Cosplay is very much like my life: meticulously crafted through thoughtful decision-making, nervously held together at the seams, and ready to fall apart at any moment. Regardless, conventions remain events where I am filled with feelings of wonder, excitement and love. Conventions have become a place where I am able to present myself in ways that I am normally incapable of doing in my everyday life—primarily through cosplay. The act of cosplay itself has become a focal point in my life and has become so much more than just a hobby.
Cosplay has become a means of creating and sustaining friendships, drawing in an audience, and engaging that audience in serious discussions of social issues once I’ve drawn them in with dazzling displays of costumed geekery. It’s my hope that we can all find ways to work towards a world that is safer, more inclusive, and more considerate.
My friends and followers on social media know well that I have every intention of raising the collective awareness of the community of folks who enjoy my work. I believe that any sphere of influence can and should be used for the improvement of our society—which brings me to the subject matter of this article:
Maintaining a sense of contextual sensitivity through cosplay (and other works!)
I say contextual sensitivity here because we’ll be exploring concepts that go beyond racial and cultural aspects, including some thoughts on gender and sexuality. Additionally, I’m referring to the context of taking something from a fictional instance and enabling its existence in our shared reality. I want to make a few things clear before I do begin:
-Full Disclosure: I am a pansexual Filipino-American cis man. These opinions come from me and my experiences. Many of my feelings come from the place filled with the anger and dissatisfaction that my existence in the US is heavily politicized by the myth of the “model minority” and its rooting in anti-blackness. Please keep this in mind as you continue.
-I don’t think I’m always right. By writing all this, I’m hoping it gives you and I an opportunity to share words. Let’s have an open dialogue.
-The focus of my writing here is not to call out or personally attack anyone. Rage can be tiring and unproductive without a clear objective. If you recognize you, your work, or your design from a particular instance, I am not calling you a bad person.
-I’m plenty angry and exhausted at many of the concepts and experiences that will be mentioned here, but it’s my hope that what I’m sharing here raises awareness and sensitivity in not only your own heart and mind, but within whatever communities you may participate in and associate with. My anger and exhaustion isn’t going to help much with that cause, but both are still present.
-Not everything I am sharing here is my own lived experience or opinion. I’ve spoken with cosplayers and non-cosplayers of various communities and will be sharing pieces of our discussions here.
-When I began the concept for what I’m writing here, I originally wanted to write a list of “Dos and Don’ts,” but as the discussions went on, there were many instances without clear answers. So, please don’t read this and think that I’m trying to police all things cosplay-related. However…
–Don’t ever perform blackface, brownface, yellowface, or use any other type of “transformative” theatrical effect that darkens your skin or adopts/caricaturizes the features of any minority group—these practices are insensitive and perpetuate years of oppressive harm. This is never okay.
-I always want to do my best to celebrate and encourage other cosplayers to love themselves and continue to do what you love most. I just hope it becomes possible for our community to take a look within and see that it has a unique role in creating safer and more conscious fandom spaces.
Representation, Erasure, and Claiming What Isn’t Yours:
Since the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition in 2014, there have been many cosplayers inspired by the introduction of new characters and new designs for some old favorites—but DA:I also introduced us to a character named Cremisius Aclassi, also known as Krem. He’s lieutenant to the Bull’s Chargers, has excellent taste in haircuts, and often stands on his chair while drinking. The scene where Krem’s status as a transgender man was initially revealed didn’t click immediately. I thought Krem was poking fun at Bull for having huge pectoral muscles when he mentioned binding. Several moments later came the “OH…” moments where I felt awkward for both my lack of understanding of the situation and the seemingly insensitive dialogue choice I made in the conversation.
In the follow-up dialogue with Krem, I enjoyed the opportunity to have a deeper conversation about his experiences that enriched his character and made me feel like Bioware was truly taking some steps forward with their dedication to inclusion. Not once did I feel like Krem was a forced “check box” on the diversity list. However, I won’t say too much more. As much as I dislike the conventions of the gender binary and attributes commonly lent to “maleness” or masculinity, I’m a cis man. I have limited perspective here.
My reason for talking about Krem comes from an instance last year when I was asked to build a set of armor by a friend. At first I was incredibly complimented, as I didn’t believe I was skilled enough to do so, and I felt humbled that someone would be willing to wear a costume I put together! But then came the request: he wanted to cosplay as Krem. Specifically, he wanted to cosplay as Krem at a convention specifically intended as a safe space for people of the LGBTQIA+ community. My eyebrows raised and my head tilted at this, but at the time, I couldn’t articulate the way I felt.
