“Heroes of Cosplay”: SyFy’s “Toddler’s and Tiaras”?
Heroes of Cosplay is the SyFy channel’s new series about cosplay competitions at conventions. The show follows a select few cosplayers behind the scenes of the competition into their homes, studios and their creative processes. Each episode centers on a different convention, and the cosplayers must create a new look for each competition. Cosplay, for those who might not be familiar, is short for “costume play” and it is the act of wearing a costume to portray a character from a work of fiction. These costumes are often hand made and they can cost hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars and hours to create. Some cosplayers like to get into character by acting like the character they’re representing. Other cosplayers merely create and wear the costumes. Either way, the cosplayers are judged on “presentation” during the competition, as well as detail and craftsmanship.
The cosplayers the series follows are mostly professional and semi-professional costumers. Chief among them is the well-known costumer Yaya Han, who appears as a guest judge at each of the competitions in the series. She is introduced by her self-chosen title, “the Ambassador of Cosplay”, and she often shows up to give our cosplayers some (seemingly unsolicited?) advice, like a costumed fairy godmother. When I spoke with Yaya at SDCC, she stressed that the competitions were not rigged in any way to favor the competitors. Indeed, in the past two episodes, only one award has been given to any of the show’s stars (it was to Holly and Jessica for “best team” for their Dungeons and Dragons costumes). We see some of the creative process, though a lot less than I had hoped. There were some cool shots of Jesse vacuum forming his Steampunk Stormtrooper helmet, and a harrowing scene where Holly makes a head cast of Jessica to help sculpt her Tiefling horns. Most of the show focuses on (surprise) the drama and stress that goes into creating something on a too-short deadline for a competition.
The show has stirred up controversy in the cosplay community. The initial excitement for a reality show based on cosplay and featuring some of the cosplay community’s most talented names has faded since the show first aired and has been replaced with… resentment, mostly. It’s what happens whenever an unelected elite minority is chosen to represent a population: rebellion. The show was marketed as a documentary style, and it does catalog events and interviews like a documentary, but it is basically another competition reality TV show. It was not made for cosplayers, it was made for the large, existing reality television audience. From what I have seen so far, it’s modeled pretty closely after TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras. This isn’t a bonehead move for SyFy, since Toddlers and Tiaras is a massively popular show. It’s also not a show that was made for its subjects. I don’t know how the child-beauty-pageant-going community reacted to Toddlers and Tiaras, but I bet it wasn’t all positive.
The strange thing for me is that this is the first time I have been familiar with the work of reality TV stars before the show aired. I know some of these people, or have met them at conventions. I follow them on Twitter and Facebook. I know what some of them are really like. Watching their personalities edited to fit the reality TV model is totally fascinating. To say that the drama is all manufactured is as ridiculous as saying that everything on the show happened exactly as it seems. There is inherently drama that surrounds competitions, and cosplayers are no different. However, some of the perceived cattiness is definitely a result of editing out of context remarks together. Most of the time it’s pretty transparent.
I don’t identify as a cosplayer, but I do consider myself part of the community. The cosplay community I know is mostly a welcoming, largely inclusive bunch that will tell you to wear whoever you want as long as you’re having fun. Cosplay competition is a very small part of the activity. You definitely do not have to have ever been judged in a competition to be considered a cosplayer. That the show is focusing on competition just makes it easy to package and market, and makes more relatable for those unfamiliar with the hobby. It kind of explains to the layman why anyone would spend the kind of time and money that our cosplayers spend creating a costume. I will tell you a secret (spoiler alert: not actually a secret), you don’t spend hundreds or thousands of dollars and hours creating something for a cash reward that might very well be less than the total cost of your costume and trip to the con. You do it because you love how you feel when you dress up as a favorite character: powerful, sexy, magical. It’s the process and the reward of a job well done. It’s the attention from children who believe you’re actually who you’re dressed up as and the “May I take a picture with you?” from excited fanboy/girls. Sadly, this is what the show is lacking so far.
We still have more to see from Heroes of Cosplay. Perhaps there are some redeeming surprises in store. The second episode aired recently and featured a couple of new faces. Heroes of Cosplay is on at 10pm on Syfy. You can find them on Facebook at (www.facebook.com/HeroesofCosplay) and on Twitter at (twitter.com/HeroesofCosplay).