I’ve been thinking about why cosplaying as River was a challenge ever since I teased about expanding upon that particular point in my last post. Oddly enough, watching the Beauty and the Beast adaptation with Emma Watson the other night was what clued me in to what is difficult about cosplaying a character like River, she is separate. River is unlike any other woman in the Firefly ‘verse. In short, she is ‘not like other girls.’ This is a common method of portraying a female character in fandoms – by not being like ‘other girls’ a character is given an agency unlike that of other characters. She is seen as special. Now, I am not disputing that you have to use some sort of method to make characters stand out but River is beyond anyone in her story. She is tuned into the universe, not just her immediate surroundings. She is overly aware of the intricacies of life even while she has trouble understanding why her actions or words are not always appropriate for a given situation. She also has difficulty relating to certain things, although some of her reactions, for instance her assessment of the ice planet (see below), are accurate.
While watching Beauty and the Beast I was struck by how alone Belle was and, arguably, how isolated she still is at the end of the film. Sure, she has a prince and some servants around her but she lacks friendships. Now, there are reasons why she lacks friends – she is an oddball and we are meant to identify with her on that level – but I wonder how powerful stories of princesses might become if they were to have real friends that stood beside them. Yes, friendships would cause narratives to shift and change, but most people are not entirely alone. There might be points where one feels alone but most heroes or heroines are portrayed almost as if they are above friendship, which sends a concerning message to consumers of their stories. Friends should not mainly be used for comic relief (as in Mulan) or completely disappear (as in Ella Enchanted). Friendship is a source of real life magic and it should be treated as such in fiction. While friendship is difficult, especially since it relies upon circumstance and choice, it is so important to our lives.
River, despite her eccentricities and her issues, eventually becomes part of the crew. Even with Simon’s emphasis on her ‘otherness’ she pushes past her the bounds of her separation to embrace the crew of Serenity as family and as her friends, she simply does it in her own special way. Still, there is a tendency in the fandom to keep her separate from the others as if her trauma suffered at the hands of the Alliance makes her less human. While she displays a terrifying capacity for combat, most notably in Serenity, she is still at her core, human, and a young woman at that. I was unsure how to act as her, which probably made me less recognizable, though I made an effort to imitate the Summer Glau’s grace with a straight back and good posture.
I think what’s most appealing to us about thinking that we’re ‘not like other____’ (fill in the blank: people, girls, students etc.) is that we feel as if our actions and feelings are always justified. When you think of yourself as unlike others you create a distance between yourself and them. You subconsciously place yourself in a position where you are alone by virtue of your choices. Sometimes it feels preferable to feel different and special, but it can also be extremely isolating. When you distance yourself from others you imply that there is something wrong with the entirety of that group; I take issue with this mentality, specifically, when it is applied to groups of girls and young women. I know quite a few women who would proudly say, “I am not like those: basic girls/party girls/bitchy girls etc.” There are many variations, but all that pronouncement boils down to is that we are judging people for something they choose to do and due to our personal prejudices and stereotypes we want to disregard any potential affiliation with them.
Now, I am not suggesting that we have to subscribe to every group of people in existence. There are people that I fit in with better than others, and that is fine, healthy even. There are people with whom I will always fundamentally disagree and that’s also okay. What I’m trying to do as I approach the rest of my life though is shift the way I approach new groups of people and how I perceive myself. I do not want to be alone. I want to be like other girls. I want to be like other women. I will keep pushing myself to be stronger, more compassionate, and to lift others up. We cannot continue to see each other as threats, because really we should be each other’s biggest advocates. I want to be like the women that inspire me. I do not need to surpass my friends in order to be proud of them and their accomplishments.
River is separated from the crew throughout Firefly, sometimes physically and other times mentally and emotionally. She is not ‘like other people’ but in the end, she uses her talents and resources to protect the group. She pushes herself into the realm of family and friendship; she is not satisfied with being on the outside. I suppose it was difficult to cosplay as her because I haven’t cracked the code on how to do that in every area of my life. Still, it was fun and challenging to cosplay as River because she reminded me that being different does not always mean you’re alone. She serves as a reminder that being part of a group is important for personal, mental, emotional, and social growth.
You can’t stop the signal my friends, you can’t stop the message, and you certainly shouldn’t stop being part of the larger world because, it’s where you belong. Hold tight to your friends and fight for them. Make a choice to keep yourself involved in the swirling chaos of life because if you distance yourself from it you’ll miss out on something shiny.