Identity and Authenticity at the Cosplay Cafe

Author: Bryce Doersam, research assistant for the Terry Project Podcast

Entrance to the Cosplay Cafe

The entrance to the “cafe,” set up in a rented room in the UBC student union building, is flanked on either side by four “maids” — young Anime enthusiasts, all women, dressed in elaborate black and white french maid costumes complete with stockings and pinafores, some in wigs of unnatural synthetic hues, a few wearing tails or animal-ears. A sign next to them says “No photography.” They bow and murmur greetings in phonetic Japanese to each entrant, before guiding the customer to their table and taking their order, projecting an air of giggling servility throughout. Every table has a printed menu (coffee, cakes, tiramisu, cream puffs) and a schedule of performances, outlining a series of dancers and vocalists with names like Goodnight Lumi and Sakura-Chan. Some of the maids, while not manning the entrance or serving customers, are milling from table to table asking patrons if they need anything, or offering to sit down with them and play a game of tic-tac-toe.

The “maids” are all volunteers engaging in what is popularly known as “cosplay,” short for costume play. Cosplay, in some form, dates back to at least the 1970’s, when vendors in doujinshi (amateurish magazines or comic-books) marketplaces would have performers dress up as their magazines’ characters to draw attention to their work. Since then, cosplay has spread to become a global phenomenon, particularly among fans of anime and manga (japanese cartoons, comic books and animated films). Cosplayers adopt not only the look of their characters, but their personalities as well.

This “Cosplay Cafe” is actually an imitation of a small category of restaurant popular with anime fans known as “maid cafes,” which began in Tokyo in 2001 before spreading to a number of countries from Taiwan to Hungary (one actually opened in Richmond, BC in 2010, but has since closed). Waitresses at the cafe dress and act as maids serving their masters or mistresses, imitating a sort of maid archetype popularized in animes. Needless to say, the women playing maids today do this not for any particular love of serving coffee or waiting tables, but to indulge in the opportunity to cosplay –  the opportunity to personify a character, other than themselves.

“I guess it’s a way especially for kind of shy people maybe to be able to step up and out and meet more people that are kind of interested in the same things as them,” explains Amanda (“maid name Suki”), one of the costumed volunteers, “And it kind of enables them to be able to act a bit more crazy and not feel so reserved.”

The idea of overcoming social hurdles through cosplay is a recurring one. “After I got into cosplay it was really easy for me to just get to know people and communicate with them.” says Tamy, an executive for the UBC Anime Club who helped oversee the event. And why might cosplay make it easier to be social? “Maybe because you’re trying to pretend to be another character, so you’re not really being yourself. So it’s different.”

Though the characters cosplayers tend to portray are certainly quite different from their regular day-to-day selves, Tamy also emphasizes the need for those characters to be relatable to the one taking them on. “I usually cosplay with characters I relate to, so it’s kind of like second skin… If you dress up as a character that you don’t really relate to or don’t really know about, when the time comes to try and act like that character, you can’t really do it. It’s not really genuine.” Rahman, Wing-sun & Hei-man Cheung go slightly further in their paper on the practice, “Cosplay”: Imaginative Self and Perfoming Identity, “Cosplayers must fervently believe in the role that they are playing. Otherwise, their act or performance will become a form of self-deception and be considered inauthentic or non-genuine.”

While it may sound somewhat ironic to be stressing the need to be authentic while dressing up as fictional characters from anime cartoons, what the maids say about cosplay does seem to have echos in the adoption of alter-egos and personas in other contexts. In popular culture, we see fickle audiences discriminate among musicians’ and artists’ alter-egos, some (Ziggy Stardust, for example) being accepted and celebrated as “authentic” outgrowths of the artist’s own personality, while others (say, Chris Gaines) don’t feel so genuine, and wind up delegated to the discount-bins of history.

Exiting the cafe, do we leave our alternate identity behind?

On a more personal level, the idea of cosplay as a sort of social buffer, allowing the players to overcome their own shyness by pretending to be someone else, could just be an exaggerated version of the social role-playing we all do, acting out whatever version of ourselves best fits a situation. In that case, one obvious benefit of the over-the-top personas of the cosplayers is that they at least get to take their costumes off at the end of the day, and maintain the distinction between their characters and themselves.

Though, as Tamy says, even that may not be so easy, “There are times when my friends have to tell me, ‘Oh, you’re not that character right now, you’re you.’”

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The Cosplay Cafe took place on September 28, 2013 in the UBC Student Union Building’s Party Room. For more info on the UBC Anime Club, check out their website!

To hear some other perspectives on identity and reinvention, check out the Terry Podcast # 24: Rebranding. 

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