As a professor and as a blogger, I’ve written a lot about gender-bending, gender-blending, and crossplay. I am, in the day job, a scholar of Gender Studies and the mother of a queer cosplayer, I have felt that I can offer a genuine and even valuable perspective on these phenomena.
I say this, but I have to also note two really important things:
- It’s absolutely imperative for me to remember that I am sometimes, often or occasionally WRONG. My personal experience or even experience in my family is not representative of a whole group.
- Because I DON’T know everything, because I don’t live the lives of all the cosplayers, it’s that much more important for me to listen to them and really hear what they are saying about their practice and their experience.
I’ve been thinking about this in the last few days. There is a renewed interest and debate that I’m seeing in various places on the internet on the practice of racebending. Let me say at the outset, please, that I am not an expert on this in any way, and as a white woman, I am aware that I do not understand the position or experience of people of color. But I’d like to learn more. So I’m thinking out loud here not so much about POC cosplaying white characters as I am in the other direction: white cosplayers cosplaying characters of color.
This debate has really taken off in regards to a Ukranian cosplayer: Pugoffka who came under fire for racefacing and doubled down on her privilege and assertion that it was right in an essay she posted on her Facebook page:
I want to wade in on that debate. I welcome your comments on this. Teach me things. Share your experience if you like. I will listen. Here we go.
So What is Racebending?
Just as genderbending is the practice of presenting a character as a different gender from the canonical version (e.g.: Femme Joker or Male Harley Quinn), racebending is the practice of performing a character with the appearance of that of a different racial or ethnic group. So in this case, perhaps an African American cosplayer performs Wonder Woman, or here is an example of a favorite cosplayer of mine, the U.S. based Tranquil Ashes cosplaying, racebending (and genderbending) the Japanese character Akuma.
I can see how the ability and freedom to cosplay characters of a different race are of great importance to cosplayers of color because their options are so much more limited than white cosplayers. Many of us who study cosplay and the fandoms talk about “affective resonance.” Affective resonance is that concept of how we as individuals see ourselves (either as we are or who we want to be) in a fictional character. We want to be strong and badass, or sexy and desirable, or smart and effective. We feel a resonance with the character as presented, an emotional or affective resonance.
That’s what leads many of us to cosplay. My first cosplay was of a smuggler-pirate- it is a chance for me to be the bad girl that my every day, eager-to-please self shies away from. I also think Storm from the X-Men is fascinating and an aspirational ideal of a powerful female superhero who overcomes trauma.
So I, personally, think it makes perfect sense for cosplayers of color to racebend characters like in the examples above, to maintain their identity and show how it works with that of the character they are playing. But I don’t think I would ever racebend Storm, because I don’t understand what that would mean to cosplayers of color, and I’d rather err on the side of respect for experiences I don’t have the background to understand.
So What About White Cosplayers Who Want to Cosplay Characters of Color?
This is a question that I’ve been thinking about basically since the Black Panther movie came out. What would it mean if a white kid wanted to cosplay the King of Wakanda? I really didn’t know and didn’t presume to know. The phenomenon that is the success of that film is something I can’t understand the importance of fully- because I am not part of the group to whom it means the most.
So I’ve been sitting back and listening.
What I’ve read and heard is:
- While racebending characters of color is ok for some, (AS LONG AS YOU DON’T CHANGE YOUR SKIN TONE), it bothers other people of color.
- It’s just really NEVER ok to change your skin tone with makeup (Doing blackface or Asian face, etc.) This is called “Racefacing” and is highly offensive.
Let me expand.
Point #1: It May Be Ok, But Some Will Still Be Offended
In a piece in the LA Times, they interviewed Mike Le, from Racebending.com, who discusses the position of superheroes as figures that supersede individuality and stand as avatars of our ideals. Because of this, he says it’s not the canon (and the canonical race) of the character that’s important. He does not see the need to “stick to canon” in race (so, you don’t NEED to cosplay Superman as white because he’s canonically white) any more than the President of the United States can’t be Asian because no President (yet) has ever been of Asian descent.
This makes sense to me. It embraces the idea of affective resonance (which is such a powerful way for people to explore identity and worth, and representation.). So this opinion is that it would be ok for a white girl to cosplay Shuri from Black Panther…..if she was very, very careful. No tribal markings. And not, under any circumstances, blackface.
Full disclosure, long before I knew enough about Avatar the Last Airbender or cosplay to think this through, Kiogenic cosplayed Katara.
I think we would both make a different decision now.
Ok, whether any of us want to recognize it or not WHITE PRIVILEGE IS A REAL THING. If you don’t believe that after all the shootings, the rise of Nazism in the U.S. and the way white folks use 911 as customer service, I don’t have the space to debate it with you right here. Please go read: this, or this, or this, or this.
