How 'Star Wars' Cosplay Gave One Fangirl A New Hope

In certain circles, I'm sure – among those who don't know an elf from an Ewok – cosplay is considered weird.

Even for me, a self-identified geek, the world of cosplay always seemed to be the ultimate boss level reserved for uber-nerds only. After all, I don't possess the crafting skills necessary to construct a convincing and functional costume, and I certainly don't have the confidence required to strut about in public in a leotard or green body paint or fake armor or alien headpieces.

But thanks to cheerful internet message boards with step-by-step instructionals and my budding patronage of Jo-Ann's Fabric and Craft store, I realized that I'm craftier than I originally thought. As for the confidence? It turns out I had that backwards all along.

I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing

I completed a master's degree last May, so I've been job hunting for over a year. Before that, in between college and graduate school, I was job hunting for a year and a half. Through it all, I've been incredibly lucky to have a steady stream of support (both financially and emotionally) from my parents, and my friends have proven to be impossibly understanding in general as well. But the soul-sucking grind of the job hunt is a reality I still have to face every morning when I wake up, wondering why I should even bother getting out of bed when I have nowhere to go, no one to report to, and no discernible proof that I have served any purpose whatsoever by existing on this Earth.

Therapy and career counseling (which serve similar purposes for me these days, seeing as how prolonged unemployment correlates with depression) have certainly helped with muting – or at least, lowering the volume on – the insidious voice that informs me on a regular basis that my current lack of productivity means I'm a worthless human and a detriment to society. But I needed something else, something more concrete, to prove to myself that I am still, despite the mindless cover letters I spitefully churn out and despite the impersonal rejections I receive in return, a creative and luminous being.   

I needed a project. A big project. A project that would force me away from my computer screen, my phone screen, my TV screen. Tangible proof of my existence over the passage of time.

Star Wars Cosplay

Do. Or Do Not. There is No Try.

So I began to craft. Choosing a subject matter was easy; I had been escaping to the Star Wars galaxy far, far away for months now. One of my main obsessions has been Ahsoka Tano: the snippy, bright-eyed padawan of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, who morphs into a wise, tragedy-hardened mentor figure in Star Wars Rebels. I was enthralled by young Ahsoka, captivated by her energy and her power, and charmed by her empathy and optimism. I wanted to replace my listlessness and apathy with her ferocity and her enthusiasm. In short, I was totally done with Allyson Gronowitz, so I decided to be Ahsoka Tano instead.

I felt a spark of purpose light my way over the next few months, keeping my eye on the ever-important (at least, important for this procrastination-prone writer) deadline: WonderCon 2017 in Anaheim, California, just an hour-and-a-half drive from where I live in L.A. With enough self-awareness to know that constructing the Togruta headpiece for myself was, at the time, beyond my skillset, I commissioned an incredibly talented Etsy vendor to take the reigns for that element of the cosplay while I set to work on the rest, making frequent trips to Jo-Ann's and texting my roommate things like "Come to my room to look at my loincloth!!1!"

I tried on bits and pieces of the costume every step of the way, but it's hard to top the thrill I felt when I stepped in front of the mirror for the first time in the complete get-up. I hadn't followed the screen-accurate instructions to a tee – I already owned a pair of boots and a belt that captured the spirit of the costume closely enough, so I decided not to shell out the money to construct new ones. Despite these liberties I took with the details, the gestalt effect was striking. And even more than the flash of pride I took in my own handiwork was the sudden and expanding glow of joy that hit me when I looked in the mirror and saw something other than my disappointing self – instead, I saw a bold, brave, battle-ready badass.

When I made my Ahsoka Tano cosplay debut at WonderCon, I was immediately bitten by the cosplay bug. I realized I needed to make some adjustments to the costume and better prepare for the inevitable wardrobe malfunction, but I was ready for the big leagues. I was ready to hit up San Diego Comic Con.

Star Wars Cosplay

We're Home

We've all considered what it would be like to be famous, and some of us, more than others, have gone to great lengths to pursue public recognition. This pursuit is often looked down upon, but at its core, the desire for fame is rooted in the basic human desire to be seen. When asked "what's your prefered superpower?" no one really wants invisibility – not unless you're a spy or a ninja or a predatory cactus. Invisibility is a curse. Invisibility is my daily existence: a psychological manifestation of crippled self-worth. It's when the world spins merrily along (or burns slowly to the ground, as it were), and Facebook informs you that everyone else is triumphantly wrangling their dream careers and traveling the globe with their longtime significant other, but you sit alone in your apartment all day waiting, in vain, for both... that's invisibility.

