Who wouldn't want to escape into the world of their favourite entertainment media outlet and live like their fictional hero? Although stepping through the screen is not a possibility, cosplayers have crafted a fantastical compromise that has proven to satisfy infatuated fans: cosplay conventions where people can physically and emotionally engage, through mimicry, with their fictional world of choice.
Said to have originated at the 1984 WorldCon (the World Science Fiction Convention) in Los Angeles, California, the term "cosplay" was coined by Nov Takahashi, a Japanese reporter, who combined the words "costume" and "play" to capture the surreal experience of dressing up as a character from a film, book, or video game, especially one from (but not exclusive to) the Japanese genres of manga or anime.
The cosplay community is highly populated with devoted fans and spans different continents and countries. Nihonden, a Japanese popular culture e-magazine, demonstrates cosplay's ubiquity in their article 10 Biggest Cosplay Events of the World. Each convention caters to a specific genre so that like-minded fans can connect and bond: Lucca Comics and Games in Italy, Japan Expo in France, and Comiket/Comike/Comic Market in Japan. Even locals have banded together on a Facebook group called "Cosplay South Africa", which provides a direct link to a calendared schedule of all the cosplay conventions and events in the country.
But these fictional niches of escape do not free one from all social responsibilities and consequences. Imaginative play has proven to expose cognitive dissonance between political correctness and racist incorrectness when emulating characters from different races/ethnicities. Some cosplayers intentionally darken their skin to play black/brown looking characters like Afro Samurai from the aptly named Afro Samurai, Anthy Himemiya from Shoujo Kakumei Utena(Revolutionary Girl Utena), Miyuki Ayukawa from Basquash! and Kaname Tousen from Bleach.
Could this skin alteration be dismissed as a mere costume malfunction, or is it a socio-cultural malfunction brought to the arena of identity politics? Dr Sharlene Khan, South African visual artist and writer, explains how the metaphoric line in the sand can be drawn when blackface and cosplay intersect.
"Blackface does come out of 'blacking up' practices (like theatre and circus performances) but it has a racist dimension to it in terms of a white person who (uses) 'blacking up' in order to mock blackness. So we can't reduce cosplay to blackface, but at the same time in contemporary culture, there is a sliding that happens," says Khan. This "sliding" creates an ambivalence where cosplayers bring their real-world racial privilege and power into the convention space and, regardless of intention, potentially perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes in the way that they choose to recreate characters who happen to be a different skintone to them. Cosplayers have every right to freedom of expression in their 'play'. However, they should wear their costumes with a considerable critical awareness of the histories and social implications attached thereto.
There are no hard and fast rules to use as guidelines for cosplayers to follow, but it would be wise for them to question the rationalisation behind their creative costume choices.
Dr Aretha Phiri, an English lecturer at Rhodes University with research interests in African and African-American Literature, comments on the complicating effect that (cos)play might have on differentiating between appreciation and appropriation: "In my mind, the distinctions are inherently blurred and fluid precisely to underpin the notion of 'play'. Again, this suggests the uncanny political character of 'play' in that even in its attempt to subvert, or even as it purports to undermine, racial stereotypes, it appears only able to do this through rehearsing those very perceptions."
Today, we are in a liberal democracy where people are ideally regarded as equal. But these are ideals that have not been fully realised in countries like South Africa, where the legacy of racially oppressive systems lingers on. The historical context of blackface weighs down the potential light-heartedness of cosplay. "Contrary to contemporary popular cultural performances such as cosplay in which the reverence of the assumed/performed character is implicit, blackface functioned precisely to demean black subjectivity and blackness. In this way, it was overtly and intentionally political, that is, prejudiced and prejudicial, in its objective," says Phiri.
There is no way to tiptoe around the trumpeting elephant in the room: if a white cosplayer were to darken their skin with black/brown paint to play a character, there would be an undeniable political power dynamic that validly constitutes racism because it evokes the reality of blackface history. Khan comments on how "race" as a colonial fiction manifests in reality: "There's an enjoyment of blackness without ever having to deal with black people. We sometimes forget that the kinds of stereotypes that we enact and enjoy have real consequences for real people. Even if 'race' is not real (it) is a device used by white supremacy."
There are no hard and fast rules to use as guidelines for cosplayers to follow, but it would be wise for them to question the rationalisation behind their creative costume choices. Granted, it isn't wrong to admire characters that are of a different, coincidentally darker, complexion to you. Most likely, it is their humanity (personality, quirky catchphrases, and awesome skills) that resonate with fans and not simply their race that attracts admiration.
After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But when cosplayers and fans alike escape into these fictional worlds, they should be aware that certain representations with the purpose of appreciation, like emulating race, can never be de-politicised. Politically correct cosplay requires a critical consciousness and willingness to compromise certain representational aspects of our personal heroes of fiction.