In our last cosplay piece for our summer cosplay series, KM provided tips on getting started in cosplay, but getting involved in cosplay can be harder for different groups of people based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, and more. In this article, Carly talks race in cosplay and the barriers people of color (POC) cosplayers encounter when engaging their geeky passion.
Step into a convention in your new costume with wrinkles ironed out, shoes not meant for an eight-hour day, a cape billowing behind you from the wind through the doors, and you’ll know what excitement feels like. But it’s posing in selfies, strangers-turned-friends exclaiming when they see you’re dressing up as someone from their favorite series, and meeting new people that turns cosplay into a community. As a cosplayer, my vacations are the time I spend cosplaying with friends. However, cosplay doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The same racist comments in our media and culture come up in cosplaying too, and they’re something I don’t experience as a white woman. So I spoke with a few cosplayers in the community to hear about their experiences cosplaying—good and bad.
Madi Edwards, who goes by Celsius in cosplay, has been cosplaying since 2003, and participates in cosplay panels, cosplay photography, and video games. She enjoys cosplay and has had numerous fun experiences, but she’s also experienced faux compliments, insults disguised as praise, and racial coding—comments that negatively address the cosplayer’s race—when cosplaying Mikasa Ackerman from Attack on Titan:
“I was called the n-word merged with Mikasa’s name, and when I spoke up about how I didn’t appreciate that comment, I was told I couldn’t take a joke,” Madi said. “Also, I’ve been called ‘black waifu.’ Honestly, it makes me really uncomfortable as negative comments would, but … I really dislike being defined by the color of my skin in this hobby. I see myself as a cosplayer, not a cosplayer defined by my race.”
Reina Valentine, who has been cosplaying on and off since 2009, has had similar experiences:
“When I first cosplayed Faye [from Cowboy Bebop] in 2010, people called me ‘Blaye Blalentine,’ because I’m black,” Reina said. “And they said that I was the ‘best black Faye’ they’d seen. At the time, I was still so new and just so excited to get compliments that I didn’t realize that was actually hurtful. Why can’t I just be a good Faye Valentine?”
Reina added white cosplayers aren’t called “White Faye” or “Waye Walentine.” And she’s right—I have never had my whiteness attributed to my own cosplays. These kinds of backhanded compliments serve only to knock certain cosplayers down a notch—to imply that while they’re good, they’d look better if their skin was lighter. In many places around the world, fair skin is fetishized; POC with lighter complexions are treated more favorably and considered more attractive than POC with darker complexions. You only have to look as far as our entertainment culture to see how much more star-power white actors have, whereas POC actors face more restrictions.
Can we really be surprised about the treatment the cosplayers receive when our media is structured the way it is? Who are we accustomed to seeing in films, comics, video games, and television series: largely white characters, or in some cases, “racially ambiguous” characters. While there have been some gains in more lead characters who are women, the character landscape is incredibly white. Even when critics praise movies like Selma, The Butler, and other films starring black actors, characters, writers, and directors, big movie studios consider the films risks and refuse to finance them. After all, the leaders of those large movie studios are white. When other forms of entertainment media make gains, there’s still heel-dragging on acknowledging those characters of color in more mainstream media.
A 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA examined 172 theatrical films released in 2011 and over 1,000 television shows airing during the 2011-12 season; according to this report, POC actors had only 10.5 percent of lead roles in those theatrical films compared to 89.5 percent of white actors having lead roles. The report argues because POC represent about 36 percent of the U.S. population, they were underrepresented by more than three to one. Furthermore, about half of those minority actors who were cast comprised of only 10 percent or less of the full cast. Minority directors comprised about 12 percent of directors in 2011, and only 7.6 percent of writers were a minority. These statistics roughly match up with the statistics for television, but broadcast comedy and drama casts were significantly more racially diverse, including animated series from networks such as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Entertainment is filled to the brim with white or fair-skinned characters, so even when cosplayers want to dress as POC characters, it’s slim pickings.
