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I’ve arrived here in my own humble costume (an homage to Adventure Time’s Princess Bubblegum and her relationship with the character Marceline) to take in the sights and sounds of Anime Expo, the "largest anime and manga convention in North America." It’s a crackling dry 80°F, but the hordes of people waiting in line to get into the convention center are patient, even cheerful — a few break out into song as they wind their way through the hours-long check-in queue. Inside the convention space, the atmosphere is similarly joyful, as a population that’s still popularly maligned for adoring Japanese animation, comics, and culture, even by other geek and nerd communities, gets its time in the sun.
As I pass through the corporate booths from sponsors like Japanese stationery company San-X, anime streaming site Crunchyroll, and licensing company Funimation; through the Artist Alley space in which independent artists share both fan and original creations that range from stickers to phone charms to body pillows; and by hordes of amateur and professional costume photoshoots, I keep an eye out for the most elaborate cosplays, which are oftentimes of characters I and 98% of the population don’t recognize. What does it take to put these oftentimes custom outfits together? What is the criteria for a "good" cosplay, whether for yourself or on another person, especially when you’re working in a hyper-niche form of media? And, what keeps those cosplayers who have to deal with the scene’s insidious sexism and, especially, racism dedicated to this art?
Though cosplay has been around since at least 1936, which was the first recorded instance of a fan-made costume, it’s only in the past decade that the craft and celebrity around cosplay has exploded into a more mainstream geek scene. San Diego Comic-Con International is perhaps the most celebrated and media-covered of all of these conventions, with studios and stars from all walks of the entertainment world (no seriously, all walks; How I Met Your Mother was there in 2013) coming out in support of their latest nerdy and nerd-adjacent projects.
As cosplay has bloomed into an accessible way for media outlets to engage with the formerly-underground cultures of, particularly, comic books, video games, and animation (can’t wait to click on dozens of "best costumes of Comic-Con’s geek paradise" slideshows from outlets that can’t tell Raichu from Raiden), it’s largely become visible as a function of more mainstream, Western-focused pop culture properties: the DCs and Marvels and Cartoon Networks and Harry Potters of the world. Part of this is because dress-up culture, which used to only be limited to events like Halloween, is now more normalized. (Consider the increasing cultural relevance of the themed Met Ball, for instance.) But outside of celebrations like SDCC, cosplayers of all fandoms, like fan artists and fanfiction writers before them, are oftentimes maligned by the creators whose works they admire.
The DIY nature of most cosplay makes it one of the more prolific craft movements of the 21st century, combining costume design, makeup, tailoring, and fabric-dyeing with more advanced processes like props-making, metal work, and sometimes robotics. (It shouldn’t be a surprise that cosplayers are overwhelmingly female.) And though anime and manga culture and its cosplays don’t have mainstream visibility in the States, the industry and climate in Asia in particular is quite different; Japan’s cosplay industry raked in $500 million in 2011 and cosplay is encouraged by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while specialty photobooths and other businesses openly serve the cosplaying population. Meanwhile, Filipina Alodia Gosiengfiao is regularly named the "#1 cosplayer in the world." Yet in America, cosplay coverage tends to only be for Western properties and only centered around huge cons like SDCC or its companion WonderCon, while that of non-Western properties tends to be shunted into niche sites like Kotaku’s Cosplay.
Which doesn’t mean that spectacular cosplay will be overlooked if it’s not summer con season; consider Victory Cosplay (aka Krissy)’s amazing take on Finn from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Her cosplay was immaculate, the kind of full character homage (with a "crossplaying," or genderbent, twist) that most cosplayers aspire to.
Joe, an accountant who pursues his cosplay passion as Joeschmoe, is one such cosplayer. In an interview with Racked, he shared, "I’d say a fully completed look takes me an average of three months from start to finish. Moneywise, I might spend an average of $200–300 to create a look. I buy most of my supplies at my local Jo-Ann’s, because they offer a lot of opportunities to save on their products with coupons and sales… Luckily for me, I also live quite close to NYC, so I find myself in the Garment District at least twice a month tearing through the stores like a madman in order to find the perfect shade of navy for a costume!"
