Accepted Paper:

Fear and leering at the Carnival: observing and being observed at Australian costuming events   


Claire Langsford (University of Adelaide )

Paper short abstract:

In the carnivalesque atmosphere of Australian costuming events, temporary body transformations enable participants to play with alternative genders and sexual identities. How does a costumed ethnographer negotiate the pleasures and dangers of participating in these performance contexts?

Paper long abstract:

Drawing on the author's ethnographic research among Australian cosplay communities, this paper explores the risks and challenges of participant-observation in performance contexts where sexual and identity play are both encouraged and feared.

Cosplay, or costume role play, is a fan practice centred upon the assembly and performance of costumes based on pre-existing character designs. Cosplay performances in Australia take place mainly at popular culture conventions, large multi-day events attended by thousands of costumed revellers, dressed from head to toe in detailed and spectacular outfits that can completely transform the appearance of the wearer.

Performing in costume is regularly described as a liberating experience by participants as these temporary body transformations enable them to play with alternative self-presentations and identities, particularly alternative genders and sexualities. Donning masks of body paint and papier-mâché, participants are engage in carnivalesque and ribald performances of gender and sexual identities.

However, for the ethnographer and all participants, these performances can be dangerous as gazing and performance activities are seen to carry the risk of unwanted attention, sexual harassment or even assault. Frame slippage can occur as 'playful' performances are interpreted as non-playful actions.

From managing the concerns of an ethics committee, to walking the streets among crowds of zombies, to experiencing sexual harassment during performances, and to managing outsiders' perceptions of a field's penchant for kink and fetishism, this paper details the ethical and practical challenges of an ethnographer in costume.

Panel Ethn02
Sex and the field: sex, power, and the production of anthropological knowledge