You may have heard of the cosplay phenomenon — it’s kind of a Big Deal these days. The act of dressing up as one’s favorite fictional character, be that from movies or video games or one’s own imagination, has evolved from a curious hobby shared by diehard pop culture enthusiasts to a vibrant, international community of casual and professional costumers who really, really enjoy playing pretend. Still, every cosplayer’s experience is unique. We all enjoy our own successes in various ways, but some of us also face distinct challenges. Female cosplayers of color, especially, experience the hobby in a very different way than their peers.
Cosplay — that’s “costume” plus “play,” by the way — continues to grow in popularity thanks to talented individuals like Yaya Han and Linda Le, whose creations impress beyond the niche audiences of comic book and anime fans and also serve as their livelihoods. Competitions engage the community, too, encouraging convention-goers to participate for cash prizes or grand trips. Even the world of reality television has embraced cosplay, with Syfy dedicating an entire show to a handful of prominent cosplayers and the effort, skill and stress required for the craft. (How much of that show is “reality” and how much is “TV” I leave up to the reader to decide.)
While I can’t quite count myself in the leagues of Yaya and Linda (though, boy, do I wish I could), who officially represent characters for company promotions and sell prints or calendars, I’ve happily called myself a casual cosplayer for the last five years. Like many in the community, I cosplay purely for the fun of embodying a character I have an affinity to and for the opportunity to share that passion with others. There is something charming about being recognized as Blue Beetle, for instance, and having a fellow fan of the DC Comics hero run up during a convention to chat at length about how much ass he kicks. Cosplay is, along with being a true performance art, a fantastic way to make interesting friends.
I would be lying if I said that cosplay was entirely glamorous, however. The community has made news lately regarding the treatment of cosplayers at conventions and events. Movements in the vein of Cosplay Is Not Consent serve to remind attendees of this basic little thing called decency — you know, the notion that there is still a human being beneath the spandex and theatrical makeup, and that they should be respected accordingly. More and more conventions are clarifying anti-harassment policies to prevent incidents such as what occurred at New York Comic Con 2013, in which a press team abused its privileges to ask cosplayers inappropriate questions on the show floor.
Female cosplayers in particular seem to be targets of harassment, in part due to a culture that sometimes dehumanizes women as objects of desire to be consumed. Costumes that showcase skin are seen as invitations for lewd comments, unwelcome advances or actual physical contact. Costumers that do not show enough skin — e.g., a Wonder Woman or Zatanna wearing pants instead of the classic leotard — are deemed prudish and unattractive. Basically, we can’t win. The harassment can extend to online interactions; I can’t count on all my fingers and toes the number of messages I’ve received describing, in unfortunate detail, the acts others would like to perform on me while I’m in costume. Has that actually worked for anyone? Can you tell me if it has? I’m genuinely curious.
Blogs and forums exist solely to criticize cosplayers based on factors such as weight and race, too. A few years ago, Caitlin Seida shared the story of how a photo of her dressed as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft went viral for all the wrong reasons, producing a heartbreaking wave of hateful commentary on her size. Skin color, too, is shamed for breaking the “accuracy” of a costume. In fact, skin color — as well as race and ethnicity — has become a hot topic, with several cosplayers of color speaking up about the racism experienced while costuming. Chaka Cumberbatch told of the slurs she was called for dressing up as Sailor Moon as a black woman in 2013. Nakki, a mixed-race African American cosplayer I spoke to, describes her overall experience in the community as “exhausting” because of these kinds of comments, prompting a hiatus in her teen years. “The positivity of the cosplay community and how much fun I have sewing and creating costumes is why I keep doing it, but it feels like swimming upstream,” she explains, “especially when you do interviews and photo shoots with white cosplayers and then discover you were cropped out of the frame in post.”
Female cosplayers of color, therefore, can encounter a number of difficulties within the community on top of being subject to body shape standards and the polarizing idea that we are either showing too much or too little skin in costume. The color of that skin becomes an issue, sometimes deemed detrimental to the image of the character we are trying to portray. Couple these standards with specific cultural standards of beauty and it’s not hard to understand why many of women of color step away from cosplay altogether or avoid partaking in the first place.
I’m Dominican-American. In Dominican culture, like in many other cultures, lighter skin is idealized. Light skin and eyes are symbols of white American or European success — hence Sammy Sosa’s skin intense bleaching episodes. It’s a silly concept and I know it’s a silly concept, but such pressures are often mirrored in American media and have resulted in a hyper-awareness of my own brown skin color and how it matches (or doesn’t match) characters I identify with, even though skin color has no impact on what makes these characters wonderful or worthy of imitation. While internal pressures have never prevented me from donning a costume like Black Widow, whose pale skin and vibrant red hair I don’t share but whose strength and character are worthy of emulation, I can understand how they — and the external pressures from a critical community — might hinder another woman of color’s costume choices.
Nowadays, I feel more drawn to dress as characters who actually represent me and share my brown skin, dark hair or cultural history, of which I am all very proud. Therein lies the problem, however, at least in the current comic book, anime and video game cosplay communities: our pool to choose from is very limited. In my case, there haven’t been a great number of important Latina characters in mainstream comics within the last few years. Off the top of my head, I can name a grand total of one who had her own title (Spider-Girl in 2010). Marvel’s Ms. America Chavez did play a big role in 2011’s Young Avengers and, as you can imagine, immediately motivated me to don her jean jacket and trademark American flag top. I’ll be real: seeing someone who looked like me on the page was thrilling! This was a character who I could comfortably cosplay as with my naturally wild, curly black hair. I didn’t have to wear colored contacts. I could embrace that I knew Spanish while walking around the convention floor, because Ms. America probably did too. While I could see aspects of myself in the blond-haired and blue-eyed Supergirl because of her strong moral compass despite not looking like her, I could identify with Ms. America because of her strong moral compass and because she was just like me in both appearance and background. That was wonderfully novel, and an experience that many white cosplayers may take for granted.
See, these opportunities can be rare for darker-skinned women of color. In anime and manga, generally produced by Japanese creators for Japanese audiences with Japanese or white characters, even less so. It’s for this reason that blogs like Cosplaying While Black exist, celebrating diversity in the community and encouraging cosplayers of all backgrounds to participate in a hobby that is growing exponentially. I’ll note, too, that men and women of color don’t comprise as small a percentage of that hobby as many seem to think. For example, Oblivious Took, another cosplayer I spoke to, actually estimated that there are more non-white than white cosplayers in the Power Ranger costuming community. Cosplay has also become very popular outside the States, with dedicated groups in countries like Mexico and Malaysia and, obviously, Japan.
Not all cosplayers of color endure harassment, either. As I mentioned before, everyone’s experience is unique, and the community has taken steps to make the hobby as enjoyable and positive as possible. Took mentioned that although it took a while to “get over the insecurity of not being the same race as the characters,” she had never experienced any noteworthy harassment as a South Asian woman. Voodoo Howyacall, known for her Cammy costume, says that she anticipated negative reactions because she is a different race than the Street Fighter character she portrays, but has instead found her year of cosplaying overwhelmingly positive.
Stories like Took’s and Voodoo’s are reassuring, because they suggest that our efforts to make cosplay the all-inclusive hobby it should be are paying off. At the end of the day, no one can really look exactly like the exaggerated proportions of a character on the page. A bit of artistic license in cosplay hurts no one and, in fact, can only serve to bring fans together. Ideally, we’ll see more characters spring into existence that cosplayers of color can readily and easily identify with in appearance, but if not, then to hell with it — a brown Batman can defend Gotham just a well as a white one.