05-21-2020 Disclaimer: Pree (aka Priya) has since come out as trans non-binary and now uses they/them pronouns only.
Welcome back to another Fake Geek Girls Like Us interview. Fake Geek Girls Like Us is a feature on +5 Charisma where I interview some awesome geeky and nerdy ladies out in the geek world. This month I get to chat with Priya Rehal and we discuss the politics around cosplay!
1.Hi! Can you tell us all a little bit about yourself? What fandoms are you into?
Sure! I’m a fan studies researcher, finishing up my Masters in Communication and Culture. One of my main research areas is cosplay.
I’m into: Sailor Moon, Star Wars, Sons of Anarchy, lots of Marvel and DC, but Saga is one of my favourite comics. And I’m a fan of general disruptivity, my masters thesis looks at the ways in which racialized and indigenous people engage in post-colonialism through Steampunk aesthetics (cosplay/costuming).
2. When did you first become interested in cosplay? What influenced you to start dressing up as different characters?
I grew up obsessed with Halloween, but was raised by immigrant parents. My diaspora isn’t the most enthused about costumes or Halloween, so it’s something I invested time and money into as I got older and had a disposable income, because it stems from something I always wanted to delve into – intensely. For example, as a young adult, I spent a lot of time researching and planning my Halloween costumes – and then I realized, I could cosplay year-round!
3. When did you first realize that you may be considered a “nerd” or “geek”?
I didn’t. I just like and do and prefer certain things that seem to fall under this umbrella. It’s a label I primarily received from men.
4. I saw that you have cosplayed as 2 different Game Of Thrones characters. Can you speak to the process of putting those costumes together? As well as why you choose those characters?
Definitely, so the two GoT characters that I’ve cosplayed are Daenerys Targaryen (played on the show by Emilia Clarke) and Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa).
I’ll start with the latter. Logistically, the Drogo costume was a binary-swap cosplay, what most people would refer to as “gender-bending” or “Rule 63” cosplay. The bottom half was relatively plain, especially because my pelt/loin cloth, that I made out of a throw, wouldn’t stay on the day of the con. I wore a brown tank top I already owned, a gold medallion belt I found on sale, and then constructed the mock-corset girdle, and gauntlets out of pleather I purchased at Fabric Land for about $30. I spent hours working on the girdle – I don’t stitch, so it’s all cut and paste for me. I’d never drafted patterns or anything, so I spent time learning how to do this.
I watched videos online on how to work with grommets, and purchased a grommet making kit, to create a lace up back for the girdle. I hand cut the star like patterns and loops for the front, the grommets took forever, and then the gauntlets were equally difficult. As a noob, constructing something to fit my forearms (which are wider at the top and narrower, closer to the wrist) was really difficult. Let’s just say, I wasted a lot of pleather.
The Drogo cosplay was motivated by two things, my negotiated obsession with his badassery, and the fact that he was pretty much the only brown skinned [major] character on the show. I don’t know why, I just subconsciously felt like I needed to cosplay brown characters – if there was a token, or singular racialized character.
I decided to challenge my re-interpretations. I wanted to highlight my racialized features, ethnicity, and identity, rather than making those aspects of myself compliant or limiting myself to brown characters—of which there are very few to choose from, by the way. I coined this “disruptive cosplay.”
As a fan, but also as a fan studies and cosplay researcher, I attended conventions for years before validating the discomfort I experience in cosplay spaces and convention settings or assigning it language. By discomfort, I don’t mean cis-hetero male gaze objectification, but instead the fetishization of my brown skin, the interrogation and attempted invalidating of my identity as a brown-skinned fan. I learned that the searing gaze and ambient unwelcome feeling was informed by the hypervisibility of my brown skin, colonialism, and white supremacy. I talk about this more in my essay on cosplaying in GUTS Magazine.
So my Dany cosplay was my first political, intentional, ‘disruptive’ cosplay. I made the conscious decision to undermine colonialism and whitewashing of canonical content, but specifically the con. I refused to wear blue contacts, blonde hair, skin lightening makeup.
The clothing was really simple – I thrifted a dress, and my mom kindly made the modifications (I removed the side panels of the dress, it was originally cut as a pencil skirt/body con dress). And wore leggings and boots I already owned.
I handcrafted the dragon brooch from a number of things I found at the dollar store, and paint I bought at the dollar store. I cut my finger a lot. And had to start over, a lot. The brooch took me at least 4-5 hours.
5. Has cosplay to you always been a political act? If not, when did it become political to you?
I’ve always modified canon, to construct a three dimensional version of a costume that was designed for a two dimensional drawing. Adding contours and fabric for my body and comfort levels respectively, always felt political and imperative to my participation. But it was the Dany cosplay that I knew what I wanted to embody: I wanted to take up space as a non-thin, non-white woman, within the GoT fandom, but also the physical convention space.
Disruptive cosplay is something I do because it allows me to represent myself, but it also addresses racism in the cosplay community by manipulating canon.
6. Can you speak to the ideas of “gender-bending” in cosplay? Is this a term that you would use?
Gender-bending is con/cosplay/fandom vernacular.
Gender bending implies the manipulation of character canon, and is a costume play that is restricted to switching back and forth across the binary of feminine-coded objects, habits, and characters versus masculine-coded objects, habits, and characters.
Gender-bending is inherently transphobic because it upholds the binary-adhering, and heterocentric categorization of gender, sexuality, and cosplay. I use binary-swapping instead, because it signifies the specific kind of change that I make as a cosplayer to source material, instead of implying that I’m switching between the ‘only two genders that exist’.
7. Do you have any cosplay plans in your future?
Oh…so many. I have an almost finished Gambit sitting in my closet. And then hundreds of concepts in the ‘Notes’ app on my phone.
8. What cons are your favourite to attend? What has been your favourite panel discussion at a con?
So I’ve only attended charters of Fan Expos and Comic Cons, my favourite is Fan Expo Toronto, because it’s the most panel-dense con within my reach.
My favourite panel has to be Harbir Anand’s Multicultural Steampunk.
9. Who was the first female character that you can remember looking up to?
10. Are there any movies or television shows that are coming out that you are looking forward to (near or distant future)?
This year I’m looking forward to Finding Dory, Star Trek Beyond, Jason Bourne, [hesitantly] Suicide Squad and Moana. I’m more excited about these in the semi-distant 2017: Wonder Woman, Wolverine 3, Gambit, and the Batman Lego Movie.
Thanks to Priya Rehal for chatting with us! Make sure to check out her article for Guts Magazine ‘I Fight White Supremacy by Cosplaying‘. Thanks for tuning in! Fake Geek Girl Like Us is an interview series on +5 Charisma where we talk to girls in nerd culture. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be featured!