Content Warning(s): Game Spoilers for Tales of Xillia, Torture, Rape, Cosplay Rape Culture
Day twenty-five! April is Sexual Assault Survivor Month! This post will contain sensitive material; please exercise caution if you see a topic that could be upsetting to you. A final caveat: these are written from my limited perspective as a bi woman who was raped. I don't have all the answers and I'm still working through my own journey. There are many other kinds of sexual assault and abuse that are relevant this month. Take time to consider the needs of your diverse fellow survivors. Speak up for them when they can't speak up for themselves, but don't speak over them. Thank you!
If you haven't heard of Presa, chances are you haven't been following my cosplay page - she's been in my banners and she was the first cosplay I wore when I truly started cosplaying.
In early 2014, I bought a copy of Tales of Xillia to play while waiting for the release of Tales of Symphonia Chronicles. A friend advised me of "this one character, just wait until you see her outfit" toward the beginning of the game. I played and waited for a couple hours into the game (Jude's side), and finally saw Presa. "That outfit is so ridiculous," I said aloud to myself, as I was still playing alone and on my 19" television from college, "... I must cosplay it."
I hadn't cosplayed in almost four years at that point and I wasn't really in the community anymore. I wasn't sure why I said that at the time, nor why I felt the need to put her garments on my own body. I thought about saving up to go back to one of my favorite conventions and seeing if cosplay was as fun as it was before the 4chan junk happened. In my mind, I'd vowed never to use my real hair as part of a cosplay again because it was part of what I disliked about my previous work; Presa would be a perfect introduction to actual wig styling. "If I can style this wig, I'll think about this seriously," I told myself. Bought the wig. The day after it arrived, I contracted uveitis and couldn't work on it. It sat in my living room for a while, almost forgotten.
In the meantime, I'd finished the game and turned to some side resources that were slowly being fan-translated. If you're unaware, Presa is an antagonist character whose backstory isn't told almost at all in the game. You know that she worked as a spy, dated Alvin, and then Alvin sold her out; then you see her in the game surprised to see Alvin when he's around, and the complicated relationship that they had continues to dance around the main plot. Spoiler: she dies by falling from a collapsing cliff and you later find that she'd been planning on leaving Alvin again in a letter she leaves behind.
What you don't know unless you look at those side materials is the entirety of her story: Presa was abandoned by her parents (who were spies fleeing danger) at age 16. She was taken in by a tribe who saw that her beauty could be to their advantage. At that time, she joined the Rats and used her body to elicit information from nobles for a living. When she was 19, she met and dated Alvin while still spying and started living with him, thinking it was progressing well and even keeping her spying secret for a long time. She decided to tell him about it on her birthday. Alvin then immediately betrayed her and the very soldiers and noblemen she used to sleep with dragged her into a cell and tortured her, and all the fellow spies in her network were murdered. It's not directly stated that she was raped, but heavily implied, given that most of her clothing was torn by the time she made it out. At the very least, her body was battered and bruised. In order to survive, she escaped and ran through harsh environmental conditions (we're talking Kanbalar snow if you know what that means) in tattered clothes. She picked herself up with the connections she'd made and got back to work, this time with a partner (Agria), and eventually the two became advisors to King Gaius; Presa could live without fearing for her life.
Now that's a survivor's story. (Minus, y'know, the eventual dying part, but that was a sort of deus-ex-machina for the game rather than anything that was her fault.) If you look at her outfit, you'll notice that it's fairly revealing. Considering this is someone who endured a LOT of torture and likely rape, it's interesting that she wears something that exposes skin. Interesting, that is, until you consider the symbolism.
In June of the year I played Xillia, I was raped. I was numb and in denial, but I knew one thing: that wig I'd bought was going to be put to use. I started to work on the cosplay itself even though I was in over my head and sewing and crafting materials I'd never worked with before. I put all my extra hours into creating Presa, obsessed over planning to make that first convention great. When it finally came time to debut her, I was wary of wearing something like that in public, but I felt safe because it wasn't me being looked at. It was Presa, and Presa survived her hell.
For me, the chance to walk a few miles in Presa's literal shoes was a chance to put on the confidence I lacked in my daily life. It was a mask to hide behind while I tried to process what had happened to me. Wearing that outfit made me feel sexy and desirable on my own terms, and not the terms my rapist had set. I felt smart like Presa. I felt like I could have the upper hand no matter what. And even though I had my own scars starting to form, they suddenly didn't matter. This was the body I was presenting and it was okay.
I like to refer to this as "taking back my body" when I write about my experience with Presa, which has now been several times. Even though I put my body in her clothes, I was only revealing more of myself. In "acting" as her, I got to tell her story, and that was the beginning of how I'd start to tell my own story years down the road.
Man, if it hadn't been for Presa, I don't know what I would have done. No other character in the game brought me peace, even if she was mostly relegated to the sidelines. No other character had an experience similar to mine. I feel the connection I had with her from the first time I saw her had to be something like fate because I'd have had no way of knowing what she went through just by playing the game, not to mention at the time I first saw her, I wasn't even a survivor yet.
When cosplayers who wear outfits similar to or even showing more skin than Presa's are criticized, I feel upset. Cosplaying the designs of women who are important to me has been vital to my healing and I'm not alone in the sentiment. Like I always say, 'til something like that happens to you, you won't know how it feels to dress in that fashion. People cope with being raped in different ways. For someone like me who dances and often keeps in check with their body, it was a way to stop the cycle of dissociation and start the healing process, even if it was slow at first. It's important to support cosplayers who wear these types of outfits because it takes a lot of courage to put one's body out into the world to be photographed, much less a body post-assault or abuse.
My message is this: if you don't understand why someone chooses to cosplay something with a potentially "problematic" design, ask them. They might have an important story to tell.
Thanks for reading! Tomorrow's topic will address rape kits: what they are, how they're used, and how there are so many of them that are never tested.
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