In 2002 I hopped a Greyhound bus from my Iowa State college campus to get back home to Illinois for my first anime convention. I had no idea what to expect, but more important, I had no idea what to wear! I was going to a place where being a geek was highly encouraged—and I couldn’t contain my joy (retroactive shoutout to my dad and his girlfriend for dealing with 18-year-old me in the backseat of their car en route to the venue).
In the end, I decided on a Gundam Wing-themed ensemble that consisted of a mecha anime shirt and a rather stylish baseball cap. I’d be the cutest black nerd that ever did nerd, and people could @ me all day about Gundam pilots ...
Then I saw a dude walking down the street toward the convention dressed as Vash the Stampede.
Slick red coat. Cartoonishly spiky hair. Boots and a wicked pair of shades. It was as if he’d stepped out of Trigun to take a stroll through Rosemont, Ill. Not to borrow from an all-too-common misconception, but I really did think it was a bit too early to be trick-or-treating. But there were entire groups of costumed people walking down the sidewalk, some dressed in geek apparel, while others wore meatball-headed wigs to portray champions of love and justice. I was equal parts confused and intrigued.
After I got my badge and met up with my, ahem, “friend” (now partner—sorry, Dad), she explained what I was seeing. Attendees were participating in cosplay, which is when you emulate your favorite fictional characters by playing an elaborate game of dress-up. This ranges from replicating their most iconic outfits to doing variations of them in your own style. It’s not exclusive to nerd culture, either, since pop-culture icons can be seen wandering the convention halls. Oh, and don’t get me started on the costume crossovers. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders version of Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth and Cloud. (Google. It. Now.)
When the weekend ended, I immediately went on the hunt for characters I could cosplay. I searched all over the internet for a fat, black, queer female character I could bring to the next convention I went to. I’m sure you let out a sad little laugh as you read that sentence. There aren’t too many characters who fill those requirements today, let alone in 2002. But maybe I could take the “queer” out, or even the “fat” or “black” if I was brave enough (spoiler: I wasn’t). Eventually, I decided that cosplay wasn’t for me and left the idea in my dorm room.
This is the story a lot of black cosplayers tell about the first time they decided to give cosplay a shot. Thankfully, many of us eventually say “To hell with it,” and cosplay whomever we want. That’s what I did in 2004. I was so into Yu Yu Hakusho that when a friend said they were cosplaying from it, I jumped at the chance to join them—even though there wasn’t a single character who looked like me.
But see, that’s what cosplay is all about! You should cosplay whatever character you want—and I do, all the time. I’ll even alter a character’s outfit and have my partner make it in a style that I’m comfortable with.
But damn, it’d be nice to have options, you know? Canonical options that don’t lead to being labeled the black version of a character. When you’re forever on team #RepresentationMatters, you want to be able to look at a character roster and say, “That’s me!”
The reality is that black cosplayers don’t have as many candidates as our white counterparts. And yes, I see you typing that list of black characters in the comments, so let me fill you in on a little secret: We all have that list framed in our living rooms. It’s part of the Black Cosplay Care Package (trademark pending), and it still doesn’t negate the fact that there’s one black ranger in a team of five—or six, depending on Tommy’s mood.
That’s why we get excited when we see the likes of Black Lightning and Black Panther or hear news about an iconic character being reimagined as a black hero or heroine. We love Iron Man, but as soon as news broke that a black woman was going to wear the suit? We were on it in no time.
You know, there’s this common thing new cosplayers do where they ask who they should cosplay based on their looks. My partner hates it because she feels you should look at the character you like, not worry about how accurately you can portray someone. But when you’re a fat black girl, you kinda can’t help searching for yourself—and getting discouraged when you’re not present.
I will always cosplay whatever character I’m feeling at that moment, but I’ll also always remember the 18-year-old me who felt so excluded from the group she wanted to be a part of. She—and others like her—deserve more options.