Dr. Rupiper Taggart
Fargo’s Cosplay Community: A Quasi-Ethnographic Study
This article and video accompaniment present an ethnographic look into the cosplay community of North Dakota. It analyzes scholarly work regarding cosplay in the context of fan studies and brings the discussion to our region through interviews with cosplayers in both sci-fi conventions and charitable work through Star Wars fan organizations. The data gained through the interviews shows common motivations of cosplayers in North Dakota and what they find enjoyable or fulfilling about cosplay. The research has a particular focus on why and how participants choose a particular character to cosplay as, what they find appealing about that character or the property it is from, and how it relates to their own personal identity. The interviews also analyze the specific artistic methods used to craft the costumes in order to exemplify the wide breadth of artistic media that can be applied to cosplay and how that feature contributes to the community’s inclusiveness. This data shows various motivations ranging from friendship, family, creative expression, and charity. Consequently, the interviews show how artistic expression can lead to social community.
My first ever experience with cosplay was when I attended Fargo Corecon 2015, a local sci-fi and anime convention. The main reason I went to the convention was to enter my costume, a replica of Mel Gibson’s costume in 1981’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. I had spent the last few months creating the costume, researching every detail of every individual piece from the 1970s Ford F-150 tailgate hinge in Gibson’s leg brace to the Gerber Mark II combat knife in his boot, sourcing the correct parts, and figuring out the most economical way to recreate each part of the costume. I had seen videos of cosplay before in larger conventions throughout the US, such as San Diego Comic Con and Dragon Con in Atlanta, Georgia, but was unfamiliar with the culture of local conventions. My experience was surprising on a few levels. First, I was surprised at how many people in Fargo participate in cosplay, and also how diverse the people engaging in it were. I was expecting to see a lot of male nerds about my age or younger. I ended up seeing a much more diverse group of people than I expected: both men and women ranging from small children to seniors. It occurred to me that–in my experience–it is rare to see a group as diverse in other traditionally “nerdy” activities and that led me to question why cosplay has such a broad appeal. Why are so many people from different backgrounds–even in our small community–drawn to cosplay and what do they get out of it? To answer this question, I researched the existing body of literature on cosplay and then went on to add my own field research gained through interviews at a local Fargo sci-fi convention, Valleycon, and a charity event run by the Midwest Garrison of the 501st, the official Star Wars Imperial costuming group.
Firstly, it is important to give cosplay some historical context in order to understand where it currently stands as an art form. Cosplay’s origins in the United States aren’t completely clear, with two sides arguing that it either originated in the United States in the 1960s with fans of Star Trek and Batman who dressed in costumes and roleplayed as characters from those series, or that cosplay was imported to the US from Japan as a part of manga and anime clubs. In an article for Mechademia, Theresa Winge proposes a third theory that combines the two. She suggests that a writer for the anime publishing company Studio Hard attended a Los Angeles sci-fi convention in 1984 and saw fans dressed in costume as part of a masquerade party at the convention. He later wrote about his experience and encouraged Japanese fans to also dress as characters. This practise took off among anime and manga fans and was dubbed “cosplay.” It later returned to the US and merged with the earlier practice of sci-fi costuming (Winge 67).
I started my research by exploring scholarly work on cosplay and fan studies at a large scale. My basis of scholarly research comes from the wider genre of fan studies, following the ethnographic approach of scholars like Henry Jenkins. Jenkins’ groundbreaking 1992 book Textual Poachers provides a framework by which to approach fan studies as a whole. The book strives to explain fan and nerd culture in straightforward terms to a readership that might not be familiar with it. It starts by attempting to dispel the notion of fan culture participants as nerds with no life by referencing a SNL sketch. The book discusses topics about how fans interact with the media they enjoy, how they can influence it directly or after it is published in ways like writing fan fiction, slash fiction (same-sex romantic fiction based on characters from media), and by forming an institutional critical base for analyzing the media. While the book does little to address my specific topic, it is a fundamental text in fan studies and serves as the groundwork for subsequent literature on the topic; most of the articles I cite here use Jenkins as a source. After establishing a basis for research with Jenkins, I moved on to sources from scholarly journals. The scholarly research on cosplay touches on several topics including pedagogy, ethnography, and gender studies.
