Happy Summer Tank: the politics of gender, race and memory in cosplay
CCC Journal #4, London, 2015

Introduction

Cosplay, short for costume play, is a role-playing activity that involves performing characters from media franchises including anime, videogames and manga. It is a phenomenon that developed in Japan and America in the context of the “con” or convention, a yearly event that gathers fans and cultural producers from around the world.[1]Numerous academics link cosplay to drag, a correlation that echoes with most resonance in crossplay, a strand of cosplay that entails playing a character from the opposite gender.[2] Indeed, it could be argued that crossplayers warp the laws of gender by adopting the behaviors and norms of the opposite sex, causing paradigms to shift in the devotion of their mimicry.

In 2014 I developed an art installation under the name of Happy Summer Tank during a residency program at BLINDISDE ARI in Melbourne, Australia. The work focuses on the politics of gender and ethnicity operating in the practices of two duos of “crossplayers”. The installation spans HD videos, and a series of objects taking the form of pop cultural paraphernalia. My methodology involved extending an invitation via Facebook to two teams or duos of cosplayers to participate in an interview conducted in the gallery space during the months of December 2013 and early January 2014. I also asked them to provide me with a video diary discussing their activities, both couples agreed but only one handed in the video at the end. In this text, I take the interviews conducted in the gallery space with Couple 1 as a departure point to discuss the politics of difference, memory and forgetting operating in their period fiction play.

The first duo, referred to as Couple 1, comprises a male and a female cosplaying characters from Assasin’s Creed III, a popular videogame based on the events of the American Civil War. The male is performing as the protagonist ‘Connor Kenway’, a part English/part Mohawk dissident, while the female is crossplaying ‘Caleb Garett’, a male sharpshooter.

The second duo, Couple 2, consists of two females cosplaying characters from La Rose De Versailles, a preeminent Japanese manga set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. One of them cosplays as the protagonist ‘Oscar François’, a female passing as a man in the manga, and the other plays her male lover ‘André Grandier’. In the interviews both pairs of cosplayers speak about issues surrounding the mimicry of characters from different genders and ethnic backgrounds, indeed, in the anglo-sphere cross-ethnicking is an act charged with racialized politics and often marked by the morbid remembrances of ‘blackfacing’.

What follows addresses the racial and gendered ramifications as well as memory politics of Couple 1’s play while no further mention is made of Couple 2. The reason being, primarily, that Couple 2 is cosplaying a ‘Shojo manga’, a genre catered to a female audience and typically featuring complex modes of gender representation and identification. More specifically, it is known to summon non-heterosexual characters (particularly ‘pretty’ boys) in the service of providing a vehicle for its female readers to explore romantic heterosexual impulses. Shojo manga exists in response to a specific set of Japenese sensibilities and socio-cultural traditions that require an in depth examination (beyond the scope of this text) in order to transcend a Western lens – through which the gender politics of Shojo manga are inevitably distorted.

Couple 1: Boy

Performing foreign characters implicates an act of cross-ethnicking, a practice often exacerbated by racial politics in the heated context of Australia. Memories of a colonial settlement resurface with Couple 1’s cosplay to summon a period of imperial expansion curiously preceded by the events of the American Civil War. In fact, according to historian Philip G. Hoffman it was only after losing their American colonies that the British Empire turned their domineering gaze to the far land of Terra Australis. The necessity for a penal colony and a refuge for the loyalists who were being persecuted in America catalyzed the settlement of New South Wales.[3] Calling upon their notorious diplomatic proceedings, the British declared the land Terra nullius and property of the British Empire, ignoring the presence of its original inhabitants.

The costuming practices of Couple 1 inhabit this genealogy by virtue of the players Australian citizenship, the context in which they operate (Australia) and the setting (American Civil War) of Assasin’s Creed III – the videogame they portray. During the interview the couple put forward that their Anglo-Saxon identity often complicates their play, primarily because cosplaying ‘Connor Kenway’ – part English/part Mohawk – necessitates wearing a darker shade of skin, suggesting ‘blackface’ or ‘redface’[4]. During the interview they stated that ‘America has its own particular story, like, they, and I totally understand where they are coming from but they also have to understand that that’s not our history’, explaining that ‘blackfacing wasn’t really a thing that we did here as a discriminatory thing like it was in America so if we are doing it here, we are not doing it as a form of ridicule, we are doing it as a form of appreciation for a character’.[5] Although Couple 1 defend themselves by arguing that ‘blackfacing’ is removed from their heritage, one finds that Australia does in fact have a history of ‘blackface’.

Indeed, Australia’s colonial legacy marks the performance of race and ethnicity with the morbid remembrances of ‘blackfacing’, a practice strongly associated with America but also exercised in Australian theatre and film since the debut of Bushrangers by Henry Melville in 1834 (a play featuring an aboriginal man named ‘Native’ portrayed by a white man in blackface).[6] Thus, even though ‘blackfacing’ is commonly thought of in Australia as a discriminatory practice confined to American racism, the fact is that it can also be found in Australian history – subjugating Australian practices of costuming (including cosplay) to a wider set of racial politics.

