Fiction on My Skin: Connecting through Cosplay

Casey Covel cosplay photography by Shutter Spade Snapshots and JW Hendricks Photography.
When I was seven years old, I made a tail and hooves out of my dad’s tube socks and went to church as Philippe, Belle’s horse from Beauty and the Beast. When curious passersby raised their eyebrows, my father (the very proud assistant pastor) would point at me and say, “Ask her!” And I would happily tell anyone who would listen that I was masquerading as my favourite steed.

On the Disney scale of heroic horses, from one (Samson) to ten (Maximus), Philippe is in the negatives. But in retrospect, I think that’s why I chose him as my first (unofficial) cosplay. I saw myself in every wide-eyed balk and panicked whinny. The moment the shadows in the creepy forest started moving, I knew I’d dump poor Maurice on the road and run away too.

If Phillipe’s cowardice drew me in, though, his strength is what kept me infatuated. He had the biggest hooves I’d ever seen—so big that, in my little mind, only my dad’s enormous tube socks could possibly do them credit. Philippe’s big hooves protected Belle from wolves until the Beast could make his heroic entry, and they rushed Belle to the Beast’s Castle just in time to save the cursed prince from giving up on life and love.

These realizations only come to me now that I have the vocabulary to express them, but, in hindsight, I realize that Philippe taught seven-year-old me that even cowards could be heroes. Each time I pulled on the tube socks (and stuffed one in my pants for the tail), I felt a little of Philippe’s fight-or-flight courage brace me for my next battle with the boogeyman.

Cosplay isn’t escapism; it’s a means to explore who we have the potential to be.

I don’t stuff tube socks in my pants these days, but I still make a habit of dressing up as my favourite characters in public. Through cosplay, I find the ultimate creative challenge: embody the experiences I’ve had with a character or story and impart a little of that cathartic magic to others. Subconsciously, though, cosplay is a dedicated drive to become a little bit more like the characters I admire.

Growing up, I loved to play “make believe,” pretending to be a knight or a dinosaur or Sonic the Hedgehog… I didn’t realize it then, but every time I set aside “Casey Covel” and became someone else, I was figuring out who “Casey Covel” actually was and who I wanted her to become. It’s been a while since I’ve run across a playground Sonic-style, but putting myself in the shoes of a fictional character is something I still do every time I open a book or power on a video game. By diving into the souls of characters from all walks of life, I take on foreign perspectives and expand my own. Sometimes, like C.S. Lewis, I find myself gawking, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Fiction rarely provides direct answers, but always provides reflections—about the journey I have taken through life, about what I believe is true, and about what I want to change within myself. My life is a timeline of transformations influenced by the imaginary. Certain characters have lingered in my mind years after I finished their final chapters—from Matthias, who taught me that even a little mouse could triumph over evil, to Zack Fair, who hammered home the power of a life built on daily sacrifices.

When I lose myself in fiction in order to gain the psyche of its characters, I engage in what psychologists call “experience-taking.” Cosplay takes that character-consumer relationship and articulates it as a cooperative performance. It says, “Yes, we all know and love this character’s story. Now let’s add yours to it!”

L Lawliet, Death Note’s hunchbacked, sweet-toothed detective, is a relatively simple character to cosplay, making him a popular choice at events. But no two L’s are alike. Some L’s are husbandos who carry lollipops in a quirky, kawaii way. Others slink around, looking for places to perch and observe potential suspects, in homage to L’s intelligence and aura of mystery. My L totes a massive cross over one shoulder—not so much to mimic Death Note’s gothic aesthetic as to accent L’s Christ figure archetype. I see L as a meek miracle-worker who inspires hope and carries many allusions to my faith. Each time I “take up my cross,” I tell my story—that of a young woman who learned to see God in an unlikely anime during a time of depression. This is how I have shaped L into a piece of my identity. And I have become stronger for it.

It’s no real exaggeration to say that cosplay disrupts the very fabric of reality. It’s a physical social network that connects lives and stories through the faces of familiar characters. I’ve yet to engage in a hobby that more powerfully captures the way fiction shapes who we are as individuals.

My life is a timeline of transformations influenced by the imaginary.

Growing up as that shameless geeky kid who learned Elvish and Saurian as her second and third languages, I was far from the self-conscious sort. Or so I thought. I was always aware of my cowardice. I went out of my way to play the gallant hero in all my friends’ imaginary games, as though to compensate for my fear of the boogeyman. Three years ago, I skulked out my house cosplaying as that “boogeyman”—a stitch-faced, red-eyed nightmare named Beyond Birthday—that would have given seven-year-old me nightmares. I’m not necessarily fond of cosplaying villains, but I think, in many ways, Beyond Birthday was a homage to my earliest days “dressing up” as cowardly Phillipe—a pat-on-the-back of sorts to say, “You did it, you big chicken! Look how far you’ve come.”

And I think that’s what makes cosplay effective as an identity-shaper: it helps me borrow a bit of confidence and control from a character that I and the general geekdom recognize and admire (though for varying reasons). It’s no surprise that most cosplayers, myself included, don’t see cosplay as a means of escapism, but rather a means to explore who we have the potential to be. At the end of the day, the confidence I gain on the show floor doesn’t slide off with my Survey Corps jacket and undercut wig. The glomps, the squees, the shoulder-taps for photos, and the especially that breathless, “You’re amazing!”—all stay with me.

Fiction isn’t meant to become our reality, but it can give us a roadmap to better navigate our reality and grasp the truths that thread it together. By understanding ourselves there, we can more fully understand ourselves here… and perhaps even in the world beyond that.

The way I see it, if it’s that easy for fiction to get under my skin, I might as well wear it on my skin—tube socks and all.

Casey Covel

Casey Covel

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
An INTJ and self-proclaimed connoisseur of chocolate, tea, and sushi, Casey spends her free time cosplaying, writing, gaming, philosophizing, editing articles for Geeks Under Grace, squinting at strange words, and watching Corgi videos on the internet.
Casey Covel