The pedagogical approach is what I first encountered. It is detailed in Marjorie Cohee Manifolds article “What Art Educators Can Learn from the Fan-based Artmaking of Adolescents and Young Adults.” The article looks at the culture of fan-art and cosplay from the perspective of an art educator. Her intention is to discover why young people are interested in these subjects so that it can be integrated into middle and high-school art curricula. To accomplish this, she undertook a study that gave 300 fan-artists and cosplayers a questionnaire that asked them about how they became interested in the subject, how they learned to produce the art, and how the activities relate to their career or life goals. From this, Manifold was able to draw the conclusion that the practice of using artmaking to connect with media and popular culture “assists identity development, permits expression, exploration, and enactment of ways of being in the world, and connects the fan participant to ideas beyond personal and local cultural parameter.” While the pedagogical approach is largely irrelevant to my project, the way it was conducted ethnographically, using a survey to gather a broad amount of data to later be parsed for similarities was my first experience looking at cosplay ethnographically. After getting an understanding of the pedagogical approach to analyzing cosplay, I moved on to other fields that have used cosplay as a source of inquiry, namely gender studies.
While it didn’t end up being a significant focus in my research for the simply fact that the issue didn’t come up in interviews, gender studies play an important role when studying cosplay and, with the activity of crossplay being a staple of conventions, it was necessary to at least touch on. In Rachel Hui Ying Leng’s article “Gender, Sexuality, and Cosplay: A Case Study of Male-to-Female Crossplay,” Leng discusses a particular subset of the cosplay community called crossplay. This is a form of cosplay in which the cosplayer dresses as a character of the opposite gender. The article uses a case study to explore male to female crossplay. The purpose of the study was to investigate the motivations behind crossplay and its significance to society “in relation to hegemonic gender norms.” The article’s central point is that “M2F (male to female) crossplay, as both a literal and figurative performance, exemplifies the overlapping discourses of gender, sexuality, masquerade, and fan identity in North American popular culture.” This argument highlights the role cosplay can play in a greater cultural context. While this did provide me with a new perspective, it again did not end up being applicable to my study. However, a similar article by Nicholle Lamerichs, who has written several articles on cosplay, looks at gender in a way that did end up informing my work. Her article “Stranger than Fiction: Fan Identity in Cosplay” gives a broad overview of many different aspects of the culture she has gathered from her own experience. She applies Judith Butler’s principles, as described in Gender Trouble, to cosplay. Unlike Leng’s article, The connection isn’t limited to gender, however, but is applied to the performance of cosplay as a whole. Lamerichs compares cosplay to Butler’s exploration of drag. She uses cosplay as a way of arguing against Butler’s contention that “drag has its own melancholia,” which suggests that drag is inherently subject to the same gender discourse as every other way of performing gender, which leads to it possibly being seen as a “parody of femininity.” Lamerichs argues that cosplay, particularly crossplay, doesn’t have the same problem that Butler attributes to drag because of the wide range of motivations crossplayers have. Leng writes that crossplay can be an “occasional practice,” a “parody,” or done simply for the “challenge of behaving like a member of a different gender.” This source–more than any other–emphasizes the enormous variety of reasons people cosplay. Unlike Butler, Lamerichs focuses on the agency of the performer, which is what I set out to do with my project in order to examine what exactly individual people get out of the experience of cosplay.
Moving away from gender studies, the research I found that was most relevant to my project overall was ethnographic. In particular, one article stood out as a great model for the work I wanted to accomplish. In 2015, three researchers in Hong Kong conducted study similar to the one I designed for Fargo. Their research, which they dubbed “quasi-ethnographic,” a term I stole to use as the title of my own paper, used interviews with individual cosplayers to create some general demographics as well as describe several aspects of how they cosplay (323). The study focused mainly on the performative aspects of cosplay, with the authors writing “Cosplay enthusiasts pay enormous attention to both verbal and nonverbal expression, and meticulous focus on the costume, image, and persona of their chosen character,” including “possessions, gait, posture, expression, and argot” (325). These qualities all carry over heavily into cosplay in the United States. Even outside of contests or an intentional floor-walk, some participants maintained characteristics of their character, even as I interviewed them personally. The article goes on to list several reasons for cosplaying that they gathered through their Hong Kong interviews. They settle somewhat on the concept that cosplay is a form of wish fulfillment, writing “it is obvious that many cosplayers role-play their beloved characters to fulfill the role/dream that is missing in real life” (334). While I agree that this is a major aspect of cosplay, my research in Fargo by comparison shows cosplay has much less individualistic nature. While people enjoy the spotlight of wearing a costume, the social aspect–whether they be among friends, family, or strangers–appears to largely outweigh the personal wish fulfillment suggested by this study. Furthermore, this study never addresses the individual characters the participants cosplay as, treating cosplay as a more unified activity. I included participants using a more broad definition of cosplay, including costuming for charity. In fact, one participant stated that he does not enjoy the convention atmosphere and only participates in cosplay for charity.