I didn’t have the intent of gatekeeping someone’s participation in cosplay or attendance of said convention—but the request made me very uncomfortable. From my understanding at the time, the request came from a straight cis guy who wanted to “tastefully portray the character and celebrate him,” and do so in a space designed for people of marginalized identities. When this happened, my opposition came through as citing how costumes can come off, and identities can’t. Thus, maybe he ought to talk to more people about his idea (again, because my perspective and understanding is limited).
His response was to reach out to his friends, and to additionally reach out to Patrick Weekes, who wrote Krem in Inquisition. Mr. Weekes, who I believe is an excellent writer and a super swell person, still didn’t seem quite like the correct person to ask on this subject. This exchange with my friend ended with my directing him to a thread I’d seen earlier that day about cis people being cast as transgender characters (as well as me ultimately refusing his request), but the interaction left me with some insight, but mostly questions. I was still thinking “Who is allowed to cosplay as Krem?”
Over a year later, the question stuck with me, and eventually became one of the focal points of this essay. I don’t have the answer, and I’m not sure there is one, singular correct answer. Regardless, I’m not a person who gets to decide. In speaking with people of the transgender community, I heard nearly as many different opinions as people with whom I spoke.
One of the cosplayers I discussed this topic with is a transgender man who emphasized his belief that cosplaying a character isn’t a matter of “checking off a list and matching the features that comprise a character’s appearance, personality or identity, so anyone should be able to cosplay any character regardless of their own traits.” However, he acknowledged that this would require us to live in an ideal world where people are completely cognizant of the power and privilege structures that exist and the ways that people are both advantaged and disadvantaged by these structures. Since we don’t live in that world, he describes the “tasteful inclusion of a transgender man in a major franchise as a victory that perhaps should be left celebrated by the transgender community (for now).”
Another opinion presented was that “while Krem is a transgender man, he is a lot of things before that. Everyone and anyone should be able to enjoy him as a character.” I think this viewpoint is similar to my initial interactions with him as a character before the tavern conversation with Krem and the rest of the Bull’s Chargers. The game gives you plenty of insight into who he is, and continues to build layers without defining him by any single trait.
We’re going to move on to some discussion about keeping in character while in costume. Occasionally (or incredibly often), cosplayers do like to break the roleplay aspects of staying in character and behave in ways that are not only unlikely scenarios for their characters, but hilarious photo opportunities.
Hearkening back to the above comment regarding cosplaying as Krem—cosplay does not demand that the cosplayer must check the boxes for a specific character’s features in order to successfully cosplay as them. However, consider when a character belongs to a marginalized group. Let’s use sexual orientation as a primary example— again we’re going with Dragon Age characters: Dorian Pavus and Sera.
It’s my belief that communities have established that you don’t have to be a gay man or gay woman to cosplay as Dorian or Sera. And it’s certainly none of the other convention attendees’ business if you are/aren’t. And as above, to pick out certain aspects of a character’s mold and sort them out based upon some hierarchy can be largely reductionist. Minimizing Krem to his status as a transgender man may not be the equivalent to minimizing Dorian and Sera to their homosexual orientations, but these aspects of these characters remain and likely should come into consideration at some point during a cosplayer’s thought process.
Cosplayers often present themselves through characters external to themselves, and are seen by many. There isn’t always time to stop and explain your intent or why to justify why you might believe that something that you did or acted out while in costume should or shouldn’t have caused harm to someone. You also don’t get to decide what someone might find offensive or harmful. What you can decide is the way you present yourself.
I’m not saying solely to “stick to canon” or “stay in character.” What I’m emphasizing here is awareness: Awareness of your own presentation and your own actions, so that you can be accountable for them.
As such, holding yourself responsible for your actions and maintaining awareness of your presentation as a character might require you to suppress aspects of yourself (albeit temporarily). The instance that spurred this discussion was a Sera cosplayer who did a couples cosplay with her boyfriend as Krem. What we know is that Sera likes women. Krem is a man. If these two cosplayers engaged in romantic displays in public or posed for photos in such a way? That’d be a visible display that disregards and completely erases the oppression faced by the marginalized groups represented in these two characters.
Dorian’s storyline in Inquisition includes a personal quest where you meet his father–and it’s revealed that his father attempted to change Dorian through a dangerous magical ritual. As a gay man, Dorian does not intend to carry on his family’s legacy through noble marriage. Dorian’s father would risk rather his son’s mind, and perhaps even his life, than lose his family’s prestige in their home country of Tevinter. There are severe parallels in this story to real world conversion therapy and the hurdles that so many people of queer communities face with their families. I myself have had a multitude of difficulties navigating family gatherings as someone who isn’t heterosexual. People in my family aren’t all aware of this, and it’s difficult. It’s terrifying sometimes. So just remember, if you were to cosplay Dorian, it’s not at all necessary for you to be a gay man yourself, but please: remember who he is.
