I’ve been attending conventions for over a decade and if there is one area that I 100% opted out of, it’s cosplay contests. Some people love them. They use cosplay contests as motivation to level up their crafting skills. They enjoy embodying their cosplay character on stage. The stage part I get — it’s fun knowing that all eyes are on you. It’s the competition that I take issue with and for a number of reasons.
Cosplay is subjective as fuck
Just like with any art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. People who are skilled at sewing, appreciate sewing more. People who practice armor building, appreciate armor more. People who buy their cosplay may not have enough knowledge of the work and skill needed to build a cosplay to judge it. There are so many factors and biases that affect how we perceive cosplay that creating a level field for judging them is really hard. And don’t get it twisted — we’re all biased. The only question is how honest you are about it.
There are many ways to cosplay
Some people buy cosplay from large companies. Some people commission them from individuals. Some people buy some pieces and make the rest. Some people make 100% of their cosplay. Some folks use hazardous materials to achieve their cosplay. Some people construct their cosplay from trash. Some people spend thousands of dollars to make something. Others have a whole team of friends that help with their builds. Some cosplayers are engineers who use their expertise to create their cosplay. Some cosplayers are professional costume designers. You have people using an infinite array of skills and resources to cosplay and you rely on the honor system when they enter contests. It feels impossible to judge.
So, to address that, conventions make rules. But do the rules take all these potential scenarios into account? Some try, but it’s still horrible. I judged the closet cosplay contest for MomoCon in 2018 and 2019. They had several rules in place to try to account for all the different scenarios, but there was one award we had to give to a cosplay I didn’t like because of the rules for the contest. Unfortunately, I was on stage when the team I would have chosen learned they lost and I couldn’t tell them that it was because of a technicality. I hated that moment. They cried, especially when they saw the very basic shit that won instead, and I couldn’t fault them for their reaction because they had outperformed the people who won. This is the reality of cosplay contests. The ability to follow the rules often determines who wins and the more open the rules, the more subjectivity comes into play but the stricter the rules, the greater the likelihood of good cosplay accidentally self-eliminating.
Perfection is overrated
Cosplay elitism is some shit. I’ve been around professional costume designers and heard them trash people’s efforts. Armor builders, too. I’ve seen people speak disdainfully about how little effort or skill they thought someone put into their cosplay and it was cruel. I’ve heard people talk shit about folks using cheap materials; for not hemming their pants; for choosing the wrong material; for not dying their clothing right; for having hot glue threads, for the paint job not being uniform; for having cheap wigs. My personal pet peeve is uneven body paint on easy to reach areas and I’ve seen people condemn a cosplay for visible seams and zippers. The elitism is fucking toxic and it contaminates the whole cosplay scene because people then spend a shitload of time trying to avoid it by overcompensating.
I’ve watched people make the same armor more than four times to get it “perfect” and then never enter a cosplay contest because they didn’t think it was good enough. I’ve seen people start GoFundMe campaigns to get enough money for more expensive materials because materials matter. I’ve seen people lie time and again about whether they made a cosplay for the perceived social capital that comes with it. Then there are the communities that form to disparage other cosplayers.
Continually rebuilding your cosplay because it’s fun is a very different thing from doing it to avoid negative criticism. Experimenting with different materials out of curiosity is different from feeling pressured to use more expensive materials to compete with others. Ask yourself why you push yourself — if your desire is driven by you or by this ugly side of the cosplay environment because that will determine how much pleasure you get from cosplay.
Competition is white supremacist patriarchal capitalism at work
I get it. We’ve been indoctrinated into a self-destructive culture that has conditioned us to believe that there always has to be a “best” of everything. We are encouraged to compete from birth, our weights compared, our developmental milestones assessed and categorized. We are tested and ranked in school and activities to the point that we are not allowed to participate in activities we aren’t good at, regardless of how much we enjoy them and pressured to do activities we are good at regardless of how much we dislike them. It’s not about need, want, or joy. It’s about performance, namely outperforming others, being the best and crushing your competition.
Being the best at anything means creating a hierarchy. And hierarchies are used to determine who should be respected and who shouldn’t. They are used to prioritize people and determine how we treat them. They are a way to determine who is seen and who isn’t and when you make cosplay into a contest, you are replicating the same social hierarchies that place Black people, specifically american Black people, at the bottom. The success of those at the top only exists because of the failure of those at the bottom. And I have to ask, why would you want to recreate that?
I know the answer. It feels good to outperform others. I get it. But it’s not necessary at all. In fact, it only serves to feed the egos of those who succeed and dismiss those who do not. Why create an environment that serves the smallest percent of the community and harms many others? In 2019, I had multiple opportunities to create or judge cosplay contests and I reached the conclusion that they were too harmful. Instead, I organized a cosplay catwalk that I hosted at TCF Style Expo. We invited ANYONE to participate, enjoy the spotlight, share their outfits, and have a great time. It was an opportunity for us to enjoy one another’s creativity without having to worry about how perfect our crafting was or whether anybody else’s cosplay was better. We asked questions, hung out, and had our moment to shine on stage. The only requirement was the desire to participate.
Maybe there is a way to compete that isn’t violent, but I have yet to see it. I’ve seen the attempts to mitigate the damage of competition — like participation trophies, allowing everyone to participate regardless of skill, and the “everyone’s a winner” approach, but the fact that there has to be a winner at all often undermines it — especially when people demand that there can be only one winner. So, I ask again, why invite that into our spaces? Why recreate these convenient opportunities for intracommunity violence when we don’t have to?
I’ve always had an aversion to competition because I don’t like the way it makes me feel or how it pushes me to modify my behavior to fit the profile of a winner. I don’t like the way it shifts my interactions with my communities because everyone becomes a potential competitor. I am a fan of collaboration, but that becomes exponentially more difficult when everyone is trying to get ahead of each other and what happens instead is a decay that originates from the inside and spreads out. Don’t adopt these destructive ideologies. Don’t reinforce the violence of whiteness in your lives. Competition isn’t necessary, and while some people are able to keep their behavior of the healthier side of this type of engagement, most become casualties of those who don’t.
Stop making it easy to hurt one another and create spaces that foster collaboration and community. Stop replicating intracommunity violence. Reimagine cosplay community because we can do better than this shit.
*Please note: I did not write about BlerDCon because I wrote about that event explicitly in 2017 (link).
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Originally published at https://talynnkel.com on July 20, 2021.