We Need To Talk About Racism And Sexism In The Cosplay Community

By Tai Gooden

Cosplay is supposed to be an escape from reality — instead, it can make the realities of racism and sexism more visible than ever.

There are times when we all need an outlet to escape our daily lives. Some women write. Others work out. And those who are self-proclaimed nerds many combine their ingenuity and fandom passion to enter the magical world of cosplay. Cosplay (a portmanteau of “costume” and “play”) is a type of performance art where a person, known as a cosplayer, portrays a character from a novel, comic, TV show, movie, or other pop-culture medium. Some cosplayers dive into their character and take on their personality, while others continue to be themselves while dressed like their favorite character.

The term cosplay was coined back in 1984, during a Los Angeles sci-fi convention, and the community has continued to grow over the years. The current size of the community is hard to ascertain because cosplay happens both at conventions and in daily life, but the recent mainstream boom in all things geek/nerd related has placed the community in the spotlight. There are hundreds of forums dedicated to cosplay tips, websites to find cosplay pieces, and even documentaries about the cosplay community. Major websites like CNN have begun to provide extensive coverage on cosplay during well-known geek conventions like San Diego Comic Con, which welcomes hundreds of thousands of attendees and is known for a heavy cosplay scene.

Conventions — which usually take place over a 3–4 day span — are a gathering of fans with like interests who come to build relationships, attend panels about issues/topics related to the particular fandom(s) being celebrated, meet celebs from their favorite shows, buy cool merchandise, and express their creativity through cosplay art. There are hundreds of thousands of conventions around the world that vary in terms of size and gender, but cosplay is a cornerstone of all of them. The cosplay community artists at conventions are as exciting as celebrity guests and vendors.

It’s an exciting world, and for many, a personally fulfilling one. But for women, and particularly women of color, it can also be hostile and even threatening. As the geek scene gains prominence under a mainstream lens, harmful behavior is becoming more visible. Body shaming and other forms of discrimination continue to cast a dark cloud over an experience that is supposed to be an escape from reality — but can instead make the realities of racism and sexism more visible than ever.

Kayla, a geek and Afro-Latina who loves to cosplay, is fond of a couple favorite looks: Disgust (from Inside Out) and a genderbent take on A Clockwork Orange. She is a theater kid with experience in stage makeup and costuming, and cosplaying is another extension of her talents.

BLACK CAT-Image Source_ Black Cat-Pixel Vixens
KAYLA-Image Credit_ Nerdgeekfan Cosplay
Kayla (Credit: Nerdgeekfan COsplay) || Black Cat (Credit: Black Cat/Pixel Vixens)

But Kayla saw the dark side of being a Black cosplayer in 2013. As she shares her story about an encounter with a few male convention attendees, the tremble in her voice and frequent pauses tell a story of their own:

“I was cosplaying as Amber from Sucker Punch, and I was excited because I was doing my first cosplay [photo] shoot as well. I volunteer at a con and I was walking through the cosplay parade to get to my shoot. There was a group of guys watching the parade, and they all turned and looked at me. One of them suddenly said,‘Why would you wear that?! You’re not small!’ and it caught me off guard. It was my first huge cosplay, and I was excited about how it came together.
[His words] knocked the wind out of me. I didn’t know what to do, so I just kept walking. I eventually made it upstairs to my photo shoot and the photographer, who was very sweet, and was able to talk to me and calm me down. She said that fanboy rage toward women, especially non-White women, is unfortunate, but it happens. Later, I met up with my friends and they asked me where my cosplay was because I wasn’t wearing it anymore. They told me it looked awesome and it gave me the boost I needed. I went back to my room and put my cosplay back on.”

Black Cat, a model for a kink cosplay website and an erotic novelist, knew her status as a Black sex- and body-positive cosplayer would also create backlash — and she was right. She started cosplaying back in 2009, and has faced mixed reactions to her sexier looks for Pixel Vixens — a cosplay-centered erotica website — as well as to her convention costumes like Juri Han from Street Fighter. When she started cosplaying, she was at her heaviest weight and was told she was “too thick and black” to cosplay by several men on the Internet.

The experiences of Black Cat and Kayla are certainly not isolated among women who cosplay. There have been several high-profile reports of sexual harassment and body policing at cosplay events, including a woman who punched a man for placing his head on her breasts during an unwanted photo opportunity, a New York Comic Con attendee who was asked to pull her pants down, and a Black woman who was told by convention staff that she was not wearing “proper” attire.

There have been several high-profile reports of sexual harassment and body policing at cosplay events.

When these harassment incidents happen, the community often fails to adequately address them. Geek cons have policies against photography without consent and all other forms of harassment, but many attendees don’t think that these policies have enough details about reporting incidents and disciplinary processes. Some women cosplayers defend themselves — a bold but potentially dangerous move to make with unpredictable strangers. Others are too stunned or hurt to retaliate.

Men (and women who can’t recognize their internalized misogyny) often make excuses for convention attendees who bully strangers about their physical appearance or sexually harass women. People have argued that geek women are cosplaying solely for the male gaze, and some men believe cosplay women should be flattered by the attention, in turn responding harshly if their “advances” are “rejected.”

And if you’re a woman of color? The situation is often even worse.

