Why Blak representation matters in Cosplay

23 Aug 2023

For International Cosplay Day, Bizzi Lavelle reflects on why, when it comes to cosplay, representation matters. And sometimes that means white people need to opt out of some costume choices.

Why blak representation matters in cosplay

The first time I ever cosplayed I was eight years old. My older sister took me to Brisbane Supernova, a comic and gaming convention. My family was a household of nerds, and being one of the youngest nerds, this was a massive experience for little me.

I was dressed in all Black, as Halle Berry’s Catwoman. I remember my mum and older sister helping me create the costume by making cuts in the clothes we bought for the costume. I wanted to add more slashes and cuts and thought it was unfair my mum didn’t let me slash it to my heart’s content. Still, I thought I ate that cosplay up.

Looking back, I don’t think I would have picked that character if she wasn’t Black. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice I made, but when I look back on my favourite characters from different shows as a kid, it’s always the character that was Black or brown. Like Carol from The Saddle Club or Flora from Winx Club – before they lightened and whitened her, that is. It’s funny how before I even knew what representation was, I knew that it was important. I knew that these characters looked like me or were like me, and they made me feel seen and like I could exist in that world because they did too.

As I grew, the following times I cosplayed, I referred to them as ‘lazy cosplays’, because I never did a wig or anything to my hair to make it like the character’s. In some instances this was fine, Kiba Inuzuka from ‘Naruto’ wears a hood, so no one would know his hair was different to mine anyway. I was sometimes disappointed though, because  even if the rest of my costume was correct, my hair never was. I didn’t want to do a wig and didn’t know how to, but it was so rare to see characters with hair like mine, especially in anime, which was the medium I consumed the most. 

Making the characters fit us, not the other way around

My feelings towards this shifted when I joined anime twitter (or anitwt) and saw more cosplayers on tiktok. I would continuously see Black artists draw characters as Black, giving Yuji Itadori from Jujutsu Kaisen locs and wicks for hair, or redrawing canonically Black anime characters to have curls or fros. On tiktok, I saw Black cosplayers do any and all characters, sometimes with straight haired wigs and sometimes with twists or braids in that character’s hair colour.

@_keeees_

Welcome to Geek retreat 3! 😈 You already know we has to run up a One Piece collab! #animegeekretreat

♬ original sound – _keeees_

When conventions returned after lockdowns, Black cosplayers would meet up and coordinate costumes, film content together and post photos of their crew all in matching costumes. Even though this wasn’t something I was actively doing, I experienced vicarious Black joy through it, knowing that for the most part, society never saw anime fans or any form of ‘nerd’ as Black folk.It didn’t take long for that joy to be disrupted, because as always, racists will be racists. In 2021, cosplayer ‘Naomi Chan’ was one of many Black cosplayers who got endless hate comments on tiktok and twitter criticising her cosplays. Purely because the character she cosplayed as, Hinata from Naruto, isn’t Black. Mind you, Hinata isn’t white either but the fact that anime characters aren’t white tends to conveniently escape the minds of racists. Naomi responded with a rap that showcased her cosplaying numerous characters stating that Hinata “gon’ be Black today” and that they can’t tell her who she can and can’t cosplay. As stated before, these characters aren’t white either but that’s never stopped white cosplayers. If you’re white you can cosplay anyone. Not only can you be anyone, but you can appropriate cultures too – when googling ‘Maui costume’ there are endless options of brown body suits with cultural tattoos so you can wear the body of a brown person! I think wearing a purple wig and dressing up as a fictional ninja pales in comparison.

Here in so-called Australia, our nerd culture hasn’t been devoid of racism either. Supernova was under fire in 2021 for  hosting a white supremist as a stallholder selling fascist, homophobic and nazi paraphernalia. This was especially harmful because, as Nich Richie explains, Supernova is a “space primarily frequented by diverse groups, including, as mentioned previously, LGBTQA+ People, Jewish, POC, and First Nations People”. 

These communities are  already such a small percentage of the world’s population, so places and things that make you feel seen and heard are so important. So for ‘nerd’ spaces to continuously push away and alienate minority communities including Bla(c)k folks despite the large number of us who love these genres is hurtful and disappointing.

Blak nerds taking on cosplay

Thankfully, Yorta Yorta/Ngarrindjeri man and fellow nerd Ciernan Muir saw the potential of carving a space out for Blak nerds and lovers of pop culture and created ‘Indiginerd’ “where pop culture meets Aboriginal culture”. Ciernan hosts events and spaces like discord channels and facebook groups, sits on panels and highlights the works of other Indiginerds. 

Another Indiginerd whose work I love is Rubii Red. Rubii is a Lama Lama woman who is an artist and streamer. Her art is currently moving around Naarm on trams, but she also does fan art and often posts her own character creations. I felt the same vicarious Blak joy seeing Rubii cosplay as Demon Slayer’s Nezuko recently.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by rubii • red (@lifeofrubii)

Now that I’m older my reason for not wanting to wear wigs isn’t because of my lack of knowledge. Instead it’s a conscious choice I make, especially when performing, to show my hair because of the years I gelled it down and because I know how impactful it is to see someone with the same hair as you. 

Cosplay is no longer a source of stress for me when it comes to my hair, but rather a sense of joy. I get to play and experiment with makeup while deciding that Nobara from Jujutsu Kaisen and Hisoka from HunterxHunter are going to have my curls! 

There’s power in my hair, and there’s no reason why my favourite characters, or other cosplayers can’t see or experience that power too.

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