Subverting Gender Norms through Cosplay at Santa Rosa's Toy Con

By Rachel Dovey

spider man“I’m Spider-Man, not Spider-Girl,” my daughter says, fists on her hips in A-plus superhero form.

She’s three, dressed in a full-body Spider-Man suit with padded biceps and pecs. A pull-over mask presses her blonde hair to her neck. And the way she says it — “Spider-MAN” — she sounds like she’s arrived. She’s platinum level. She’s VIP.

“OK,” I reply, turning away so she won’t see that I’m upset.

Normally, I would encourage her gender play. Whomever she wants to embody — from Spider-Man to Queen Elsa, minion to mermaid — works for me. But she loves Spider-Girl. She tells me to call her Spider-Girl. Some days, she spends hours winding our living room with yarn to make a “Spider-Girl web.” So I’m worried her announcement has more to do with limitation than desire. I’m worried she’s Spider-Man because she doesn’t have a choice.

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It’s a Saturday in September and we’re preparing for the Santa Rosa Toy Con, a local Comic-Con-like event with an emphasis on cosplay. I’d spent all of the previous day trying to find a Spider-Girl costume. Because she’s a minor Marvel Comics 2 character — Peter Parker’s daughter from an alternate future — I hadn’t expected to pull a children's size 3 off the front rack of our closest Spirit Halloween store, but I’d hoped to find something, even a female take on the iconic red-and-blue. Aside from Wonder Woman, though, princesses and their tulle-puff ilk ruled the girls’ section of every store. Spider-Man the Body Building Toddler was as close as I could get.

I know. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Spider-Man and Spider-Girl are part of a world written (and, increasingly, directed and produced) by and for men in ratios that make Silicon Valley look good. Of course he is going to inspire a bitchin’ costume and she isn’t. Of course my daughter is going to see that costume, gasp and drop a whole sentence composed of one repeated word: “Awesome.” And of course she’s going to put it on and tell me, ever-so-proudly, that she isn’t Spider-Girl.

~~~

Santa Rosa Toy Con takes place at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, the entrance guarded by a three-story inflatable Hulk. Holding my miniature Spider-Man’s hand, I scan the hanger-sized Grace Pavilion, where most of the vendors have set up shop. Batman poses near the Hulk’s feet. Replicas of Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1, the Jurassic Park Jeep and Dr. Who’s TARDIS sit on the showroom floor. R2-D2 navigates the crowd, blinking and whistling, and Darth Vader follows, cape billowing ominously behind.

Edith Dovey as Spider-Man and Legacy Batman
Edith Dovey as Spider-Man and Legacy Batman

I’m not in costume. I’m here for my daughter, a fangirl by way of her dad. He’s the one who showed her pictures of May Parker scaling buildings and got her hooked. He would be comfortable here. The Fantastic Four action figures, Lone Ranger collectables and plastic sniper rifles with working telescopic sight would be nostalgic symbols of adolescence to him. To me, they signify boredom and exclusion. They remind me of the way I feigned interest in Lord of the Rings and, yes, Spider-Man as a teenager to look J-Law Cool Girl hot, even though the shortage of complex female characters had me quitting part way through Fellowship and falling asleep in the theater during Tobey Maguire's debut.

“Look at all this man stuff,” I hear a passing woman say, and I couldn’t agree more. I hurry to the one vendor I see selling romance novels and buy six.

But as more cosplayers fill the room, I notice the crowd becoming less male — and less white — even though many of the characters depicted were originally drawn and cast as Caucasian men. I see Peter Parkers and Peter Venkmans with darker skin than Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield or Bill Murray. I see a female Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones. I see a female Rufio from Hook. I see a male Princess Auriana from the French cartoon Lolirock. 

Bonnirose Hunt as Daenerys and Julie Hartley as Khal Drogo
Bonnirose Hunt as Daenerys and Julie Hartley as Khal Drogo

I approach Khal Drogo (a.k.a. Julie Hartley), who’s standing still as a woman depicting Daenerys paints blue stripes on her back. I ask about her gender-bending costume.

“I read the books and watch the show and I just thought: I have to look like that,” she says.

Turns out, her sentiment isn’t uncommon. Cosplay, writes Sam Maggs for The Mary Sue, “opens up the world of comics — a world which has overwhelmingly felt exclusionary to girls and women — in a whole new way.”

That’s partially because it’s the ultimate pop art, writes Noah Berlatsky for The Atlantic. It’s a kind of fan-fiction, a way to subvert and remake the DC/Marvel-verse (in which, if you're a woman or person of color, you're wildly under-represented) with your own costumed, made-up body.

Alex Hood as Auriana of Lolirock.
Alex Hood as Auriana of Lolirock.

The same goes for the LGBT community, says Alex Hood, dressed as Princess Auriana. Due to the prevalence and relative acceptance of “cross play,” he adds, cosplay "can be about making an environment for self identification."

It’s a definite contrast — the mostly white hetero cisgender maleness of the posters, bobbleheads and comic book displays next to the cosplayers. And judging by recent backlash from venerable old (mostly white hetero cisgender male) gatekeeping types, it’s a contrast not everyone likes.

“There’s often a cultural perception that you should dress your size and race,” says Hartley, who’s also a professional costume designer.

I ask her what it’s like, psychologically, to step outside those boundaries.

“It can be scary,” she replies. “People say terrible things on the Internet.”

“But,” she adds, “haters gonna hate.”

~~~

Two hours after arriving, my daughter has a sagging bag full of trains, Legos and comic books (Spider-Woman this time). She’s met Batman and R2-D2 and pretended to drive the Jurassic Park jeep.

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As we leave the pavilion, I no longer feel anxious about her costume. She’s been working it. I’ve taken photos of her flexing and growling like the Hulk, striking a runway-esque hip bump and extending her left hand in a perfect imitation of Spider-Man’s upside down “rock on.” Yes, her choices may have been limited, but she’s practicing the art of cosplay. She’s filling out that ridiculous muscle suit (and everything it represents) with her own lively 3-year-old form. Spider-Man or Spider-Girl, she's making something new.

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