The Death of Spend Thrift, an Investment in Cosplay, and an Escape from Gender Construction

Getting off the Blue Line train at Rosemont was my first experience of the fan culture of A-Cen 2007. Streams of people ranging in ages from teens to adults walked the three block trek to the Stephens’ Convention Center and many had on costumes of their favorite anime character. As my fiancé and I walked the trek we bumped into two friends he had not seen in a while and this motif of meeting and greeting, whether planning on meeting there or being pleasantly surprised – was a common feature at the convention. Pre-teens and teens, costumed and plain-clothes dressed, squealed and jumped in delight at being at the convention and experiencing it together. People were often in pairs or whole roaming groups and there were many couples as well (implicitly breaking down the myth of otaku’s as socially inept and unable to maintain relationships).

Upon entering the convention center, the lobby is filled with costumed characters ranging from Sailor Moon to Final Fantasy’s Sepiroth. And as I enter the main hall, I was surprised to see such a long line for at-the-door registration and it persisted even with only three hours left until the convention closed for the day. The reason I was surprised at the number of people is mainly because of my unfortunate pre-conceived notion that most anime-fans are know-everything-about-their-obsession types of folks, who would have pre-registered for the event. As my experience continued there were many other notions that would get challenged as well.

I have to say that while I try not to notice race a great deal, one thing that I was actually surprised by was the number of minorities, either attending as consumers or present as vendors. Anime culture in America and even Japan is generally relegated to educated-middle class demographics, and in America they are generally Caucasian, but Blacks and Latinos happened to make up a good portion of the convention attendees as well. Equally interesting were the number of parent/child combinations throughout the convention. Fathers walked with sons, mothers walked with daughters and whole families perused the wares that were on sell at the convention. Again the reason for my surprise is because not all the manga/anime material, nor even the costumes of certain attendees, was necessarily considered appropriate for young children, for there were at least three weapons booths, some of the female cosplayers had on revealing clothing, and some very unconventional gender dynamics were also being played out, which I will discuss later.

Additionally with the economic idea of ‘spend-thrift’ alive in this country and where you routinely hear clichés from parents on American comedies complaining to their children that money doesn’t grow on trees’, I was struck by the level of consumerism perpetuated by parents. While there were many reasonably priced trickets like key chains and this really interesting product called the VooDoo Baby which sold for about $7, but there were many other things that were on sale like action figures, which were generally $20 or up and weapons that began at $40 and reached $150 and over. And after spending more than hour at the convention with a fist of cash many parents and children alike found themselves without it by the end of the convention day on Saturday.

And the spending did not just begin with the convention many cosplayers spent a great deal of money on preparing their original pieces, like one female cosplayer I met who spent over $200 and 3 months completing her outfit. Another notable feature among the cosplayers was that not all were related to anime or even video games. While I was not surprised to see two guys dressed as Super Mario Brothers, it did strike me as odd to see at least two men dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow from the movie series Pirates of the Caribbean and another individual dressed as the Faun out of Pan’s Labyrinth. This type of cosplaying had the feel of a festival atmosphere during Halloween or even a gender-bending cross-dressing party. It seems there is more as work than people dressing as their favorite characters; the convention seems to provide an outlet for fantastical escapism and not with the just the material consumed but with the very activity of consuming and interacting with these materials.

And this escapism seems to allow for non-traditional gender dynamics as well for there were three men at the convention that I observed dressed as Tinkerbell fairies and a fourth man, dressed in a bright-red bustier, fairy skirt, and tiara. However within the context of the convention itself that hardly seems strange, for the yaoi booth was packed with girls, as to be expected since that is the primary demographic yaoi is marketed to. But a number of males surrounded the booth as well and did not appear at all uncomfortable browsing through the mangas about romantic love between men.

And in return to my theory on escapism something else I noticed were the lack of people around the weapons stations in comparison to the manga and consumer related materials like messenger bags, key chains, dolls, and even tapestries of your favorite character. It might follow that this escapism seems less open to an assault from reality; like the otaku we once watched in class who liked ‘playing’ war, but did not like ‘actual’ war. I think a reason the booths were relatively empty (except for the one with the fake flaming signs) is because the consumption of those goods adds a dose of reality to the sometimes gratuitous use of violence in anime/mangas, that cosplay and even having life-size figurines of anime characters, does not. Additionally and on a practical level, you have to be at least eighteen to even purchase a weapon and by shear estimate, I would place a third of the attendees at no more than seventeen years old.

One of the most overarching themes I came away with from the convention was consumerism, but a close second was communal enjoyment of something you can be an expert at and also have fun. There were artists who very seriously discussed their work with patrons and even received commissions for work while at the convention. People milled around the auction of original pieces of manga art and gave commentary on the style and effect of the art work. And towards the end of the event the video game kiosk in the hotel filled with convention attendees eager to play new friends or beat old ones; a constant play of skill, expertise, curiosity and genuine fun pervaded the convention.

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