Decolonizing Your Comic-Con – Redefining Spaces in Geek Fandoms
For thirteen years I’ve been a participant and observer of cosplay culture. It’s a culture that originated in scoffed at spaces, grew into a fandom of its own, developed rules, became a fully fleshed out microcosm of dominant culture and is now loudly pushing back on the limitations society places upon everything. We see this in the fantastical worlds and cultures that seem unable to escape the image of a society profiting on exploitation and in the marginalization that occurs when people can imagine a world comprised of talking cats and no Black people.
It’s surreal to be removed from your story and erased from the future.
It’s fascinating that in stories of imaginary people from other planets, orange, green, and blue people are more acceptable than Black people. It’s astounding to realize that people with six arms and 8 breasts are more believable than fat people in the future…unless it’s a derogatory statement about the future of humanity, as seen in Wall-E. It is astonishing to realize that the autonomy of women is so troubling that women characters are often reduced to love interests, sex objects, and people who can only exist adjacent to men. And it is mind-boggling to realize that anything that imagines an environment other than those listed above is promoting a “dangerous agenda” that must be stifled.
Yet, that is where we are – an existence where participating fully in life while being a fat, Black, independent, confident woman is an act of rebellion and defiance. That my decision to not just live this life I choose, but to also talk about it and the myriad of ways that people and society both passively and actively try to suppress me are acts of resistance. That sharing my experiences aloud shows many people in similar situations that they are not alone and that what they experience is bigger than just them, and that sharing their stories creates a narrative that becomes egregious to deny. It’s difficult learning that people you love will deny your experience, and that despite the pain of that betrayal, you will learn the faces of the enemies who call themselves friends. It is frightening, exhilarating, liberating, isolating, and empowering…all at the same time.
When I started building a platform talking about these issues, it was intentional. Intentional in that I wasn’t seeing anything out there talking about my experiences. Not even close. There is a unique space you occupy as a fat Black woman in cosplay. You are a woman, but you don’t meet any of the acceptable sexual norms needed for anyone to see you. You watch cosplay groups form around you with people whose bodies are acceptable proportions, whose skin are tolerable shades. We’ve seen Black women gain popularity and acceptance provided they are slim/fit/hourglass. We’ve seen pale women gain popularity for the same reasons; we’ve seen larger women gain popularity as long as they remain hourglass and pale. The few larger, non-white cosplayers we see, if they are Black, have lighter skin or are racially ambiguous. It’s common and we don’t often speak of it because white people lack the nuance for the conversation and Black people don’t want to say anything that can be construed as non-supportive. Criticism is labeled jealousy and hate, giving people the excuse to ignore and avoid the conversation completely. Being Black at any size and any complexion is challenging…talking about it from a position of less privilege means having your observations subjected to extreme criticism, which again gets boiled down, incorrectly, to jealousy. And for many people, especially those concerned with popularity, these conversations have a negative impact.
It’s no accident that we have an economic system rooted in social currency and that the currency is regulated by self-appointed gatekeepers who do not rely on that system to support them. Every time you challenge a social norm, you put yourself at risk, yet the most honest change has come from people being willing to take that risk. Often, it’s a risk only experienced by those who cannot afford the risk and I find myself humbled when I see them refusing to be silent in the face of infinite obstacles and deterrents. It is not an easy choice to make.
I didn’t understand the choice I was making, not fully. But I learned quickly. Visibility comes at a cost and I am considered expendable as I am not society’s definition of acceptable. Being a fat, Black woman means I can be funny but not outspoken. I can exist but not be confident. I can accept and not assert. I should be grateful for any attention, even when its violent, because at least then people see me. I reject all these assumptions of my identity and choose to be the woman I want to be. And I choose to share my experiences and knowledge. I choose to amplify voices of those existing in spaces more marginalized than my own. I choose to resist societal norms and dare to be myself, right or wrong but always learning. Always absorbing information and working towards being a better person than who I currently am. I choose.
It is with that in mind that I create panels and content for geek spaces. I create Black-centered spaces where we can live and learn and express ourselves…our joy, our pain, our love and our frustrations. Having been in this community for 13 years, I have firsthand experience with the multitude of ways Black people are marginalized and lied to in geek culture. I have both seen and lived through the gaslighting and the minimizing of our concerns when cosplaying or discussing the lack of Black representation. I’ve been to supposedly unbiased events where every cosplayer had a fair shot of being photographed only to never find any images from those shoots. I’ve seen Black people make deliberate decisions to focus on Black cosplayers as they saw us being pushed out of photoshoots unless we cosplayed Black characters. Our work and contributions to the fandom continue to be seen as problematic and intrusive, things that are a direct result of being marginalized in a community of which we are active members.
The more content I create that prioritizes people living at my specific intersections, the more visible those intersections become for those who thought they lived there alone. And the more people realize they aren’t alone, the more narratives we see added to the conversation. The more conversations we see and hear, the more we realize that normal is a carefully crafted and curated lie, and the more visible that lie becomes.
We don’t break normal with silence. We don’t bring change by being passive. We bring change by empowering people to live their truth and challenge oppression in its myriad of forms.
I never set out to be a role model. I still don’t think of myself as one because I screw up all the time. It is with those mistakes that I learn. I share what I learn in hopes of helping create an environment that strives to include us all instead of oppressing many for the benefit of a few. I speak in hopes that more people will speak and that it becomes impossible to hide us and credit our work to whiteness.
I use cosplay to help everyone, including myself, envision and create a future that sees me and people who don’t fit the imaginary ideal that whiteness likes to idolatrize.