For Joe, who’s cosplayed everyone from Azumane Asahi from the volleyball series Haikyuu!! to Pearl from Spongebob, other invaluable cosplay resources include CosplayTutorial.com as well as the considerable online cosplay community, which swaps information and tips about using tricky materials (like Sintra, a special foam used for prop and armor-making), patterns for the kinds of costumes you’d never find at a Party City, and wig and premade costume reviews. Even with a new wealth of cosplay resources available on the internet, creating your own cosplay still requires an entrepreneurial spirit. As Joe, whose work life is rooted in finance and economics, explained, "Everything you see is self-taught — ever since I started cosplaying, I’ve been learning through trial-and-error."
Ronnie, who posts their work on both Facebook and Tumblr as Wreck It Ronnie, cosigned the oftentimes scattered but rewarding nature of the "perfect cosplay hunt": "You improvise a lot; you’re gonna start look at stuff lying around stuff going, ‘That could work for a cosplay,’ and then you’re never gonna throw anything out ever, and then you’re gonna end up on an episode of Hoarders when you’re 60 and you can only blame cosplay and yourself."
Cosplayers put in considerable time and money chasing canonical accuracy, sometimes to a fault — after all, cosplay has its own body-shaming baggage, especially since so many of nerd culture’s most iconic figures are uncannily fit and slender. But when the desire for accuracy crosses paths with race, things start to get too personal, too fast for black and brown cosplayers.
At Anime Expo, the space was dominated by light-skinned, able-bodied, white and Asian bodies and faces, but this being LA, there were smatterings of darker-skinned folks in and out of costume making their own ways through the con. In a sea of people who’ve all done their best to look as close as possible to their source costume material, who’ve spent hundreds of dollars (if not more) putting together elaborate homages, the ones whose skin color doesn’t "match" the overwhelmingly light-skinned population of anime stand out for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality or faithfulness of their actual cosplay. And while all of the black and brown cosplayers I saw and spoke to were having the time of their lives, this isn’t always the case, especially on the notoriously toxic "white dude centric"-nerd internet.
"Once upon a time, I inadvertently started a cosplay race war on Tumblr," opens Chaka Cumberbatch’s essay for xoJane about her frustrations with cosplay’s "character fidelity" mindset. Though Cumberbatch (who cosplays as Princess Mentality) has gone on to cosplay black characters like Akasha from Queen of the Damned, she stepped into the murky waters of "racebending" (changing a fictional character’s canonical race, most commonly used in relation to changing white characters into POC ones) when she cosplayed as Sailor Venus from Sailor Moon, a character who’s normally shown with light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes.
Across the internet, Cumberbatch was condescendingly applauded as having a good costume "for a black cosplayer," or else hit with a flurry of racial slurs, oftentimes focused on the aforementioned notion of accuracy: "that in order to ‘look better’ it's best to stick to characters ‘in your range,’ which is a popular rationalization for shutting down plus-size cosplayers as well." But as Cumberbatch points out, "Comic book heroines and anime characters are typically about six feet tall, have basketballs for boobs and probably weigh around 110 pounds … I'm cool with people criticizing my choice in fabrics, choice in wigs, choice of pose, whatever. But my skin color is something I can't change, nor would I if I had the ability. I love the skin I was born in, and I won't apologize, make excuses or work around it for anyone's benefit beyond my own."
In response to the harassment she received as a black cosplayer, Cumberbatch started the hashtag #28DaysOfBlackCosplay, which aligns with February’s Black History Month. It was a way to both highlight black cosplayers who are oftentimes passed over by the more white and Asian-centric cosplay community, as well as a way to disprove the notion that darker skin mars or is somehow unfaithful to these fictional, oftentimes fantasy characters.
