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Column: Cosplayers deserve diversity, too

So, you don't want to dress like Harley Quinn?

Crazy, I know. San Diego Comic Con, the big daddy that kicked off the nation's convention season in July, was a good indicator that DC's sexy, deranged jester will be the costume du jour at this weekend's Tampa Bay Comic Con. And why not? With Margot Robbie's turn as Harley in Suicide Squad, out Friday, the character is hot. She has a sense of humor, and a lot of style.

Related: Everything you need to know about Tampa Bay Comic Con

Ah, but maybe you're not skinny. Maybe you're not female. Maybe you're not comfortable in fishnets. Maybe — let's just say it — you're not white.

The art of cosplay, dressing up like your favorite fictional characters, is such a creative pop culture pursuit. And it's mostly a happy one. But that doesn't mean it's without blemishes.

A beautiful thing about con culture is that gender has become really fluid. Women dress like male characters and it is not a big deal. Surf blogs for San Diego coverage and you'll see refreshingly sober descriptions of costumes. It's not, "Here's a lady dressed as Superman!" It's just, "Here's Superman." Men, too, dress like women, though it's usually more of a joking tone. Wonder Woman has a lot of body hair, and so on.

Factor in race, and it gets more complicated.

There's a simmering conversation online, an important one, about race in geek culture. It centers on a glaring lack of characters of color, especially black women, in science fiction, comics and fantasy.

Some smart folks are working to heighten the issue. Cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch spearheaded #29DaysOfBlackCosplay during Black History Month, designed to celebrate black cosplayers. (The year before it was 28, but, Leap Year.) Cumberbatch wrote on blackgirlnerds.com that the hope was to "make this hobby open, inclusive and welcoming to everyone." Other resources for inspiration include the Tumblr page Cosplaying While Black.

I went to MegaCon in Orlando a few years back in a group with a friend, Desiree Fantal. She's 32, a theater photographer in Tampa and an admitted geek who loves to cosplay. She's black.

When she first got into cosplay, she just picked characters she liked, sewed the costumes and went on her way. Then, she noticed something.

"I don't know when exactly it clicked for me, but I realized if I wanted to do a black character, I really had to think," she said to me recently. "It didn't just pop into my head as easily as everyone else. It really started to bug me."

She found black characters, but they were rarely main attractions. They felt more ancillary, not the kind you point to and recognize right away.

She felt a conviction to represent black characters at conventions. Her cosplay has included Martha Jones from Doctor Who and Storm from X-Men. She blurred gender lines as Geordi LaForge, LeVar Burton's character from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It would be easy, and maybe too simplistic, to say, "just go as white characters." Desiree has done that, too. This year, she's going to Tampa Bay Comic Con as Martha Jones again, but she also has a costume for the white cartoon character Louise Belcher from Bob's Burgers. She has gone to a con as Waldo from Where's Waldo?

"It's not a huge deal; it's cosplay," she said. "But it kind of is. It's something you enjoy doing, and you don't see anyone who looks like you."

Sometimes, when black cosplayers play white characters, they're subjected to cruel online commentary. Furthermore, everyone deserves to feel represented in the entertainment they love. Cosplayers of color shouldn't have to resort to a list of white characters.

There are positive moves. In 2015, Marvel Comics replaced Peter Parker with Miles Morales, an African-American/Puerto Rican Spider-Man. But leaked Sony emails showed that studio executives want him to stay white in movies. Black actor Michael B. Jordan was cast as the Human Torch in 2015's Fantastic Four movie. Marvel also has a black female character named Riri Williams stepping in for Tony Stark in the Iron Man comics. And Disney recently introduced a new Latina princess, Elena of Avalor.

Cosplay is really a systemic symptom of priorities in popular culture. It comes down to writers and artists being bold and fearless about demanding diversity in their heroes and villains.

And in the meantime, if you want to dress like Harley Quinn, but don't look like her? There is no time like now to do it anyway.

Column: Cosplayers deserve diversity, too 08/04/16 [Last modified: Thursday, August 4, 2016 12:58pm]
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