Metropolis Maria

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thoughts on Cosplay

While recuperating from my still-broken ankle, I attended Madicon 24, on the campus of James Madison University. Since I was not 100%, I wanted to at least go for a few hours on Saturday and check out the scene.  It has been 30+ years since I attended an honest-to-goodness convention, and I really wanted to see what remained the same and what had changed in the intervening years.

One feature that hadn't changed is the cosplay. Cosplay is a portmanteau mashing up the words costume and play and describing an aesthetic expression where individuals can identify with a favorite character or setting in science fiction or fantasy.

Back in 1996, Barbara Adams made headlines when she wore a uniform based on ones featured on the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series as part of the juror pool during the Whitewater trials. When asked why, she simply said "I always wear my uniform on formal occasions."

It is interesting that Ms. Adams recognized the seriousness of the event, and I don't believe she was trying to mock the proceedings. Rather, she incorporated something she loved into her life, making it public, and no one in the courtroom objected to her choice of dress.

A year after Ms. Adams wrote her Star Trek uniform to a high-profile national trial, the 501st Legion was established. The 501st is, in its own words, "the leading force in fan-based charity events.... (and) is truly dedicated to brightening the lives of those less-fortunate." But it is best known as the organization of Star Wars stormtrooper costumers. Members create all their costumes themselves. No item can be purchased, so as not to infringe on the intellectual property of Lucasfilm (owned by Disney).

For a number of years, I participated in a historical reenactment club known as the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). This group researches the Middle Ages, and is known for holding events where attendees dress in garb, or historical costumes. Other groups also focus on the period dress of the American Revolution or the American Civil War.

In a blog post from December 2012, Molly McIsaac wrote about the various reasons people engage in cosplay. In short, it really boils down to two main reasons: identification and community.

Identification is a factor in that the cosplayer is seeking to emulate a particular character. For example, at Madicon, I saw someone cosplaying Kim Possible (from the Disney cartoon) and several Links from the Legend of Zelda video game from Nintendo. Ideally, the person cosplaying one of these characters has identified a quality or trait that they would like to replicate in their life.

The other reason people cosplay is for community. They want to belong to something bigger than they are - there's the sense that the more the merrier - and stronger. At Madicon a "garrison" of the 501st were present, so there were several variations of stormtroopers, fighter pilots, snowtroopers, and so on. The last con I attended (some 30 years or so ago), I recall seeing two people dressed like Viper pilots from the old Battlestar Galactica TV series.

Again, identification plays a large role, but rather than identifying with an individual character, the cosplayer focuses on the goals and values of a group, and seeks like-minded souls to participate in the fandom together.

This all got me to thinking: Who do we identify with? Who are we "wearing"?

There are some well-meaning Believers (and a few clueless ones as well) who are concerned about people who spend so much time and energy in cosplay. What they forget is that it's not about what someone is wearing (1 Samuel 16:7, Matthew 15:17-20), but rather who you are wearing.

The Apostle Paul teaches in his letter to the Roman church that we should "clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and forget about satisfying your sinful self." (13:14, NCV) What he is saying is that out pursuit of Christ's likeness that it is as if we wear His righteousness and goodness and holiness like a garment. Now, by this I do not mean to imply that there is a particular "dress code" that Christians should wear like a uniform, but that we should be known by how we live our lives. Elsewhere, we are encouraged to have the same mentality and attitude of Jesus, by placing the needs of others ahead of our own, and living in humble obedience to God (Philippians 2). This'd id's the example Jesus gave for us to model for the world, as if it were a fine for of clothes. Outwardly, we could wear shorts and a T-shirt, or a jumpsuit, or even a kilt: the actual fabrics and designs don't matter, only the character of our lives. 

This also fulfills the two main reasons people cosplay: identification and community. But in this case, we identify with the character of Jesus Christ Himself, and in so doing, we also seek to be a part of His body, the Church. 

The main difference is that most of the time, at least, cosplay is temporary. Cosplayers dress up like their favorite character, or someone from their favorite franchise, for a short time, and then they take it off. But the Christian is to be clothed in Christ permanently. Every day Jesus' life should be on display in the Believer.

Suit up!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

[Retro Review] Unbreakable

Last week I broke my ankle slipping on some ice. Since I wasn't going anywhere for a while, I decided to catch up on a movie I hasn't seen when it first came out, but one I had heard many good things about. That movie was M. Night Shyalaman's 2000 exploration of what makes a superhero or a supervillain, Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.

WARNING! The below synopsis and analysis contains spoilers!

My initial thoughts were that in this film, every character is in some way broken. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is dealing with a personal sacrifice he made twelve years ago that has apparently limited his future. His grief over this loss leads to a restlessness that causes his relationships with his wife and son to be broken as well.

Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), unlike David, is physically broken. He has a rare condition that leads to brittle bones, which means he is highly susceptible to injury. Although deeply embittered by his condition, he is loved by his mother, and yet that doesn't seem to be enough. He desperately desires the approval of the other kids in school who bestowed him with the name "Mr. Glass." 

Both are seeking something. David wants peace of mind and spirit and a sense of purpose. Elijah wants to find someone else like him, even if it's a physical opposite. David denies his "specialness" while Elijah exploits it.  Only as David discovers what his purpose is does he find the peace that he had been missing.

In the end, it is revealed that Elijah is the arch villain of the story, committing unspeakable crimes to force his "opposite," David, out into the open. In an interesting reversal of the tropes, David does not use his superhero power to defeat Price; he does what any ordinary person would do - he turns him into the police.

Many people hold up the graphic novel Watchmen as the supreme deconstruction of the superhero genre. I think a serious case could be made for Unbreakable. The film asks questions about what is a hero's purpose, and that of his opposite, the supervillain. But what if, in the end, David and his villainous opposite were equally gifted by God to fulfill a good purpose, and not to occupy the opposite ends of the morality scale? What if the evil perpetrated by the villain was not borne out of necessity, but out of his choice, viewed through his bitter resentment for his life? What if Elijah had, as the old quip goes, "used his powers for good, instead of evil?"

The essence of sin is to miss the mark of God's glory (Romans 3:23), and that failure to live up to the perfect image of God inherent in people is the result of transgression, literally a "stepping across the boundary," or rebellion against God's will. In short, sin boils down to a choice (this is a pretty simplistic comparison, but it will suffice for my purposes here). Elijah became too wrapped up in his hurts and pain to see anyone else, and was guilty of great acts of evil in order to elevate himself.

Sin leads us to broken relationships between ourselves and God, nature and each other, and none of us can find rest in anything until we learn to rest in God (Augustine, Confessions, 1:1). Once we accept that our purpose is to honor God and find fulfillment in a life lived in obedience to Him, will we know the peace that transcends all of our loneliness, pain, and bitterness.

We are broken because of our sin, and we can only find peace and purpose when we are united with our Creator and live within His will for us.