With that in mind, peruse the major cosplay-oriented sites today. There’s Cosplay.com, WorldCosplay.net, and ACParadise, among others. Even though Cosplay.com hasn’t done a new showcase costume or showcase photo since 2012, it takes seven pages of showcased costumes to find a black cosplayer; in showcase photos, it takes three pages. WorldCosplay, a newer website, is more in use now and is internationally popular. Many of the cosplayers featured in the most popular of all time photos are Asian. Yet, the most viewed and highly rated photos tend to be of cosplayers with fair skin. In ACParadise’s Link of the Day, there is greater diversity even outside of a focus on black cosplayers during February for Black History Month. But it does still skew towards cosplayers with a lighter skin tone in the more recent Picks of the Month. These are all incredibly talented people. However, what I’ve seen from popular Facebook cosplay pages to cosplay websites, cosplayers with darker skin have less visibility:
“Because there are so many fair-skinned characters out there, people have a ‘harder time’ seeing us as really looking like the character as they would a fair-skinned cosplayer, which I think is ridiculous, personally,” Reina explained. “So, when they have these ‘Wow! Look at these cosplayers who look just like this character!’ moments, we often get left out unless it’s a dark-skinned character no matter how good our cosplays are.”
Keyarah Ingram, on Tumblr as morningrescues, is another cosplayer who noted the cosplay community’s focus on skin color. She said when cosplaying Jinx from League of Legends, she was called “Black Jinx”:
“It’s really disgusting, because cosplay stands for costume play,” Keyarah said.
Yet the comments, while uncomfortable, won’t stop her:
“It was hard to be bothered by it, because I was too confident in my cosplay!”
The cosplay community is far from perfect; however, there are places like Cosplaying While Black that promote black cosplayers everyday. This Tumblr isn’t a cure-all, but it’s one way to increase visibility online for cosplayers who largely go unnoticed, and it’s encouraged more people to try cosplaying:
“[Cosplaying While Black] is one of the main reasons I am comfortable cosplaying regardless of my skin color,” Keyarah said. “And they showcase amazing black cosplayers, which I feel is extremely important in the cosplay community, since a lot of the time we are overlooked or thought of as not good/accurate enough over our skin color. Cosplayers need to be more accepting of each other, not even with race, but also with level of cosplay.”
Cosplay is for everybody, but cosplay can seem scary. Because visibility is often low, POC who have seen far more fair-skinned cosplayers online may not feel motivated to cosplay until they see someone else with a darker complexion. Better visibility not only better represents the number of POC cosplayers, but it also inspires new cosplayers—you can’t go wrong with more people having fun:
“When I was Hanji [from Attack on Titan], black aspiring cosplayers would come up to me and say I was the best Hanji they’d seen—not ‘Black Hanji’; just Hanji—and that I’d inspired them to cosplay too,” Reina said. “That means so much to me … Maybe more black cosplayers are what we need to get the public recognition we deserve!”
These are cosplayers who have a deep love for the people they cosplay; sometimes it’s an aspect of a character’s personality, and sometimes it’s for the fun of coordinating a cosplay experience with friends. Reina joked she loves to cosplay women “who could kill you in your sleep with a smile on their faces,” and while she’s personally more like the sweet character Honey Lemon from Big Hero 6, who she has cosplayed, she likes to use cosplay as a way to portray sides of herself she doesn’t normally explore. Madi, even before having cosplayed Korra from Nickelodeon’s Legend of Korra series, found the character impactful:
“[Korra’s] personality, her struggle, her pride, her everything resonated with me, and I saw a lot of myself in her,” she said. “I like to cosplay characters I connect with, and Korra was one of them.”
Madi also cosplayed alongside her friend as Asami—Korra’s close friend and romantic partner by the end of the series—and said she felt like they were treated like celebrities at the New Jersey anime convention, AnimeNEXT.
Korra is a woman of color and bisexual, which is very noteworthy on a network like Nickelodeon. Having her as the titular character is an example of greater representation and powerful writing. After all, Korra is a character many people can relate to. Other American animated shows are making great strides as well.
“I hugely want to shout out to Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe, because [Steven Universe] was the first time I’ve actually seen different body types and characters I can actually identify with through a cartoon,” Keyarah added.
Both the human characters and gem characters of Steven Universe have diverse body types and different skin tones. But what does this mean for the cosplayers dressing up as their favorite characters? It’s important to call out problems in the cosplaying community and to strive for a positive change, but a part of that positive change comes from loving yourself and having fun with cosplay. Keyarah recommends cosplaying with friends so that everyone can keep laughing with each other through the day and not feel scared and alone in costume. Even when the stress of cosplaying or negative comments can get you down, there’s nothing like loving that character:
“For me, cosplay is showing the appreciation I have for a character, so being able to display that and connect with others who like the character or show keeps me doing it,” Madi said.
And if you’re a cosplayer or love seeing cosplayers, don’t feel shy asking to take a photo; it will make that cosplayer’s day.
Currently, cosplay has white privilege just like the rest of media and fan culture. To make things better for everyone, we need to be the change we want to see. So, if you see a cosplayer who happens to be black who amazes you, send them a compliment! A genuine compliment.