To best evaluate the instances in which cosplay becomes discriminatory it is necessary to establish the ethnic specificities of the source material (character), transmitter (cosplayer) and receiver (audience) as well as the relational dynamics that inform their socio-political continuum (e.g., if a significant phobic sentiment exists between the participant’s cultures or an asymmetry of power is present). Players, or their audience, seeking to evaluate the racial or gendered ramifications of cosplay could ask themselves, who is cosplaying and who is the audience? Or what character is being represented, how, and with what effects?. [7]

For example, Couple 1 put forward during the interview that they received a number of negative comments in response to their ‘Connor Kenway’ cosplay, the criticism (which they implied came from an American audience) seems to suggest that their performance constitutes a form of ‘red facing’. They argue their play is being dislocated and signified via a set of foreign codes, as they are Australians and their history is not immediately intertwined with the colonialism of America.

Yet, the fact remains that they are white Australians performing a Mohawk character and as outsiders to the community ‘Connor Kenway’ represents, they risk perpetuating caricaturized ethnic markers (e.g., ‘blackface’). One could argue that the Australian heritage of Couple 1 disconnects them from American history and its discriminatory practices, but this very distance is problematic in itself, as the players are lacking direct contact with the community their character signifies – potentially leading to graver forms of misrepresentation.

Another way in which cosplay risks turning into a discriminatory practice is through the co-option of personality types and stereotypes, a vocabulary borrowed from cartoons and animated media – forms of communication that rely on flatness and caricaturization to convey rapid signification. Cartoon characters often capture negative racial views and oppressive practices; for example, the earliest iterations of Mickey Mouse hold a strong resemblance to minstrelsy (white gloves, comic body language and well, ‘blackface’). Although the character of ‘Connor Kenway’ arguably distances itself from ‘Native American’ clichés, other characters in mainstream media such as the protagonist of The Lone Ranger (2013)[8] exhibit blatant stereotypical perceptions of Indigeneity (nakedness, feathers and mysticism). Furthermore, simplistic or negative perceptions on the ‘other’ may incidentally arise during the intermediation of cross-ethnic cosplay, as the cosplayer may reveal misguided or unflattering views on different peoples via mimicry, subsequently turning their play into parody.

Couple 1: Girl

On the topic of difference, an interesting correlation between gender and ethnicity also arose during the interview, more specifically regarding the participation of women during the American Civil War and the role of ‘passing’. Indeed, the character of ‘Caleb Garett’ (the sharpshooter crossplayed by Couple 1) is set against the background of the American Civil War, activating an interesting correlation between the crossplay and the character’s historical backdrop, as this was a period in which a significant number of women passing as men enlisted in the army to engage in battle.

Looking into the participation of women in the American Civil War, DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook account in their book They Fought Like Demons that over 250 women were enlisted in the army during the Revolution.[9]According to the authors, many were only discovered to be women after their corpses were removed from the battleground, much to the shock of their fellow soldiers who found some of them were even pregnant.[10] The involvement of women during the Revolution, however, is largely forgotten in the popular imagination, as evidenced by the narrative and character development of Assassin’s Creed III, in which no mention seems to be given to this fact. During the interview, Couple 1 noted the absence of empowering female characters in Assassin’s Creed III, stating that:

It’s hard because you know, you sort of want that equal spectrum of cool male characters, cool female characters, and everyone else, but you can’t just sort of start rewriting history and go, oh you know, there wasn’t many females around in high positions of power but let’s just chuck them in there anyway.[11]

However, Blanton’s book lists many women cross dressing as men in authoritative military ranks such as Frances Day, alias Sergeant Frank Mayne [12] and Loreta Janeta Velazquez, alias Lieutenant Harry T. Buford.[13] Their account problematizes the dominant narrative of the American Civil War as a masculine enterprise. Indeed, remembering that women were at the forefront of the Civil War sheds a different light on the development of an emancipatory state in the USA, rendering it as a poly-gendered enterprise. Favoring a stronger conception of female agency that runs in countercurrent to its general incarnation in the mainstream videogame imaginarium, as epitomized by Assasin’s Creed III – in which women do not hold positions of power.

The female crossplayer in Couple 1 is passing as a man, engaging in an act of mimicry that when taken to a high level of determination and execution simultaneously disturbs and provides access to certain roles and privileges reserved to men in patriarchal structures. Patriarchy (male dominance in the socio-political and cultural spheres, etc.) perpetuates itself and finds validation in symbolic forms (such as the construction of historical accounts in communication, e.g., videogames). Thus, to deterritorialize the codes that constitute its presence (in this case, cross dressing as a sharpshooter, a symbol of masculinity – as drawn by its phallic instruments, strength and outlaw-ness) is to, at least symbolically, disturb the borders that delineate gender binaries and subsequently, gendered roles. Even though in the particular case of Couple 1 she gains access only to representation, passing is a strategy that was called upon by women during the War to reach positions of authority (e.g., as Loreta Janeta Velazquez, alias Lieutenant Harry T. Buford).

