I had intended to write about something completely different this week, but sadly, I was informed that a cosplayer I knew of died by suicide last week. Upon hearing the news and seeing that some people were being mean about it, I reached out to the cosplayer’s significant other and said that if there was anything I could do by way of cosplay tribute, please let me know. This resulted in a social media dogpile.
People, even people who work in “geeky” fields, don’t seem to know what cosplay tributes are, why we do them, or what they’re supposed to do. If you google “cosplay tribute” you get photos of people dressing up as characters of celebrities that have passed away, so that may be part of the source of the confusion. The media got something involving geeky stuff wrong? I’m shocked!
Okay. Enough sarcasm.
Robin Williams ranks high in these so-called “cosplay tribute” articles. Of late, David Bowie and Alan Rickman are being focused on. But this confuses an important part of cosplay culture: cosplaying the Genie from Aladdin isn’t cosplaying Robin Williams. Cosplaying Severus Snape isn’t cosplaying Alan Rickman. It’s very rare that someone cosplays a real person, unless it’s someone with a huge persona, like, say, Donald Trump or Lady Gaga, but dressing up like Gaga isn’t dressing up like Stephani Germanotta, the real person who adopted that persona. Cosplayers distinctly know the difference because they understand what it’s like to put on a costume and adopt a persona.
So no, a cosplay tribute is not dressing up like a person who has died.
That being said, a cosplay tribute can mean dressing up as someone’s favorite character, especially for charity, but often that’s not the form it takes. Just as a musician pays tribute through music, or a sports community might pay tribute through a memorial tournament, cosplay pays tribute through activities the person enjoyed. Just because a cosplayer’s own body is part of our art does not mean we’re doing a tribute for selfish reasons.
For many people, cosplay represents moments of joy in a world of pain and sadness. When someone suffers an untimely death, this contrast is brought into even sharper focus. In the simplest terms, cosplay tributes seek to recall the happier times and celebrate a person’s life, not dwell on the sadness and unfairness of their death.
To the outside world, cosplay can seem frivolous and, yes, even the dreaded “attention seeking”. Of course positive attention is part of it, as it is in all public art, because that means you’ve done a good job. But cosplay is more about choosing to be part of a visual conversation.
Wearing a costume to a convention isn’t about getting praise so much as it’s about connecting – feeding off the excitement that other people feel when they discover you share a favorite character. But cosplay is also about making things, even if you need help making those things. It’s a creative act.
So when someone does a cosplay tribute, the intention is to continue making people smile on behalf of a person who can’t do it anymore. I helped out with one tribute where we fundraised for a local AIDS hospice because a participant’s father had died of the disease.
Fundraising, however, doesn’t have to be a part of it. Some cosplayers aren’t comfortable asking people for money. A group of friends can go to a convention the deceased had always wanted to attend. Some people make buttons to distribute of the cosplayer in their favorite costume, or fan art of the costume. Some groups do meet ups to do a group photo shoot in a person’s honor, using a distinctive pose, or posing around a photo or a prop that symbolizes the person who is gone. Sometimes, it’s about coming together to support the people left behind. Other times, it’s about introducing new people to the cosplayer’s story, and it spreads happiness by being the spark for new friendships and more fun.
Cosplay tributes also are a way of showing a cosplayer’s loved ones – many of whom are not involved at all in cosplay – that the deceased person made a positive impact on a whole lot of people. This may be especially important when someone has died by suicide, because those closest to the person often blame themselves for being unable to save them. Cosplayers hope that, through a tribute, we can show that a part of that person was saved. We keep that part alive, as strongly and for as long as we can.
There’s no intention to draw attention to yourself while doing this, any more than any other attempt to carry out the wishes of a deceased person. It’s hard to explain, but just because someone is taking a cosplayer’s picture doesn’t necessarily mean it feels like that picture is being taken of the cosplayer. All my cosplays are totally different head spaces, and each experience is radically different than being photographed as myself. Maybe this is something you can only understand if you’re actually a cosplayer. The reason cosplay is a community is that we share certain understandings, and remembering the way a cosplayer lived more than the way they died is one of them.
There’s no right or wrong way to do this sort of tribute. The type of activity and who is involved, vary from community to community and group to group. What’s consistent is the intention, and those intentions are good.
I have learned about the stories of people I’ve never met through tributes of this sort. I’ve seen the care other people had for them. In the very busy modern world, we don’t show each other we care nearly enough, and every time I interact with one of these things done for a lost friend, I’m reminded to let the people in my life know that they’re appreciated.
Suicide is still poorly understood because there’s so much stigma surrounding talking about it. I was reminded of this the hard way through those accusations of opportunism when I was just reaching out to someone who had lost a loved one.
I’ll admit, those accusations stung. I guess I see where people took offense, but it hurts to have an offer that isn’t wrong within cosplay culture be treated as something horrible. You’d have to be pretty sick to actually be looking to personally benefit from honoring a death. That sort of mercenary thinking is present in very few elements of cosplay, despite what you may have seen on TV.
Too many people think cosplay is just about clothes and cameras. It’s about so much more than that, and that’s something I want to convey in the work I do with this column and Agents of Cosplay. Yeah, we cosplayers do things differently, but does doing things differently give people the right to call us “creepy” or “inappropriate” instead of trying to understand us first? I don’t think that’s right.
So despite the risk that I’ll get dumped on all over again for writing this, I wanted to let people know what these traditions actually are. Good things can still come out of lives cut short, but it’s up to the rest of us to do them.