For a long time I’ve loved the theatricality of bringing fictional characters to life through costume; this does not make me a professional cosplayer, but I enjoy it when I get the time despite the stigma (I once had “friends” of mine refuse to take cosplay pictures together if I was going to post them because they “had normal friends, too!”). In fact, it’s hard enough hiding photos from future employers who won’t understand your hobby to begin with, but when you cosplay while brown in a space where a majority of characters’ skin tones range from white to slightly darker white regardless of nationality, you find there’s also a lot of racial baggage you end up carrying, too.
I wore my first “real” cosplay my sophomore year of high school; at the time I was a huge fan of Naruto and an even bigger fan of a certain pairing (KibaHina 4va, y’all), so I was pretty excited about the prospect of taking group photos with other people with an equal passion for the series. Keep in mind I’m not a seamstress of any kind, so I dropped well over a couple hundred dollars of my own money on a pre-made costume, custom wig, and shoes I found that I thought were much more practical than the thin flip flops that came with the package. If I was gonna do this thing, I was gonna do it right.
Nothing says professional like sidewalk photos.
Most of my friends encouraged me, but I remember one girl in particular made a remark like, “I guess I always thought people should cosplay their own skintone.” To her, it didn’t matter how accurately I could replicate the character, if I wasn’t white, then why bother? At the time I didn’t find it as jarring and biting as I do now, probably because I was still in a place where that made sense; I was still brainwashed by the idea that not having visual representation of black nerds must just mean they didn’t really exist. Who was I to sully the image of a character I enjoyed by not actually looking like her? Further, if I couldn’t find characters that I looked like, that was my fault, not the creators’. It’s moments like these that remind me why it’s so important as a black nerd to be active and visual, no matter how insignificant the interest might seem.
A couple years later Catwoman was the first American comic book character I cosplayed, and she was especially important to me because I did extensive research on her before I committed to costume; I read every collection I could from the library, researched background and history through comic scans and message boards, even watched the old live action shows for some ideas. I finally settled on the newer black leather suit version, partly because I had the heels and leather gloves to go with it and partly because who doesn’t feel badass brandishing a whip with a black leather suit on?
Whip was useless but those claws were DEADLY.
Perhaps because at this point I had made my way through my first year of college I was a lot more sensitive to the perception of my character, but I remember the one constant question I would get whenever I would tell someone (and I told a lot of people) would be: “Oh, like Halle Berry?” At first this struck me as plain ignorance; this was pre-Anne Hathaway and Halle was technically the last person to enter into the mainstream consciousness under the Catwoman name (even if we like to pretend it never happened). Why not Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt (THE GODDESS), hell, why not even Michelle Pfeiffer? It made me wonder, had I been white, if I would have gotten the same assumption over and over again.
All this to say, breaking the norm is hard, especially when you are the instrument through which it is broken. While the internet is often where the most disgusting reflections of human interaction squelch into sunlight, I hope to make this space a celebration of people who are embracing nerd culture and not letting entrenched racism stop them. I want to be able to showcase black nerds of all kinds of cosplay, to applaud our collective bravery to intrude in and claim space in a world where our bodies are still being rejected, even though there are more and more brown characters being developed (Kamala Khan FTW!). Here’s to being black nerds and looking good doing it!
#SuperBrownGirlSolidarity all day.
Thanks for this important essay. The whole point of cosplay is and should be to celebrate your fandom and share your geekness. I I love that part of the cosplay community that respects creativity and admires passion, and finds “isms” uncool, so more power to those who choose to costume across the unneccessary “barriers” of body type, skin tone or gender. You don’t owe anybody explanations for why you choose the characters you do.