The Black creatives changing the face of cosplay
Faced with a racist obsession with "accuracy", Black cosplayers are fighting to prove that cosplay applies to all and not just some.
“Just because the characters we cosplay as don't look exactly like us, doesn’t mean we can’t re-imagine or portray them in a different way," says Californian cosplayer Kiera Please. "It’s animation.” The 23-year-old is speaking out after becoming tired of the persecution and misogyny she and many other Black women cosplayers are subjected to on social media. “Sometimes, the abuse online is a lot," she explains. "The harshest thing is having to read people shaming me over my character choices because I’m not the same colour as the character, or I don’t have the same body shape or features.”
Originating from Japan, cosplay -- a portmanteau of the words’ costume’ and ‘play’ -- empowers participants to explore their creativity and transform into their hero of choice. Having evolved from a hobby to a subculture, the popularity of cosplaying has grown exponentially and is now a multimillion dollar industry. In theory, cosplay holds no limitations against race, gender, body image or disability. In reality, however, many Black women cosplayers are forced to deal with sexism, racism, body-shaming and colourism.
From name-calling to misidentifying, Black women cosplayers face fierce backlash for engaging in their hobby. “When I cosplayed as Sailor Moon, people would leave comments referring to me as n*gger moon or calling me the Black version of the said character,” Mimi the Nerd tells me. “I don’t let racism limit me from dressing up as whatever character I want to and not just the visibly Black ones. The gatekeepers don’t seem to understand that cosplay applies to all and not just some."
In comparison to non-Black women cosplayers, the expected level of accuracy Black women face from the community is egregious. For some cosplayers, the backlash is so intense it can leave them feeling unwanted in their own community: Shellanin, 25 from Atlanta, is one of them. For the past eight years, her experiences with abuse, specifically surrounding colourism, has impacted the way she approaches the craft. “To this day, I still get abuse for cosplaying as fair-skinned characters," she says. "I’m aware that I do not look like the majority of the characters I dress up as, but that’s the most empowering part about it. It's like we’re expected to turn up as either Canary from Hunter X Hunter, Kofi from Cowboy Bebop or Rei Hououmaru from Kill la Kill. It’s insulting.”
This abuse is not a new development. In 2017, cosplayer Kay Bear shared an emotional Facebook post revealing the hateful messages she received online while portraying Mavis from Hotel Transylvania. "I've been called a 'n*gger, wrong, ugly' etc. just because of my skin colour," she wrote. "Cosplay is for everyone. If someone tells you ‘this character is not black,' tell them 'They're black now.'” Her post went viral, sparking several Black female cosplayers around the globe to take the same stance and speak out about the abuse they’ve experienced.
The world of Japanese animation itself, it should be noted, suffers from a severe lack of Black representation. Created primarily for the domestic market, it tends to tokenise Black characters, or exclude them entirely. At other times, the representations are actively harmful: like Sister Krone in The Promised Neverland, whose exaggerated facial features, outsized body and servant-like aesthetic recall the racist 'Black Mammy' trope of 19th century minstrel shows. Against this backdrop, it's unsurprising that many Black cosplayers choose to portray protagonists originally created with fair skin.
Every year, cosplay conventions like Comic-Con in the US, Armageddon Expo in New Zealand and the World Cosplay Summit in Japan welcome thousands of eager fans ready to live out their cosplaying fantasies IRL. Despite these events supposedly being an inclusive, safe space, many women cosplayers in attendance have experienced the dark side of participating -- from being photographed without permission to groping, to sexual abuse. "My experience at conventions has been overwhelmingly positive, but I know some cosplayers who haven’t had the same luck as me,” 25-year-old cutiepiesensei tells me from Atlanta. “There’s a certain ingrained amount of sexism and racism we have to wade through when we cosplay. As unfortunate as that is, we almost get used to it and try to ignore it."
Now, some within the community are fighting back. With February being Black History Month, many Black cosplayers around the world have used social media to celebrate their contribution to the subculture with the hashtag #29DaysofBlackCosplay. An open invitation to interact online, showcase their art and celebrate their heroes, the hashtag acts as a safe space for many Black cosplayers. “It helps the movement,” says Sachi from Brooklyn, NY. “It’s a central hub where we can see each other, meet each other and have a presence online and in real life. We use hashtags like #BlackCosplayerHere, and #supportblackcosplayers to help shift the misogynoir.”
With #29DaysofBlackCosplay already going strong, some see 2020 as a promising year for women of colour in the community. “People are becoming more socially aware of Black cosplayers, and we’ve made strides to get our names and faces out there,” cutiepiesensei says. “I’m seeing more black women become confident in their skin and doing cosplays out of their comfort zone. This wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. It’s going in the right direction. The love for the craft and overall positives outweigh the bad stuff."
Cosplaying is time-consuming, expensive and misunderstood. It is, ultimately, a labour of love. Unfortunately, it's often a labour of love for a community that refuses to love you back. For Black cosplayers, that sentiment is especially potent. But the negativity is not putting them off the practice. “Being a Black woman cosplayer in 2020 definitely comes with many pros and cons," says Mimi. "We’re not limiting ourselves anymore. There are so many opportunities that non-black cosplayers get over us and I hope we continue to show that we’re here and not going anywhere. We’re grabbing every opportunity that comes our way and putting 200% in."