An oppositional claim could be stated, arguing that crossplay and passing perpetuates masculinity as an ideal by conforming to its behaviors and expressions, not unlike drag. Indeed, a number of academic voices have drawn upon the notion of Judith Butler’s performativity to elaborate on the various ways in which crossplay operates on gender with an ambivalence reminiscent of ‘drag’ – simultaneously perpetuating and disturbing gender norms. Although unpacking performativity and bringing closure to the ambiguity of crossplay is beyond the scope of this text, this topic is dealt with extensively in the writings of Craig Norris, Rachel Leng and Frenchy Lumming. I would only say for now that the extent to which Couple 1 reinscribes gender is ultimately limited, as their practices focus on mimicry (achieving a closeness to the original character) rather than subversion (altering the character).

Conclusion 

Unusual acts such as period costume play have the potential to activate productive tangents that can in turn lead to unexpected shifts of perspective. Such is the case of Couple 1’s cosplay and crossplay, whose play triggers a wider resonance with hidden, forgotten or at least overlooked memories of Australian blackfacing and the American Civil War.

This act of remembrance may appear extra-textual (taking place outside of the performance) but the cosplayers themselves engage with historical memory via the process of making. In effect, Couple 1 mentioned during the interview that their creative process includes the historical research of props and attire as well as the ways in which they were originally carried or worn. Thus, one may deduce that a level of rigor has organically emerged in their cosplay, particularly via the process of making the costume and devising stage tableaus. In this way, the accumulation of their costumes, image objects and the ephemeral acts of play constitute the visible outcomes of their engagement with Assasins’ Creed III and its historical background, revealing the presence and absence of memory.

The nexus between Couple 1’s period cosplay and memory is evident as it constitutes a form of historical representation and therefore it is codified with cultural signification (women suitability to participate in warfare). Revealing collective attitudes towards self and other (‘blackfacing’ formulates and reinstates undermining visions of the other) as well as the interplay between dominant and peripheral accounts (the omission of women’s role during the Civil War in Assasins’ Creed III).

This text has explored the gendered and racial politics of Couple 1’s cosplay and the way in which these issues are intertwined with memory. By way of example, even though the cosplayers believed that ‘blackfacing’ is an American phenomenon, one finds that Australia does in fact have a history of ‘blackfacing’ that dates back to 1834. The memory of this oppressive practice and its wider context in an Australian colonial narrative turns cross-ethnic cosplay into an act evocative of racist articulations from the past. Indeed, the player risks turning markers of identity into parody, or occupying a space for play and visibility that could be occupied by an actual Mohawk, or perpetuating racial stereotypes embedded in the original character of ‘Connor Kenway’, etc.

Meanwhile, the female player appropriates the masculine expressions of ‘Caleb Garett’, relocating them into a female body and pointing to the participation of women during the American Civil War as well as querying its gender norms. Altering the familiar figure of the sharpshooter generates a tangential thought that reveals a poly-gender account of the Civil War, in which the act of passing enabled women to participate in warfare. A similar strategy allows the crossplayer symbolic access to representation by performing a role commonly reserved for men. Indeed, passing is a strategy that was called upon by women in the War to gain access to positions of power and command (e.g., as Loreta Janeta Velazquez, alias Lieutenant Harry T. Buford). Remembering the participation of women in the Civil War via crossplay gives place to a stronger conception of female agency that runs in countercurrent to its formulation in Assasins’ Creed III.

[1] Susan Napier, From Impressionism to anime: Japan as fantasy and fan cult in the mind of the West, 1st ed., (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) 151-155.

[2] Leng, Rachel, ‘Gender, Sexuality And Cosplay: A Case Study of Male-To-Female Crossplay’, The Phoenix Papers Volume 1 2013, pp.89.

[3] Hoffman, G. Philip, ‘Australia’s Debt to the American’, The Historian Volume 17, 1955, pp. 148.

[4] It is worth noting that for the recording of Happy Summer Tank, the male cosplayer chose to perform ‘Connor Kenway’ without any darkening his skin.

[5] Ramirez, Diego, Happy Summer Tank, 2014.

[6] Harvey, Jirra, A Minstrel Legacy: Typecast in Indigeneity, Melbourne: Centre For Contemporary Photography, 2008.

[7] This line of enquiry is a transfiguration of Elin Diamond’s posit on representation, ‘Who is speaking and who is listening? Whose body is in view and whose is not? What is being represented, how, and with what effects? Who or what is in control?’, featured on Diamond, Elin, Unmarking Mimesis: Essays on Feminism and Theatre, London: Routledge, 1997, pp.2.

[8] In this film, Johnny Depp performs a stereotypical ‘Native American’ character originally created in the mid-20thcentury.

[9] Blanton, DeAnne and Cook, Lauren, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, Baton Rouge: Louisana State University Press, 2002, pp. 7.

[10] Ibid. 14.

[11] Ramirez, Diego Happy Summer Tank, 2014.

[12] Blanton, DeAnne and Cook, Lauren, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, Baton Rouge: Louisana State University Press, 2002, pp. 72.

[13] Ibid. 2.