People have been talking about Heroes of Cosplay for weeks. Some have a list of reasons for disliking it. Plenty of people in the scene are offended by it. I finally saw the Syfy reality series last night. It was kind of boring. I kept wishing it were more like RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Cosplayers and drag queens have a lot in common. Both frequently rely on pop culture references to push their art forward. Both require a hefty skill set. The best cosplayers, like the best drag queens, are good with costumes, make-up and hair, plus they can perform for an audience on some level. More importantly, though, both are part of scenes that have been wildly misunderstood by the general public.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is good TV. It’s a fun competition with a lot of big personalities in the running. Yet, there are also a lot of heartfelt moments on the show. When you’re watching it, you know that there’s something greater to it than over-the-top costumes and lip-sync performances. It’s a show about identity and community. If that’s what Heroes of Cosplay intended, it missed the mark entirely.
Heroes of Cosplay is poorly constructed television. It would have worked out much better as a straight-up competition program. Imagine what kind of cool things people would make if they were given certain character themes or were limited to using of certain materials for different competitions. Imagine if they really incorporated performance or modeling as part of the show, like on Drag Race. That would be so much fun to watch. Plus, the show has an asset in judge Yaya Han. She’s an extremely well-known cosplayer with over a decade of experience to her credit. Her understanding of all the various facets of cosplay and her knowledge as a business person would make her a wonderful mentor-judge. In Episode 4, she doesn’t interact with the other cast members until she’s judging them at the convention. There’s a lot of wasted potential here.
From what I’ve seen, Heroes of Cosplay, takes its cue from the worst of reality television, like Keeping up with the Kardashians with a masquerade thrown in at the end of the hour. If you’ve ever taken an introductory writing class, you have probably heard a teacher say “show don’t tell.” It’s one of the big rules of writing, let the scene unfold, don’t explain it to the audience. It’s also the one hallmark of good storytelling that reality TV almost always throws out the window. With Heroes of Cosplay, it seems like there’s about 80% tell and 20% show. Did you really have to announce that so-and-so was going to visit so-and-so? The video footage is there. We can see it. Do the cosplayers need to recap what they did during the day when it’s there for us to watch? Save the commentary for some real insight. The participants’ side stories– Yaya’s calendar shoot, Monika’s interview at Blizzard, Holly and Jessica’s gig for Guillermo del Toro– appear like afterthoughts. These should be compelling bits, the narration is telling us that they are compelling, but they really aren’t.
On the Heroes of Cosplay section of Syfy’s website, there are nine people listed as part of the cast. On Episode 4, only six of those people had significant airtime. Four competed in the masquerade. None placed. This all seems kind of pointless when you’re building an episode towards a competition. What you have here is a few different stories that are haphazardly pieced together. Even when they’re at the convention, the cosplayers’ stories barely link together. That lack of regular interaction makes every bit of supposed drama in the episode appear forced. With a show like Drag Race, you can feel the tension between the characters. Here, it’s just Monika making a snide comment to Becky and Becky complaining that Monika is “mean.”
Beyond the storytelling failures, Heroes of Cosplay presents a narrow view of this community. There’s little racial or ethnic diversity, even less size and age diversity. Plus, there’s only one guy in the cast and he wasn’t even in this episode. The cosplay community is large and far from homogenous. It’s also riddled with many of the same problems that occur in the regular world. Racism and sexism are both issues that affect cosplayers. Certainly, body image issues affect the community as well. By not showing a varied of group of cosplayers, the show could actually contribute to problems that exist in the cosplay world.
One of the best things about Drag Race is the diversity of the cast. Some are barely old enough to drink, others are hovering around 40. Some are thin, some are heavy-set. They are racially different, culturally different. Each contestant brings a unique experience to the table and that helps shape the overarching themes of love and acceptance on the show. In the cosplay world, you hear people talk about how important it is to be accepting of each other and kind to one another. One cosplayer even mentioned this at the end of last night’s episode. But there’s a difference between saying something and actually doing it. If everybody truly is welcome in the cosplay world, then there needs to be a greater representation of cosplayers. When the cast is predominantly white, mostly thin and almost entirely female, the show is setting a standard for cosplay beauty that isn’t remotely realistic. At worst, it’s irresponsible. At best, it’s just plain lazy. And so, I have given up on Heroes of Cosplay and instead wait for another season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I’m not a cosplayer. I am, however, reasonably familiar with the cosplay world. Much of my work as a journalist centers around covering fan communities. Cosplay, when you dress in a costume associated with an established character (or celebrity, or whatever), is part of that. I’ve interviewed loads of people in costume over the years. Most recently, I interviewed San Diego-based cosplayer Jimmy Sherfy over the course of four days at Anime Expo for L.A. Weekly. I know a lot of people in the scene, but have only met one of the cast members of the show. That’s Yaya Han. I interviewed her for L.A. Weekly at Anime Expo 2012. This is just some background for you so that you can decide whether or not to take anything I say seriously.