'Cosplay: Beyond the Fantasy' Explores the Crossroads of Fandom and Feminism

ET's first digital documentary takes a closer look at some of the complexities of fan culture.

In recent years, what was once known as niche “nerd culture” has begun to transition into the mainstream in a major way.

From the surge of box office-topping comic canon blockbusters to the mega-popularity of fan conventions all around the world, lovers of television, movies, comic books, anime and more have countless places to come together and celebrate their favorite fandoms. Some fans even take that love a step further, dressing up in elaborate costumes, in a practice known as cosplay.

The term “cosplay” was coined in Japan in 1984, as a portmanteau of the words "costume" and "play." Nowadays, cosplay is still a major part of most fan conventions, but social media has also added a year-round accessibility to the art form for models, creators and fans alike

For ET's first digital documentary, Cosplay: Beyond the Fantasy, producer Jesse Goddard met with several cosplayers to further understand the complexities of the ever-evolving fan culture, the dichotomy between fantasy and feminism and the ongoing conversation surrounding consent in the cosplay world.

“Cosplay is a very personal form of self-expression for people,” cosplayer Angi Viper explains in the documentary. “A lot of us are drawn to it when we're very young, and we're drawn to it because we're sort of insecure in our own skin. I was desperate for somewhere where I could be accepted and be who I really wanted to be.”

Angi, who cosplays as characters from anime, cartoons, movies and more, including Elsa from Frozen -- relating to the character’s struggle to find her inner strength as well as her relationship with her sister -- says she feels “absolutely indestructible” when dressed up as one of her favorite characters.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself and my own strengths and weaknesses through dressing up as those characters that I relate to,” she notes. “Dressing up as Elsa has brought me out of my shell like I never really thought was possible.”

Some cosplayers have even turned their passion and art into a way of life. Saya and her husband, Dakotah, began their cosplay careers as paid costumed heroes, dressing up as Wonder Woman and Batman at Six Flags amusement park. However, as the pair ventured into the professional cosplay space, selling cowls and other costume pieces on Etsy, they learned more about the competitive and controversial side of the fandom world.

“The only [way] to be seen these days is to do it the best, to do it lewd or to be the first person to do it,” Dakotah explains in the doc, a sentiment his wife agrees with, especially when it comes to the trend of hyper-sexualized takes on cosplay, which have become more popular as social media opens up new avenues for artists to connect and engage with fans.

“It’s so much fun as a hobby, but it’s interesting when you take it on a professional level, there’s so much pressure to do lewd things,” Saya adds of her cosplay experience. “When I was trying to move into a professional [platform], we could both clearly see what that would be like.”

“That image is sort of what has become synonymous with cosplayers,” Angi agrees of the sexualized side of fandom fantasy. “I think it’s created a sort of toxic atmosphere, it’s become very competitive and very sexualized and it’s become very antagonistic. It can be frustrating for the cosplayers that don't focus on that.”

Even newcomers to the cosplay world like Tita Ghanjanasak feel the pressure to post more risqué photos in pursuit of gaining more fans and followers.

"Ever since I came into the cosplay community, it's always been that way," she explains. "A lot of cosplayers have [photos] like, wearing lingerie or whatever. I try not to get into that."

“They’re chasing those likes,” Saya explains of cosplayers who focus on sexualized images to grow their personal brand. She also points out that she doesn’t necessarily believe that all of those social media stars are performing legitimate cosplay. “I get into arguments a lot about that because I think if you are in lingerie and wearing Pikachu ears, no, that’s technically not cosplay, it’s a themed lingerie shoot.”

However, not all cosplayers see revealing costumes and sexualized photo shoots as problematic. “There's a whole art form to it that I don't think some people quite see," Meisha Mock says. "The modeling aspect, specifically, with your body, and getting every movement to get the right angle is very interesting.”

"I can play both sides. I’m a strong feminist," insists the performer, who cosplays as popular comic and cartoon characters, as well as an original character, Hound Master. "Truthfully, our world sees so much sex all the time and, like, why not? If women want to empower themselves with something kind of sexual, they should do it.”

Meisha also points out that new online models of marketing -- like the Patreon platform, which allows artists of all kinds to create tiered levels of payment plans for their fans, granting them access to private social media accounts, exclusive images, rewards and more -- put control and profits directly in the hands of the subjects choosing to sexualize their image, rather than a publisher or a middleman.

“With the whole Patreon movement, there’s a giant group of cosplay women who are doing very sexy boudoir shoots and selling them, and it’s the first movement of women fully owning it,” she explains. “We had stuff like that with Playboy, but Playboy, that’s run by men and there's a tier-down system and then the woman is the model. [In] this, the woman is the model, it's women in control. She chooses her photographer, she chooses what she wears and she chooses how she poses. I think that is super empowering, that we have this female takeover in those concepts.”

For Dr. Shira Tarrant, a gender politics writer and professor, who has authored books on feminism, fashion, pornography and more, female cosplayers who want to express themselves in sexual or revealing ways are “entitled to do that as they see fit.”

“The problem is when that becomes the one avenue for success because it excludes so many other possibilities for human expression and it reinforces very narrow, stereotyped gender tropes about what it means to be female in this world,” she notes. "If we fall into those stereotyped expectations, then people can demean us, they can think that we're less capable or that that is all we're capable of. At the same time, if we don't go along with that program, so to speak, then we might not even have opportunities for visibility or to have platforms at all. So we're damned if we do present ourselves sexually and we're damned if we don't present ourselves sexually."

The lines can get blurred even further for cosplayers when it comes to interacting with their fans in real life. In recent years, many cons have started to feature bold-letter warning signs throughout the convention area to remind attendees that “Cosplay Is Not Consent,” hoping to deter eager fans from making unwanted contact or taking photographs without agreement from the performers and cosplayers. 

“The issue of consent comes up in the cosplay world and it has come up a lot in social media and in feminism," Tarrant notes. “Sexual assault and sexual violence against women and girls, it is, as we know, never about what she's wearing. Women are assaulted when they're wearing sweatpants and veils and running clothes, and so consent is never about what she's wearing.”

“A lot of [convention attendees] have a difficult time separating fantasy from reality,” Angi admits. “You get the people who have been sexually fantasizing about some of these characters, and they want to hug you or kiss you or touch you in certain ways that you don't want to be touched by someone you've just met for the first time. I've had it happen to me, I've had it happen to friends."

"There were guys who, like, can't understand that a girl is just being polite and all of a sudden they're following you around the convention and they're trying to get your phone number and they're finding you at the bar of the restaurant you're at later that night and trying to join your table and, like, stalking you on social media to, like, try and be your best friend and get a date or whatever it is," she continues. "The 'Cosplay Is Not Consent' movement came out of a desire to communicate to people that those are not acceptable ways to interact with cosplayers."

With boundaries in place, all of the cosplayers agree, they find empowerment in their art. "If I didn't like it, I wouldn't do it," Meisha says simply.

“Most of us came to cosplay because we felt like social outcasts and we felt uncomfortable in our own skin and we utilized cosplay to learn who we are,” Angi agrees. “For me, embracing my sexuality and embracing my body is part of [having] confidence… I see it as empowering.”

Click here for all of ET's coverage of San Diego Comic-Con 2019. Cosplay: Beyond the Fantasy airs throughout the week on ET Live.