After establishing a good foundation of scholarly literature, I wanted to include my own inspiration for cosplay in my research. Since I am a part of the community, conducting some autoethnography felt relevant. So, I went to the source that introduced me to cosplay, Adam Savage. Savage, a well-known cosplayer who worked in special effects for films before gaining renown for his series Mythbusters, gave a talk at the 2016 TED conference titled “My Love Letter to Cosplay.” Savage begins his talk by broadly addressing the social importance of clothing across human culture. He then describes early childhood experiences that drew him to costuming. He details creating a space helmet and ship from an ice cream tub and refrigerator box, a cardboard suit of armor, and how these creative projects were important to him as an only child with few friends. He goes on to talk about a revelation he had cosplaying for the first time at Comic Con and the immense respect he has for cosplayers. “These aren’t just people who find a costume and put it on… they’re super clever and genius, they let their freak flag fly and it’s beautiful.” While Savage does not approach the topic from a scholarly perspective, his inside view of the community and ability as a presenter and educator make his insightful look at the community provided me a model for my own approach.
Unlike the majority of previous research, my research considered the cosplayer’s choice of character to be a primary motivator and used the wide variety of source material to ascertain differences between groups of cosplayers. For example, at Valleycon, there are several fansuites set up around the pool area, each with an individual theme based around a particular intellectual property or genre. For instance, one room was dedicated to Mad-Max style post-apocalyptic raider-style costumes. Cosplayers, myself included, met there to discuss features of their similar costumes, including construction methods, inspirations, and to discuss the source material. A TV in the corner was playing Mad Max: Fury Road on a loop all night. While all cosplayers ostensibly participated in the same hobby, paying attention to the eclectic variation between costumes is an especially important element to examine in a small community such as Fargo, where there simply aren’t enough members of a particular cosplay genre to dedicate an entire convention to each. With the exception of Anime Fargo, local conventions have cosplayers from genres such as Superhero movies/comics, videogames, sci-fi, horror, anime, and other miscellaneous sources. One of my interviewees was even dressed in a costume modelled after the lead singer of the band My Chemical Romance to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their 2006 album Welcome to the Black Parade.
My primary method of gathering information for this study was through interviews at events in which I was participating. I conducted interviews at three locations: Valleycon, a local Fargo sci-fi convention, a Star Wars groups charity event at Sanford Hospital in Bismarck, and at the farm of a Dalek replica builder near Valley City. In these interviews, I talked with cosplayers about their costumes and their history with cosplay. I tried to do my interviews in a conversational style, but I admit I had zero interview experience before starting this research, so I was lucky if I managed to at least remember my the questions I planned, which were:
1. What brought you to the convention today?
2. What made you choose this character?
3. Do you cosplay any other characters?
4. Describe what techniques you used to make this costume
5. What drew you to cosplay originally?
In my interviews among 24 participants, eight were dressed as characters from superhero movies/comics, two were wearing original steampunk-style outfits, one was wearing historical dress, four were dressed as characters from videogames, three Power Rangers, Three Star Wars characters, and one member of a rock band. Of the participants, 11 were women while 13 were men. Their ages differed broadly, with the youngest being an infant brought to the convention in costume by her parents who regularly attend conventions with their children.
Name Genre Reason for Attending Choice of character Techniques Entering contest?
