It’s probable that most people, seeing me, would consider me to be fairly traditionally femme. Take a glance at my author icon: it’s all lipstick and lashes and one of the few times I got my hair to look like I wanted it to. I would estimate that in my adult life, I tend to get more attention than usual when I’m dolled up like this, and I’m willing to bet many of you know exactly what I’m talking about when I call it “dressing up.” To me, there’s a costuming element to wearing make-up and heels. Bringing out my inner bombshell is no less of a mask than shading my face and jawline, thickening my eyebrows, binding my chest, and walking around, passing as a guy.
I didn’t know what cosplay was, no less crossplay, when I was in college. All I knew was that, at a women’s college like my alma mater, there were openings in the theatre productions I’d previously only dreamed of: every male character, in every show produced, was up for grabs. In four years, I never once played a female character on stage.
I learned to disguise my voice, my physicality, and body to appear masculine onstage. I spent four years playing the male romantic leads and the cads, seducing women and pining for them. And when I left, it was with a sense of satisfaction and a newly known fact about myself: that it was kind of fun to look like a guy. I looked to the female stars of Takarazuka and tried to emulate Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria—I was a convincing guy, and, let me tell you, on an all women’s campus? That was a hit.
It was several years after college that I first stumbled upon the convention scene, and a few years after that before I started expressing my too-long-repressed theatricality in cosplay. But though I’d picked simple, lesser-known characters, I’d had a good response. It turns out that it doesn’t really matter who you’re cosplaying: people will want pictures, if you’re in a catsuit.
So imagine my surprise when I crossplayed Detective Danny “Danno” Williams of Hawaii Five-0 at DragonCon and never got so much as a second glance.
Of course, crossplay (though there are other terms for the same idea) is a simple notion: rather than creating a Rule 63 character (for every fictional character, there exists an opposite-gender counterpart), a cosplayer portrays a character of the opposite gender to their own. It was a familiar enough concept to me, though on a convention floor rather than a stage, and goodness knows there are some skilled crossplayers out there. Anime seems to be a particularly huge resource for it, since so many characters are fairly androgynous-looking, but I’ve also seen excellent Bilbos and Thorins, Sherlocks, and Dean and Sam Winchesters. (Interestingly, most of the crossplayers I’ve seen have been female cosplayers dressed as male characters. Coincidence?) Cosplay is a little like the Field of Dreams: if you create it, they’ll build it. And wear it around the Marriott.
One Saturday at DragonCon two years ago, I spent the day as Sharon Carter (a.k.a. Agent 13), in my white catsuit with the thigh holster and long blonde hair. People stopped me for pictures. They asked who I was. Sharon didn’t get a lot of attention—almost no one knew who I was—but it was my first real experience with the kind of flattering attention cosplay can receive. Wearing a costume turned the con into a whole new experience.
The next day, I slicked my hair back, shaded my jaw, bound up my chest, and slipped into Danny’s sensible slacks and button-down. Right away, I could feel myself occupying that “male” space I’d trained myself into for so many characters and shows: my shoulders were a little straighter, my hips more relaxed, my feet planted wider. The (fake) gun on my hip lent a little extra swagger to my walk. All in all, I was a pretty good Danny Williams. (Also, his shoes were so comfortable.)
And not a damn person noticed. I don’t mean to say that women will only get their cosplays noticed if they dress up as feminine as possible: it’s demonstrably not true. At that very same con, while I was walking around as Danny, I saw breathtaking cosplays and crossplays that stopped con traffic multiple times. Still, I couldn’t shake the strangeness of the experience: by all outward signs, my friend (dressed as Steve McGarrett) and I had put together a great cosplay, but I can’t recall even one person asking who were were or what canon we were from.
Fast-forward to the next year. Continuing my trend of only cosplaying characters I truly love (or deeply want to be—or, in this case, get a drink with), I spent a day at DragonCon as Zinda Blake, better known as Lady Blackhawk and, without wanting to sound conceited, I really couldn’t move for people wanting her picture.
So what does this all come down to? Were my femme cosplays better than Danny? I had as much fun in all of them: being the badass super-spy, the grumpy detective, and the peppy and foul-mouthed pilot all had their charms. In each case, I really felt I’d paid tribute to a character I loved.
It won’t surprise any of you that a lot of the attention I got as Sharon and Zinda wasn’t particularly nice. Somewhere out there floats a plethora of pictures for which I did not give permission. There was something fairly relaxing about walking around the con, totally unmolested, as Danny. But I wanted people to love him, too. Of course I did. If I didn’t love the character, I wouldn’t be dressing as him, would I?
This year, I’m bringing both Zinda and Danny back to con. (Sharon needs an upgrade.) And I’m bringing a couple more too, including one character who personifies the best of both those masculine and feminine worlds for me, one I strongly identified with through my days as the Hot Guy on Campus: Tenjou Utena in her boy’s uniform. The girl who wants to be a prince was a no-brainer for me.
I won’t say my experience here was the norm: crossplaying very obviously does not immediately equal becoming, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Personally, I think it has a lot more to do with how recognizable a character is and how popular, as well as the quality of the cosplay. Maybe this year, I should try gluing some five o’clock shadow on my face and have my phone continually play the Hawaii Five-0 theme song? (Until I get chased out of con for giving everyone an unkillable earworm, anyway.)
Still, I haven’t come to any solid conclusions about my experiences with cosplay and crossplay, aside from a somewhat petulant desire to do more of the latter, but you can bet it’s something that will color my con experiences for years to come. Whether that’s a good thing or bad remains to be seen: as it is, I’ll keep dressing as whoever I damn well feel like, because in the end, cosplay is for me and no one else.