Tag Archives: cosplay

Racism for Breakfast

Because my cosplay article has been kinda going crazy the past few days, people are tagging me all over the book of faces in discussions of various cosplay and cosplayers. I’ve been ignoring most of them (because I can’t spend all day commenting on facebook, despite evidence to the contrary), but I’ve commented on a few, usually because they were posted by a personal friend or professional connection.

One of these happened this morning. Someone tagged me in a post about some rando cosplaying as Hitler at Dragon*Con, asking what I thought. I responded that, although I’d love to tell him to eat a platter of dick tacos because he’s cosplaying a symbol of real-life violent racism against me and my family, I don’t agree with the calls to ban his costume from future cons. I don’t think costume censorship leads anywhere useful.

And then all hell broke loose.

I can boil “all hell” down to a few sentences: I was evacuating all credibility I had in my stance against shaming cosplayers for race, size, age, or gender identity because I was “shaming” cosplay Hitler. My call for acceptance of cosplayers of all races and body types should naturally extend to an acceptance of someone’s choice to cosplay Hitler. Expressing my discomfort with cosplay Hitler is bullying and victimizing him.


Now, first of all, this is probably an academic distinction, but I did not actually tell cosplay Hitler to eat a platter of dick tacos. I speculated that I might do such a thing were I to ever see him in person. The chances, however, of me actually having the nards for such a face-to-face confrontation are precisely equal to the chances of me being elected the next Mormon prophet. That said, I do admit that I said in writing that I would like to invite him to such a dining experience. So the distinction is academic. But it exists.

But here’s my point (and I know you’re all relieved that I actually have one): Expressing discomfort at a costume that embodies real-life violent racism against me and my family– and I have living Holocaust survivors in my family– does not make me the bully.

Those of us who fight racism and speak out against the symbols of racism are used to being told that we’re the problem. “Toughen up,” we’re told. “Freedom of speech,” “You’re too sensitive,” “Get over it,” “Stop taking everything so seriously.” But the worst, by far the worst, is being told that we’re the ones oppressing and victimizing by speaking out against racism, its symbols, and its tools. I think it’s very difficult for people who have never personally experienced bigotry to understand what it means for people who have been violently oppressed to be confronted with symbols of that oppression. It’s flabbergasting, though, when they refuse to even attempt understanding and instead blame the victim for speaking out.

This isn’t about the principle of “accepting all cosplay no matter what.” Only the inexperienced think all principles should be taken to their furthest extreme and still hold. There’s always a line. And being able to see that line is almost always about experience and always about understanding. Sometimes it’s the experience of age, sometimes it’s the experience of bigotry and marginalization, sometimes it’s education. There’s no freedom that isn’t curtailed at some extreme expression of it. Freedom of speech, for example, ends at libel, slander, and copyright violation. Generally a given freedom is curtailed when the exercising of that freedom harms someone else, and surely the freedom to wear whatever costume you want without being told by someone, “What the actual fuck are you doing? This is not OK” ends at the moment you choose a costume that is aggressively racist.

I know it’s hard to have compassion for people who have experienced bigotry when you haven’t experienced that bigotry yourself. My son and I are confronted with anti-Semitism in real life all the time. There are people who absolutely believe we don’t deserve to live because of who we are. And Hitler is one of their main symbols. Making a choice to dress as Hitler is making a choice to bully, to victimize, to hurt. People at Dragon*Con posed with that person while making the Heil Hitler salute. This is aggressive, deliberate racism.

Cosplay Hitler is the BULLY, not the VICTIM. It does not undermine my stance against bullying to express that I am personally uncomfortable with a costume that bullies ME DIRECTLY, and the implication that HE is somehow the victim of MY bullying is nonsense-flavored nonsense, especially considering that I am defending his right to wear that costume despite everything wrong with it.

It’s super-common for people who fight against bigotry to be told they’re the ones being the oppressors, that it’s somehow violating someone’s constitutionally-protected freedom of speech to say, “Hey, that’s racist,” as if freedom of speech protected them from the consequences of that speech. So I should have known better. I should have been able to predict what would happen, because it happens all the damn time. But frequency doesn’t lessen the pain.

I went back into that discussion and deleted all of my comments. I’ve been trying to shake the hurt, anger, and deep, deep disappointment all day. My husband came home and I cried all over again just telling him the story. Racism fucking hurts. Being told that you’ve lost credibility and that you’re the bully because you expressed personal discomfort with a racist act FUCKING HURTS.

