Across the next few weeks, I will be sharing blog posts written as an assignment for the students in my PhD seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice. Each reflects a student's efforts to find their own voice and share some of their research. Any comments or suggestions would be most welcome, and can be posted publicly here or can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Celebrate #BlackHistoryMonth with #28DaysOfBlackCosplay
by Joan Miller
February and October seem to be the two most fraught months of the year for black geeks. October of 2013, for me, was the first time I ever attempted a cross-racial cosplay. I was a graduate student, living and studying in New York City and excited to be attending New York Comic Con, but filled with anxiety about how my cosplay would be received, would I be singled out and ostracized like many black cosplayers before me?
Despite my fears, I headed to the Jacob K. Javits center dressed as Harleen Quinzel, the woman who later becomes Harley Quinn and went, for the most part, unrecognized (unless my partner, dressed as the Joker’s alter-ego, was standing next to me), a disappointing, but not uncommon reaction to black cosplay of white characters.
Incidentally, I firmly believe every cosplayer has a take on Harley Quinn — her fun-loving quirky attitude and crazy antics make her a great joy to embody, while the simple logo and color scheme of her traditional costume are easy to reproduce and lend themselves to endless variations and reinterpretations, like any good meme should.
Later that October, I encountered another cross-racial cosplay that got a lot more attention than mine. Kira Markelejc, a German cosplay and The Walking Dead fan, followed in the footsteps of many a Halloween party goer and opted to practice blackface in constructing her costume of Michonne a character originated by Danai Gurira. I was impressed by the vitriol and passion in the conversation from both Markelejc’s supporters and critics and couldn’t help but compare my own recent cosplay.
Luckily, I had been casting about for a research topic to focus on in a class on Black Performance taught by the inestimable Dr. Tavia Nyong’o. In working with Dr. Nyong’o to refine and unfold my research on the topic, I discovered the work of Chaka Cumberbatch, well known in geek circles for her cosplay of Sailor Venus of the Sailor Moon transmedia property.
In this instance, Cumberbatch presents a version of Venus that is identical to the source texts in every way — except for the color of her skin. This detail was too much for some audience members. Shortly after Cumberbatch posted photos of her cosplay online, she was inundated with racist comments, including epithets like “N— Venus” and “Sailor Venus Williams”:
“My nose was too wide, lips were too big, I had a ‘face like a gorilla’ and wasn’t suited for such a cute character, because I am black. My wig was too blonde, my wig wasn’t blonde enough, or, my wig was ghetto because I was making it ghetto, by being black and having it on my head.” (Ibid).
After deleting what she describes as thousands of comments, Cumberbatch decided to respond publicly. Her piece, for xojane.com, rejects the criticism from certain audience members that she should “stick to her range.”
After noting that this restrictive ideal limits plus-sized cosplayers as well, Cumberbatch criticizes the idea of “range” by pointing out the extremely unequal representation of black characters in media and therefore the lack of options for black cosplayers who would be limited to these roles. Her sentiments would be echoed later by numerous advocates for better representation, including Viola Davis after her 2015 Emmy win for How to Get Away with Murder.
Cumberbatch continues to write on race in cosplay for sites including XOJane.com, TheMarySue.com and NerdCaliber.com, however, her latest and most visible form of activism is of a more participatory bent.
#28DaysofBlackCosplay is a hashtag movement originally conceived by Cumberbatch in January of 2013. The cosplayer was anticipating the upcoming Black History Month and the slew of racialized comments that were about to hit social media. She laments: “we spend the entire month arguing online with people… October and February are the worst times to be black on the internet” (Black Girl Nerds).
#28DaysofBlackCosplay was an attempt to get out ahead of the wave of negative dialogues and vitriol with an explicit effort to celebrate and appreciate black cosplay. The movement originated on Facebook as a group composed of Cumberbatch’s personal contacts in black cosplay, hastily called to action through emails, tweets and messages. The group came together and shared cosplay photos of themselves with short profiles about who they were and who they were cosplaying. Later Cumberbatch cross-posted some of the photos to Twitter whose users “took it and ran with it” (Ibid).
For Cumberbatch #28DaysofBlackCosplay is about visibility. She says, "I needed to see us represented, and that’s what #28DaysofBlackCosplay is all about, it’s about representation.” Her comments evoke the political philosophy of Jacques Ranciére who states that political speech requires a moment in which the invisible subject has an opportunity to become visible (1999). If we could imagine Rancieré to be speaking of black cosplay he might say that “It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise…” (30:Ibid).
