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The Cosplaying Professor: Susan Napier Is a Rebel at Heart

October 18, 2018 | Filed in: Woman of the Week

At the outset, Susan Napier, a professor of Japanese literature and culture at Tufts, seems to be one of those charmed people who found her calling early and glided from one great job to the next. But what about the time she was kicked out by her Japanese host family for staying out past her curfew? Or when she quit her PhD program for business school? In truth, she’s a bit of an iconoclast: She studied anime and manga way before it became trendy, occasionally enjoys cosplay, and stood up to those in her field who believed her ideas were frivolous (who are now eating their words, by the way). Today, she’s the author of five acclaimed books about Japan and has taught at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton. Here’s how she forged her path through the competitive, male-dominated world of academia.

Susan Napier

Susan wears the Aditi dress.

I GOT INTERESTED IN JAPAN THANKS TO MY MOTHER, who was an art historian and professor. She specialized in European art history, but I didn’t really like European art—I considered it too pink and fleshy and not my thing. My mother despaired over this for a little while, but then she took me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which has one of the greatest collections of East Asian art in the world. I was twelve at the time, and I just fell in love. There was something about the art of Japan that moved me deeply. It was like part of my soul was completed by looking at it. And that has never changed. From there, I got into haiku and Japanese poetry, and then Japanese literature, and then ultimately Japanese film and animation. I loved the details, the subtlety—it was like I could walk into a picture and be in a whole other world.

WHEN I ASKED IF I COULD STUDY JAPANESE as my foreign language, my school found a young graduate student at Harvard who was willing to tutor me. I was also able to go to Tokyo for my senior year of high school. I studied Japanese at a small language school, and I was living with a Japanese family—until they kicked me out because I stayed out past midnight at a party. Now that I’m a parent, I understand why they didn’t like that, and at the time, I did feel bad. But in hindsight, I’m glad it happened. If it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have learned to fend for myself. 

AFTER MY JAPANESE HOST FAMILY KICKED ME OUT, a friend of mine helped me find a job teaching English as well as a beautiful little apartment on a cobblestoned street. That friend was a Dutch woman who worked as a bar hostess and had studied linguistics and Japanese in Holland. I often think about the women who have helped me out over the years, and she was one of the first. It was such a great year. I made all these fascinating friends: people who were in their twenties, older than I was, and so sophisticated. They looked out for me.

Susan Napier

Susan wears the Lise top and the Woolf jardigan.

I WENT TO HARVARD FOR BOTH COLLEGE AND GRADUATE SCHOOL. I also went to Japan for my junior year of undergrad. At that point, my plan was to become a diplomat. I figured it was the perfect job, because I could go off and have adventures in other countries and be paid for it. But I also loved literature—I wrote my thesis on a modern Japanese writer. Then I got married to a Harvard graduate student, and it’s hard to be diplomat and stay in the same place as your spouse.

I BEGAN TEACHING DURING my first year in graduate school, when I was 22, and I was so excited the night before my first class that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t wait to be standing up on the stage, talking about Japan. I still love it. Now, I teach a seminar on the Japanese filmmaker Miyazaki, as well as a course on gender and Japanese culture.

MY MOTHER TAUGHT AT HARVARD since I was a little kid, and she continued to teach almost right up until her death at 78. She had a great deal of presence. A lot of my friends had mothers who stayed at home, and I think it was a bit harder for those friends to strongly pursue professional lives, because they didn’t want their mothers to feel like they didn’t appreciate all the important and incredible work that homemakers do. But I didn’t have to worry about that. In terms of other role models, I had one very good female professor at Harvard, who—of course—did not get tenure, but she helped me be able to see myself becoming an academic.

Susan Napier

Susan wears the Lydia dress and the O’Keeffe sweater.

I DID FEEL VERY LOST FOR A PERIOD OF TIME in graduate school, and I actually left my program for a little bit. There were just so few academic jobs out there, and the rarity of tenured women professors was almost shocking. It was also the era of power suits—double breasted jackets and leather briefcases and shiny high heels—and it also seemed like all the smart, cool people were going into business. I thought, What am I doing? So I left my program and applied to business school. It was a big deal and everyone was pretty shocked. But I just thought, Dammit, I want to be a professional and make money.

