Race and Fandom Revisited

So, my cosplay post has mini-exploded a few times on the internet. The fat positivity portion of the post has been well-received, for which I am very thankful. It’s encouraging to know that this is an issue people are concerned about, and that people are being supportive of fat cosplayers.

Not so much with the other part of the post, the race part. What little response I’ve gotten about that part has been negative. Basically, I need to relax because we should be over this whole race thing. In short, these people seem to be subscribing to the view that being colorblind solves all problems, and probably that we live in a post-race society.

Now, maybe I wasn’t clear enough about what my original point was when I wrote the post. These responses only related to that particular Zoe cosplayer, not the issues raised by the article, or the fact that we in the geek community should actually think about racial issues for once. This suggests that I may have let my stunned response to that picture overshadow my overall point, which really isn’t about blackface itself.

Blackface isn’t the problem, but it is a symptom of it. The fact that people refuse to see what might be wrong with this way of cosplaying reflects a wider problem about race, and the overall apathy (sometimes antipathy) felt towards talking about race in the geek community. In a post that has been viewed over 1000 times, the Racialicious article has been clicked on only 69 times. The fat positivity articles and sites have each been clicked on hundreds of times.

The thing is, if race didn’t matter, if we lived in this wonderful rainbow of a colorblind society, then the author of the Racialicious article wouldn’t be given shit for being a black woman cosplaying as a white character. You can’t defend the rights of white people to paint their skin to look like black people, if you’re also ignoring the rights of black people to cosplay as white characters without receiving rude comments. That’s not being colorblind, that’s using the myth of colorblindness to absolve yourself of any responsibility to think or care about racial issues. (Which, admittedly, is the only point of the colorblind myth anyway.)

But Joanna, you might be saying, a black man is president of the United States! Surely we live in a post-racial society! Would that that were true, dear reader. Yes, we in the US elected a black man as president. This man has then received demands to prove his citizenship, which you can’t really believe has nothing to do with race.

Also, black people in the US are disproportionately impoverished, incarcerated, and affected by NYC’s “stop and frisk.” The struggles and poverty of the Asian community are often ignored in favor of the “model minority” myth. Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by alcoholism. The fact that, for some, this nonsense about Gabby Douglas’ hair overshadowed her incredible athletic accomplishments. Just this week, a white supremacist opened fire on a Sikh temple, and major news outlets responded by explaining that people can’t tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims, implying that murdering Muslims is expected and, consequently, less horrible.

In case that’s too “real world” for you, and you’d like examples related to the geek community and fandom (other than, you know, the original article in my original post), this report on the Racebending panel at SDCC should give you some ideas of how race still affects the geek community. Some choice points: “Marjorie Liu talked about being told that she should change her name, and related a story of a friend who was told that her Asian name was ‘ethnically tainted’ leading to the friend changing her name for her professional work… David Gaiden… brought up a truly disturbing fact, that the most popular mod [in Dragon Age] allows the player to change the race of the game’s one black female to a white, blonde… Brandon Thomas shared a story about his mother, when he was writing for a website that asked for him to include a picture with his posts, his mother asked, ‘Do you really want to let everyone know you’re black?’ ‘And she was right’ he followed up with.”

And how about all the racism that popped up on Twitter after black characters in the Hunger Games were played by black actors? Speaking of movies, how many times have you gone to see a Hollywood blockbuster that starred a person of color who wasn’t Will Smith, Vin Diesel, Morgan Freeman, or Denzel Washington? And there’s the fact that in two seasons of The Walking Dead (set in Georgia, whose population according to the 2010 Census is 30% Black or African American) there have been 2? 3? black characters. Latinos on the show are virtually non-existent, and Glenn functions as Token Asian.

But none of that is a problem, because white people. Or something.

I get it. Race is an uncomfortable subject. Life is much easier for white people when they ignore racism. But life isn’t easier for anyone else in the myth of colorblindness. And suggesting we live in a post-race society is about as absurd as claiming we’re living in a post-gender society. While race and gender may not be quite as oppressive as they used to be, that doesn’t mean that we’re done thinking about these constructs. Just because black people are no longer property and women can vote, doesn’t mean race and gender have no negative effects on people’s lives.

I’d like to reiterate: I didn’t bring up Kendra James’ article solely to condemn blackface cosplay. I brought it up because fandom and the geek community generally aren’t all that interested in discussing race issues. The community is guilty of trying to take the easy way out, instead of facing the harsh realities. And now that we’re talking more and more about gender in gaming, but also geekdom generally, it’s time we had similar discussions about race.

I’m not trying to strip white people of the right to paint their skin to look like Zoe Washburn. I’m trying to foster intelligent, engaged discussion about the place of race in fandom, in terms of both its people and the shows/movies/games/books they love.

I leave you with this relevant video:

(Transcript and background on La Jolla Playhouse can be found here.)

-Joanna

Cosplay, Race, and Fat-Shaming

For someone who loves costuming as much as I do, it’s surprising I haven’t mentioned cosplay in the blog before. Cosplaying is usually looked at as a fun, awesome way to participate in a con or have a Halloween costume a million times better than everyone else’s. Cosplaying is definitely not something to feel anxiety about, right?

