run for the money.
While the issue of self-objectification continues to be a matter of debate amongst feminists and women who enjoy revealing or sexually suggestive costumes, the ability to take on the identity of strong female protagonists continues to be a point of agreement for those who enjoy cosplay inspired by Japanese characters.
The Internet Takes Cosplay International
Japanese cosplay experienced a rise in international popularity during the early 00s, fueled by an increase of English-language versions of forums like Cure (now Worldcosplay) and sites that provided costumes, patterns, or circle lens, contacts that make irises appear larger or otherworldly patterns. Social media provided the opportunity for aspiring cosplayers to connect with more experienced ones while gaining the respect of traditionalists in Japan, who favor the literal portrayal of characters. Unconventional Japanese-inspired cosplayers can now be found in all sizes, shapes, and ethnicities. Tumblrs like "Cosplaying While Black" highlight the triumphs and challenges of women and men who take on characters that were originally created for other ethnic groups and Spiral Cats, a South Korean troupe, continues to prove that the nation has more to offer the world than "Gangnam Style."
Cosplay has also contributed to the success of phenomenal YouTube makeup artists like Michelle Phan and Pony, who now oversee their own cosmetic lines, after equipping a global legion of fans with the knowledge of how to best use things like circle lens or Dollywink eyelashes to create transformative looks. Whether it is behind-the-scenes or in front the camera, cosplay delivers opportunities for women who are interested in the modeling industry.