From Mav: A funny “think” happened on my way to the Internet the other day… I was very much wanting to do SOMETHING having to do with Pride Month on our show and had been thinking of a couple of ideas. Well, if you’ve ever heard the show at all, it should be pretty clear that my research as a pop culture critic covers two areas pretty heavily… comics and sexuality. So one of the things I routinely do is watch Facebook and Reddit groups where people talk about those two things together. You know the type… mostly a bunch of dudes looking at either fan art of superheroines or looking at cosplay models and talking about how hot they are. Princess Leia in metal bikini pics are common. And honestly, a lot of the time, the conversation can be EXTREMELY toxic. I’ve talked about it before. A lot of stuff about talking about how horrible Brie Larson is as Captain Marvel because her ass isn’t nice enough and she should be wearing the swimsuit costume or whatever… and probably that she should smile more… that type of thing. That’s one of the reasons I read them actually. Part of what I do means understanding different subcultures and the “incel” and “MRAs” subcultures are a big part of that. If someone is going to call for boycotting a movie because “feminists are evil” or whatever, then I need to know about it.
Anyway, the other day I was watching one of these such groups and I ran across a picture of a cosplayer dressed as Wonder Woman that had a LOT of comments. Way more than I expected. I was intrigued and read them (never read the comments. I do it so you don’t have to). Basically what happened was someone commented on the photo something to the effect of “you know that’s a dude, right?” The Original Poster responded to the effect “if you mean that she’s transgender, yes, I know that. Many of the models I have posted here are.” And of course then the shit hit the fan. A lot of it was what you might expect. Complaints about penises and how that wasn’t a “real woman” and yadda yadda yadda. Demands to know which pictures featured trans women (or much more offensive terms for this). A lot of it was really ugly. But then the Original Poster doubled down and posted several other pictures of transwomen cosplayers, identifying them as such. Basically just trolling the board. I expected to watch the other members just lay into him with more complaints “these should be taken down” because they are “not real women”. And of course there was some of that. But what amazed me (and quite honestly touched me) was that he wasn’t alone. There were a fair number of others defending the transcosplayers as “real women.” Then when things got really ugly with a lot of inappropriate name calling, one of the group admins stepped in and said something to the effect of “this group does not tolerate disparaging comments about sexuality or identity. It’s about celebrating female beauty. All women count, including transwomen” and THEN actually banned the worst of the complainers.
I was astounded. It was very much a “wow, look how far we’ve come as a people” moment for me. We’re at a point where all women, cis or otherwise are fair game to be subjected to the male gaze! Hey… it’s something!
But actually, I’m somewhat more fascinated by those who were NOT accepting. This is a really fascinating thing to me. We’ve often mentioned the male gaze on the show. But here, I think there’s an interesting thing happening. In a sense, cosplay is by it’s very nature about inviting the gaze. The cosplayer wears an outfit to an event and says “look at me” and to the extent that the outfit is hypersexualized, the fact that it might invoke lust is fair. The male gaze is sort of implicitly “okay” here. But it’s always a fantasy. The cosplayer isn’t “real” in any more sense than the drawing is. She’s not actually Wonder Woman, Princess Leia, Harley Quinn, Samus Aran or Sailor Moon. She is a performer portraying a dream… in a photo… that is no more likely to fuck you than the fictional drawings that she is emulating. But drawings of sexual fantasies work because they lack agency. They are imbued with the desires of the viewers. And cosplay photos play into this. Laura Mulvey argues that the reason “the male gaze” works, is that the fantasy allows the viewer to assume that that object of the gaze is exhibitionistic. She is inviting the gaze by performing for gazer… or at least he so believes. Never is this more try than in a cosplay photo, where a literal performance, often sexualized, is being captured and presented.
And if Mulvey is correct (and I think she is) then the performance of the fantasy should be the only thing that matters. Actually, I really do think there’s something to this. Because it calls into question the way in which the gaze works. If the gazer objectifies based on appearance, then all that matters is the fantasy. In Mulvey’s terms this is because of exhibitionism and narcissism. The gazer imagines that the performer is presenting herself purely for his amusement. The gazer can then lust after the performance.
This works in towards Judith Butler’s theories on “gender performance.” That is to say that gender, is always perceptive. It’s a construction that performer puts on for the gazer. The work that goes into the creation of the fantasy should be irrelevant to the extent that the gazer is unaware of it. That is, typically the gazer doesn’t want to think about the 4 hours in the makeup chair… the hours in the gym… the existence of hair extensions or boob jobs… it’s the fantasy that in the NOW the attractive woman is performing for you! Sure, the woman in the picture may not ACTUALLY want you… but that’s not part of the fantasy. It doesn’t matter. Nor does the fact that she’s not a “natural” blonde, not “really” a D-cup, or in the cosplay case, not “actually” Harley Quinn! The gazer WANTS to believe in the fantasy. At least USUALLY that’s how the male gaze works…
However, in this instance, there is tension because the presumed heteronormativity of the male gaze is being threatened by transphobia. It’s as if these individuals can’t feel comfortable “celebrating female beauty” (you know, jacking off) because their straightness might be compromised by their inability to recognize the preferred gender of the individual they want to objectify. When I teach gender performance I often use case of “Ms. Avocado” a young Russian woman who won an amateur lingerie modeling contest, only to later reveal that she was a man in drag, who dressed up in his girlfriend’s lingerie just to enter the contest. My understanding is that he doesn’t even actually identify as trans… It just turned out that dude is really hot! The company immediately disqualified him, despite there being no obvious rules that “contestant must be female” (cis or otherwise) listed ahead of time. The problem was that the fantasy of nymphomaniac waif waiting around in lingerie was disrupted by the knowledge that “she was a dude.” That’s what’s going on here. Transphobia refuses to allow them to consider the transgender cosplayer as female. And if the cosplayer is “really male” then homophobia refuses to allow them to enjoy their own arousal. Apparently… at least for some guys… homophobia and transphobia trump lasciviousness.
If you’re into thinking about the kinds of stuff I think about for living… this is SO exciting. Seriously, as excited as other people might get looking at sexy Harley Quinn pics, when the arguments starting flowing back and forth on this topic, I was like “OMG! OMG! OMG! IT’S HAPPENING!!!!” The fact that this happened right at the beginning of Pride Month… I just thought, we HAVE to do a show on this. But I am curious as to other people’s thoughts. Where do you think the line is between lust and hate. In a sense there’s obviously a bit of objectification in both. In either case, there is a sense of the gazer privileging his sexual agency over the cosplayer… but what are your thoughts on what happens when the gazer… just doesn’t know what to do? I’m really curious as to other people’s thoughts because, seriously… this one is just amazing to me.