Do the Bible and Conscience Limit Christian Cosplay?

Your cosplay choices can be shaped by other Christians’ advice, but only God and Holy Scripture should guide you.
on Sep 21, 2017 · 15 comments

This article is in response to Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s two-part series, Cosplay 101 for Christians.

Please note that this is not intended to be a rebuttal. It simply answers the question her article raised in my mind: “Are there any limits to what should be done during cosplay?” (This is a subject I’d never considered before I read her articles on the topic.)

As such this followup article is really a “yes, that’s fine, but …” addendum.

Since whenever anybody talks about limits to anything, doing so may imply rules, and having rules implies to many people legalism or legalistic thinking, let me be clear that’s not where I’m coming from. First, a couple of personal but I hope reasonable definitions:

  • “Legalism” in Christianity represents the idea that it’s necessary to obey a series of rules in order to earn personal salvation and/or favor with God.
  • “Legalistic” refers to churches and Christian organizations which don’t openly state their rules are required for salvation, but insist that you must keep a series of rules nonetheless.

Note that while I am going to talk about rules/guiding principles, I am not saying these rules are necessary for your salvation (or God’s favor), so they do not represent legalism. I also don’t insist you keep my rules, so these rules are not legalistic.

I mean to explain my point of view, but leave it up to you to decide for yourself (between you and God) what you believe is right.

Since I’m talking about me a bit, let me mention I personally spent a significant chunk of my childhood not in any kind of church at all and had a great deal of personal freedom to do what I wanted. It turns out that I knew there were some things I didn’t want to even try—drugs, for example. I made a rule for myself to stay away from them.

I believe that’s something mature Christians should routinely do: decide for themselves what they can and cannot personally accept regarding things not explicitly stated to be right or wrong in Christian Scripture.

I believe for people who were strongly exposed to legalism/legalistic churches and who have escaped that kind of thinking to understand God looks at people’s hearts and not their outward appearance, it may be weird to suggest there should be rules or principles involved in the application of cosplay. That maybe some things might not be a good idea to pretend to be.

But the New Testament has lots of principles it expects Christians to apply. And it expects you to apply them to everything (I Cor 10:31, Col 3:17—do all to glorify God AND all in the name of Jesus). You are to apply them for yourself, not because somebody makes you do so, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13), walking in the Spirit and receiving the fruits of doing so (Gal. 5:16-23).

What happens if somebody else is doing something we believers don’t feel is correct? Things for which there are no explicit Scriptural instructions?

In short, we are to tolerate the convictions other people have as much as possible. (See I Cor. 8 and Romans 14-15.) Which does not mean we never talk about such topics—though we should not argue about anything endlessly (II Tim. 2:23)—but that does not exclude disagreement or stating what we think is important. Romans 15:14 specifically states that we Christians are capable of admonishing and teaching and encouraging one another, in a context immediately after the discussion of Christian liberty, which includes disagreeing with one another at times.

Please note that nearly everything that otherwise can be good has a limit, a point where excess makes it bad. Chocolate is good, too much chocolate can be bad. I think cosplay can be good. I agree it’s essentially an artistic expression, as Laura VanArendonk Baugh said in her second article. I agree artistic expression, like chocolate, is a gift of God and is generally good. But I also believe artistic expression can be abused.

In other words, cosplay, like chocolate, has a limit. That’s normal—almost everything has a limit. Even drinking too much pure water can kill you.

More than anything, that’s what I want people who read this article to embrace—the concept of the existence of a limit on this topic. Where the limit is exactly for your cosplay is something you need to figure out for yourself. The advice of other Christians matters, but in the end God and Holy Scripture should guide you to your own convictions.

Note also when I’m talking about “limits” and “convictions” I don’t mean “personal comfort zone.” Yeah, a comfort zone is a real thing, but I’m talking about when you think something is actually wrong, either sinful or potentially so or dangerous and think you have a solid reason to stay away from it. But you also recognize other people may not see things the same way as you—or have the same issues you have.

To help you understand what I mean by limits and help you consider what your own limits might be, I’m going to share some cosplay costumes I wouldn’t ever wear out of personal conviction. (Also note I am not big into cosplay in the first place, which is perhaps like not being into oil painting—it means I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m still capable of saying what I would not wear … or paint.

By Sandman-AC at Deviant Art.

1. I would not wear this Conan the Barbarian costume below (it’s not because I don’t have this guy’s abs).

Why not? Because I have a personal concept of modesty this costume violates. I don’t take off my shirt in public, not ever (even swimming I wear a t-shirt unless totally in private). I think it’s wrong (seriously).

