Cosplay's Reassuring Message About Geek Culture: It's OK to Be a Fake

The new documentary My Other Me serves as a reminder that invented identities aren't the enemy of geekery—sometimes, they're an essential component of it.
M.O.D Entertainment / High Def Productions

As I've written about here before, a number of self-identified male geeks have made it their business to declare that self-identified female geeks are not really and truly geeks, but are instead "fake geek girls," who pretend to be geeks for attention. Cosplay—dressing up as a favorite character from anime, comics, or other media—is often at the center of these accusations. When Starman creator Tony Harris launched into his rant against fake geek girls, he specifically referred to "Cosplay Chks," and ranted about how they were evilly taking advantage of innocent male nerd's libidos by wearing sexy costumes and pretending to care about comics.

The cosplay documentary My Other Me, directed by Josh Laner and available this week on VOD, doesn't address the fake geek girl meme directly. But it does make it clear why cosplay figures so prominently in male geek misogynist fever dreams about fakeness and women. In the first place, many aspects of cosplay are flagrantly—and indeed flamboyantly—feminine. Sewing and making your own costume, as many participants do; putting on elaborate makeup; participating in contests where competitors spin for the judges like runway models—all of these emphatically treat geek culture as fashion, that most despised, and not coincidentally most feminized, of art forms. 

As Julia Serano has pointed out in her book Whipping Girl, prejudice against women often takes the form of calling femininity fake and inauthentic. Misogynist discourse presents women as duplicitous poseurs, using their wiles to manipulate men. Even putting that aside, though, it's hard to miss the fact that cosplay is deliberately about fakeness. Everyone in the film is pretending to be something they're not, whether it be a radiant princess or a one-eyed warrior or Superman. That fakeness, though, isn't manipulative; it's fun, and often, contradictorily, an authentic expression of the folks under the costumes.

Anti-fake geek girl rhetoric suggests that fakeness and geekery should not go together; that the first contaminates the second. But for the cosplayers in My Other Me, it seems pretty clear that geekdom and fakeness complement each other—that the geekery spurs the fakeness, and vice versa, in a continual, pleasurable round. Lilly Rose Smith (known online as SecretAttire), a 14-year-old newbie cosplayer and one of the documentary’s main subjects, is shy, awkward, and fumbling—a geek, in other words. Dressing up gives her a chance to pretend to be somebody else who is a little more extroverted; somebody who can meet new people and make new friends. One of the sweetest moments of the film is when a boy at a convention asks if Lilly is going to the costume dance. She says she doesn't have a mask. So he buys her one. And with that disguise, she becomes a person who can go with him where she was afraid to go before.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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