Captain America (WWII) Superhero Family Fan of character, doesn’t involve Spandex. Homemade No
Harley Quinn (Suicide Squad) Superhero Family “Got the Crazy Eyes for Harley Quinn” Fan of Suicide Squad version. Homemade No
Spiderman Superhero Friends Feels connection to character; likes making a scene Bought Yes
Deadpool Superhero Friends Likes humor aspect of character. Homemade Yes
Harley Quinn (Doctor Version) Superhero Opportunity to “dress up.” Likes to perform as character Homemade Yes
Hisoka Morow Anime Fan of character, Similar body type Homemade No
Slytherin Student Fantasy Inspired by family Homemade No
Tusken Raider (Star Wars) Star Wars Family Favorite Character from Star Wars Homemade Yes
Nightwing (Batman) Superhero Looked cool, expected it to be an easy build, fan of character Homemade Yes
Steampunk 1 Other Renaissance Fair Fan of Genre Bought No
Steampunk 2 Other Renaissance Fair Fan of Genre Bought No
Yellow Ranger Superhero Family N/A Bought No
Pink Ranger Superhero Family,
Renaissance Fair Nostalgia for character from Childhood, group costume with family Bought No
Mega Zord Superhero Family Group costume with family Bought No
Hoplite Historical Enjoys seeing people’s reactions Homemade Yes
Iron Fist Superhero Friends Fan of Kung Fu Homemade
King Dedede Videogame Community: “Figured I’d fit in pretty good.” Fan of Nintendo, Favorite character,
Kid friendly Homemade Yes
I consolidated the results of my Valleycon interviews into a table. Each column represents the answer to each of my main interview questions. The rows indicate an individual character. Note that I am counting members of group cosplays as individual participants. Not all of my participants are included in the table. Since my interviews were conversational and I am not experienced at conducting them, many times I was not able to ask and get a response to every question I had planned to.
The answer to “What brought you to the convention today” had the most distinct result. Six people cited family and three cited friends. One cited the community in general, saying she “figured [she] would fit in pretty good.” This is 8 participants out of 14 who responded to the question. While this accounts for just under two-thirds, it was the only consistent response. The other responses were more vague and varied, ranging from the desire to “dress up” and “see people’s reactions,” which I had expected to be the most common result, to simply being attracted to conventions because they enjoyed Renaissance fairs, a related activity.
My results in response to the question “Who are you cosplaying as today” indicated a strong bias towards superheroes at Valleycon, but other genres are represented as well. 10 out of my 17 participants included in the table were dressed as characters from superhero fiction. While there is overlap between different media, two were distinctly from movies, 4 were from TV series, and 4 were combinations or non-specific versions of the character. When I asked why each participant chose their costume, the first answer was always that they simply “liked” them. I had to interrogate them a bit to get at motivations for their choice. I was expecting people to respond saying that they identified with the character or felt drawn to them for some personal reason, but this turned out to rarely be the case. Only two participants, Spiderman and Deadpool, gave responses that matched with that expectation. They both said that they liked to “cause a scene” and enjoyed creating humor, doing skits, etc. dressed as the characters. They both said they connected with the characters for that reason.
I had expected family and friends to be a part of the motivations to get involved with cosplay initially, but did not expect it to come up so often when I asked about choice of character. Three of the participants cited family as the reason for picking their costumes, and one had no choice because she was an infant. The power ranger family connected with each other on the TV show because the parents had shared nostalgia for it from growing up watching it. Out of the 17 participants, 11 of the costumes were homemade, and the rest bought. 7 of 16 said they were attending the costume contest.
The results from my Sanford Hospital visit also consistently cited community as a reason for cosplay. One important difference however was that it wasn’t the cosplay community that was the most important but rather helping the larger community through charity. My participants at the hospital both said that making children happy through cosplay was what they got out of it.
Throughout my Valleycon interviews, a common thread I found was family and friends getting people into cosplay. In fact, I conducted one interview with somebody who was cosplaying alone, and I think that’s because I caught him off guard coming out of the contest. I interviewed a husband and wife, a brother and sister, and a mother who brought her daughter along in a costume they made together, and a father and his children. That father, who was dressed as a Tusken raider from Star Wars, said that his kids got him into cosplay because they wanted to dress up and he decided to join them. Both he and his children participated in Valleycon’s costume contests. Two of the cosplayers had help from their families making their costumes, with one girl having made hers together with her mother and grandmother. I did another interview with a brother and sister dressed as WWII era Captain America and Harley Quinn. The brother said he came to the convention because he “was coming up here to visit family anyway and she asked me to go to the con with her, so I figured I’d spend some time with family.” The sister responded “I like dressing up, so I made him come along.” Another participants said she chose her costume, a Hogwarts student, because of her family, saying “My family has always been really big on Harry Potter so dressing up was just kind of… I have to.”
