Syfy’s semi-hit, quasi-reality television series, The Heroes of Cosplay, returns tonight for the continuation of its first season. The show provides a documentary-ish style look into the lives of several high profile and professional cosplayers as they work to build costumes, win contests, and advance their careers in the costume and prop-making industries. Aside from generating viewers for the Syfy channel, it has also stirred up quite a bit of commentary from the online cosplay community. Of course, for a show that I feel can be best described as “Toddlers and Tiaras for Adults,” I wouldn’t expect anything less.
Reality television seems to have fallen into two camps - the competition show, where contestants use some skill to create fabulous things under unbelieveable time constraints and hear (hopefully) insightful commentary from industry professionals in order to win incredible prizes, and the cat-fight show, where people who usually have too much time and too much money sit around talking smack about other people with the same first world problems. While Heroes of Cosplay could have easily fallen into the first category (can you say Project Runway on steroids?), the producers of the show instead decided to pitch their tent on the outskirts of Camp 2. And therein lies the controversy.
The typical format for Heroes of Cosplay goes something like this: introduction to our Heroes, their backgrounds, skills sets, and pictures of some awesome previous costumes. Sometimes we also get to see how are they working to turn their passion into a thriving business. Then - the spark of an idea! An upcoming comic-con gives the cosplayers an urgent need to create something new and exciting for the con’s costume contest. The heroes scramble to gather the supplies and slap together a costume for this weekend’s convention. At which point tears, frustration, procrastination, and petty remarks ensue. Eventually the cosplayers pack it up and head to the convention, where they typically spend every waking moment prior to judging in their rooms working on the completion of their costumes. One of the cosplayers will undoubtedly have a disaster (Unfinished costume! Severe allergy attack! Prop theft by the TSA!), while the others will manage to make it on stage and show off their completed costumes to a panel of celebrity (though not often expert) judges. The Heroes usually end up losing the contest to some guy who spent an entire year building a transformer in his garage, and go home wondering what went wrong, and how they can possible top themselves for a chance at the win next time.
Aside from the fact that many cosplayers feel that the show paints their hobby in a negative light (some of the comments and in-fighting can be really catty), the premise that these cosplay competitions (a) have a significant impact on the contestant’s visibility to professionals in the film industry and (b) that the cosplayers are in these competitions “for the prize money” is completely ridiculous. From the few shows that have aired, it is entirely evident that the Heroes are, for the most part, practically industry professionals as it is. They are using expensive machinery in dedicated workshop spaces that your average comic fan could only dream about possessing. And the idea that they are using these spaces entirely for personal purposes is preposterous. When using such high-end equipment to create such fantastic costumes and props, it is a bit silly to think that the cosplayers are trying to beat each other down to win a few hundred dollars in prize money. I mean, let’s be honest here. Between the cost of travel, hotels, tickets, not to mention the cost for the raw materials for the costume itself, the Heroes are easily spending several thousand dollars each weekend. While a bit of cash to offset the costs would be nice, cosplay isn’t the jet-set lifestyle the show’s producers make it out to be. I mean, sure, there are conventions around the country nearly every weekend, but does anyone really go to all of them? I know many industry professionals and journalists go to most of the large cons, but that certainly doesn’t have them flying across the country every weekend.
Aside from the fact that the core premise of the show doesn’t really make sense, it also touches on a whole range of other hot-button topics, without really addressing any of the concerns of the cosplay community. From body image issues to the sexy factor, the show brings up a lot of concerns about how a cosplayer is portraying themselves and how they are representing the hobby. On a similar vein, there does seem to be something of a gender bias on this show - the ladies get to have fun playing dress-up, while the men in their lives seem to do most of the grunt work. Granted, this isn’t true of everyone (we do get to see some of the ladies in a machine shop, and a few male cosplayers in costume), but even when the men aren’t doing the work of building the cosplay, they are often portrayed as being the even-keel that keeps a stable reality for all involved. The portrayal of these issues in mainstream media deserves a much more in-depth discussion, and will definitely be a topic of discussion in upcoming posts.
All that being said, I have to openly admit - I am totally addicted to this show. Yes, yes, I know. It has problems. A lot of problems. But I don’t really watch it for all the surface tension and manufactured drama. I watch it for those glimpses of behind the scenes magic. Instead of paying attention to the catfights in the foreground, I’m looking at the work tables in the background. Instead of watching the ladies have their meltdowns, I’m watching their guys hot glue stuff together. Instead of caring which Hero will win the day, I’m analyzing every other costume in the competition. Should I be supporting a show that so many deride as being detrimental to the hobby we all love and enjoy? Possibly not. On the other hand, as with anything that creates controversy, it is impossible to effectively defend your position when you don’t have a clue what is going on with your opposition. So while I can’t tell you if the producers learned anything since their first six-episode run, I can tell you my eyes are going to be hot-glued to the television tonight to try and find out.
Until next time, this is Dr. T reminding you to get your hands nerdy.