This blog post is adapted from a forum conversation I had recently. I play the part of feminist Socrates. Glaucon plays the part of everyone else.
Glaucon: O feminist Socrates, is it not true that many of the costumes women wear at comics, gaming, and scifi conventions are rather sexualized?
Feminist Socrates: It’s true, friend Glaucon, but where do you think the inspiration for those costumes comes from?
Glaucon: Obviously it comes from the comic books, games, and scifi in a variety of media that the women consume. Yet I can’t help but see how male-gazey, sexist, and sometimes downright misogynist most of those depictions of women are. Why would women choose to dress up in a costume based on a character whose depiction is sexist?
Feminist Socrates: O Glaucon, there are many reasons why a woman might choose to dress up in sexy cosplay. Aside from whatever personal reasons she might have for enjoying the character or the act of costuming, there are powerful external incentives for women to dress up in sexy cosplay. What Gloria Steinem pointed out about the Miss America contest is paralleled in the microcosm of the nerd-o-sphere.
Glaucon: Powerful external incentives? Surely you can’t mean money, Feminist Socrates. I may be your naive foil in this dialogue, but I wasn’t born yesterday, and I know that there is no money in cosplay. In fact it’s definitely a big money and time sink, like most hobbies.
Feminist Socrates: You are right, O Glaucon, I am not referring to pecuniary remuneration, although I should note as an aside that some costumers are professionals who are paid to create costumes and appear in them at events. I am referring to other powerful external incentives, rewards of things that humans find very compelling, sometimes even more than money.
Glaucon: I can’t see what those incentives might be, Feminist Socrates, for my sight is clouded by the limits of my experience. Could you lay them out for me in a clear way, perhaps in a numbered list?
Feminist Socrates: I will explain it for you. Let’s start with the what Gloria Steinem said about Miss America:
“I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed … But given the game as it exists, women make decisions. For instance, the Miss America contest is in all of its states … the single greatest source of scholarship money for women in the United States. If a contest based only on appearance was the single greatest source of scholarship money for men, we would be saying, “This is why China wins.” You know? It’s ridiculous. But that’s the way the culture is. I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists.” – Gloria Steinem
To me the parallel between these two shitty systems and the incentives to participate in them are obvious. But I have found that what I consider obvious is radical and weird to people sometimes, so I’ll make some quick notes over breakfast.
While the incentive for cosplay is not directly economic, it does provide many of the things humans rather like (and sometimes it can be an economic boon, though not to the level of Miss America scholarships).
1. Cosplay, specifically sexy cosplay, is a way to get something that feels a lot like nerd acceptance. For all that we focus a lot on the shitty way people treat sexy cosplayers, most of their experience is positive. I’ve done some pretty risqué costuming at sci-fi conventions and the experience was mostly positive. A lot of people talked to me about my costume, invited me to parties, took pictures, were friendly. I don’t even remember there being anything creepy at all. It sure was a lot of glowing, wonderful, accepting nerdy attention to 19 year old me at DragonCon, though. When I talk to current cosplayers they experience these positives as well.
2. Cosplay is a way to get attention as a nerd that is normally denied a woman. Again, despite the backlash against cosplay lately from nerds who want to keep comics and scifi a pure sausagefest unsullied by boobs and high pitched voices, women who cosplay get a lot of positive attention. Sexy women in sexy costumes get a lot more attention. If a woman wants to get interviewed at a convention to voice her views on something or other, being in costume is probably the fastest path to that. Not that most cosplayers want that. Wanting attention is not negative (I claim), especially when the default state for a person of your gender is to be rendered invisible by your culture. Cosplay forces others to see you, to acknowledge that you exist. It’s hard to understand the importance of that until you have been made to feel invisible and silent.
3. Cosplay is a way for women to reconcile their femininity and their societally gendered as male nerdy interests. Women nerds are in the double bind of having to prove they are really nerds while at the same time performing femininity. Since nerdy activities are considered masculine, to prove the they are still women and not man hating freaks or neutered weirdo beasts women have to take action to assert their femininity. The need to be feminine and the need to have nerd cred pull in opposite directions. Cosplay is one of the few places (the only one I can think of) where the two directives meet. As an aside, I see the same thing in other activities that are gendered as male where women do things to assert that nonetheless they are still feminine–look at the colorful socks that women powerlifters and women in Crossfit wear for example, or the whole odious campaign to assert that weight lifting is sexy as though something needs to be sexy for women to be able to participate.
So to restate my three assertions again in one short list, the powerful outside incentives for women to participate in sexy cosplay are:
1. To gain acceptance as a nerd among nerds
2. To gain visibility and attention instead of being ignored
3. To reconcile the demands of femininity and nerd cred
There are of course interior reasons such as loving a particular character to pieces and enjoying making costumes, but those aren’t in parallel to the outside incentive argument.
Hat-tip to the participants AJB Feminism thread.
 “The Miss America Organization is one of the nation’s leading achievement programs and the world’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women.” source: MissAmerica.org Scholarships page Date retrieved: Oct 24, 2013