In an interview with Racked, Cumberbatch was pleased at how the cosplay environment has changed since she penned her essay in 2013: "Black cosplayers seem to be much more comfortable and prevalent now. Where there used to be a couple handfuls of us, we're now in the hundreds (if not thousands!) [at cons] and it's such an incredible feeling to discover new black cosplayers all the time. We've become a more conscious community, and I'm seeing a lot more panels about diversity, acceptance and equality within this subculture."
Joe too commented, "Half of my references for fantasy come from anime or JRPGs [Japanese role-playing games], the character designs for which are heavily influenced by either East Asian or Eurocentric beauty standards. Although one can recreate a character’s outfit beautifully and even add in details to take it to the next level, sometimes it’s hard for some people to ignore that their favorite character roaming the convention floor is now brown, instead of having some shade of porcelain skin." But with a supportive cosplay community at his back, he chooses to let his work speak for itself: "While people may look at me and think that I’m not the perfect representation of their character, they can’t help but do a double take once they see how much effort and respect I’ve paid to the design of the character."
Yet, the conversation around race in cosplay is marked differently from a different facet of cosplay representation: gender. Joe identifies within the LGBTQ+ spectrum (as do Cumberbatch and Ronnie), and oftentimes dresses up as both female and genderbent versions of characters. For him, "[Crossplaying] a character is my way of putting a new twist on that character and reimagining it." Though he doesn’t consider his practice drag, he does draw some inspiration from the drag world, but stressed, "The way I see it, cosplay is an art of imitation, whereas drag is an art of transformation." That said, within his friend group, he’s seen crossplaying serve as a vehicle for other peoples’ gender and sexuality revelations.
Which is what happened to Ronnie, who identifies as bigender: "It was through me already deciding that I was comfortable with cosplaying as genders that I had not yet identified with that I found myself comfortable with sitting down and truly asking myself for the first time, ‘Am I cis?’" But they warn that while the anime community is quite open-minded about gender, this has to do with cosplay’s obsession with authenticity: changing your gender presentation or a character’s gender to fit your own is considered taking the extra mile for veracity. Whereas "for things like race, it’s harder to disguise. It’s not something you can manipulate around as easy to present a character that doesn’t match up to you racially… Because of that, you get the hate comments, racial slurs, which are things that constantly remind you that no matter how well your cosplay was made or how expensive it was or how much fun you have doing it, even body structure, face structure, personality-wise you’re close to that character, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day because you’re black."
Going back to Krissy of Victory Cosplay, Ronnie revealed that the goodwill for their friend’s Star Wars switch didn’t cross over into other cosplays: "She got praised monumentally for crossing gender lines. Meanwhile, [the game] Overwatch comes out and she wants to cosplay D.Va, the Korean character. Every single time her photo gets posted anywhere, the majority of the comments are racist. It’s really sad how much she can get praised for taking a creative initiative on a character who’s already black because that’s ‘your domain,’ you can do whatever you want with a character who’s black, but you don’t get to touch a character that’s not black."
There are real reasons why the race of a character shouldn’t be changed, but that isn’t the case with brown and black cosplayers looking to dress up as their favorite characters and who have taken great pains to do so within the narrow frame of "accuracy." After all, cosplay communities are accepting of much more radical things than race; but, it mirrors the ongoing struggle to integrate and challenge racial homogeneity — of white people, and in the case of anime and manga, of Asian people — in fan communities at large.
Through her efforts and others’, Cumberbatch does believe that things are looking up for the cosplay world: "I see the demographics changing, and not even just when it comes to race — I see a lot of older cosplayers, and a lot more male cosplayers now too… I remember walking past a group of really young black girl cosplayers at A-Kon and smiling to myself, because their costumes were light-years beyond what mine were at their age, and they seemed so comfortable and happy in them."
And of course, cosplay’s global expansion means that there are other ways to seek out black representation and community: "Anime-Kon Barbados is likely going to be the most colorful convention I've ever been to — in more ways that one!"