We are privileged, and we need to acknowledge that. This means that our INTENT doesn’t matter. The EFFECT does. Cosplayer of color Sophia Bravo puts it this way:
“The problem with white cosplayers taking on characters of color is that even though the characters we all love live in a world separate from ours, we don’t. We as fans of all races still have to live with long histories of racial tension and trauma as well as other forms of injustice in this society. When white cosplayers dress as characters of color, they are reinforcing (Unintentionally! Yes, you don’t have to step on someone’s foot on purpose for it to hurt) a long history of Hollywood’s exclusion of people of color. The trouble of it all is that race and skin color simply are not costumes and paint fans of color can take off anytime they want.
When white cosplayers dress as characters of color, the clock strikes midnight and they can take off their costume and go back to the lily-whiteness that protects their lives. They can decide who else they’d love to cosplay, because Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Wonder Woman, all of the Doctors and their companions, and so many other fandom icons look like them already.”
So you can do this, but be aware that you might be offending some people, whose experiences you should defer to.
Point #2: NEVER NEVER CHANGE YOUR SKIN COLOR
And here I’m not talking about anyone wanting to cosplay Gamora.
Painting yourself green is DIFFERENT. There isn’t a long global history or contemporary problem with the repression and enslavement of GREEN people. You’re not going to be appropriating anyone’s experience, or misunderstanding anyone’s background if you paint yourself green, or blue, etc.
That’s not true of racefacing: using makeup to look like a different race. There is a whole history of this practice that white folks have the privilege of ignoring, but people of color have to live with. As Cosplayer WifufuxBelle notes, racefacing “has been used to further the marginalization of black people, to limit roles from PoC in Hollywood, and lately to profit off blackness.” And this isn’t just about people of African descent. Yellowfacing is just as much a problem and has been for a long time.
“In a world where black people are killed due to a fear of our skintone” WifufuxBelle says “it is salt in injury to wear it for a [photo]shoot.”
We’re talking about centuries of murder, rape, subjugation, and oppression. Why would you want to add salt in those wounds? And really, frankly, how little empathy do you demonstrate by refusing to even hear these objections and listen to them?
Back to My Original Thought: For the Love of Pete, LISTEN
So back to the Ukranian cosplayer. Here is part of her statement (which I’m copying verbatim with no points off for English not being her first language):
“Whenever a cosplayer uses different greasepaints, wigs, contact lenses etc to match the character’s appearance he or she does it because of great appreciation and love for the character but not for deriding this character or someone else. For those who accuses me in racism. Rasism – is the belief in the superiority of one race over another. In what way a portrait of a girl with cosplay makeup fits in this belief? Cosplay is all about love of the character. Also I’ve mentioned in post that I will ban any negative comments.Till now I haven’t ban anyone and I’ve heard all of your oppositions. My page for me place with positive things, rainbow and unicorns XD I don’t like when people use my page for their discussions and bear negative.”
Pugoffka is here arguing for affective resonance: “love of the character.” I get that. But she is also resolutely refusing to read, listen to or acknowledge the flood of comments answering the question that she pretends to pose: “in what way a portrait of a girl with cosplay makeup fits in this belief?” – here referring to racial superiority.
Lots of people (including myself) made an effort to explain on her page to help her understand about privilege and more importantly STRUCTURAL racism. But as she herself notes, she “doesn’t like negative comments” and only listens to rainbows and unicorns. Sigh.
I get that white privilege (like all privilege) can be hard to see and harder to accept for oneself. I’d like everyone to give it a try, though. Please.
Racebending, Racefacing, Cultural Appropriation
The debate on racebending and racefacing is similar to the one on cultural appropriation (which white folks are only forced to think about at Halloween, and PoC all the time). And the same rules, I think, apply.
No, black people are not committing cultural appropriation when they dress like white people. Cultural appropriation has two key components:
- An unequal power dynamic
- Lack of permission
The group with more power appropriates. Period. The group with less power is forced to conform out of necessity, generally. The group with more power generally WANTS everyone to look like them (i.e. permission) and actually has the power to prevent other groups from stealing their cultural products. The group with less power has no ability to hold things to themselves or keep more powerful people from appropriating their culture.
Be Excellent to Each Other and Listen
And because one of the things I love most about cosplay is the way that it has the very real possibility of being supportive and empowering for ALL people, I would like everyone to think about having empathy and sympathy for our fellow cosplayers:
Cosplayer of color DelaDoll:
“Look at it this way: If I attempt to toss you a ball and it ends up hitting you in the face, it will still hurt you, and I still hit you in the face, even though I didn’t mean to. Rather than me growing indignant and laughing off any reaction you may have, the right thing for me to do would be to apologize and be more careful next time. The same rule applies when it comes to the issue of blackface in cosplay, as it does with anything else in life.”