Attending large-scale fan conventions has never particularly appealed to me. Big crowds. Confined spaces. Long queues. Getting up at the crack of dawn to join said queues. Rampant commercial exploitation. The list is endless, and significantly compounded by the fact that I am not overly inclined towards collecting stuff. It was with a certain trepidation, then, that I put aside such reservations and attended the 2016 Star Wars Celebration in London last summer. The importance of large ‘real world’ gatherings for fan communities is long established. In their empirical study of the three-day Chicago Tardis convention in 2011, Paul Booth and Peter Kelly conclude that such events continue to play as vital a role for fan communities now as they did in the pre-Internet era. Rather than superseding traditional fan cultures, Booth and Kelly argue that online interactions via specialist forums and social media have had a “mainstreaming” effect, making fan cultures ‘more visible and thus more acceptable a cultural identity’ (2013: 69). Central to broader discussions around the sense of community and belonging that fan conventions facilitate is the emergence of cosplay as a cultural practice.
Drawing on Butler’s concept of performativity, Nicole Lamerichs argues that cosplay constitutes a ‘relation between the character and the player’ which makes explicit ‘the ambiguous relation between the fictional and actual’ (2011). In this respect, cosplay provides an important creative space in which to explore the boundaries between fictional and non-fictional worlds. On arrival at the Star Wars Celebration, one of the first sights that greeted me was that of a multitude of mini-Reys running riot around the ExCel Centre. As Jen Gunnells observes in her research conducted at the New York Comic Con between 2006 and 2009, Star Wars fandom is frequently characterised by an intergenerational form of cosplay, in which interaction between parents and children is paramount and has a bonding social and communal nature (Gunnells, 2009). This was clearly in evidence at Celebration 2016, where various Jedi costumed families and young Reys roamed happily around the exhibition halls.
Cultural commentary on The Force Awakens has been awash with claims and counter-claims about the importance of Rey as a role model for girls. For some, she is a ‘truly transformative character,’ and ‘a game-changer for little girls around the world’ (Karvelas et al, 2015). For others, such as Victoria Sadler, she elicits a well-considered request for us to ‘ease up on the strong woman/ feminist trope’ (2015). In fact, so much has already been written about the character of Rey, that the vision of multiple cosplay Reys at the Star Wars Celebration initially rekindled a long-held frustration, dating back over thirty-five years, that female characters should be under such intense scrutiny. That then, and even more so now, there should be so much endless discussion, analysis and dissection of female characters as role models, rather than as fictional characters in a fantasy universe. And so it is with acknowledged irony that I find myself discussing the cosplaying of Rey and other female characters in the SW universe.
Why does it matter to me? Because once upon a time, in a Welsh valley far, far away, I was a Star Wars fangirl. I didn’t think of myself as such, but I preferred to play with Star Wars figures than with dolls. I liked my Princess Leia figure, but I especially loved the Jawas, Greedo, Snaggletooth, Chewie, Yoda, Ugnaught, Nien Nunb and countless others: they were my childhood. What was wonderful about this childhood was that no one in my family, who were decidedly literary and uninterested in popular sci-fi, told me that Star Wars was ‘for boys’. No one said I couldn’t have a spaceship for Christmas. And when, aged eleven, I saw Princess Leia chained to the floor in a gold bikini, no one had to explain to me that this was a horribly degrading situation from which she needed to escape: it was obvious. Leia’s temporary confinement was, to my impressionable mind, a narrative predicament rather than something that (re)defined her assertive, unapologetic character. And while I never cosplayed Leia, many hours were happily whiled away enacting adapted stories from the SW universe using Star Wars figures.
Fast-forward over thirty years to the final morning of the Star Wars convention, just before Carrie Fisher’s Q & A session. The attendees who are cosplaying female characters are all invited onto the main stage. As they parade through the auditorium, it becomes apparent not just how intergenerational the cosplayers are, but also how varied and creative their costumes and characters are. Some are mother-and-daughter Reys and Leias, others are men crossplaying Leia. The atmosphere is celebratory, and there are far more female characters than I remember: Leia, Rey and Padmé Amidala as expected, but also Maz Kanata, Aunt Beru, Oola, Captain Phasma, Shaak Ti and many more from Rebels and other SW Universe spin-offs that I don’t even recognise. I am surprised and delighted by their diversity, and by the imaginative way fans have interpreted them. As Lamerichs observes,
most cosplayers do not wish to exactly duplicate the character they portray; rather, they want to bring something of their own, such as elements of their own appearance, into the cosplay. In that sense, they can also be compared to cover bands and other forms of impersonation in which performers enact their own versions of existing material (Lamerichs, 2011).
The creative costuming and imaginative re-working of these characters reminds me of my own childhood play, and the value derived from re-enacting fictional identities and scenarios. In this respect, the intergenerational dimension of Star Wars cosplay can be understood as parents and children bonding over creative role-play and the exploration of fantasy worlds. Rather than agonising over whether or not Rey is an appropriate role model for girls, the parent cosplayers, I cannot help but conclude, have got it right. They are sharing and encouraging creative play, and celebrating the increased diversity in the SW universe.
Bio: Emma Pett is Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of East Anglia, UK: E.Pett@uea.ac.uk
Booth, P. and P. Kelly (2013) ‘The Changing Faces of Doctor Who fandom: New fans, new technologies, old practices? Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, 10: 1, pp.56-72.
Gunnels, J. (2009) “A Jedi like my father before me”: Social identity and the New York Comic Con. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2009.0161.
Karvelas, P. et al (2015) ‘Star Wars is a game changer, awakening the feminist force in little girls everywhere,’ the Guardian, 30 December 2015.
Lamerichs, N. (2011) ‘Stranger than Fiction: Fan identity in Cosplay,’ Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 7. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.v7i0.246
Sadler, V. (2015) ‘The Force Awakens: Rey and the Thorny Issue of ‘The Female Protagonist,’’ The Huffington Post, 21 December 2015. Found at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/victoria-sadler/the-force-awakens-rey-_b_8848850.html