Part of the pain and disappointment is being ashamed of myself. I should have stood my ground, but I wasn’t strong enough this time, and for that, I’m ashamed.

So this is what I ask, from the center of my pain and my shame: The next time you see someone say “That’s racist and hurtful to me,” don’t tell them they’re wrong. Don’t tell them it undermines their opinions or their credibility. Don’t tell them that their outcry victimizes the racist. Ask them why it hurts. Stand with them. Apologize. Try to understand. You do not get to decide whether or not bigotry, its symbols, or its tools are hurtful to their targets, or how hurtful they are. Listen, learn, and comfort rather than accuse, blame, or belittle.

We all fuck up, all the time. We all make stupid, bigoted remarks out of ignorance or carelessness, or sit by in silence while others make them. But we have to KEEP TRYING. We have to stop ourselves from saying stupid, hurtful shit like, “toughen up,” or “You’re the bully for shaming the racist.” We have to keep asking ourselves the difficult questions. We have to try hard to understand the bigotry others face. It’s a choice we have to consciously make.

It CAN get better if we CHOOSE to make it better, and that has to be a conscious choice we all make as individuals.

I stand by my opinion that cosplay Hitler should be allowed to wear his costume to whatever con he likes, because I can’t side with costume censorship. And I stand by my opinion that it’s an aggressively racist act to costume yourself as a real-life violent racist murderer and torturer whose victims are still living. And I stand by my opinion that he deserves whatever blowback he gets for his public display of racism. And I stand by my opinion that people who shame cosplayers for their race or size are being colossal jerks. I stand by all of it.

But most of all, I stand by my pledge to try my best to understand the experiences of others and to have compassion for those experiences.

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The Problem with Cosplay Celebrity

My husband and I are both 501st. My initial forays into cosplay were through the 501st, and I became an official member in 2007. We did local events. We did cons. And we branched out early on into other areas of cosplay.


My husband and I out in front of our theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

As someone who has always been a nerd, usually in the process of varying degrees of hiding my nerdiness, the cosplay scene was like a dream come true. I’d never been involved in a more openly nerdy, less judgmental activity. It was a way to express your enjoyment of a certain thing and enjoy it along with others. The accuracy, complexity, or creativity of the costume was paramount. I remember examining the craftmanship on one woman’s costume as she proudly told me she learned metalworking in order to create it.

Then . . . it became popular. Mainstream culture moved in, and what happened to cosplay when mainstream culture moved in is what happens to everything when mainstream culture moves in. The values change. The culture changes. And the mainstream dynamic of “popular kids front and center, nerds to the margins” came roaring in. Cosplay went from an all-skate to Superhero Suicide Girls in no time flat.

Long-term cosplayers who voice concerns about the costuming and the fandom aspects taking a firm backseat to the hotness of the girl in the costume are told, repeatedly, that they’re “just jealous” because they aren’t as pretty as popular cosplayers, or are called “haters,” as if expressing dismay at being pushed to the margins of your own hobby is somehow being unfair. I felt exceedingly lucky to be able to remove myself from the whole thing by being 501st (armor is a great equalizer) but there are non-501st costumes I’ll likely never wear again.

Cosplay is now dominated by models and women striving to look like models, who sell seductive pictures of themselves posing in sexy costumes. And you know? There’s not a damn thing wrong with that. My issue isn’t what they do– it’s what we lost when cosplay changed. Cosplay, once a way of expressing fandom with other fans, has become another area of our culture where we privilege the concepts of celebrity, oppressive beauty standards, and the commodification of both over everything else.

Women who are young and beautiful (and, to a much lesser extent, men who are young and beautiful) are the “popular kids.” They’re minor celebrities with facebook fan pages, press attention, and now, web series, films, and video games devoted to them. Their popularity is based on their physical attractiveness. Cosplayers who do not conform to traditional beauty standards are publicly shamed (I will not post the many, many links as they do not deserve the hits), occupying the same position of “marginalized outsider” we occupied throughout our lives EVERYWHERE BUT THE CON SCENE, our little oasis. That was our one place to belong until mainstream culture invaded the cosplay scene and shoved us back to the margins, back to where the “not good enough” are always shoved.

