Thursday, October 16, 2014

Culture Shock 10.16.14: Cosplay isn't a sign of stagnation

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I've never been one for cosplay. Putting together a good costume takes a lot of time and money, to say nothing of sewing skills I'm sadly lacking, as my high school home economics teacher would attest.

The most dressed up I ever get for comic book or sci-fi conventions is a T-shirt emblazoned with some obscure pop-culture reference. But I've always envied people who have the time, patience and know-how to pull off a really great costume. Little did I suspect they were an indicator of economic stagnation and poor job prospects. Who'd a thunk it? So, imagine my surprise when I read an article at The Week headlined "Why the rise of cosplay is a bad sign for the U.S. economy."

The author, James Pethokoukis, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, makes a bold and, it seems to me, wrongheaded claim. It goes like this: More and more Americans, especially millennials, are into cosplay, short for "costume play." And this is because dressing up as fantasy characters is an escape from dead-end jobs and economic malaise.

But maybe I should let Pethokoukis speak for himself: "When you're disillusioned with the reality of your early adult life, dressing up like Doctor Who starts looking better and better."

Pethokoukis argues by way of analogy, noting that Japan has lots of young cosplayers, lots of underemployed young people and an economy that's been no better than anemic for the past 20 years. This, I gather, adds up to something, but I have no idea what.

Despite the nagging feeling there must be something more to what Pethokoukis is saying, if there is I can't find it. Taken as is, Pethokoukis' argument is so wrong I barely know where to begin, but I'll start with dollars and cents.

Cosplaying isn't for the poor of spirit or bank account. It costs a lot of money to make a good costume. Some cosplayers spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on their wardrobes. Some wear multiple costumes during the course of a weekend convention. Some even call upon the services of professional makeup artists. And none of that accounts for travel and hotel costs. Attending a sci-fi or comic convention isn't cheap, whether you're in costume or not.

Pethokoukis knows this and even refers to the "big bucks" cosplayers invest in their costumes.

Now maybe he assumes they all live with and sponge off their parents to supplement whatever money they make from their menial jobs. Regardless, it takes a wealthy society to be able to afford such pastimes. Cosplay isn't a sign of economic trouble, but a reminder of how rich we are, even after the Great Recession. But the problems with his argument don't end there.

It's hard to calculate how many cosplayers there are in the U.S., but we can at least get an idea of attendance at the conventions cosplayers frequent. Attendance at one of the largest, San Diego's Comic-Con International, has been growing for years, since well before the Great Recession. The fastest growth was from 2001 to 2005, when attendance doubled and reached 100,000 for the first time. Since the recession, attendance has hovered between 125,000 and just over 130,000.

That doesn't look like a post-recession flight from reality to me. It looks more like a trend line flatting out. But enough foreplay. Time to get to the crux of Pethokoukis' article, such as it is.

Though unstated, Pethokoukis makes a common but unwarranted assumption: that there is something special about cosplay. But the fact is, people escape mundane reality in lots of ways, and dressing up like fantasy characters is just one of them, albeit the one that's most easily ridiculed.

What if we applied the same illogic to jock pastimes that Pethokoukis applies to geek pastimes? Maybe we should be looking at the increasing popularity of fantasy football and baseball? Maybe the real indicators of a lousy economy are guys who turn their dens into shrines to their favorite college or pro football teams? Yes, these are expensive hobbies, too, but why let that stop us?

If Pethokoukis' argument describes reality, then cosplaying millennials aren't the only ones trying to escape it. Fortunately, they aren't the ones I think have taken a flight from reality.

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