Certainly, not all cosplay achieves the level of speech that he would call political. In order for speech to be recognized as such, and not noise, it has to be legible to the person hearing it. My Harleen Quinzel cosplay, sadly, didn’t quite achieve politics, since no one knew who I was and thus couldn’t make sense of what I was trying to “say.”
Other cosplays fail politically when they don’t present an opportunity for the invisible subject to become visible. In my research I discussed the phenomenon of “white Katara,” — a popular brown-skinned character who is often cosplayed by white women. White Katara can’t be an example of political speech because instead of increasing visibility for black and brown characters, it forcibly decreases visibility by rewriting a previously brown character as the hegemonic default — white.
However, some cosplays, under the right circumstances and in front of the right audience, do begin to beg the question of “Who gets to be an American?” or, “Who gets to be a hero?”
— Affluenza Jedi (@KendraJames_) February 8, 2016
Above, a young "black girl nerd" or “blerd” and participant of #29DaysofBlackCosplay gives us her rendition of Rey (Daisy Ridley) from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. The character of Rey also marks an important moment for representations of women in media. Of the top 10 highest grossing film protagonists, Rey is only the second female. However, she far exceeds the reach of her colleague, Anna (Frozen) in 9th by, A.) being a live-action character intended for general audiences that include the coveted “male 18-24” demographic, and B.) climbing all the way to 3rd place (though she still has time to beat out Jack of Titanic fame and claim 2nd)*. Rey proves that not only can a female protagonist carry a film, she can also bring in box office dollars, exploding the common knowledge that female-led films don’t sell. Notably, the film also expanded black representation in the Star Wars galaxy through the strong supporting performance of John Boyega as Finn, a Stormtrooper who defects to the Rebellion. Boyega’s and Ridley’s performances and roles offer opportunities for speech and visibility. However, intrepid and courageous cosplayers find opportunities for self-expression and possible political speech through negotiations between their own identities and those of the fictional characters they emulate. Below, Bishop cosplay rejects Batman's and Robin’s hegemonic whiteness while embracing a love for the character that we might interpret as an embracing of Batman’s core principles of justice, ingenuity and respect for life. In his work, named after the theory it explains, Jose Muñoz might describe this negotiation as a Disidentification.
Muñoz understands disidentification as a way of relating to material where the individual neither fully embraces nor fully rejects it’s ideals. Disidentification exists as a third position in which one neither “ buckles under the pressures of” nor “attempt[s] to break free of” the dominant mode of thought, rather, they:
"… tr[y] to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance. … To disidentify is to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object or subject that is not culturally coded to “connect” with the disidentifying subject" (Ibid: 11-12).
Still other cosplayers operate in different modes. Like any artistic endeavor, cosplay can be a rich field for practicing different forms of self-expression. The Storm cosplayer below maintains iconic links to the source material through her dark skin, and white eyes as well as the black/white/gold color scheme employed in several official versions of the character.
However, Cupcake Ninja incorporates her own details and stylings in the costume — her hairstyle, the steampunk-esque elements — which serve to make it uniquely identifiable and uniquely hers.
— Chaka by Nature (@princessology) February 9, 2016
Ultimately, black cosplay in general and #29DaysOfBlackCosplay in particular, opens up a space of possibility for the underrepresented fan — the invisible subject — to make themselves visible by negotiating their own identities through creative reinterpretation of a character. When thinking about black cosplay, it’s important to understand its position in the constellation of media available to us, especially when we think about issues of representation. Cosplay can be both the motivation and the call for embracing difference in media and encouraging creators to tell stories about the sorts of people we want to see. One black character in a sea of white faces — whether she be a Nichelle Nichols or a Chaka Cumberbatch — can have a surprising effect on the futures of those who come after (like Whoopi Goldberg, for example). Take the opportunity to celebrate Black History Month and black representation by enjoying, sharing and participating in black cosplay, courtesy of Cumberbatch and #28DaysofBlackCosplay. Starfleet Officer Olevia Chavez@ComicConHouston 2015#29DaysOfBlackCosplay #OpenHailingFrequencies pic.twitter.com/lNo7siV9VQ
— Chuck (@Bitspitter) February 5, 2016
For more on #29DaysOfBlackCosplay or (#28DaysOfBlackCosplay), find the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. Joan can be found at @a_wild_acafan and Chaka Cumberbatch at @princessology.
*In case you’re curious, the rest of the female protagonist cohort in the top 50 highest grossing films are:
- Alice of Alice in Wonderland(2010)
- Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
- Joy of Inside Out (2015)
- Bella Swann of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn— Part 2 (2012)
The other 44 films feature male protagonists. That’s 88% male and 12% female.
** This year it’s #29daysofblackcosplay, however, Cumberbatch has stated that she will be checking both hashtags regularly.