Note my concept of modesty doesn’t have to be yours—but if I would never take my shirt off in public as Travis Perry, I am not going to have a different standard as Conan. Since I get to pick the costume I wear in advance, I get to decide if the costume matches my personal values—the fact I’m wearing a costume does not excuse me from my ordinary ideas of modesty. No way I’m wearing that.

From under “Deluxe Conan the Barbarian Costume.”

2. But I’m not wearing this Conan costume either.

This one doesn’t affect my sense of modesty because of the fake plastic chest. But it hits another issue—while I watched Conan the Barbarian in theaters in 1982 and still think the music is epic, Conan stands for a lot of things I don’t agree with. Yes, I know that wearing a Conan costume doesn’t make me him, but I actually would be more comfortable wearing the costume of the villain of that 1982 movie, Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones). Because most people know when you wear a villain’s costume, you don’t agree with what the villain stands for. But when you wear the protagonist’s costume, people assume you think the protagonist is awesome and are in some kind of agreement with his or her point of view.

Conan is attributed to have answered, “What is best in life?” by saying: “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!” I could not agree less with that point of view. I don’t want people to think I approve of things I actually don’t, because I don’t want my good motives to be seen as evil (Romans 14:16), because I don’t even want to give an appearance of evil on my part (I Thes. 5:22), and because I want to be an example to other Christians (Titus 2:7).

Note I shared a personal conversation between Laura and E. Stephen Burnett in which they saw everything I had to say here in advance. Laura commented that this second point of mine contradicts me saying I had no issue with what she said about playing villains. To a degree she’s right, though I just said it’s bad heroes that bother me more than villains. Though it’s true what the character represents matters to me and she basically said it should not matter. But then in the PM I used the example of the Gor sword-and-planet series (which routinely praised sexual slavery for women), saying I would not ever dress as a character from that world—and she agreed she did not support that series. Therefore, if I came as a character from Gor, I’d be guaranteed to make her angry—fictional character or not. So in truth, even Laura has a limit on this topic.

This means for me I would rule out in advance dressing as a protagonist who believes things I can’t stand. What that means for you, I don’t know—you have to make up your own mind between you and God.

From the Comics Alliance under the title “Cosplay: Gender-Swapped Wonder Women Are a Wonder, Man [NYCC 2011] by Laura Hudson October 16, 2011”

3. I’m not wearing this costume either:

Clearly this is a joke. I actually think it’s a little bit funny, albeit perhaps insulting to the entire Wonder Woman franchise. As a costume, it’s also a trifle immodest for my taste, but my main reason for me not wearing it is not immodesty and not that I disapprove of Wonder Woman as a character (she’s mostly pretty good, actually, though the Greek goddess thing of the recent movie annoys me), but because I would not dress as a woman. Not even as a joke.

The Bible lays down quite a lot of verses about separation of male and female. I’m not going to quote them here, because in the end I recognize it’s an interpretation on my part to say: “God means male to be in the male category and female to be female. God created binary gender and honors it.” I could pile on a stack of verses to support my interpretation and probably defend it pretty well—though it would be a bit harder to defend the idea that a natural consequence of that interpretation is I would not wear clothes intended for women, not even in a costume.

But my interpretation here is in fact based on Scripture. I am in fact entitled to oppose cross-gender dressing as a personal conviction. I’m also entitled to defend the idea that “crossplay” is something Christians should not do.

But I recognize that is my conviction for me and cannot be transferred to you, unless you look at the Scriptures yourself and find you agree with me.

Note this is a conviction based on Christian concepts and not a matter of my squeamishness or comfort zone. In high school I dressed as a woman for a Montana State University film project based on Some Like It Hot (for those of you who know the film, this is the role Tony Curtis played). I was honestly uncomfortable in women’s clothes. But I oppose crossing that line not just because this feels “icky.” I was able to dress like a woman in high school when I had very little Scriptural knowledge. It’s because I know more now, not because I’m more squeamish, that I think the division of genders is real, intended by God, and have noticed we are living in a culture that’s quite confused about that—a confusion I believe we should alleviate as Christians, not add to.

Therefore, I wouldn’t engage in “crossplay” and don’t recommend you do so, either. But in the end, that conviction is between you and God.

So, I’m not wearing a costume that shows too much of my skin; I’m not going to wear a costume of a protagonist character whose personal philosophy I loathe; and I’m not going to dress as a woman. Note—that still leaves a vast array of potential costumes I could wear without violating my own conscience.

These are my thoughts on the limits of cosplay, shared as examples to help you develop your own concepts, if you haven’t already done so.

What are your thoughts?