I DIDN’T GET INTO THE BUSINESS SCHOOL I WANTED to go to, which is very fortunate, because if I’d gone into finance I would’ve probably destroyed the economy of some small country by now. I did get into another business school, but I realized that I was just twisting myself up to have a chance to wear a nice suit. And so, at the 11th hour, I called up my former advisor at graduate school and said, “I’d like to come back to the program, if that’s okay.” And he wasn’t thrilled about it, but he said, “All right, I guess you can come back,” and back I went. And I haven’t regretted it since. Taking that little detour made me more serious about it in the end. I thought, If I’m going to go back, I’m really going to do this.

ANOTHER TIME I DIDN’T GET WHAT I WANTED was when I applied for jobs after graduate school. My first-choice job was at Amherst College, but they chose someone else, which made me very upset. Looking back, though, I’m glad, because Amherst was a pretty old-fashioned place at the time and I don’t know if I would’ve gotten tenure there. The guy who got the Amherst job instead of me—who is very nice—called me up and said, “You might want to think about taking this other job at the University of Texas in Austin. I was there in April and the campus smelled great and everyone was wearing shorts and T-shirts.” And I thought, Hmmm.

Susan Napier

Susan wears the Aditi dress.

INSTEAD OF GOING TO AUSTIN RIGHT AWAY, I spent a year at Princeton as an assistant professor. While the people there were very nice to me, I was the only woman in the department. Everyone could tell when I was coming down the hall because I was the only person who wore high heels. It was lonely, and it seemed I wouldn’t get tenure, so I decided to go to Austin after all. Texas does have a lot of good ol’ boys, but the university was less bound by tradition than a lot of the East Coast schools, and that worked in my favor. I also worked very hard, and I produced, and that was important. By the time I published my third book, not only was I a tenured professor, but I also was given a chair professorship, and I honestly don’t think I could have achieved that at an Ivy League or other traditional university at the time. Austin was more willing to take a chance on me.

I WAS ALWAYS A BIT OF A RISK TAKER in terms of my academic projects. My advisor back in Japan used to call me a yogansha, which means “forecaster,” because I chose subjects just before they got popular, and I’m quite proud of that. The first one was fantasy, which at that point was still seen as trivial and childish and escapist. I had to put up with quite a bit of, “Oh, fantasy, how cute.” But I knew that people were interested, so I taught it, and had great students in my classes. Then I wrote a book on fantasy in Japanese literature.

THE NEXT HUGE LEAP WAS STUDYING ANIME. I got serious pushback for that, too; people would come up to me at cocktail parties and say, “What are you doing? Cartoons—Japanese cartoons?” They obviously thought that I was just some lightweight idiot, which was frustrating. But in a way, that meanness made me want to fight back harder. It forced me to develop a decent theory of why animation is worth taking seriously. Today, it is: You see South Park and The Simpsons written about in The New Yorker and The New York Times. But I had to make a case for both fantasy and anime before that was happening, and that forced me to sharpen my arguments.

Susan Napier

Susan wears the Lise top, the Woolf jardigan, the Foster pant, and the Christa bracelet.

AS I GET OLDER, I FIND THAT WEARING ONE COLORFUL PIECE, particularly red, works for me, like a red jacket or a red scarf. It feels very Japanese to me—I can imagine a Japanese woman my age doing something like that. Putting together a whole look is kind of an art. And I don’t think it’s frivolous—I think it’s important. I want to embody my professionalism and my interest in Japan at the same time. 

I HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO COSPLAY A COUPLE OF TIMES, and it’s so much fun. Once I did it at Comic Con in New York. I was doing a presentation on The Rose of Versailles, which is an anime and manga about a young woman named Oscar who guards Marie Antoinette in 18th century France. It’s an interesting, gender-bending story, and it was very popular in Japan in the 1970s. I thought I would cosplay French 18th century, so I got my hair done in a kind of pompadour and I wore a maroon velvet jacket with white lace cuffs and gold buttons, plus jodhpurs and boots. And I pranced into the big convention center in New York and nobody looked at me. Everyone else had much, much more exciting, elaborate outfits. But I still loved doing it. It’s a little bit of a break from reality, and that’s empowering in a strange way.

Photographs by Sara Kerens. 


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Charlotte Cowles is a New York-based writer​ ​and editor.​ ​Her work has been published in New York Magazine,​ Harper's Bazaar,​ and Art in America. She'd always rather be at book club. Read more of Charlotte's posts.


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