Cosplay is supposed to be inclusive, an everyone-is-okay party celebrating common interests and passions. And mostly, it is. But too many people still have stories about those times when it wasn't, and a growing culture of inclusivity doesn't always translate to acceptance across the board.
So, to get to the bottom of the current cosplay culture, SYFY WIRE spoke with cosplay superstar and cospositivity advocate Ivy Turner (aka Ivy Doomkitty), cosplayer and fan-owned entertainment company Legion M executive David Baxter (aka Larger Than Life Cosplay), and cosplayers Jay Stilipec (aka Jazmine Cosplays) and Anam Ahmad (aka MalAnam Cosplay) about their love of cosplay and how to get past the doubters and naysayers.
Ivy, now a well-known presence at cons all over the world, says that when she started cosplaying six years ago, inclusion was far less visible. "Cospositive wasn't even a word then," she says. "People are more open and engaging now." Anam says she's experienced this increased openness personally. "A lot of it usually centers around my hijab and how creative it is. A lot of people like to see how I've incorporated my faith into my cosplay," she says. "Recently, one lady stopped me to tell me that I was a vision in my Cinderella cosplay." She sees cosplay as a way of furthering understanding as well. "In person at conventions, some people will ask about my scarf and why I choose to go that route," she says. "I think having a dialogue is important to understand one another."
Loosening perceived boundaries and restrictions to create a more inclusive community is a movement that both Ivy and David have seen as well. Ivy points to the numbers of attendees at her panel discussions and the proliferation of other, related panels at cons everywhere; David agrees that both interest in cosplay and acceptance within the community have flourished. He attributes this partly to the "cosplay is not consent" movement, which he thinks highlights some of the challenges people have encountered. "It's relevant and it's being discussed," he says. "The most amazing thing is the people who come up after a panel and say they attended a previous [discussion] and it changed things for them."
Jay began crossplaying even before they officially came out. "Right from the start I found not only tolerance and acceptance, but profound joy, praise, and even jealousy," they say. "I was dressed as Dark Phoenix, and I immediately had people rushing up to me to tell me how great I looked. Cosplaying helped to build my confidence on the street as well, and I learned to stand proud and not worry about what other people might be thinking. Cosplayers are great at not only checking each other out, but also at lifting you up when you need support."
This sense of community is particularly important for those who have been treated poorly — a situation that's sadly common online. "People feel like they can hide on the internet," David says. "They say terrible things."
While the response to her cosplay is mostly positive, Anam says she has run into some ugliness on Instagram. "It's not really based on the cosplay itself, but rather bigoted comments," she says. "Those I choose not to respond to and delete from my profile. I want my page to be a source of positivity, and frankly, arguing with someone who only fights from behind a screen usually doesn't get much done. Especially if what they're saying is xenophobic and has nothing to do with the cosplay I'm portraying."
But the support and positivity from within the community, as well as the panels that Ivy, David, and others are facilitating, can mitigate the fear of criticism. "It's rewarding to hear from people who are now cosplaying or creating their own panels because they feel empowered," Ivy says. "When I first cosplayed, [I wondered], why am I letting someone on the internet change what I want to do? I wished there was someone [like me]. I wish I'd done it sooner, because it changed my perception and my quality of life."
Moving past negativity about body shaming allowed her to see that "even if you're not the norm that's celebrated in the media," cosplay is still open to you. "I'm just going to continue doing this because I love doing this," she says. "It's amazing, being part of a community that's so open and welcoming."
David agrees that "the community is much more accepting than it used to be." And for many, that's a relief. He sees people seeking out cosplay as an escape and a safe place in a world that doesn't always feel secure. "I think people go to feel comfortable," he says. "People get together to celebrate fandom." When the world is getting you down, there is catharsis in spending time with others who speak your dialect of geek.
But if it's so therapeutic, why don't more people cosplay? Often, it's fear of getting it wrong. This fear is misplaced. The con environment "used to be more focused on perfection or movie-quality," Ivy says. Now, however, people mash up their favorite characters, choose a more casual version of the look, or select a character whose traits are entirely different from their own. "It's meant to be fun," she says. "You're supposed to enjoy yourself."
Relaxing those perceived expectations allows for greater creativity and interpretation. "I think people go to the things that make them feel good. Cosplay makes people feel good," David says. Anam concurs with his point. "It's called cosplay, after all, not cosaccurate," she says.
What doesn't feel good is negative feedback, and while you're never going to please everyone, there are ways to ensure that what makes you feel good won't make others feel bad. Ivy advises to ask: What is my intention, and am I being respectful, particularly when it comes to cultural differences?
When in doubt, she says, think about the costume itself, rather than the colors (hair, skin, eyes) of the character. What are the identifying elements of the look, and how can you best incorporate those into your cosplay?
Ivy says, for example, Moana "is Polynesian, and the character resonates with lots of different people. There's passion and drive behind it, and it's respectful." You don't want to paint your skin or try to "look Polynesian." You want to capture the look of the character without perpetuating stereotypes or trivializing another culture. Anam agrees that cosplay is about creativity, not race. "Don't try to change your ethnicity by darkening or lightening your skin tone," she says.
There is less consensus on whether to cosplay characters outside of your own ethnicity. Ivy, who is Latina, says that anyone should be able to cosplay who they wish, if they do so in a manner that is respectful and true to the character. For her own cosplay, she's found that the limited representation of minorities could be limiting. "By cosplaying characters of all genders, skin colors, etc., I can be anyone," she says, rather than sticking to the small number of characters who share her race. She recalls a panel where she questioned the designation of "black Wonder Woman" or "Asian Wonder Woman." "It's all the same character," she says, regardless of the color of the person in the costume.
Jay feels the need to respect — and not adopt — the limited number of non-white characters. They've wanted to cosplay Firefly's Jubal Early, but refrained because they felt that, given the scarcity of black characters in that 'verse, they should steer clear. "I love the character, his outfit and his quotes," they say. "But I don't feel comfortable doing the character as a white male or even a white female, because he is one of the few black Firefly characters and I think I would face some major backlash for that. There are plenty of other armored sci-fi characters I can portray."
Cosplay is about expressing who you are, surrounded by others who appreciate that expression. Encourage someone who's just starting out, promote a panel, shut down a troll, or choose a character more respectfully. The community is usually welcoming and supportive, but more can always be done to build that positivity.