We’re not just talking about breaking fictional canon. We’re talking about trivializing the struggles of others–and often times for a joke, or humorous photo opportunity. This act of trivializing the lived experience of others perpetuates erasure. People in our world are harassed, abused, and killed daily—merely for not being cisgender, heterosexual, or another privileged majority. Acknowledge the experience of people who aren’t you. Be respectful and conscious. Be aware.
(Note: but please don’t actually expect people to pat you on the back for being a socially aware and decent human)
Recognizing the Problem: Appropriation, Caricatures, and Cultural Iconography
Moving past the concept of staying in character, many cosplayers love to focus on source material accuracy—and sometimes, to a fault. In the above example, I hope it was established that being accurate to the in-game portrayals of characters can be positive. But next, we’re going to discuss some of the ways where accepting or enforcing source material accuracy can cause harm.
Let’s start with this example from Super Punch Out!!, released in 1994.
While the Punch Out! games have never been the greatest source of tasteful portrayals for any minority groups, the games have had “diverse” cast members who hail from many parts of the world. And while these characters might be memorable, they can illustrate the current climate of media diversity when it comes to inclusion and portrayal. In the above example, 1994 could be described as a time when people of Asian descent were seen as heavily otherized martial artists who don’t speak English. I doubt that Dragon Chan is a popular character that sees a lot of cosplayers, but we’ll discuss why he’s a fitting example when we get to the contemporary examples.
So, before even considering a costume, you may want to take a moment to consider more than the source material and how accurately you’re able to recreate it. Try and consider the design of the character itself—what influenced the design (both in the world of fictional origin and our real world), who developed the design, and when the character was conceived. It doesn’t take long to discover that many of our favorite characters and worlds were born from mortifying stereotypes and schools of thought that (hopefully) are on the way out. Conversely, sometimes the artists and people behind these designs claim intent such as homage, celebration, borrowed culture, inspiration, or mimicry. Call it what you want, but often times it boils down to some of my favorite words: appropriation, orientalism, exotification, and whitewashing, which altogether… just ends up insulting.
Let’s look at some more examples:
Four years ago, in 2012, Diablo III was released and included a Monk class. Monk classes in RPG games aren’t anything new, and this particular instance is not surprising. Perhaps that’s not really bothersome, but consider how many tropes this portrayal plays into: the design calls back to many Asian elements–and so many that it might be difficult to understand where and when they’re borrowed from.
A spiritual martial artist who draws power from within and speaks in confounding proverbs might not be the worst inclusion of elements of East Asian culture and religion, and certainly not as misguided as Dragon Chan’s portrayal, but both are built from similar molds. Cosplaying as this particular iteration of the Monk might not bring offense to the people whose culture was used for its inspiration–but the cosplay might reinforce the idea that cultural appropriation is perfectly fine, so long as it was sourced from a video game and not from the countries directly. I obviously can’t speak for all Asian people, but whenever characters like this appear, I at least raise an eyebrow and question it.
Pictured above is the Witch Doctor class, from Diablo III as well. Gameplay for this class is centered around using zombified creatures and unleashing plagues on your enemies. I feel like making the only dark-skinned class into a tribe of mystic “wild” folks isn’t the most tasteful design choice. For the folks still reading, I feel as if cosplaying as some of these designs wouldn’t even be a question of “Should I make this costume?” but more a question of “Why does this design exist?” However, remember that this was put into a game, and by a team who thought it was a good idea. And perhaps no one in the design process saw that this could be an issue, or maybe they weren’t comfortable voicing their opinion during production.
Above we see the portrait used for Isis, one of the playable gods in the multiplayer online battle arena game called Smite. The game allows players to choose from many gods and immortal creatures from various mythological sources from around the world. I’m not an expert on mythology around the world, or Egyptian mythology in particular, but Isis and some of the other gods seems as if they haven’t seen the sun in a while… Even if Isis isn’t the worst perpetrator on Smite’s cast of characters, there are numerous examples of borrowed cultural iconography that presents a skewed image of their places of origin.
After looking at some of these images, the last few decades in gaming character design really have a long way to go in terms of tasteful inclusion and sensitivity of portrayals. Representation is not always positive for marginalized groups. And by no means am I saying to never cosplay as characters who might follow similar design choices—what I’m saying is that it’s possible to keep in mind the context of your costume with respect to people around you, while still remaining recognizable and having fun (just not at the expense of marginalized folks). Maybe the offense won’t always be so clear, or won’t even be present—but just as you may not have intended to hurt anyone, your intention can mean and often means very little.
On a final note about gaming: Hi there, Overwatch.
Reconsider how important source material accuracy is to you, in lieu of how that accuracy might harm others. Leveraging your privilege in a fashion that outwardly exhibits and perpetuates the modes of oppression that have been in place for centuries can be just as hurtful and silencing as any overt act of hatred.