Travis Perry is a hard-core Bible user, history, science, and foreign language geek, hard science fiction and epic fantasy fan, publishes multiple genres of speculative fiction at Bear Publications, is an Army Reserve officer with five combat zone deployments. He also once cosplayed as dark matter.
Website ·
  1. Kirsty says:

    My two favourite bits:
    “the fact I’m wearing a costume does not excuse me from my ordinary ideas of modesty”

    “most people know when you wear a villain’s costume, you don’t agree with what the villain stands for. But when you wear the protagonist’s costume, people assume you think the protagonist is awesome and are in some kind of agreement with his or her point of view”

  2. I’m just going to pop in long enough to clarify a couple of things I said which I think were misunderstood.

    “Though it’s true what the character represents matters to me and she basically said it should not matter.”

    I never said it should not matter at all. Art matters! What I said was, “cosplay is not a single-dimension snapshot of a person’s character and beliefs.”

    Likewise, I said I do not support the themes of the Gor series. That’s not the same as saying no one should cosplay from it or that it’s a guaranteed trigger for me. Yes, if someone wanted such a costume as an excuse to grope women because he’s “just in character,” we’re gonna have a problem. If someone wanted to use cosplay to critique those themes — and social critique is one of the functions and duties of art — then I would be okay with that, or even support that challenge to those themes. In art (and scripture), content is not the question so much as the theme, or what’s being said about that content.

    “Are there any limits to what should be done during cosplay?”

    Of course! “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” 🙂

    Cosplay is not an excuse to punch or harass people, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. There are always limits. Except maybe for chocolate. I’m not sure I’m on board with that….

    • Travis Perry says:

      Sorry to have misrepresented you a bit. It wasn’t deliberate.

      Though I’d like to add that I think if you saw a guy in a red-head wig and bare chest, with a short sword, and you asked him who he was cosplaying and he said, “Tarl Cabot from the Gor series,” you wouldn’t be pleased. Sure, you might not have a knee-jerk reaction against this hypothetical person, but the very celebration of that story world in a non-ironic and non-satirical way would be offensive to you.

      Or let me rephrase that–it would be offensive to ME and I assume from you knowing what that story world is about and what I know about you that it would be offensive to you as well. I would actually think there would be something wrong with you if you didn’t react negatively to someone sincerely celebrating Tarl Cabot in cosplay. Because as we both know, that character openly celebrated the sexual enslavement of women in the Gor novels.

      Perhaps you wouldn’t actually be angry if the guy was acting civilized. But you would not be taking his picture and joining in with him in his celebration of that particular story world. You may be very non-judgmental on this sort of thing, but there does come a point, even for you, in which a story world is simply not something you approve of.

      That was the point I was trying to make.

      Since such a limit to what a character stands for does exist even for very tolerant and reasonable people, I want to be sure to steer far away from the possibility of that kind of offense in what I do. That’s why I would not want anyone to confuse me supporting the philosophy of protagonists I can’t agree with.

      I hope that makes sense, even if you don’t agree.

      • Oh, it’s absolutely going in my mental file about that person, a data point in my array. 🙂 But for that data point I would also look at his portrayal and presentation, because the only likely reason someone would play a Gor character is to reference the sadist-subjugation themes, either for or against. (Let’s be honest, it’s not a compelling character, no one reads Gor for the plots, there’s not a lot of reason to even bring up Gor outside of feminist/misogynist commentary — I had no recollection of the character name… they have names? — so I’m going to assume any portrayal is more likely a statement than, say, cosplaying Vader or Captain America or Mr. Darcy or Snape.)

        Someone playing from Gor in a non-subversive, non-commentary way because he’s genuinely supportive of those themes is going to make me grumpy, yes, you betcha. But that person’s behavior is also going to draw my ire in street clothes as well. He’s crossed moral and biblical lines long before he ever put on a costume, and his cosplay is not the point at which we should find ourselves morally offended.

        Someone playing Grignr from The Eye of Argon is also playing a character from a world with horribly offensive ideas about women — but it would send a very different message, because like Gor, there’s no way to reference that world without the metacontent.

        • Tony Breeden says:

          Agreed. If you’re cosplaying anything from the Gor series, you’ve just broadcast the fact that we need to pray for you a bit harder than we’ve been doing thus far.

        • Travis Perry says:

          I read two Gor novels in my teenage years. I was not into S&M or sexual humiliation of women, but stumbled onto the series because of a general interest in fantasy, and because they were in my public school library.

          I was interested in the combat descriptions and also the idea another Earth could be on the other side of the sun, hidden from view. Though the sexual stuff caught my attention, too.

          I steered away from reading more than two because of Christian convictions growing in me that the books were inherently corrupt.

