DragonCon is a whirling vortex of overstimulation. I remember when it was just a wee little local gaming convention, but for the last couple decades it has been growing steadily and now it is huge, and I mean HUGE. Pretty much everything is there; the trouble can sometimes be finding it amidst the haystack of everything else. So when I decided to write about gender-flipped cosplay, I was prepared to have to do some searching and spend most of the one day I planned to be at the con on it. I and my companion got our badges with surprising alacrity, and set out for the lobby of the Hyatt, a prime location for gazing at life’s rich pageant as it passes by. I hoped to snag a photo or two, perhaps an interview, and get started.
On the way there we spotted a young woman dressed as Mario, carrying a mushroom purse. Just inside the Hyatt, I spotted Thor. Not, Sarah Maefs pointed out, “lady Thor,” but male Thor, “although I am working with the artist to get a costume based on the new female Thor ready for New York Comic Con.” As I was talking to her, Alison Klesman as Captain America and Valerie Mikles as Hawkeye strolled up. I asked everyone what they thought the attraction of crossplay was for women. Valerie’s reason was pragmatic: “I’ve been doing this a lot lately, because girls wear heels.” Alison said, “I mostly just like male characters better…I really like Captain America.” Sarah expressed a similar sentiment: “Male characters are more abundant in comics and often given a more fleshed-out character and role in comics…Growing up, I idolized Thor the most, and identified with him more than any of the women, so when it came to do a costume, I really had no choice.” We went on to talk about female comic book heroes as role models for little girls, the friendliness of DragonCon to cosplay at all levels, and the geek authenticity police.
I hadn’t even made it up to the main lobby of the Hyatt yet.
Practically everywhere I went, I saw gender-flipped costumes. I asked local Atlanta drag performer Evah Destruction (aka Alexander Surian), who was dressed as Chun Li from Street Fighter, why it seemed to have gained popularity. “There’s a kind of bandwagon thing that happens…People see someone doing it, and they think ‘hey, I could do that’. I think it contributes to a sense of overall acceptance, that you can be anything you want to be.”
The women I spoke to expressed the same idea as well, but for many women the reasons they dress as male characters are complex. A group of friends who started cosplaying together last year as Bilbo and some Dwarves returned this year as a quartet of Doctors Who. “I just really love the character,” said Patti Hendrix, though she later added, “another reason we do this is that we don’t want to show skin.” Her friends agreed. “Female superhero costumes are too revealing. I don’t want a costume that clings to every crevice,” said Erica Clifford, while Christi Whitney echoed what the group of Avengers had said earlier: “Male characters are often better written and you have more to work with.”
As a writer whose protagonists are mostly female, this causes me to shed a small tear. The consensus seems to be that this state of affairs is improving as movie studios and comic book publishers and gaming companies realize there’s an audience of women (and money to be made), but for most of the women I spoke to, their childhood fictional heroes were generally male.
Several women also mentioned the issue of sexualization one way or another, including harassment and the “fake geek girl” phenomenon. Sarah Maefs was emphatic that showing skin or not shouldn’t be an issue, but acknowledged that it often was: “Whether you want to dress as Captain America in a bikini, or go full armor like me and bind everything down, it’s all about expressing the character however you want…They tend to single out the bikini girls, because they think it’s just for attention.” She said that when she dresses in more “sexy” costumes such as the Scarlet Witch, men are more likely to come up and quiz her on her knowledge of the character. “Sometimes you just have to tell them, ‘you do realize you are really disrespecting me right now.’ Nobody goes up to a guy wearing a Batman shirt and asks them how many Batman comics they’ve read.”