Lanka Comic Con

Photo courtesy of Lanka Comic COn

cos·play (noun) /ˈkäz-plā/

The practice of dressing up as a character from a movie, book, or video game.

Costume play, or cosplay as it’s most commonly known, is a worldwide phenomenon with dedicated fans who spent countless hours and sums of money to recreate the looks of their favorite characters. There are entire conventions dedicated to it, and those fan conventions that aren’t still fill up with costumed homages to characters both well-known and obscure.

For some cosplayers, though, issues of race, gender, and body-type come into play. Most well-known characters, after all, demonstrate idealistic body types that generally don’t exist in nature. And they’re mostly white. This, combined with the ignorance and privilege of some in the geek community, has led to less than ideal experiences for some folks who merely want to enjoy losing themselves in the guise of their favorite characters.

But it can also be a rallying cry for some, such as cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch, who started a the #29daysofblackcosplay on Twitter earlier this year.

“When we call out racism in this subculture,” wrote Chaka on Black Girl Nerds, “we are often ridiculed, silenced and told to make a space of our own if we want to see our faces. Challenge accepted. This is how we’ll represent ourselves. This is how we’ll uplift each other. This is how we will make this hobby open, inclusive and welcoming to everyone.”

It shouldn’t go without saying that some cosplayers can have a rough go of things when dealing with overzealous con-goers. When you add in the challenges of dealing with racism, ableism, and misogyny, it can be enough to test the mettle of even the most dedicated fan.

Take Shannon who, with her sister Kimberly, recently attended Otakon in Baltimore, a city whose population is two-thirds black. For her, race has made entry into the cosplay community all the more challenging. Shannon had been looking forward to dressing as Takumi from Fire Emblem Fates. But when the day finally game, she hesitated.

“This morning, I didn’t want to put this costume on,” said Shannon on Kotaku. “Maybe it shouldn’t matter to me, but this is not a black character.”

Her sister concurred. Despite the high attendance of people of color at Otakon, cosplayers still felt the pressure of being part of a largely white nerd community.

“It’s a lot of internal back and forth,” Kimberly said in the same Kotaku interview, who was cosplaying as Rinkah from Fire Emblem Fates. “I can look good, but I won’t look as good as someone with a lighter skin tone cosplaying this character.”

Still, it’s cosplayers like Shannon and Kimberly, pushing the boundaries of cosplay, that help open up opportunities for others.

The worldwide appeal of cosplay also helps. Sri Lanka recently held their second Comic Con, for instance. As the popularity of cosplay increases in regions without a mostly white population, it lessens the bonds placed on cosplayers of color.

The only real answer to problems of diversity in cosplay, or course, is the address the lack of diversity in movie, comic book, and video game characters. Until then, though, cosplayers like Chaka, Shannon, and Kimberly will help to create a more open and accepting cosplay community, one costume at a time.