The Imaginary and the Real: Commerce, Cosplay, and Gender at A-Cen

About a mile away from the Rosemont convention center, groups of enthusiastic “cosplayers” and convention goers roam the streets, transforming the quiet Chicago suburb into an arena of fantasy. Once a year, “otaku” (diehard fans of manga, anime, and video games) gather together for the Anime Central Convention. The convention entails a myriad of panels, workshops, and events to entertain convention goers. For some, this entrance into the fantastical is negotiated on a practical level; the concentration of vendors selling Japanese goods allows them to purchase their favorite items and bring home a piece of the experience. For others, dressing in costumes enables the transformation into an otherworldly character. Along with the adoption of the fantastical, a space is created in which expressions of gendered identities are opened to freer possibilities. Most importantly, the convention serves as a threshold to a world of fantasy, a place in which the imaginary and the real are constantly renegotiated.
After the entrance of the convention center, there is what is known as the “dealer’s room.” I am quickly reminded that although manga, anime, and video games create a realm of the imaginary, the very real dimension of commercial exchange regulates this world. Rows and rows of booths have been set up, where vendors display their goods and eagerly wait to describe their favorite items to potential customers. Vendors sell anime, manga, samurai swords, stuffed animals, video games, and other Japanese goods. A young girl carrying several bags, gleefully runs up to her friends and brags, “I just bought $100 of manga!” Her friends congratulate her purchases. However, one friend is less than enthusiastic, reprimanding, “don’t buy the damn doujinshi’s!” an apparent waste of money in his mind. Customers looking to spend big surround a Playstation video game vendor. A man asks to see a video game that has been placed in the far back of the display. “Oh, that one’s pretty expensive,” the vendor warns, “$200 plus tax.” Onlookers stand in awe as the game is brought down from the shelf and the bold customer looks through the contents of the box. “It’s pretty much like a big package of Jesus,” the vendor assures him. With this holy stamp of approval, the customer opens his wallet and counts out his money, as jealous onlookers envy his purchase. The playfulness of manga and anime is juxtaposed with the costly commercial atmosphere of the dealer’s room.
Not everyone is there to buy goods; some would rather consume the attention. The lobby of the Hyatt is filled with “cosplayers,” people who dress up as their favorite characters from manga, anime, and video games. Many of the attendees are dressed in elaborate handmade costumes. Adopting a fantasy persona, for one weekend these cosplayers abandon their everyday lives and achieve celebrity status. Several cosplayers stand in the center of the lobby, eyes scanning the room to see how many people are looking their way. Excited fans bashfully ask to take pictures with their favorite characters and the most impressive costume designs. One woman wears an elaborate and professional looking costume of a vampire character from “Love Lust.” The woman, a costume design student at the University of Minnesota, traveled by Megabus to be at the convention. After the costly endeavor to create her costume, she was left without the cash to buy a badge to actually attend the convention. Instead, she is satisfied with just loitering around the lobby entrance, agreeing to take photographs with fans and talking with passersby. However, her interest in cosplay is not just fun and games, it is also a financial investment. She explains that she sells her costumes after the convention to interested buyers, proudly noting that she saw a boy wearing one of her designs at the convention this year. In this case, her adoption of an imaginary character has an important influence on her trajectory to becoming a costume designer.
The transition into a fantastical realm allows for the bending of gender and sex roles. One woman, dressed as Felicia from the game “Dark Stalkers,” wears a brassier and bikini bottom constructed out of white fur. Although she is provocatively dressed, she quickly notes that the convention provides an escape from her everyday life as a software developer and happily married woman. She explains that she missed last year’s convention because it was her first year anniversary with her husband and she “would rather have a steak than spend it with a bunch of otaku.” The convention appears to be about more than just learning about anime in workshops, another goal is to meet friends and find relationships. On the programming schedule for Friday and Saturday night is “Speed Dating,” where otaku can meet and mingle and perhaps find their true love. Cosplay also provides an opportunity to challenge traditional gender roles. While many female cosplayers are scantily clad in small skintight garments, many men also choose to dress as their favorite female characters. Several men are seen squeezing into leather corsets and short skirts. Outside of the convention, a group of otaku create imaginary situations for their favorite characters by playing a tableau game. The participants are all dressed as various manga characters. People from the audience shout out different situations and the characters freeze into appropriate poses. Someone yells out, “Yaoi!” and the two men in the center of the circle embrace. Then, someone yells out “Yuri!” and three girls run to the center of the circle and kiss, while onlookers snap photographs. The game allows fans to alter the sexual identities of their favorite characters, placing them in sexual situations that may have not been explored in the actual manga. Entering in to the realm of the imaginary appears to provide a more open expression of gender and sexuality.
As many participants describe, their main motivation for coming to A-Cen is “to just have fun.” Overall, the convention seems to provide a space where fantasy and fun prevail over the dull and mundane. The Anime Central weekend offers a momentary escape from everyday life, one in which otaku can enter into the fantastical space created by their favorite manga, anime, and video games. However, throughout the convention, the imaginary is confronted with the real. I am startled when I run into a man I had seen previously in cosplay wearing his regular street clothes. No longer in his handmade leather vest and elf shoes, he wears a simple black tee-shirt and jeans as he browses through a selection of Japanese books in the dealer’s room. The fantasy is quickly shattered; disillusioned, I return to back to everyday reality.

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One Response to The Imaginary and the Real: Commerce, Cosplay, and Gender at A-Cen

  1. The Imaginary and the Real: Commerce, Cosplay, and Gender at A-Cen

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