I’m not implying that cosplay celebrities aren’t nerds or fans. Of course they are. Apart from the obvious– that everyone is suddenly a nerd in this cultural moment (I never thought I’d see the day)– I absolutely believe that these women are true fans of the work they represent. And I absolutely believe that most of them have no intention of marginalizing others. I see some cosplay celebrities regularly championing body acceptance and cosplayer diversity, shutting people down for shaming other cosplayers, and encouraging people of all types to get their nerd on.

I DON’T BLAME THE COSPLAYERS. Nor do I expect (or even want) them to stop doing what they’re doing. I’m so committed to not blaming the cosplayers themselves that I refuse to post any pictures of them along with this article, because I don’t want anyone to feel implicated or blamed. Cosplay celebrities are not, however, in control of the culture at large (would that they were), and even the most vocal supporter of nonconforming cosplayers has little power to change mainstream culture as a whole.

The problem isn’t cosplay celebrities themselves, it’s the way mainstream culture requires our celebrities, especially the women, to conform to oppressive beauty standards, the way we commodify women’s bodies, and the way we divide women into categories of “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”

Conforming to traditional beauty standards is the basic entrance fee to celebrity. Our culture demands that women who participate in the kinds of activities that might make one a celebrity conform to these beauty standards or receive a barrage of shaming. Actors, politicians, singers . . . and now cosplayers. Where once upon a time a cosplayer could be anyone with a costume and a lanyard, the rise of cosplay celebrity has brought with it our culture’s oppressive normativity for female (and often male) bodies in display-related activities, and that extends to body size, body type, gender identity, age, and race. Before this change, the display was from fan to fan, largely unseen in the mainstream community. Now it’s celebrity to admirers (or perceived as aspirationally so), bringing with it all the cultural restrictions on who is allowed to occupy that celebrity space and who is not. Mainstream culture demands that we know our assigned places and stick to them or the shaming is fierce.

The cosplay community was never perfect. Don’t get me wrong; there are douches everywhere. And there’s nothing (apart from being publicly shamed: again, not posting links) stopping anyone of any type from slapping on a costume and living the dream.  I see cosplayers who don’t conform openly flouting the new oppressive standards, setting up tumblrs for cosplayers of size and of color, with some cosplay celebrities in full, vocal support. I see resistance from lots of sources, and it’s good.

But it would be disingenuous in the extreme to assert that there’s been no change in the cosplay community over the past 5 or so years, or that all change has been positive. And it would be disingenuous in the extreme to pretend that the mainstream dynamic of “popular kids > marginalized misfits” hasn’t taken over cosplay to at least some degree, particularly in how it’s expressed on the internet and in press coverage, which is, let’s face it, MOST of cosplay now. Cons are only a few days long and not everyone can go to them, so cosplay celebrity lives primarily on websites, fan pages, and the like.

And even as they sit at the top of the heap, is cosplay celebrity nothing but good for these young and beautiful women? Their authenticity is questioned nonstop, as if beauty cannot coexist with a love for comics. A young and beautiful cosplayer is inundated with disrespectful attention from the kinds of guys who are at the con primarily to see hot girls in costume– the new phenomenon of cosplay fans. There have always been young and beautiful nerdy cosplayers, and there always will be, but they haven’t always been forced into a cosplay situation that values their beauty far, far more than their craftmanship, or that forces them into competitions they never sought over “who’s the hottest Poison Ivy” or “which Slave Leia is hotter?”

I don’t have a solution. I don’t think one exists, apart from the obvious: keep resisting and keep the conversation going. I think cosplay will slowly become more accepting of cosplayers whose size, age, gender identity, or race currently marginalize them, but only if we choose to carve a place for acceptance of difference in a space where acceptance of difference used to be the norm. I honestly don’t know if that will make it easier or more difficult. And maybe the change will come when mainstream culture gets bored with us and tosses us back onto the scrap heap. Until that time, I’ll stay under my helmet for the most part. But I think you look great– truly.

UPDATE: I approve almost all the comments I find in my moderation queue. I will not, however, despite the fact that they prove my point, be approving the comments I’m getting that are accusing me of being a “jealous hater,” or that are based on reading comprehension errors, such as the assertion that I “hate” that there are beautiful cosplayers now, where before there were none, all of which is demonstrably false and nowhere in the blog post, and is, of course, just another way of calling me a “jealous hater.” I have no problem approving comments that disagree with me– I welcome debate– but I am under no obligation to approve comments that have no purpose other than to attack me. So, gentlemen (and so far, all of the attacks are coming from self-identified guys), that’s what happened to your eloquently worded “Your just jealous” comment, and all comments of that ilk.

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