Day 6

'Cosplay is for everyone': How these cosplayers are combating online hate with reimagined looks

As fans descend upon downtown Toronto for the Fan Expo Canada convention this weekend, some are speaking out against detractors who argue that people cosplaying as fictional characters with a different ethnic background, gender identity, sexual orientation or body type are an inaccurate representation of the character.

When he dons his costume, Andrien Gbinigie says he isn't 'the black version of Superman' — he is Superman

Andrien Gbinigie's modified Superman costume received mostly positive feedback, but a few detractors suggested a black man should not cosplay as a character who is traditionally portrayed as white. (Jonathan Ore/CBC, Michaelle Charette Photography)

Andrien Gbinigie's Black Panther costume received overwhelmingly positive support when he debuted it shortly after the release of the 2016 Marvel film.

But soon after, his costume of Superman — a bold reimagining of the original design, with a black, silver and red colour scheme — drew the attention of more than a few detractors online.

"A lot of the comments initially were like, 'That's great. Great costume. But it's the wrong colour.'"

They weren't talking about the colour of the spandex — rather his skin.

Gbinigie will be at Fan Expo Canada in downtown Toronto this weekend, along with thousands of other fans of comic books, movies and video games, many of them cosplaying as their favourite fictional heroes and villains.

But it's not all one big party.

The Toronto man is one of several cosplayers speaking out about mostly online detractors who argue that people cosplaying as fictional characters with a different ethnic background, gender identity, sexual orientation or body type are not an accurate representation of the character.

"Accuracy. A lot of people in the cosplay community kind of use that as a shield for the nonsense that they want to do. And … it shouldn't be that way," Gbinigie said.

"One of the enduring tag lines that has always been with cosplay is: Cosplay is for everyone. And so if cosplay is for everyone, why are people so particular about the way people look in a particular cosplay?"

The recent explosion of new, more diverse characters in media, including the extended cast of Black Panther, mean there are more characters than ever for people of colour to feel seen and encouraged to cosplay.

But it's also come with new complaints from some fans, Gbinigie says, who would "pigeonhole" them into this growing — but still statistically small — pool of characters.

"They're like, 'Oh my God, you know, if there are all these Wakandans you can cosplay as, why are you cosplaying The Flash?" he explained.

Breaking past boundaries

Ivy Doomkitty has been working to dismantle the arguments that make some fans hesitant to make their first foray into cosplay.

This weekend, the Los Angeles-based cosplayer is taking her long-running presentation, "So They Say You Shouldn't Cosplay," to Fan Expo Canada.

"The panel's focused upon … how you can break past those different boundaries that people try to put on you," she said. "It's OK for you to, you know, to dress up as all these characters. You don't have to look this way. You don't have to be the ideal of what mass media depicts you should look like."

Cosplayer Ivy Doomkitty regularly speaks about breaking barriers and gatekeeping attitudes that cosplayers of colour and diverse gender identities and body types face. (Submitted by Ivy Doomkitty)

Doomkitty has been making costumes since 2012, but said she might have started sooner if she saw people advocating for diversity earlier.

"I was the wrong body type. I was the wrong size, the wrong skin colour," she said. "I didn't want to go through the same things I went through as a kid, where I was picked on, bullied, fat-shamed and whatnot."

That sort of pushback also made Toronto cosplayer Eve (Dizen Doll) Mullings hesitant at first to dive into the hobby. 

"When I started … joining the cosplay community, I wasn't sure if people were going to know who I was cosplaying if I was cosplaying a non-black character," said Mullings, who often dresses as characters from Japanese video games or anime.

But when Mullings flipped the script, she became a regular cosplay conventioneer, allowing her to connect with like-minded fans.

"When you see, like, a non-black person cosplaying [X-Men character] Storm, can you still recognize the character? I'm thinking about that, and I'm like, 'Yeah, of course you can.'"

Doomkitty says there are signs of progress, such as the emergence of Blerdcon, a convention in Arlington, Va., celebrating black nerd — or "blerd" — culture.

Black cosplayers have also put the spotlight on themselves with hashtags like #BlackCosplayerHere and #28DaysOfBlackCosplay — created by Belle Briggs and Chaka Cumberbatch-Tinsley, respectively — after allegations that they were being overlooked or excluded from photo galleries and video roundups at conventions.

"We've come a long way, in a very short period of time, in such a positive direction. And that's largely because people have learned to embrace … and to really celebrate those things that make them different," Doomkitty said.

'It doesn't matter what their skin colour is'

Black cosplay in particular champions fans' freedom to dress as any character, regardless of their race in the source material, Gbinigie says, especially since there are relatively few black characters in both North American and Asian nerd pop culture.

"If a black person cosplays a character that has traditionally been white in the comics, or in the manga and anime, or whatever it is that you're watching or consuming, they're just cosplaying that character. It doesn't matter what their skin colour is."

For that reason, Gbinigie stresses that when he's in costume, he's not "the black version" of Superman: He is Superman. And he's paying tribute to a character he describes as the embodiment of good, who is often at the centre of stories brimming with hope.

I think it shows that black people and people of colour are coming out to these events more. They're more encouraged. They're not afraid anymore.- Eve (Dizen Doll) Mullings

That flexibility goes for everyone, too, Gbinigie says, adding that he has no problem with a non-black person cosplaying as Black Panther, so long as they approach it respectfully and acknowledge its history as a barrier-breaking presence for black comic book readers.

"That in itself is not a problem — as long as they don't do blackface," he said.

Over the last decade, Mullings says she's seen a rise in the visibility of black cosplayers, with more attending conventions and expressing their love for the hobby.

"I think it shows that black people and people of colour are coming out to these events more. They're more encouraged. They're not afraid anymore."

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Yamri Taddese.


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