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.
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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.

Masks are artificial; that's part of their charm, and part of why wearing one can be liberating. But they're not always artificial. Another of the people My Other Me follows is Lucas Wilson (aka twinfools), a cosplay superstar whose videos have garnered more than 1.5 million hits. Lucas is a trans man, and he explains that cosplay was an important way in which he began to think through his gender identity. For him, dressing up as a man wasn't pretending to be someone he wasn't. It was figuring out who he was.

Along the same lines, we learn from cosplayer Danae's parents that when she was three, her mom gave her a poofy handmade princess dress. Danae Wilson (aka Rifa) proceeded to wear the dress every spare moment for the next three years, until it was bedraggled and worn. As an adult, Danae not only attends cons and makes her own outfits, but she works as a costume designer, sometimes for films and sometimes on commission. It's true that Danae isn't a princess or a warrior or any of the things she dresses up as, but that doesn't mean that when she dresses up she's fake. It just means that pretending to be other people is a big part of who she is, who she was, and who she hopes to be. Being who she isn't, in other words, is being true to who she is.

Cosplaying is exhilarating both because it is fake and because it's real. It lets the participants be who they're not, and also be who they are. In that, it's not so much different than any art. Superman comics are fun to read because you can imagine yourself as someone stronger and better and more powerful than you are. Spider-Man is appealing because he mirrors his readers' uncertainties and insecurities. Fiction in whatever form is both fake and real; it's artificial, but it can speak truth. Geek culture, which is centered so much around the passionate identification with invented worlds and characters, should know that. If it forgets, maybe it can turn to cosplayers like the ones featured in My Other Me for a reminder that if geekery as an identity has any point at all, it's to let people who feel fake be real, and vice versa.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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