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BECOMING JESSICA NIGRI: Finding Identity Through Fantasy

Becoming Jessica Nigri documents Nigri's uniquely devoted cosplay, delving into what it means to her in addition to the idea of cosplay in general.

BECOMING JESSICA NIGRI: Finding Identity Through Fantasy

If there’s one person from the cosplay community that someone not familiar with it has heard of, it’s Jessica Nigri. Starting with her “sexy Pikachu” costume at San Diego Comic-Con in 2009, Nigri has grown into a sort of celebrity face of cosplay (costume play), with millions of followers across social media. Her name is nearly synonymous with the art form.

Yet, simply looking at pictures or watching videos may still not be enough to really know what it means to cosplay. Do these people make their own costumes? Who are these characters and where do they come from? Why do people do this?

Making cosplay digestible

In digital media production company Rooster Teeth’s documentary Becoming Jessica Nigri, all of those questions are answered with, perhaps unsurprisingly, a rather personal touch.

The film tackles Nigri with plenty of interviews, her exuberant personality showcased throughout the entirety of the runtime. And it’s effective. It’s hard not to latch onto Nigri, whose friendly enthusiasm both during “builds,” the process of making a costume, and in interviews allows cosplay to be digestible to an uninitiated viewer.

BECOMING JESSICA NIGRI: Finding Identity Through Fantasy

source: Rooster Teeth/Alpheus Media

What the documentary attempts to establish is that, while the characters of these builds are from not-so-easy-to-digest games such as World of Warcraft, Nigri is, essentially, a costume designer, much like those behind films except often more fantastical. Behind the colors and shapes and makeup is an artist, deeply invested in the authenticity of her craft, which she then inhabits.

Making cosplay personal

It was precisely the fantasy of it all that eventually led Nigri to cosplay. When she was bullied in high school to the point of changing her New Zealand accent to a more American one, she looked to characters such as Goku from Dragon Ball Z or Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft as inspiration for strength. With cosplay, Nigri can, quite literally, embody the heroes that hold a power that so many are attracted to.

A moment like that is why someone watches a documentary like this. Her craft is undeniably impressive and an engaging part of the film, but without motivation, without a grounding of the artist in the personal, it would only go so far. To those who cosplay, fantasy can be exactly where one finds their identity, which is a powerful notion that can extend beyond cosplay, further helping one to see themselves in Nigri.

Only sometimes breaching the performative

Becoming Jessica Nigri would have benefitted from more of those moments, however — or allowing those moments to have just one more breath. The work that director Mat Hames is doing throughout the film is deceptively complex. Cosplay is inherently performative, as is doing an interview for a documentary and, at times, the layers of performance don’t allow the personal moments to fulfill their entire potential in emotional release.

BECOMING JESSICA NIGRI: Finding Identity Through Fantasy

source: Rooster Teeth/Alpheus Media

The film is also rapidly paced, becoming unhinged in certain places. A profile documentary usually has a background narrative, which is a key organizational tool to cover someone’s life. Nailing that aspect requires pitch perfect pacing, but this film periodically loses balance on the tightrope it walks between background narrative — an upcoming convention, BlizzCon, at which Nigri will appear — and profile.

But the issues lie mostly within structure. The content of Becoming Jessica Nigri is quite expansive, and goes to necessary places. It emphasizes the massive and massively creative community to which Nigri belongs, and lifts up the “nerd” culture surrounding it.

Cosplay as empowerment

In one of the more raw moments of the film, Nigri touches on some of the backlash she’s gotten from fans of the characters that she becomes. It boils down to, basically, that initial moment of fame — the “sexualization” of it.

While some may see that as a problem, Nigri, who doesn’t disagree with the “sexy” description of some of her work, sees it as empowering. The characters she bases some of her costumes on are, as she says, idealized. But within the sexiness of her cosplay translation, she sees a reclaiming of the female form. Whereas, oftentimes, men draw and animate these characters, it is she, herself, who is now creating them and embodying them.

BECOMING JESSICA NIGRI: Finding Identity Through Fantasy

source: Rooster Teeth/Alpheus Media

Even beyond that, however, Nigri acknowledges the possibility that her image perpetuates stereotypes of the community. So, much of what she wants to do in this space is empower others to cosplay for themselves, and not to feel as though they can’t if, for example, they don’t have a body like Nigri‘s.

Conclusion: Becoming Jessica Nigri

As the film wraps up, Nigri attends BlizzCon after a week of intensive labor and all-nighters building her costume, and Hames and crew construct an ending that further emphasizes Nigri’s message. In one sequence, the film cycles through shots of various cosplayers at the convention and later interviews the artist who drew the sketch that Nigri built off of.

There’s an emphasis on individual expression and how that comes together to create this community. People may be showing up as dragons or orcs or other mythical creatures, but they’re also showing up as themselves.

Are you familiar with cosplay? If so, do you think that Becoming Jessica Nigri does a good job at capturing Nigri and the community? Let us know in the comments below!

Becoming Jessica Nigri is released today, January 26, and is available for Rooster Teeth subscribers.

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“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.

Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Kyle is a film geek and film student, currently wrapping up his senior year at UC Berkeley. Aside from obsessively monitoring the awards season or watching a Christopher Nolan film for the twentieth time, he loves screenwriting and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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