Looking at the sea of Insta pics produced from every cosplay event ever, one would be forgiven for thinking it was just the narcissistic counterculture of gen-Zers, but that would be wrong.
Every summer, I traverse comic-cons with my “Don” (that’s my clever combo of daughter and son). amidst a kaleidoscope of scantily clad Pokémon, dango eating Totoros and fabulously dressed Lolita maids, I get transported back to my own teen years. Though aesthetically different from my grunge-loving, nouveau-hippie friends of 30 years past, the vibe is oddly familiar. The energy is that of rebelling against social convention, a celebration of Eastern culture, sexual and gender liberation, and the use alternative arts to spread messages of peace, love, and personal freedom.
When asking my don what they get from cosplay they responded, ‘When I first started, I was overwhelmed with a sense of community. It was an opportunity to meet like-minded people off the internet.’ This tracks with my client work. I work with many neurodivergent clients in which cosplay becomes both a shield and a bridge, enabling them to navigate overwhelming situations and form instant connections with like-minded souls.
I had hoped to highlight parallels between cosplayers and the transformative hippie movement of the 60s. However, when I suggested such a connection to my don they served me a reality check with a touch of emoji sadness: “Hippies were a political movement. Cosplay is a hobby.” Ouch! My don continued, “not everything needs to be political. Cosplay’s essence is about embracing ourselves as we are, and just being. Making it political would defeat the point.” What my therapist self heard was that my don experienced a sense of individuation through cosplay. Cosplay archetypes offer congruence with our stories, allowing us to proudly embrace our quirks and insecurities, integrating conscious and unconscious elements of the self through creative expression. The characters often have atrabutes or life stories which include strife and adversity, and yet they are loved. Embodying a character, one relates to could be seen as an act of crafting the life script we desire – “I can be weird and likable, and that’s perfectly me.”
The term ‘kosupure’ (cosplay) was originally introduced by Nobuyuki Takahashi in June 1983, in an article discussing fans who dressed up as manga and anime characters at the Comiket convention in Tokyo. The article showcased a diverse range of cosplayers, including those portraying superheroes, robots, transgender characters, and sexy personas. In the following year, during Takahashi’s attendance at the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) in Los Angeles, the term was anglicized to “cosplay.”
Born in the rad ’80s of Japan, cosplay has become a cultural phenomenon which has soared across the globe over the last four decades. From a distance, however, one might see cosplay as being similar to reenactments, resistance fairs or living museums. From and even greater distance we can see the act of dressing up as something timeless. Donning costumes has been seen as early as ancient Celtic Samhain (AKA Halloween) to rituals in Egypt, Greece, and Rome, people have worn costumes as a way to pay homage.
On a personal level cosplay is about embracing the personas of our cherished fictional icons – the heroes or anti-heroes who truly resonate with us, or perhaps as a way of simply discovering how it feels to be someone else. Not unlike the act of dressing up in grandma’s chunky high heels or grandpa’s bowler hat and cloppy wingtip shoes? Cosplay is a sensory experience which enables us to briefly become someone or something else – an enchanting embodiment of self-expression.
I asked my don if I could get a picture of them for the article. ‘It’s totally fine to say no,’ I assured them.
‘I really want to play Michael from the Magnus archives again. Maybe I could dress up as him and you could take my picture.’
‘What do you like about Michael?’
‘He’s technically a villain. He is distortion incarnate, nothing about him makes sense and it’s not supposed to, that’s what makes him scary. As an autistic person the world around me is inherently distorted, whether that’s how I view the world, how people view me, or the simple fact that I don’t make sense to people and that scares them.’ Life is scary and distorted, and that is a lot for young people to process. I can see there is something empowering about embodying ‘distortion incarnate.’
Beyond self-discovery, cosplay offers a therapeutic haven for those with social anxiety or relational trauma. It provides a safe stage to express emotions that might otherwise be stifled in everyday life. Here, individuation blends with the universality of human experiences represented through archetypes (or tropes) thus fostering visibility and affirmation. In this way cosplay offers a sense of community akin to Renaissance fairs, reenactments, and living museums.
As I have written this article, I have identified many links between Jung’s theories and cosplay and have developed a deeper appreciation for this therapeutic ‘hobby.’ It is more than just snapping selfies for Insta or TikTok trends. I find that at the heart of the cosplay community is the use of profound creativity to transcend boundaries. Allowing deep self-exploration and expression without shame. Cosplay is identity affirming, body positive, and diversity embracing. In essence, the heart of cosplay beats to the rhythm of harmony and understanding – an ethos that transcends movements.