One family I interviewed were all dressed as characters from Power Rangers. The mother was the pink ranger, the dad was MegaZord, and their daughter was the Yellow Ranger. The mother said that cosplay is “ kinda something I drug him [MegaZord] into once we got married. I’ve been doing renaissance fairs for the longest time so once we got married I kinda drug him into doing cosplay,” to which the father replied ““Yes, against my will. There’s no way I want to be here.” The family cosplays together multiple times a year, saying “we just got back from… Metacon in Minneapolis. He was Rick from Rick and Morty and… Cory (the Daughter) and I did The Little Mermaid together and I was also Harley Quinn at that one.”
Another theme I found was that some cosplayers thought of Fargo conventions as more casual or friendly than conventions in larger cities. When asked to compare Valleycon to larger conventions, one participant responded that Fargo conventions were unique because “I know most of the people around here, it’s more fun because it’s just like ‘oh hey I know you!’ The fargo cons are more like a home con. Familiar settings, everything’s just comfortable here.” The family dressed as Power Rangers also said “We do a couple cons a year. Valleycon is local for us so it’s kinda fun for us to get out here and do smaller costumes,” further emphasizing the community atmosphere of cosplay in Fargo.
Community is even more important in cosplay done for charity. On November 5th, 2016, I participated in a Star Wars event at the Sanford Clinic in Bismarck ND and recorded two interviews with some of the cosplayers there. Dave Mathisen, who joined the 501st in 2010, said he joined because “It looked so awesome and I read about charity work they do, visiting kids, raising money for charities and I thought that would be great to be a part of.” Dave does about 5 Star Wars cosplay events a year dressed as a Stormtrooper, specifically the A New Hope Stunt version. When asked why he cosplays Star Wars specifically, he responded “my dad went to all the movie opening nights when he was younger, so I kinda grew up with it.” I asked him why he keeps coming back to these events; he said “When a kid sees you in costume, you’re not a guy in costume to them. You are the character on the screen. And their face lights up; it makes their day, and they’re incredibly happy so the more I can spread that, the better.” At the event, I also interviewed a husband and wife who cosplay together for charity. One thing that stood out to me from this interview is that the husband says he doesn’t like conventions and only cosplays for charities, or for birthday parties, movie releases ,etc. I believe this is one of the most important take-aways I have had from my research with regards to the scholarly discussion around cosplay as a whole, and it’s one thing I set out to find originally. Previous work on cosplay focuses heavily on conventions, but my research shows that the culture extends beyond conventions and encompasses
My third interview–and the source of my video accompaniment–was with Lenny Grindler at a farm north of Valley City, North Dakota. Lenny builds actual size replicas of Daleks from the television series Dr. Who. They are built around electric wheelchairs. He takes them to several conventions throughout the year. This interview provided me with more evidence about the importance of community in Fargo cosplay. He told me that the Baymont Inn in Fargo, where several Fargo conventions including Valleycon are held seems like “a second home” to him at this point. Lenny likens cosplay to playing Santa Claus, something he’s also done, and enjoys the reactions people–particularly kids–have to his creations.
My interviews showed me that the main driving force behind cosplay in Fargo is social. For most of the cosplayers at Valleycon, displaying their art consistently proved to be a secondary goal to spending time with family and friends. The performative aspect was still present, including one participant who said I’ll wear [costumes] out and about, just see what kind of reaction i get. Or just walk into a grocery store wearing a gorilla outfit… just get the reaction out of people,” but it was far outweighed by the social aspect. That same cosplayer also helped a friend build his first ever cosplay and brought him to Valleycon. Interviewees frequently mentioned how the Fargo conventions seemed familiar, or like “home.” When I Followed up with my participants, I also found that many of them were in the same social networks on Facebook and kept in touch an and out of conventions. While the community aspect of cosplay has been discussed before, none of the scholarly research I have done centered on smaller conventions such as those in Fargo and I think my field research shows that it has distinct differences from the culture of cosplay at large conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con, and is an area of inquiry that deserves more study.
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