Yaya Han is a beautiful woman. Stunningly, inhumanly beautiful. This, of course, means that she attracts a lot of attention from men who don’t give a damn about cosplay. This, in turn, draws the ire of some commenters who attack her as a person. It should be obvious that this goes well beyond the boundaries of fair criticism, but when it comes to women like Yaya, people often lose their freaking minds.
I’ve seen discussions hundreds of comments long tearing Yaya to shreds. I’ve seen wannabe feminists use her photos as examples of the ills of the world. While discussions of photo compositions and what the photographer focused on are totally fair game, subjective comments regarding her attractiveness, or how surgically augmented various body parts may or may not be, cross the line.
If we study an image “as is” and any personal intents are taken out of it – for lack of a better term, a “death of the author” approach – then implants, nose jobs, or other alleged surgical procedures should be taken out of it. The model, in essence, does not exist outside of that image. But the minute we make an image of Yaya Han relevant because it’s Yaya Han, then her personhood matters and we can’t behave like it doesn’t, so it’s still inappropriate to treat her like an object and reduce her to her body parts.
Unfortunately, we’ve made celebrities across the board into symbols, and thereby blurred those lines. Cosplay should be beyond the petty identity politics of division because it’s a realm of assumed identities, but unfortunately we live in a society where nothing is immune to politicization. Anyone who is high profile, whether it be Caitlyn Jenner, Kanye West, or Yaya Han, gets stuck being a political football. When you’re turned into a football of any sort, you’re no longer a person. Too many people have stopped seeing Yaya Han as a person.
Now, some dehumanization is inherent to becoming a sex symbol like Yaya has. Sex symbols lose an element of their individualized humanity when they’re anointed as an “ideal” man or woman. This may sound, at first, like a very flattering place to be, but it’s a state that no real person can live up to. Sex symbols are carefully-crafted idealized fictional identities which are rigid, fragile, and unsustainable. A sex symbol isn’t allowed to age, fart, or have an opinion. Opinions make a public person substantial, and the minute a sex symbol has any substance whatsoever, they fall prey to a modern version of Plato’s theory of Forms: The loss of abstraction pulls the person away from their status as an ideal.
So the minute Yaya Han opens her mouth, she disappoints a lot of people because she’s no longer that perfected symbol… whatever they thought that symbol was.
Thanks to Lord Byron creating a Form based on himself – The Byronic hero – bad boys are acceptable in geekdom, hence the popularity of Wolverine, Deadpool, and Star-Lord cosplays. But there aren’t enough female antiheroes for women to benefit from the same flexibility of archetype, because women who fit most antihero characteristics usually aren’t the protagonist of the story. Society still doesn’t know what to do with women who are “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. So people stick them into the “villain” box, and drone on about how damaging their semi-unclothed bodies are to young minds. That’s where Yaya finds herself stuck.
We accept this is the way of things because this is the way it’s been for beautiful women as long as anyone alive can remember. But have you ever stopped to wonder why? Why are we still carrying on like being sexually desirable will lead a woman to ruin?
Sure, there are the pat answers that it’s a “fake”, plastic, unattainable standard of beauty, but cosplay is a hobby where people dress up like cartoon characters. Imitation of the impossible and transforming fantasy into reality are among the goals of cosplay, so it’s not a hobby where people are aiming to look realistic.
That being said, cosplay is also intended to remain an accessible hobby for all types of people. And this is where we get to the root of the problem. For some, the mere presence of someone like Yaya Han makes them feel inferior, as if they’re competitors instead of running their own race. This is exacerbated by the increasing number of “normie” photographers at the larger conventions who are interested more in photographing the women, not the cosplays. The press hasn’t been very good about separating cosplay from modelling, and the “hot girl” factor does often eclipse the “great costume” element, so people of all genders who aren’t seen as conventionally attractive are held up for mockery. It’s understandable that cosplayers get annoyed when outsiders invade their hobby without understanding their hobby, but it’s important not to blame the women who are attracting this unwanted sort of attention. All cosplayers want to be appreciated for their costumes first, no matter how they look.
Not that there’s anything wrong with enjoying beautiful women… even that statement has become contentious, hasn’t it? We live in confusing times, when we’re expected by some to feel guilty about the very urges that lead to the perpetuation of our species. This has led to a lot of raw nerves and defensive posturing, and it sure doesn’t make talking about this stuff easy.
I’ve experienced a small glimpse of the scrutiny Yaya gets when a photo of me cosplaying Cheetara appeared onA certain photo website, ironically best known for cat memes. They’ve password protected the comments now, and possibly even wiped them, but at one point, the comments were an ongoing series of “evidence” that my boobs were fake. For the record, my boobs aren’t fake. And the way people were convinced of something that wasn’t factual was an odd sort of creepy.
Are Yaya’s proportions – and my own for that matter – improbable? Of course. But so are those of many of the characters that we choose to cosplay. It’s very frustrating when a single body part becomes the entire conversation instead of just part of the conversation. It’s fine to look at boobs as long as you don’t lose sight of the fact that looking at boobs is looking at part of a person.
On the flip side, don’t take cheap shots at women like Yaya Han because you don’t like the politics surrounding the ideal of the female body. I’ve found Yaya’s insights over the years to be compelling precisely because she seems to live in the rarefied air of celebrity, but then she has the same struggles as the rest of us in the cosplay — the same concerns regarding inappropriate attention, the same stress racing to get elaborate costumes done on a deadline,and the same ambivalence regarding how seriously so many of us take something that’s froofy and fun.
It’s very important to remember that photographs aren’t people, and you can’t truly get a sense of someone from a still image. This is especially true of cosplay pictures, because the whole point is to pretend to be someone else. Because she’s a great cosplayer and she rarely appears in public out of costume, we rarely get a sense of the real Yaya Han, and too many people are content to strangle her with her own mystique.
She says she doesn’t care about this, but I do.
Because she’s a person.