But when I stepped off the trolley at the San Diego Convention center in all my Togruta glory, I knew what it felt like to be seen. Let it be known that even I was floored by how popular the character of Ahsoka Tano is (hey, Lucasfilm? Movie. Now. Please) This is a character from an animated kids show that was canceled mid-series, but people of all ages and walks of life love Ahsoka. And that deep affection was evident on the faces of the countless little girls, little boys, middle-aged men, and security guards who glimpsed my cosplay, as well as the woman driving a minivan who stopped me as I was crossing the street and the one guy I could've sworn was homeless until he beamed at my approach and enthusiastically asked to take a picture. It's difficult – nay, impossible – not to bask in all that intoxicating warmth. Anytime someone caught my eye and instantly broke into a smile brighter than Tatooine's twin suns, I felt a tingling happiness all the way from my blistered feet to the tips of my montrals (or, Togruta horns). I felt connected to humanity; I felt alive.

Giving and receiving so much positive attention is undoubtedly a huge part of the cosplay thrill. But it also goes beyond skin deep, tunneling down to the core of what we call our identity. Interacting with strangers in a regular, neutral social setting – say, at a bar or at a dinner party – can be paralyzing for us introverts, because we have to actually verbalize our interests without knowing whether the other person shares them, and we run the risk of exposing our passions to dead air. It would be much easier to wear a sign around my neck that proclaims: "Hello there! I am a fangirl. By that I mean I fanatically gush over many things, such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Sherlock..." and Mr. Stranger would take one look and shout, "Alas! Another Star Wars fan! How do you feel about Hayden Christensen's Force Ghost in Return of the Jedi?" and we wouldn't have to bother with hellishly awkward smalltalk. But no one does that, because we're not puppies up for adoption. Which is why people instead go for the more subtle approach, and take to wearing nerdy T-shirts or getting tattoos.

It is also a reason why religious people wear certain signifiers of their faith – say, a cross, or a Star of David, or more modest-looking clothing. One's appearance can tell an entire story about one's life. During one of my trips to Jo-Ann's Fabric and Craft store, I saw two Orthodox Jewish women browsing around, and I smiled at them, thinking, "Hey, me too! We share similar backgrounds and ideologies! I am less alone in this world for having encountered you." And later on, when I witnessed these two young women helping care for an old lady who'd had a fall, I thought, "Yes! We are on the same team. 50 points to House Orthodox Jews!"

Star Wars Cosplay

Let Me Look On You With My Own Eyes

I'm a firm believer in the saying that you are what you love, and cosplay literalizes this maxim. Walking around downtown San Diego during Comic Con dressed as Ahsoka Tano effectively broadcasts a very specific message to a very specific group of people without my having to open my mouth. That message is: "We love the same thing! Come talk to me about this thing I love so much that I devoted months of my life to transforming myself into the very thing you also love!" And if you're the type of person who mentally runs through a laundry list of disaster scenarios whenever you need to approach someone new, dressing in cosplay all but guarantees that the type of people you want to talk to will actually come up to you first.

And, incredibly, cosplaying as Ahsoka made me feel more like myself – or at least, the self I wanted to be... and is there really much of a difference? Sure, I chose to dress up as Ahsoka Tano because I'm going through an intense Star Wars phase (honestly, I think of little else on a daily basis. Got any fanfic recs?), and because the cosplay construction provided me with a manageable challenge. But the character herself resonates with me in a way that goes far beyond her kickass outfit.

Ahsoka is now a beloved character within a subset of the immense Star Wars fandom, but she is certainly not recognizable to the general masses of humanity, and probably not even recognizable to much of the wider geek population. In all honesty, one of the reasons I picked Ahsoka is because I am a special snowflake and I covet uniqueness. (Which is why I didn't go for Wonder Woman, though I did grin idiotically at every single Wonder Woman cosplay I passed by.) But I realized that I identify with her in trait-specific ways as well – I'm empathetic, sometimes to a fault; in athletics, I compensate for my small stature with speed and intensity (though my Force-sensitivity is a work in progress); I'm curious about the world(s) around me and inquisitive when it comes to topics I don't know. When fans of Star Wars: The Clone Wars see me dressed up as Ahsoka, these are the facets of personality that flash through their minds – and these are exactly the facets of my own personality I intend to project.

I had always thought that cosplay was for people who were so sure of themselves and of their place in the universe, so comfortable in their own skin that they were prepared to shed that skin for another. I certainly can't speak for everyone who has ever worn a costume, so in some cases, perhaps that's true. But for me, things played out a little bit differently. You know how the saying goes: Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman – or, well, Ahsoka Tano. And sometimes, being Ahsoka Tano can help you discover how best to be yourself.