An African-American Otaku’s Cosplay Requiem

“If human beings had genuine courage, they’d wear their costumes every day of the year, not just on Halloween.”  Douglas Coupland

When I was a little girl watching Sailor Moon while all the other kids wanted to be Sailor Moon, Sailor Mars or even Chibi Usa: I wanted to be Tuxedo Mask. I tell this story because I feel like it’s the best insight into who I am as a cosplayer. I was a born cosplayer. I was a theater kid, pageant baby and I love being in costume.  Being a cosplayer is one of the truest forms of self expression that I can think of. It’s my catharsis, my community and my love. I am also a small, chubby African-American woman.

Now, it’s important to mention a very important to mention that there are plenty of absolutely amazing black cosplayers and this is not a rant about diversity. This is just to provide some of my thoughts and experiences about being a tiny black otaku. I personally almost never let being black or a woman hold me down from attempting a costume or character. Roy Mustang? Sure, lemme polish my boots. Deidara? Let’s pick up a verbal tick, un! Castiel? I’ll go grab my wings. It’s never really bothered me that my skin tone didn’t match the characters.

When I was young in my cosplay career the issue of race and cosplay did bother me a lot. I hated being that one black insert name of character. I wanted to be judged based on my work. Not how good I looked for someone who was the wrong color for that character. I took a break from cosplay. From the somewhat institutionalized racism. From the somewhat misogyny and when I picked cosplay back up I had even fewer worries or concern about my race, height or gender.  I didn’t care that I was a tiny chocolate girl cosplaying a Doctor or the Riddler or Princess Unikitty. I was just me. I picked characters I liked and I had fun being them and I looked damn good: that’s what matters when it comes to cosplay.

I can count the times on my hand that race and gender have held me back from cosplaying a character. What goes into this choice? Mostly series canon. For instance I adore Scandinavia and the World and the rest of Humon’s work but if a character looks a certain way; it’s for a reason so it just seems somewhat inappropriate to me to fudge that. Axis Powers: Hetalia is another example: I love the series but I won’t cosplay it out in public outside of an event just because these are meant to be caricatures: the characters look this way for a reason and I despite being a very lovely lady do not look like France or Austria.

Now you may be asking by now: Amanda, why don’t you care about race, height and gender when it comes to character depictions? Well, that’s a good and fair question. I do care. A lot. I’m a writer. If I make a character look a certain way; it’s for a reason. But I tend not to fret over things I can’t change. Costume work is amazing and make up has come a long way but I’m not going to suddenly become a fair-skinned male without a great deal of work done. I can augment aspects of myself but when they are too much I simply rather not. Now I don’t mind a hidden heel to make me somewhat taller than 5’1’’ and I’ll use shapewear to slim my profile but nothing’s changing the cafe color of my skin or the fact that once the shoes come off I am very very petite. And above all I mostly just don’t see an issue with it. Yes, Superman is a white male but if I put on that cape I can become Superman and not just a chocolate-colored Superman marauder. I put a lot of work into my costumes and I want people to see that work, that passion, that excitement; I don’t want people to just ask me why I chose a character that wasn’t of color.

In the early days of anime and comics: diversity was a legit concern. All heroes looked the same and there wasn’t much room for a female yet alone a female of color that wasn’t an exotic princess of a made up land or just an alternate darker-colored carbon copy of a classic hero. Diversity has absolutely changed for American comics and it’s never been easier to be LGBT, young, tall, short, out of shape or anything and still be a valid member of a recognizable franchise.

I am, however, primarily an otaku. Japan has not quite ridden the wave of diversity and it’s still somewhat difficult finding characters that well…look like me. But this goes beyond just looks: most characters I encountered didn’t sound like me, either. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post: I didn’t exactly have a very African-American upbringing. For instance when watching Static Shock as a young girl, I couldn’t relate to Virgil (Static Shock) and his urban, single-parent upbringing. I was a young girl living with two very loving and protective parents in a mostly upper-middle class fairly white but also very Vietnamese suburb of a large North Texas city. When it comes to cosplaying various anime and Japanese videos games my attitude has been mostly not to let it bother me as above mentioned: I can count the times on my hand where I’ve looked at my skin and said I probably shouldn’t cosplay that character. This also comes to mind in the question of “race-bending”. It’s a big thing in the cosplay and fandom world. What if Hermonie was black? What if Castiel was Hispanic? This has come out of the fandom world in direct response to the lack of diversity in cosplay and it’s sometimes still a contentious topic: it’s technically a non-canon depiction but amazing fan art and costumes have come out of different races being well-known characters so even if someone does a hell of a good job, it’s still to the fan world a non-canon outfit. I bring up race-bending because I have been asked more than once if any of my costumes are race-bent insert name of character here. And most of the time I’ll say no. Again, I’m not aiming to be a darker skinned version of a character: that character is who I am trying to be

Another key part of this little conversation is the backlash so many receive when it comes to bringing up questions of diversity in casting. Oh well that side character or other universe’s character is of some vague ethnicity. And to that I have one thing to say: I am a drama queen. If I cosplay someone. When I cosplay someone: I want to be recognized. I want to walk out onto the convention floor and immediately someone knows who I am. Not an alternate version of or a side character from. And not to say there aren’t some great side and alternate characters: (Young Avengers, anyone? ) but I personally don’t struggle much with looking at my skin and looking at a character on page or screen and recognizing and admitting the difference but still deciding to cosplay that character.

So now you may be asking Amanda, this is all lovely, but why rant on like this? Well, here’s why: I am a passionate cosplayer. I am also of color. Those two things should not hinder the other. Being black doesn’t mean I can’t be a nerd and being a cosplayer shouldn’t mean ignoring that I’m the wrong Pantone shade in comparison to most of the characters on the screen or page. 

Diversity matters and one of the first steps to making it a logical and real part of the world: we have to step up our game. Cosplayers of all size, gender, creed and race: we all have to step up. So don’t be afraid of what you look like. You might not look just like the character you want but that shouldn’t stop you. Cosplay is art. Cosplay is magic. Cosplay is what you make of it. So be unafraid. Look good. Show the world how wonderful you can be. Let me be your battle cry. And if you see me in costume: comment on my stitches not my skin color. 

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