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Something to Consider on the Eve of Comic-Con: Cosplay and Critical Thinking

A Conversation with Linda Thai Continued

If you missed Part 1 of my talk with librarian and cosplayer Linda Thai, wherein we discussed issues of race, gender, and media production in terms of cosplay, that’s easily corrected. Here we continue in the vein of “what educators and librarians can do to support young cosplayers.”


Linda as Karuta: “This is my first attempt at making an outfit and wearing a wig. The skirt and outer top were made by me, while the white top was something that I already owned.”

All right, so since cosplay can be considered a form of production—and not just “dressing up” as some on the outside might see it—then that seems to suggest another avenue for critical thinking: becoming aware of one’s own critical filters in evaluating others’ cosplay, and a kind of anticipation of the “critical reception” with which own’s cosplay will be met.

Definitely. Underlying both these cases, whether one is cosplaying or responding to someone else’s cosplay, is the question of “creative interpretation” versus “accurate portrayal.” That comes up time and again. And it’s important for beginners to realize that which one they value more will affect many other things. In other words, they can come to see that ultimately there is no “right” and “wrong” but simply different schools of thought. Critical thinking can enter when you prompt teens to defend one of these aesthetics over the other.

Which school do you belong to in your own cosplay?

I can tell you this right now that I am one of those people who likes to put their own interpretation of a character’s attire—while still being recognizable. In short, I like to “customize” my cosplay. There are those who choose to take the accuracy route, and try to match the outfit as much as possible to the tiniest detail. So in addition to debating whether a cosplay should be creative or accurate, librarians and educators can turn the creation of cosplay into a workshop on costume design and teach students and patrons how to analyze the character’s outfit. How to spot details. In a sense, this is an extension of arts education but also a form of visual literacy. Also, this would provide librarians a chance to introduce or teach individuals about online research tools as well as their collections relating to manga, sewing and costume design.

That seems like a natural role for librarians. I mean, they don’t have to be experts in design or cosplay itself, or even have great collections on these topics—but what I quickly learned about cosplayers is that they are constantly sharing information online from all over the world, so a librarian can focus on helping a newbie connect to authoritative sources of information and guidance.


Okay, so then what happens? The costume is designed, some issues around race and gender have perhaps been discussed, and then there you are—at San Diego Comic-Con or at one of the many large regional anime and manga gatherings one can find in North America. A teaching librarian isn’t going to accompany a young person to one of these, but what advice can be given?

The key idea here is to use performance feedback as an analytical tool. Convention time is the performance time for a cosplayer. The doors open and cosplayers enter from the threshold to the convention floor, similar to when an actor enters the stage from stage right or left. Like an actor who walks around on stage, cosplayers circulate themselves by walking around the con, which is how cosplay can reach and interact with the attendees. Some cosplayers who are hired to cosplay as a certain character—and this isn’t necessarily anime- or manga-related—have to do this as part of a promotional strategy, while others just walk around to explore the convention. Each type prompts a different sort of reaction from the audience, aka the attendees.

Isn’t there then a strong element of critical literacy here—or at least there could be? Cosplayers, even those who aren’t explicitly hired by marketers, can still become a promotional tool for the industry. Isn’t that an opportunity for young people to consider their own position within the system, how their creativity can be co-opted in a sense?

Linda as Homura: “Now this is my first attempt in making the WHOLE character outfit, while applying my own taste. Even though the outfit is not completely accurate to the anime, I’m proud that I’m even able to accomplish this. Why? Because I never took a sewing class in my life!”

Definitely. Now, the cosplayer who’s hired to portray a character for a company obviously becomes a promotional tool for whatever series the company is trying to push at the audience. So we can look at cosplay as a medium that assists other media, anime and manga, by targeting a certain audience segment related to fandom. The question to pose is, what about the rest of us who are not hired, but just cosplay of our own accord? Are we a promotional tool, too?

Which of course is true of a range of fandom-related activities and literacies. Those who post fanfic online are, in a sense, continuing to promote the canon property. I guess a big noticeable difference here concerns what you brought up in terms of “accuracy.” Fanfic and fanvid can be all over the place, but with cosplay there can’t be too much divergence, right? And I don’t mean just appearance but how one acts.

That’s a crucial idea that many unfamiliar with cosplay don’t always grasp. Cosplayers may have to be in character. Period. And that’s another “literacy” in a sense, or transliteracy: taking what you’ve seen or read and then being able to remain true to it in different contexts. A few years back while I was cosplaying, I was asked by a group of convention attendees to say a certain phrase and portray the character with another cosplayer, who was cosplaying from the same series. This is how my small young audience interpreted the media of cosplay: they wanted me to bring the character to life. Even though I gave them a good laugh, I sincerely had no idea what my character’s catch phrase was. I cosplayed as her because she was someone I could remotely pass for without color contacts or a wig. This became a moment of self-reflection in understanding my audience.

But I guess being asked to say a catchphrase means the audience bought you as the character. Another sign is if the audience wants to take your picture.

For sure. Depending on a cosplayer’s character interpretation, there are a variety of audience reactions can go beyond photography and being in character. Some are complimentary while others are horrid. The reactions can be disrespectful, like improper comments toward female cosplayers, or using your image in a way that’s not permissible without prior consent. To understand the audience, one would have to ask how does the audience interpret the medium as something that invites such reactions, whether they’re considered respectful or not.

That’s great. Any final thoughts or a way to sum things up for readers?

If you’re a librarian or teacher, you can have your students and patrons discuss how the audience, namely those who witness cosplay, interprets the media—and the social differences that surface, such as what kind of role gender or ethnicity plays in the art. So I think this is an opportunity for educators, including librarians, to promote growth, tolerance and acceptance. I learned that librarians should be “neutral,” but I believe that there will be a time where we might have to step in and make a difference in someone’s life. That someone can be a young individual who’s exploring a new world like cosplay and just needs some sort of guidance. If someone comes up to you, and asks what happens when someone is cosplaying, you can use some of what I’ve shared here. I hope it’s been helpful. Most importantly, do not dismiss cosplay and therefore discourage it. Instead, offer support by falling back on the information and media literacy skills that you already have as librarian. How can you actively encourage cosplay and critical thinking? Well, by holding workshops, presentations, and discussions, and developing collections relating to cosplay. And why should you do this even if you yourself don’t share the enthusiasm of the teens and kids? Because with our help, this is their chance grow their minds and talents.


Linda is a 2010 graduate of Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and whose final projects focused mainly on anime and manga. She is a former academic adjunct librarian, and is currently working at a business archives and is an academic Records Management Coordinator. Follow her cosplay and convention adventures at @lynthatye and her random blogging at Something Deeper: Anime, Manga and Comics.

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