As is typically the case, the cosplay community demands to be looked at through an intersectional feminist lens — because frequently, for women facing harassment, racism and sexism intersect.

Kayla recounts her own experience with racism: “The Disgust cosplay I did [last year] was with two of my White friends and I heard a man turn to his wife and say ‘well of course the Black one would be Disgust, that makes more sense’ and I was shocked. Why couldn’t I be Sadness or Joy?’” she says.

Many other women, too, have spoken out about racism in the community. A couple years ago, a Black woman cosplayer made headlines when she faced racist Internet rage over her Sailor Venus costume; “the depths that the insults sink to are enough to scare many interested cosplayers away from even trying,” she wrote of her experience.

In 2013, several attendees of Katsucon (a Maryland con that celebrates Japanese animation) were interviewed about their thoughts on race-based harassment:

Racism can exist in any genre, but many women of color feel like it is exacerbated in certain cultures like anime, which features prominently at cosplay conventions (and especially general geek cons that don’t revolve around specific products like Star Wars or Doctor Who). The objectification and hyper-sexualization of women in anime, combined with the emphasis many men place on a sexist “submissive” ideal, can be hard on women and, in particular, Black women.

Says Black Cat:

“A lot of anime fans are really into how anime girls look, even though they aren’t real [people]. You have guys who are into how a character looks and thinks she’s hot. They compare women who aren’t real to real women cosplayers.”

Kayla agrees:

“I think the anime community is more harsh, especially when it comes to race and cosplay with POCs. I know they particularly don’t like to see Black girls as Sailor Scouts . . . I don’t understand why some people are okay seeing a Black Princess Leia in a slave bikini but it’s NOT okay to see her in a schoolgirl uniform. Gender wise, I think they are accepting of a woman cosplaying a male character. But, it’s still more discrimination with a POC woman doing an anime character.”

It’s not just Black women who confront this particular brand of sexism; Asian women, too, may be derided for not fitting the body-type ideal of anime. One Asian friend of mine who dresses as anime characters, for instance, has described facing scrutiny for being larger and not having the “sexy body” desired by male convention-goers.

Racism and sexism in the cosplaying community stem from, of course, the community’s gatekeepers. Cosplay discrimination toward women of color tends to be fueled by those who have dominated fandom — a group of people, usually men and particularly white men, who feel like different elements of geek culture belong to them.

KAYLA 2-Image Credit_ Nerdgeekfan Cosplay
Kayla (Credit: Nerdgeekfan Cosplay)

In their minds, if a fan of a specific series or franchise doesn’t possess a certain level of knowledge and tenure, then that person is a bandwagoner or a “fake geek girl” who wants to infiltrate their imaginary boundaries. Yes, mainstream media has introduced a wave of women fans, but there have always been women of color who love comics, sci-fi, and anime. And, even if they are a new fan, there is no unit of measurement or a specific line of testing they need to prove their worth. Whitewashing characters is usually considered just fine, but all hell may break loose if a white character is portrayed by a different race.

When Scarlett Johansson was cast as Major Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, for instance, there was some backlash by people who justly wanted to see an Asian actress have a chance to play the role — but there were also many defenders who were supportive of the casting. A common tweet among supporters was that anime characters “look white anyway,” so it wasn’t a big deal. However, when Michael B. Jordan, a Black actor, was cast as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movie, there was so much backlash that the actor himself responded to the racist insults.

“I feel like a lot of media [that inspired cosplay] has been produced or directed by people who are not POC, and that influences some of the people who watch the shows and how it appeals to the audience in general,” Black Cat says.

Because of this power structure, it can be particularly difficult to fight for change — but that hasn’t stopped the marginalized members of the cosplay community from doing so. Despite all the challenges, women of color cosplay artists refuse to back down, even though they are often accused of being dramatic or attempting to seek attention by pulling the “race card” when they speak out.

BLACK CAT 2-Image Source_ Black Cat-Pixel Vixens
Black Cat (Credit: Black Cat/Pixel Vixens)

“Before I started making more revealing costumes, I knew the kind of attention I was going to get. I know that there is still racism and misogyny in the geek community, but I made it a rule to myself to not let any of those things get in the way of my passion . . . I feel empowered and happy whenever I put my cosplay on,” Black Cat says.

On a broader level, one of the ways women have been combating cosplay discrimination is through panels at conventions. To Kayla, panels are needed to make people uncomfortable and confront the issue. “I love to go to panels where acceptance in cosplay is promoted. And, these panels have to include accepting LGBT cosplayers! They are just as geeky and nerdy as anyone else, and many of them are also women of color. I hate to see the division,” she says.

People who don’t have to navigate the cosplay scene as a member of multiple marginalized groups often either think there isn’t a problem, or know what is going on, but are unwilling to acknowledge their own privileges. Change in the community is possible — but only once these barriers are shattered.

Says Kayla:

“We are not being hypersensitive. We can see you stare. We see the side eyes and the leering even when you don’t say anything. We experience it. And some people say ‘oh, well it’s not everybody,’ but it is an overwhelming majority of people who discriminate against us. Some people think that Black cosplayers are just trying to be White. No, we don’t wish we were White. We can be geeks and still love our melanin. At some point you have to check your privilege.”
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