Well, for some people, the thought of cosplaying is very much anxiety-inducing. One reason why people feel this way is the fat-shaming that is normal in the geek community and our society in general. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that heavier people (or people who think they’re heavier) might feel self-conscious enough never to cosplay. Women (as usual, in the realm of weighty matters) in the geek community definitely have more reason to be self-conscious at a con. If you’re a woman seen as conventionally attractive, you’ll probably be creeped on, regardless of your costume, but many female cosplay options (especially superheroines) seem to invite more unwanted creeping than, say, Princess Mononoke. So, while the decision of what character to cosplay is definitely a loaded decision for geeks of all shapes and sizes, fat geeks definitely have a disadvantage.

Not only are there virtually no characters to choose who are already portrayed as fat, but people can be very cruel to/about chubbier cosplayers who dare to cosplay conventionally attractive characters. (And, let’s face it, how many female cosplay options wouldn’t be considered conventionally attractive?) Who does this fat woman think she is? Why does she think she has the right to invade male sexual fantasies about female characters? What, does she think she’s attractive or something? As though “fat” and “beautiful” were mutually exclusive, and as though the purpose of women cosplaying is to perform hotness for male con-goers.

I stumbled on a very honest article by Tabitha Grace Smith called “Why I Don’t Cosplay.” Anyone who’s never considered what it’s like to be an overweight person at a con needs to read this and think about their own behavior and ideas.

“While my body image and confidence are usually fine, going to a big convention filled with scantily clad hotties sends my shields up. I’ve been in earshot of people who snicker and laugh at the plus-sized Batgirls or other cosplayers who don’t fit the skinny actresses they’re portraying. Once I asked one of these curvy girls to pose for a picture and genuine shock crossed her face. Other times it’s been a large man in a Roman gladiator outfit who gets laughed at or the plus-sized Princess Leia. Every time I heard these snickers and laughs I was less comfortable with dressing up.”

About the few options available for plus-sized women and girls who want to cosplay as a plus-sized character, Smith writes:

“I remembered the poor girl who asked on a forum who she could dress up as being plus-sized, the only answer she got was ogre Princess Fiona. I wanted to scream.”

I don’t know about you, but that makes me sad as hell.

Even if you aren’t someone who considers yourself fat, I think we can all agree that not only is fat positivity a good thing, but that we can all relate to considering dressing up as a character who wears spandex and being nervous about walking around all day in such an unforgiving outfit. Luckily, the comments section of Smith’s article led me to two awesome tumblrs: Fuck Yeah Fat Cosplay and More to Love: Fat-Positive Cosplay. Each posts pictures of cosplayers who have awesome costumes and happen to be plus-sized.

Because my boyfriend’s favorite comic book character is Gambit, and omgomg X-Men, we’ve decided to cosplay one day as Gambit and Rogue. For me, the hardest part won’t be making the costume (a challenge I am decidedly up for), but wearing it. In public. Around other people. While I’ve never been a plus-size woman, I have always been on the higher end of the misses sizing chart, and well, let’s just say I’ve got some body issues I need to work on. But sites like this give me a little more confidence. See this rockin’ Harley Quinn? She’s wearing a full body suit and looking damn cool.

So if all these fine ladies and gents can embrace their bodies and cosplay their favorite characters, ignoring any vicious con fat-shaming, so can I. (Besides, ’90s Rogue wears a jacket. …I’m joking. Sort of.)

I also stumbled on a post on Racialious by Kendra James called “Race + Fandom: When Defaulting to White Isn’t an Option.” In it, James writes about facing all kinds of ignorant when you’re a cosplaying woman of color.

“It often feels like a white cosplayer can not only dress as their favorite characters of color but also do so in the most offensive way  without comment. But when a non-white cosplayer colors outside the lines in the same way, there’s a risk of getting an awkward look because–instead of seeing the costume–no matter how perfect it might be, others see the color of your skin and you can see the confusion in their eyes: Why is a black girl dressed as Zatanna?

Worse are the ones who aren’t confused, but then think they’re being inoffensively clever. ‘You know there probably weren’t many Black USO Girls in the 1940s, right?’ Or, my personal favorite, ‘Wonder Woman? I thought you would’ve done Nubia.’

It’s an extension of the “default to white” privilege many fans still engage in on a regular basis.”

In case you didn’t click on the “most offensive way” link, it’s a white woman cosplaying as Zoe Washburn from Firefly… in blackface. There’s nothing wrong with a white person cosplaying as a black character. The offensive line is immediately crossed once you paint your skin. Why some white people still don’t seem to get what’s wrong with blackface, I will never understand. (And seriously, did no one try to dissuade her from this awful decision, or did she just ignore them? Friends don’t let friends wear blackface.) While the woman’s heart was probably in the right place, it just shows how ignorant white people can be about racial issues, and is indicative of the lack of racial sensitivity in the geek community.

I imagine that the point where these two cosplay issues overlap (being an overweight woman of color) is fascinating and equally depressing. But as I have no articles about that particular issue, and am not an overweight woman of color myself, I’ll have to stop here.

It is important for all of us in the geek community to think about the particular obstacles faced by our fellow geeks who don’t live up to the thin, white-washed ideals of our society. And it’s important to remember that the geek community is ultimately a product of society, meaning our ideals of beauty and correctness are derived from the norms of our society. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. As a community insistent on being outside of the norm, it is our responsibility to reconsider our values and perspectives on beauty and race, and realize there is nothing alternative about fat-shaming or race-based condescension.

-Joanna