I went to my first convention when I was sixteen.
It was small, crowded, hot, and full of skeevy middle-aged white dudes who probably would have felt a lot more threatening if I, wide-eyed little geek girl that I was, hadn’t been completely entranced by literally everything. It was magical.
In retrospect, I can’t believe my parents let me go, and they really probably shouldn’t have. But here we are.
There, in that tiny hotel full of Bawlz and nerd stink, I came face-to-face with my first Stormtrooper and heard a phrase that would ultimately shape my cosplay destiny: The 501st.
Once upon a time, there was a precocious nine-year-old who loved books and cartoons and playing with dolls. On the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day, the precocious nine-year-old was in the living room of her great aunt’s apartment where her dad and uncles were watching something on TV with spaceships. The nine-year-old liked spaceships, so she asked what it was. Both uncles turned to the nine-year-old’s dad in horror. “Your kid doesn’t know Star Wars?” they asked. “What kind of parent are you?” They told the precocious nine-year-old that she was in for a treat, so she plopped down on the thick, tan carpet to watch. Now there were robots, and she definitely liked robots.
Late afternoon, November 23, 1995, Houston, Texas, Return of the Jedi on TNN. That exact, unrepeatable moment in time is when my life changed forever.
That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. Those two hours in front of the TV lit a fire in my imagination that’s never stopped burning. Star Wars opened up the world of Science Fiction, anime, comic books, film studies, and fandom for me, and it led me to the stories and people that have made me the person I am. There is a direct line from that Thanksgiving afternoon to every idea, influence, and inspiration that saved my life in the worst depths of Depression.
Star Wars and everything that followed is what brought me, seven years later, to a mildewy hotel in Memphis, my first ever cosplay, and a small contingent of Stormtroopers from the 501st Legion.
The troopers – who, in retrospect, were extremely gracious and patient to let awkward teenage me hang around with them – told me about the 501st, which for those who don’t know, is basically the fan club to end all fan clubs. The organization charter says that their mission is:
…to promote interest in Star Wars through the building and wearing of quality costumes, and to facilitate the use of these costumes for Star Wars-related events as well as contributions to the local community through costumed charity and volunteer work…
And what are this little geek girl’s top three favorite hobbies?
Star Wars. Check! Costuming. Check! Fan fiction. …Okay, so maybe not top three, but volunteering is totally in my top five.
I came into my geekdom at a time before the great rise of the comic book movie and after the great SF films of the ’80s had been carved up for network TV. I was fortunate enough to live in a geeky household and have fond memories of Sunday nights with Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I found myself very much alone in my Star Wars excitement. Return of the Jedi was released three years before I was born, and The Phantom Menace came to theaters when I was 13, with very little in between aimed at young fans, thus leaving me alone in my fannish excitement.
This was also in the days before online fan communities started to coalesce out of listserves and forums, before LiveJournal started to gain traction, before AO3, before I’d even heard the word fandom. On top of which, I grew up in small-town Mississippi, so no comic book store, no fan zines, no nerdy subculture, and a very tiny SF/F section in the tiny local bookstores. The idea of a community built around nerdiness, much less around fannishness, was so foreign that the possibility never even occurred to me.
You can understand why finding out that there was an actual organization with thousands of members who joined for the sole purpose of sharing their love of Star Wars was kind of an eye-opener.
Now, of course, things are different. Now, geek culture is everywhere, fans are in the spotlight, and I get daily compliments on my starbird tattoo.
Now, I go to conventions regularly and not only belong to but lead fan communities, on and off line. Now, 90% of my social sphere is fellow geeks, many of whom are professional creators, comic shop owners, cosplayers, community leaders, artists, and fan writers.
At the beginning of April, I got to see some of these friends at Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle. Because I’m incapable of attending a convention in street clothes, I brought multiple costumes, two of which were comic book versions of my childhood role model and all-time favorite space-faring badass, Princess Leia Organa.
One of the highlights of an all-around awesome con was getting to take pictures with all the tiny Leias I ran across, plus some miscellaneous Hans and a Batman who was people-watching at her first convention.
Then, on Sunday night, at the very end of the con, my friend and I were leaving the dealer’s room just as it was closing. Right before we got to the door, General Organa came around the corner. We recognized each other immediately, and she gave me a hug, plus some in-character advice about birth control.
You know at the end of Jedi, when everybody’s celebrating and Luke turns around, and Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin are standing there giving him a Force!ghost thumbs up? That’s what it felt like, taking that picture. Like a benediction from the previous generation. Like your favorite teacher coming up to you at your class reunion to shake your hand and say you’re doing a great.
I might have cried. I’m still crying.
I cry every time I happen to catch a Star Wars movie on TV, because I imagine that somewhere, in some other living room, some little kid’s life is changing.
Lately, I’ve been driving everyone around me nuts while I stress over my costume to get into the Rebel Legion (the “heroes” version of the 501st), measuring seams, checking references, and generally trying to meet some of the most stringent costuming standards in existence. It’s brutal. In 10 years, I’ve never put this much work, worry, and money into a costume, and it still might not be good enough, even after all this.
So why am I doing it?
I mean, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some need to prove that I can and for external validation, but it’s more than that. I’m doing it because I want to be the person that gets to tell some brand new geek about this whole world of people who love the same thing she does and see her eyes light up, because I want to show that kid at their first convention in their first cosplay all the possibilities ahead of them.
I’m doing this because once upon a time there was a precocious nine-year-old, who grew up to be an awkward 16-year-old, who managed to keep growing up to be a super nerdy 30-year-old, who, somewhere along the way, also grew up to be a Super Hero and a Princess, all because of some wacky stuff that happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Happy Star Wars Day, everybody. May the Force, be with you.