          The existence of this series is part of a long list of Speculative Fiction I see as wholly or partially corrupt. Conan the Barbarian is in fact generally similar to the Gor stories, only somewhat milder in terms of treating women like objects in my observation (Conan rapes women in at least some of the novels). (Yeah, I also read some Conan.)

          Books like Gor are part of the reason I seek to write a better kind of speculative fiction.

          And yes, the story had characters. I imagine the main reason nobody cosplays this world is the backlash against someone who did so would be immense. Though of course my reasons for not cosplaying Tarl Cabot are the same as not cosplaying Conan. Cabot is only a more extreme case.

    • Tony Breeden says:

      How can he suggest that there should be ANY sort of limits to our consumption of chocolate and yet claim that he’s NOT a legalist?

  3. Joshua Cookingham says:

    Always good to see Christians advocating for a stronger conscience, especially in matters of a fandom 🙂

    Good post.

  4. Tim Brown says:

    “I am in fact entitled to oppose cross-gender dressing as a personal conviction. I’m also entitled to defend the idea that ‘crossplay’ is something Christians should not do.”
    Thank you for making this point. Lately I’ve been feeling that any criticism of anything any Christian fan does is supposed to be beyond reproach. It gets a little tiring to read comment after comment and article after article saying, in effect, “everything I/we do is okay, because my/our conscience/s aren’t bothered by it.” I may or may not always follow my conscience within my own fandoms, but I can’t and won’t deny the importance of always questioning my own actions in its light. I know that makes me all uncool, narrow-minded, cowardly, a “weaker brother” and so on and so on, but there it is.

  5. Tony Breeden says:

    Where are the pictures you’re referencing?

  6. notleia says:

    I submit that this is indeed, about comfort zones, just not strictly the physical types of comfort. And that’s okay.

    And I’ve crossdressed, too, for a high school play, in a mostly Southern Baptist rural community, and — this is the important part — no one cared. Because it’s a costume and reasonable people understand the contextuality of a costume as opposed to street clothes. You don’t wanna, you don’t hafta, but if you DO wanna, don’t be scared off by thinking that people will think you’re gay or trans.
    Our society typically wants a reason, like a play or Halloween/fall festival, for dressing up in a costume, but expectations are shifting to include cosplay as a socially acceptable reason. On a scale of one to Super Rebel, cosplay in of itself only merits a “meh.” So go soar, you little butterfly, you.

    • Travis Perry says:

      With respect, Biblically speaking (please read through Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 if those contexts are not fresh in your mind), you have no right to tell me what I think is right and wrong is actually a matter of my comfort zone. My conscience before God is between God and me. You have as little authority to tell me what the contents of my conscience is in regard to things I do and do not do than I would have in imposing my convictions on you.

      Sorry if the directness of my paragraph above sounds angry. It’s not intended to be. Feel free to develop your own convictions and I will leave you to them.

      But please, don’t imagine you actually somehow know I’m all about something other than what I said matters to me. You don’t know me well enough to even imagine you had good grounds to say that.

    • Autumn Grayson says:

      I cosplayed as L once at a Halloween party(my boyfriend cosplayed as Light), and it was pretty easy for me since L basically just wears a long sleeved shirt and light blue jeans. I think it tends to be far easier for girls to ‘cross dress’ as guys because…well… guy clothes aren’t guy clothes anymore. Nearly everyone in modern society wears pants at least now and then. For girls who cosplay as guys, many probably think nothing of it since it probably feels like wearing the same clothes they would on a day to day basis.

      I wear my share of ‘girly’ clothes when I go to formal events, and I’m ok with that for brief periods of time. But girl clothes tend to be sort of uncomfortable, so I wonder if that contributes to guys feeling embarrassed about it. The uncomfortableness of most girl clothes is probably a constant reminder that they are wearing something out of character for them that probably draws attention, and maybe it’d be like that for nearly anyone not used to wearing super girly stuff.

      To be honest, I think it’s far harder for girls to truly cross dress now days due to the everyone-wears-pants thing.

      • notleia says:

        [Insert screed about the uncomfortableness of women’s fashion and how we’re expected to put up with it for little to no reward but potential societal punishment if we don’t bother]

        I was lucky that it was relatively easy for me ’cause I am of the skinny, flat-chested variety (still am), but some people do make a lot of effort, not just with stuff like binding chests, but developing makeup skills. Like Laura’s sister doing the Whatshisface from Videogame crossplay, with the subtle stubble makeup. Subtlety is hard, y’all.

  7. cg says:

    What about Harry Potter movies books and cosplay? For the longest time I’ve felt they are just fantasy.

What do you think?