Written by Daniel Skentelbery – This post is adapted from my short talk at FSN2019, the Fan Studies Network Conference at Portsmouth University. Whilst subjects including gender and race are commonly discussed among cosplayers, the performance of age is relatively un-discussed, despite it being an all to common activity. This talk introduces the notion of Age-Bending in cosplay, a practice which I define as the act of dressing as a character from popular media who is significantly older or younger than the player.
My studies are focused upon cosplay practices, at fan conventions and online, in North America and the UK. Cosplay is the dressing up and performance of a character from popular media, usually located within the fan convention space, or through the sharing of images and videos on social media. It is such distribution of cosplay which see the practice entering into the everyday, becoming valuable forms of expression for the cosplayer’s identity. Elizabeth G. Nicholas writes that “in the world of cosplay, one need not be constrained by the lottery of biological sex, the limitations of age and size, nor the canonical image of a figure from a game, television programme or film” (Nichols 2018). This bodily transformation through performance means it is hardly surprising that existing literature on cosplay has placed a distinctive focus on cosplayer’s ability to mold their identity through a cosplayers chosen characters. My AHRC NWCDTP funded research is primarily focused on gender and queer identities in cosplay. Particularly looking at performances of identity through gender-bending cosplay (which is the process of adapting a characters gender to fit your own) and cross-play cosplay (which is when you cosplay a character of a different gender as accurately as possible). Though here, I will be taking a minor detour to address the notion of age-bending cosplay in relation to performing and/or discovering one’s own ability to present and perform one’s own body.
I define age-bending as the act of dressing as a character from popular media who is significantly older or younger than the player. This could be for example: a group of adults playing as the adolescent school kids from the animated children’s programme Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir (pictured above); or it could be a young boy dressing as the maniacal Joker from DC’s Suicide Squad. Miraculous and DC’s Joker, will be my two primary examples in my discussion of these forms of age-bending. I intend to introduce some of the concerns of age-bending such as the risks of sexualising adolescent characters, but also some of the advantages to age-bending in navigating and learning to understand one’s own identity. In cosplayers relationships with fictional characters, we might look to the writings of Shedlosky-Shoemaker et al. who argue that, “such, parasocial relationships may provide fertile ground for self-expression […] the relationship between perceived self-expansion experienced through fictional characters and degree to which that character represents one’s ideal self suggests that fictional characters have the power to be role models” (Shedlosky-Shoemaker et al. 2014, 573). These parasocial relationships might be seen to be extraordinarily close in cosplay, the process of making the costume is one of learning, connecting the cosplayer with their chosen character in such a way as to accurately mimic and perform them.
Concerns one might have when it comes to age-bending cosplay include: a questioning of the appropriateness of the practice. For example when a young boy dresses up as Jared Leto’s Joker do they then take on the characters narrative as the abuser in a dysfunctional relationship? If an adult dresses as 14 year-old Ladybug does the adult body (or the adult’s demonstration of their body) risk sexualising underage characters? Similarly, does a boy dressed as the Joker take on the sexualised male physique of Jaret Leto’s Joker? These fears of children being sexualised are fears all too common in the world of contemporary fashions, as Ruch and La Nauze argue: “Children are dressed in clothing and posed in ways designed to draw attention to adult sexual features that the children do not yet process” (Ruch and La Nauze 2006, vii). Likewise, when an adult cosplays a fictional adolescent character, we might suggest that adults are dressed in clothing creating the illusion of childhood, which adults no longer poses.
