It’s Time To Step Up Or Shut Up: #BlackCosplayerHere And #CosplayAnyWay
If you follow cosplay on Twitter, you may have noticed the hashtags #BlackCosplayerHere #CosplayAnyWay and if you haven’t, you’re welcome. The #BlackCosplayerHere hashtag was started by various Black cosplayers who had an “interesting” experience at CollosalCon where photographers actively avoided taking pictures of Black cosplayers, even when they tried to book them for paid shoots. This is not an uncommon problem as a Black cosplayer and I admire these cosplayers for bringing attention to both the issue and the hypocrisy of other cosplayers and cosplay photographers who claim to support cosplay being for everyone.
I’ve talked about my experiences as a fat, Black, femme cosplayer. I’ve talked about how the cosplay fandom tends to ignore women who look like me for numerous reasons – my size, my color, my semi-shitty builds…and I’ve talked about how I’ve wrestled with this because it affected me in numerous ways. It affected my joy, self-esteem, confidence, and feelings of acceptance. On more than one occasion, I’ve thought about walking away and it was my friends who gave me enough encouragement not to quit when it seemed like a thankless exercise. It makes you wonder if the shame and disappointment you feel is worth the effort you put into this hobby.
The first few years of cosplay were the best and the worst. I started going to DragonCon, what some people consider to be the cosplay mecca, when people were just excited to see other fans dressed up as people from their fandoms and social media was in its infancy. Then, as social media exploded, cosplay became more popular. You saw people doing their best to look like real-life versions of comic characters, making 2D art into 3D reality. But that was a reality that only some could re-create…and it quickly became obvious that there these types of cosplay were preferred. Casual photographers and cosplayers began organizing shoots and requesting “canon” or “comic accurate” cosplay. This meant they wanted cosplayers who best resembled the characters in the books. Cosplayers were expected to be smaller than a certain size, shaped a certain way, and the same race of the characters to be in those shoots. Cosplayers who had previously felt comfortable at conventions, now felt rejected as they did not fit the image being sought.
It was a rough transition, one that I felt acutely as there were no super powered characters I remotely resembled. I distinctly remember complaining one year while looking for a character to cosplay that there were more blue characters than Black ones. That was the year I dressed as Nightcrawler. I still had fun, though. I kept meeting new people and trying new things, the Marvel and DC photoshoots were growing exponentially in size, and I accepted that nobody gave a fuck about my cosplay except for the people in my life doing it with me. And it was fun.
But as the hobby grew, so did its online presence. Where cosplay was once that weird thing supergeeks did, suddenly you saw photos of cosplayers on more and more websites. Once online popularity became a facet of cosplay, people began jockeying for more visibility. It was during this time that the art of appreciating a fandom became a fandom itself. And when that happened, the stakes rose for almost everyone involved. You saw people dying their hair, shaving their heads, dying, sewing, and embroidering their own fabrics. You saw people instituting strict food and exercise regimens to change their bodies closer to the fantastical proportions seen in comic pages. People began lightening and darkening their skin to better match the characters they sought to represent. You saw people jockeying for visibility and popularity because who doesn’t want to see themselves in the list of the week’s best cosplay?
As online cosplay galleries became the benchmark for what was considered “real” cosplay, you saw this budding fandom slowly transform into a business. Cosplayers, photographers, prop makers, and costume designers grew in popularity as they were featured on pop culture websites. Getting featured on these websites became a goal, one that seemed effortless for those with a certain physicality: the pale, the slim, the muscular cosplayers who often only needed a crash diet and a new outfit and wig to be “canon.” The cosplay galleries were almost exclusively pale, thin women and we saw some women reach a level of popularity that started translating into jobs.
Behind the scenes, you learned that popular cosplay websites had their preferred photographers, so cosplayers started seeking them out. You also knew that certain cosplayers had larger followings, so photographers started seeking them out. As each aspect fed on and nurtured the popularity of the others, you saw the cosplay fandom become a self-perpetuating, ever shrinking catalogue of cosplayers and photographers that used its manufactured expectations to exclude large swaths of the population, specifically many of those who engaged in the hobby before appearance became the priority.
In the beginning, I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how much my skin color mattered. In other essays, I’ve mentioned how people, specifically white people, did not recognize my character regardless of how accurate my costume was and that sometimes when they did, they called me the Black version of whatever character I was dressed as. At the time, I thought it was weird and a little funny. Now I realize that it was a way to divorce me from their ideal of their fandom. By emphasizing my skin color, I wasn’t “sullying” their image, memory, or affection for that fandom. It kept me as “other” so their love could remain pure.
And it wasn’t just me. As more Black people began attending conventions and cosplaying, we’d share stories of photographers who would ask them to step out of photos or would suddenly have to fix something on their camera when you stepped into view. We saw more and more calls for “canon” characters, and more photographers who would seek out specific cosplayers who were already cos-famous. The hobby turned fandom was now entered with intent – people sought friends, jobs, popularity, recognition. It was a stepping stone to something bigger and while some people managed that transition, you saw the same social constructs like racism, sexism, ableism, sizeism, gender, heteronormativity determine whose presence was valued and whose were not.
When Black cosplayers were featured in the popular galleries, they often found themselves victims of racist verbal abuse. Larger-bodied cosplayers were met with body shaming. Trolls of all kinds would unleash barrages of toxicity, sometimes amplifying each other until there were literally calls for suicide or murder. As much as people want to pretend that Black and other forms of non-canon cosplayers were overlooked by accident, the reception we received in predominantly white, male, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, non-fat spaces clearly told us that we were not welcome.
Which brings us to today, where these social constructs continue to be the preferred weapons of oppressors at every possible access point. And while social media helped perpetuate the curated image of science fiction, fantasy, and graphic arts, it also helped connect communities of people traditionally ostracized and ignored have their voices heard. Despite the lack of acceptance and popularity of Black cosplayers, we have been here and continue to create spaces where others can see us. We make spaces for ourselves when others won’t. And this younger generation of cosplayers, like DeLa Doll, Acdramon, Izzy Saeko, CluelessXBelle, and Chaka Cummerbach, to name a few, are bringing attention to the hypocrisy of many popular cosplayers who talk the talk about cosplay being for everyone, but do not do anything to support or promote that message. They do not share their platforms or make space for marginalized cosplayers and I love that these popular cosplayers are being held accountable for their bullshit.
The days of lip service to inclusion and diversity are over, and while I may not be on the front lines calling people out on their bullshit, please know that I see you. We all see you. And when you say one thing and do another, we know and take notes. The world won’t be better if you won’t do better and it is way past time for you to start.
Make a stand.