A Conversation with Linda Thai
I actually can’t remember how I first met Linda Thai, although I’m guessing it was through her long-running Something Deeper blog about anime and manga. All I know is that back in 2009 as I prepared to write a long piece about cosplay for the Financial Times (of all places), her expertise and support were invaluable. Later, when I found out she went on to train and work as a librarian, I knew that she was a natural for Connect the Pop. My only regret is that I didn’t get around to speaking with her sooner…
A good place to start might be the obvious: how did you first get into cosplay?
Well, when I first, literally, cosplayed I was about 12 years old or maybe even younger. At the time, I never even heard of cosplay. I dressed up as Hino Rei from Sailor Moon. I still have the oufit, too! My aunt made it for me because I wanted to dress up as her for Halloween while trick-or-treating with my little brother. Then many, many years later, the next time I cosplayed was at New York Anime Festival out of support for my college anime club and then at other conventions. I even cosplayed for my manga and anime pathfinder presentation. Recently, I rekindled my friendship with a friend from high school, who does cosplay with another friend, and now I make my own outfits and props!
Along the way have you met any other librarians who like cosplay?
The funny thing is, after my class presentation on how to catalog manga, one of my classmates approached me about her interest in manga. Then through our friendship I found out that she cosplays! Another friend, whom I also met at Simmons College while we were riding the train together, I found out that she cosplayed at some point in her life. The last person that I can think of I met at Simmons College graduation and through her photos, I noticed that she cosplays at conventions. So there are others who are in the LIS world that cosplay, but I think it is a needle in the haystack type of situation.
Okay, so let’s get into the critical thinking. Isn’t the term itself where some of the issues start—that is, what is cosplay exactly and what defines a cosplayer?
Yes. In fact, depending on who you ask, a cosplayer can be someone who makes their own character outfit and wears it or someone who simply wears the outfit and did not make it at all: they bought or borrowed it. Here’s the question you can ask if you want to approach the issue semantically: if the verb for wearing a character outfit is “cosplaying,” then what’s the noun for it? The point that I am trying to get across is that if you see someone wearing a character attire, wouldn’t it make sense to identify someone as a “cosplayer,” then? This is quite debatable, which for educators is a good thing.
I’m sensing that there can be a slight bias against those who don’t make their own costumes. What other forms of bias exist?
Unfortunately, though it’s a beautiful, fan-centric form of art, cosplay doesn’t come without its blemishes. One is the common assumption that Asians make the best cosplayers—or that they “should” be cosplaying as anime or manga characters. Of course, not everyone thinks that way, and not every Asian makes the best cosplayer. I’ve seen non-Asians do brilliant, eye-catching jobs. And in fact I am Asian, but not that great at cosplaying.
How can one help young people analyze this bias instead of just resigning themselves to it?
Like anything, teach them to question assumptions. Here the question is, simply, “Is that true? Do Asians actually make better cosplayers than non-Asians?” Then you can move on from there: “Where or why did this idea come about?” This is a topic, then, that can easily be used as part of a discussion on racial stereotypes generally, and figuring out their origins.
Great, then what about a term that I’ve heard you use—crossplay? How might educators support teens around this option?
Well, yes, sometimes it’s not ethnicity or race, but rather gender that plays a role. Here’s another situation that a cosplayer may come across—“Hey, why are you cosplaying as a female if you’re a male, or vice versa?” When someone cosplays as a character of the opposite gender that’s “crossplay.” Educators and other adults have to prepare young people by cautioning them that there’s a possibility that name-calling will occur. However, we can’t assume that the young cosplayers we know aren’t the ones who’ll be doing the name-calling. Librarians and educators can see this as an opportunity to teach and encourage tolerance of individual differences and choice while also reflecting on the audience interpretation of gender and cosplay. The key idea is actually a media literacy one related to representation: no one in real life actually looks like an anime or manga character. It’s not possible. After we see that, then we realize that all of cosplay is a matter of approximation and interpretation.
That’s a really important point. But teens—and certainly older pop culture geeks as well as people in general—are going to judge others based on their looks. How to keep that out of cosplay when kids and teens often judge on appearances anyway?
I’m concerned that this is starting to paint a negative picture of the cosplay community, which is definitely not my intention. Not everyone will be so judgmental, and in fact young cosplayers will find tremendous support, and may eventually welcome and mentor newcomers themselves.
Yes, that said, unfortunately, cosplayers are judged by their physical characteristics—are they short/tall, skinny/fat, dark/light, and so on. My response is to remind cosplayers that cosplay is, fundamentally, like a production. That’s the way you connect character education and critical thinking: you invoke media production and what teens know and understand about it. That is, think of the cosplayer as the actor/actress who has been cast to portray a character. If this were a formal film or stage production, the casting director would be looking for a specific actor/actress to play a role, and it could involve your appearance, gender and ethnicity. Who in the world naturally looks like an anime character? Many of the character designs intentionally are not realistically human. If you want a certain set of anime eyes, some would require your orbit and eye to be twice the size in an upright slightly oval shape. Plus, not all characters have a specific ethnicity; not all the characters are Asian, and not everyone has an anime or manga physique. Use this as a chance to discuss whether cosplay is intended to be realistic—a chance to explore what’s feasible to achieve in real life or merely a reflection of Hollywood-style body images in the world of anime and manga.
[There's a lot more on critical thinking and cosplay in the continuation of this Q&A. Thanks for reading...]