Ladybug is the 14-year-old girl Marinette, she lives with her Mum and Dad, and attends the College Francoise Dupont. She’s a clumsy but intelligent girl, with an unrequited love for the boy Adrien Agreste. If as Nicolle Lamerichs writes, “the most important body of the cosplayer is a character body – a referential body that is closely related to the source text where its design, meaning and narrativity are based” (Lamerichs 2014), then an adult cosplayer of the 14-year-old Ladybug might feel more Ladybug in costume than their older selves. But, for the onlooker there is a disconnect, the costume is recognizably Ladybugs, but the cosplayer is notably older. Cosplayer EL-LY’s version of Ladybug see’s her with an undone super suit revealing her cleavage, her posture emphasises her hour glass frame, the player appears distinctly aware of her own physical ability to be sexually expressive. The consequence of this, is that because of the cosplayer’s integral relationship with character, the cosplay risks being read by the onlooker as a performance of a 14-year-olds body. Yet, for the adult cosplayer, there are opportunities in such age-bending cosplay. Joanne Faulkner develops from the before mentioned Ruch and La Nauze, arguing that, “children, too, are fetishized to the extent that they represent the carefree existence the rest of us are denied” (Faulkner 2010, 112). For adult cosplayers, cosplaying younger characters, permits the player to disconnect themselves form the regulations of adult life (away from employment, taxes, and the mortgage). In such eroticised cosplay of Ladybug, the cosplayer becomes free from adult expectations, they become an extraordinary superhero, whilst still maintaining their sexual desires and ability to express them.
This transgression of adult responsibilities is similarly commented upon by Robertson in her article on adult fans of My Little Pony, in which Robertson suggests that such play allows for a rewriting of what it means to be a fan for the Brony community (Adult male fans of My Little Pony). These adult men “transgress the stereotypical cynicism, hegemonic masculinity, and belligerence that tends to represent internet interactions” (Robertson 2014, 33). Therefore, with further investigation, and in extension to the revolutionary transformations for the individual, age-bending cosplay may even hold some commentary on hegemonic social structures.
Expression of desired identities is similarly the case for the younger cosplayer, choosing adult characters. Regarding the sexualisation of young cosplayers, whilst a legitimate worry, under many circumstances such expressions are taken hold of by the young cosplayer as means of navigating one’s own identity. In Dennis’s work, he writes that sexual expression in fan art “is particularly common among children and adolescents, who manipulate media narratives as clues to their identities, especially as they attempt to understand and articulate forbidden desires” (Dennis 2010, 23-4). Thus, just as adult cosplayers might choose young characters as desire for freedom. Young cosplayers might choose adult characters who they recognize for their overt sexual expressions. For all the issues which exist within Jaret Leto’s iteration of the Joker, the conflict of the character could be a symbolic means of working out one’s own desires; or perhaps rather display a momentary desire for chaos and unruliness. Age-bending comes with a whole host of pros and cons, and must be understood within the specific contexts of the individual cosplayers (and their chosen characters). Whilst we must be aware of the potential problems of age-bending, particularly when discussing the reception of such cosplay, I would ultimately like to suggest that age-bending can be hugely beneficial for the individual cosplayer, allowing for a therapeutic means of navigating one’s desires and how best to express and perform them.
Bainbridge, J. and Norris, C. 2013. ‘Posthuman Drag: Understanding Cosplay as Social Networking in a Material Culture’. Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific. 32.
Dennis, J.P. 2010. ‘Drawing Desire: Male Youth and Homoerotic Fan Art’. Journal of LGBT Youth. 7:1. 6-28.
Gn, J. ‘Queer simulation: The practise, performance and pleasure of cosplay’. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies. 25:4. 583-593. Kirkpatrick, 2019.
Lamerichs, N. 2014. ‘Costuming as Subculture: The Multiple Bodies in Cosplay’. Scene. 2:1. 113-125.
Lamerichs, N. 2018. Productive Fandom: Intermediality and Affective Reception in Fan Cultures. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Nichols, E.G. 2018. ‘Being Seen: Cosplay and Performance Identity’. via inmediares. <URL: http://mediacommons.org/imr/content/being-seen-cosplay-and-performative-identity> [Accessed: 17.06.2019].
Ramirez, M.A. 2017. ‘From the Panels to the Margins: Identity, Marginalization, and Subversion in Cosplay’. Graduate Thesis from University of South Florida.
Robertson, V.L.D. 2014. ‘Of Ponies and Men: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and the Brony Fandom’. International Journal of Cultural Studies. 17:1. 21-37.
Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R. Costabile, K.A. and Arkin, R.M. 2014. ‘Self-Expansion Through Fictional Characters’. Self and Identity. 13:5. 556-578.