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Cosplaying While White

Photo by Paul Cory
Photo by Paul Cory

I am lucky.

I look like 90% of the women on the big screen, the small screen, on the covers of novels and in the pages of comic books.

I am white, skinny and have learned how to use makeup (as well as a few laser surgeries) to cover the birthmark on my face with which genetics graced me.

That doesn’t make me a good cosplayer.

In fact, it means that I can be a little more lazy with my costumes than someone who doesn’t share the basic physical characteristics of a character.

Photo taken by... someone with my cell phone.
Photo taken by… someone with my cell phone.

Like this one. This is jeans, a white blouse and a pair of cowboy boots from my closet. Topped off with a wig and some creative makeup to give my very pale skin a more tanned look.

But it’s recognizable as River Song, if you’re familiar with the source material (The TARDIS probably helps.)

As much as I love being Batgirl, My Batgirl isn’t the best one out there. It’s a purple bodysuit, not cut quite screen-accurately, made out of the wrong fabric and beginning to show its years. My red hair is a different texture than the red wig that the character wears. And I look *nothing* like Yvonne Craig. But it’s recognizable. People love it. I get celebrated for it. Just by showing up.

I get away with a lot of shortcuts. I don’t need to make sure the details are perfect. I don’t need to hunt high or low for the perfect accessory, or perfect my poses. I am immediately, and unconditionally accepted as presenting a valid cosplay of that character, whether or not I really have any resemblance to the woman I’m imitating. There are a few negative comments on my costumes, occasionally. Usually having to do with the fact that my chest is not big enough for comic book standards, but on the whole, the reaction is positive.

But here’s the thing: I don’t need to defend my presence and my choice to engage in the activity of cosplay (all gender assumptions aside). As long as a photo is taken by a decent photographer, the overwhelming response to my presence in the cosplay world and the geek world at large (again, geek girl issues aside) will be positive (if sometimes problematic from a gender standpoint). I don’t need to compensate for my color, or my weight or my height or my physical abilities. I don’t need to justify my presence by being absolutely perfect. I don’t have to face that higher bar for being judged as “doing cosplay right”. I am “doing it right” by being a conventionally attractive white woman in spandex. End of story.

Photo by Russ Creech (And if you're wondering who my favorite Batgirl is, it's Jay Justice's Batgirl, hands down.)
Photo by Russ Creech (And if you’re wondering who my favorite Batgirl is, it’s Jay Justice’s Batgirl, hands down.)

Making the costume and showing up is the end of the effort I need to put in. The same isn’t true for women who are the “wrong” color from the geek world’s standpoint. Or who are the “wrong” size. Or who don’t wear makeup. Or who are genetically male and present as a woman.

I love being a superhero, and being perceived as one. But just because I look the part expected of me doesn’t make me better than anyone else. In fact it mostly lets me get off a little easier than the next person.

Not that this is a metaphor for life or anything.


Seelix, aka Emily, is a Science Communicator, Forensic Anthropologist, Costumer and QA Analyst, sometimes, but not usually, all at once. Emily can usually be found lurking in dark corners of the internet as Seelix on Twitter, on Google+ and even occasionally at her blog This View of Life.

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  1. Thanks for cross-posting! I think the Skepchick audience will appreciate this.

    I found the responses to this from your friends on FB interesting. I agree with them that you are really talented at cosplay and deserve credit for the effort you put into your costumes. But that doesn’t also mean that you can’t recognize when you have a systemic advantage over others. I feel like this is a point that’s often missed by those reacting defensively to conversations about privilege: having privilege doesn’t mean you don’t work hard and deserve the success that you have. It just means that someone else, who is different from you in specific ways, would have to work harder to achieve the same. That doesn’t take away from your success, does it?

  2. Anne – I found the response interesting as well.

    I’m both a good cosplayer AND I have a systematic advantage. The latter fact doesn’t take away from the former. Yes, the ability to visualize, sew and put together costumes makes me a good cosplayer, but the response that I get for cosplaying isn’t just based on those skills. It’s also based on the fact that I read “right” for what people think a cosplayer should look like. I don’t think that acknowledging that denigrates me at all. In fact, it makes me want to work harder to be worthy of the attention.

    Plus, it allows me to see past snap judgements I’ve made of other cosplayers in the past, to see the details – to see how much they’re enjoying cosplaying, and the work they’ve put into it, and how they’re connecting with that character.

    I helped man a table at an anime convention last weekend, where there were lots and lots of teens and young adults costuming, with varying levels of talent and experience. The initial response of past-me would have been to roll my eyes at some of the stranger costume choices, bodywise, or gender presentation or even just character choice. This time, with the vantage point of being at the table, I was able to really sit back and watch people. There were a lot of kids there who were obviously just starting to play with their personalities, and they were doing so in what (with one notable exception that I’m still trying to decide whether I should write about) was obviously a safe space for them. Their fangirling (It wasn’t just girls doing this. I just can’t think of a good gender-neutral equivalent) wasn’t just reserved for the “good” costumers, but rather they squealed and jumped up and down and hugged when presented with *any* costumes from their favorite fandoms. It made me wish the adult cosplay community was a little more welcoming and open to diversity of both looks and of experiences.

  3. Emily, what a cool experience. Isn’t it gratifying to recognize when your perspective on something has changed–for the better? =D I’ll be interested to read about it if you choose to write something.

  4. My heart broke last year when I cosplayed Effie Trinket at Comikaze and not a single person got it. Someone even said “Nice ‘Afro’ wig!” I spent a lot of money, effort, and time on just the right shoes, suit, wig, make-up, gloves, hair ornaments, and brooch for her as well as talked, walked, and held my hands like she did in the movie.

    Thanks so much for this. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in recognizing the issues.

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