Unless we know each other very well, if you've met me, you've probably met me in costume. Considering that costume is one of the technologies through which I like both to interact with and to examine the world, this isn't really surprising. If you've seen me playing independent academic (hey, someone send me a pic from a panel, yeah?), businesswoman, retrogirl, genderqueer writer, Regency dancer or actress, you've seen me in costume. But for a lot of you, if we're talking about my relationship with costume we're talking about cosplay.

Despite the fact that I talk about cosplay on con panels a lot, it's only adjacent to, as opposed to central to the fanthropology stuff I do. And, despite my love of costume, I've only ever cosplayed two characters: Severus Snape and Jack Harkness (OMG, how can I have so many random pictures of me and can't find a single picture of this cosplay that I feel like linking right now? Anyway, men's clothes, big coat, you know the drill).

Cosplay is, perhaps, the element of fan-behavior most poorly received by those outside of fandom communities, and perhaps even by some of those inside many fan communities (this is, as is quite rightly noted in comments, more a function of Western fandom culture and Western fandom properties than Eastern ones). It is, after all, fairly easy to go, "oh, you know, those people and their Starfleet uniforms" and never think about what those people and their Starfleet uniforms are on about.

There are a lot of things that make people uncomfortable about cosplay. One of the primary issues is that it is play, something that in the West we've been told very specifically is not the domain of adult status (a status that is increasingly difficult to prove by any means other than by what one is not). Another issue, that's closely related to play, is that it's often deeply earnest. But cosplay is also a mode of criticism -- of source materials and their representations (a TV show is just a representation of the work of a writer for starts) certainly, but of also of things, including society, fandom and the self.

Perhaps most troubling for people outside of the world of cosplay is the inability to look at a costume and know what it is: is it play? or is it criticism? does the person doing the cosplay intend it as criticism? and how necessary and/or appropriate is it for us to judge someone else's act of play? Cosplay freaks a lot of people out because it's incredibly hard to divine from the outside what the hell any particular instance of it is about.

While it's no secret that I'm a cosplayer, I often feel it's supposed to be. As someone who is as a guest at some cons and a fan at others, I get a lot of lectures about how it's not done for pros to wear costumes (I certainly don't wear them when I'm working a con as a guest; I certainly do wear them when I'm being a fan, and the notion that it's not appropriate at events where I am not and have never been a guest and am there solely to hang out and have a good time galls me).

The severity of that attitude differs between fandoms and media (I hear it, for example, more often from static media folks (novelists, comics) than from folks who work with the moving image), I've noticed, and it's particularly awkward for someone like me who's become a pro by, through, and about my fannish activities. But the discomfort of others tends to trump frank discussions of cosplay, especially when that cosplay is about things -- like love and criticism -- other than just play.

And the fact is, that no matter what anyone tells you, we don't all put on our pants quite the same way. One leg at a time, sure. But the mood of dressing and undressing, of constructing an identity, varies from person to person and identity to identity.

I find tending to my menswear very calming, and, sometimes, sorrowful -- it is lonely packing myself away in one fashion when I dress, and in another when I undress. I find feminine business wear makes me feel efficient, and 1940's dresses make me want to go shopping using only paper sacks. I find putting on the costume I wore for Snape makes me want to have a lot more physical distance from people than I normally do, and that when I cosplay Jack Harkness, the costume feels truest to me when I'm half dressed and my braces are still hanging around my hips. And all these things tell me something: about the properties and characters I study, about the world I study in, and about myself.

There is little doubt that I engage texts as the "enchanted" believer that I posited in "A Tangible Reality of Absence" (not online yet; sorry, my bad in the self-referencing department, although you can hear me talk about this at Dragon*Con this year), and in doing so I am not just experiencing a passionate relationship with text, but with myself in a reality I've consciously chosen for the duration of an act of play, as opposed to one foisted upon me, or one I only pretend to believe in (i.e, the "ironic" believer).

Snape was never a costume of some Other I longed to be, but a representation of the power I believe my personal uglinesses (an unconventional face, a deviant gender, a difficult manner, an inconvenient intellect) have given me. The Harkness costume has certainly never been about the man I wish I could be, but the one I fear I am: gregarious and yet terribly alone; preoccupied with the past; and unable, too often, to appreciate the affection around, and directed, at me.

Of course, it's highly likely that such an explanation of costume and cosplay serves, not to make anyone reading this more comfortable with the idea, but less. After all, I talk often enough about how we all secretly fear we are -- or everyone else on the Internet is -- one of Snape's Wives.

Today Henry Jenkins tweeted regarding this discussion of the acafen perspective, which in passing addresses notions of costume and generally argues against the acafen perspective, essentially saying that love is a blindness.

And yet, it is only the people who know me best, who care the most for me, that have seen me without costume. It is these people who unavoidably know my flaws, and who seek to understand why I have them and how they hurt the person I am both in private and in many different publics.

The idea that love is an obstacle to critical thinking and rigorous scholarship, especially in Fan Studies, and pop-culture related fields, is one that, while I can certainly process the arguments for, ultimately make no organic sense to me. In love, we know the details; get the layers; we peel off the skin.

Love makes me a better scholar and a more persistent one. It is the ever so risky sin of sentimentality that opens more windows of thought for me than any other, and perhaps, even more importantly, is the angle through which I'm able to cultivate a receptiveness to those ideas. It's surely not a style of scholarship that suits everyone as a producer or a consumer, and I am not advocating a conversion of others to the style of it so much as I am advocating a push-back against the shame culture that says love is dangerous because it obscures ideas, when I have always known that love is dangerous because it breeds them.

I wear costumes and am many men who never were. I am also scholar and a fan and a woman and a self-critical blogger and a total geek. And not only do I have absolutely no idea why all those things supposedly aren't compatible, I also know that I can read all the theory in the world and still come to only one conclusion about my existence in this regard: I am as true as any fiction.

Which is to say, yet again (and for surely not the last time): Stories Matter.

And so does how we feel about them.

Stories don't matter less because they never happened. They don't contain less meaning because we love them. And they don't go away or sit in the corner or become less noticeable because we shame them.

May 2016

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