Remember that when one more person reinforces the stereotypes, the tropes, the molds that are never broken, or when typecasting goes unchallenged… that role tells countless numbers of us that we can be nothing more. Internalization of these messages can be hell to cast off, and for many, these thoughts never leave us completely.
On the subject of perpetuating centuries of oppression, we’re going to have a few words about blackface, yellowface, or any other type of transformative theatrical effect used to change someone’s features to appear more like a minority group. I originally didn’t want to include this section, but with many recent Hollywood casting decisions… we’ve seen that this problem has been continuing long past the days of minstrel shows of the 19th century, Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi 50 years ago, or any other horrid roles tastelessly brought into our entertainment media.
The key lesson here is to learn to recognize the potential problems: Are the participants in the relevant media part of the marginalized group being represented? Was the narrative created from the perspective of the marginalized group, by members of said group? Or was it created by an outsider looking in, from a place of privilege? Are people of marginalized groups being used as props for a white male protagonist? Are you finding that you must justify to yourself that your costume “isn’t that racist,” “not that bad,” or “not entirely appropriative?” If these questions are on the table, I would ask that you step away and take a look at what you’re doing, and try to build some understanding by educating yourself. That way, you can make a conscious decision knowingly if your actions as a cosplayer are perpetuating the institutionalized forms of oppression that so many still face as you read these words.
My belief is that you, as an individual, can do better. If you understand that these practices have brought harm and continue to bring harm to the world’s marginalized communities—then simply don’t participate. It’s that easy.
With regard to the first scenario of a character having darker skin than yours: consider the earlier discussion of not needing to reduce a character’s identity to a series of check boxes. Also take into account if it’s truly necessary to maintain your loyalty to the source material accuracy. And perhaps ask yourself why it is you’d like to cosplay the character—maybe the way they act resembles you? Perhaps they share a hobby, such as music or dance. These are aspects you can represent while in costume without treating darker skin as a costume. This logic applies to any physical feature, such as eye-structure or body shape. You can successfully and accurately portray a character without succumbing to harmful and oppressive practices.
So please, do better.
Believe it or not, there have been several themes throughout this mass of words. And you might have noticed that everything here need not only apply to the cosplay community. So here’s the big message:
The various institutions and structures of the world are already imbalanced in favor of people belonging to the privileged groups—whether this refers to people who are white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, male, thin, neurotypical, wealthy, or any other advantage. What I’m requesting is simple: Please consider others who do not share the same advantaged experiences.
This is a loaded statement, so I’ll break it down further.
-Your intentions may not be overtly malicious, but that does not mean your words and actions are inherently harmless. Microaggressions are the daily reality and part of the continued oppression of many (if not all) marginalized groups. Try to do your best in reducing and eliminating these unnecessary impacts felt by so many.
-You do not have to center yourself in order to build empathy, to support a cause or group, or to be an effective ally. Sometimes the best thing you can do is step back, stop making noise, and let others speak. And occasionally it’s helpful to give others a signal boost, or a platform to stand on. People all have different reach and influence, and giving others access to those can form connections and reach ears that would’ve previously been inaccessible.
-“I have a friend in (group) that said it was okay!” No. That person, while having the lived experience of that group, does not speak for all people of that group. Communities are diverse, and do not have any obligation to share any single opinion, nor can one person speak for an entire community. The consent of one does not equal the consent of many. In believing such, you’ve also effectively asked your friend to tokenize themselves for your own gratification.
-Not everything is yours to claim. Not even outrage. Nor is a victory yours to celebrate for a community to which you don’t belong. When you speak over the voices of the people who are directly affected by certain events–consider that adding your voice to the discussion isn’t necessary. You also have no right to decide if others should be offended and hurt by your actions, words, or intentions. The sincerity of your intention doesn’t determine the impact’s severity.
-Recognize your privilege. You can take off a costume. You can enjoy inherently oppressive and harmful media without critical analysis of how stereotypes affect your community’s future generations. You can look anywhere and see people like you in the media you enjoy portrayed in a multitude of ways. People with the lived experience of the marginalized group you’re selectively portraying? They don’t get that luxury. They may not have these opportunities often, if at all.
Back to the subject of cosplay, video games, and popular media:
-Remember that it is okay to be critical of media while still enjoying it. If you acknowledge that there are harmful aspects in a piece of media you enjoy, you are consciously choosing not to ignore it. Ignoring the problems doesn’t make them go away, but recognizing them is at least a start. You don’t need the consent of marginalized folks to justify your interest in something.
-If you are unsure of a design or have little context about it, it might be best to stay away. Even if you have the best intentions, power structures and marginalized identities don’t work that way. Your loss of an opportunity to cosplay a character you love doesn’t equal the systemic oppression that allowed for the proliferation of inconsiderate media facets.
Be caring, conscious, and cosplay well with others.