Why I Think Representation Is Important In Comics And Cosplay

There's a ton of practical reasons I love dressing up as America.
Publish date:
November 9, 2014
cosplay, comics, representation, weekend, America Chavez, Young Avengers, Representation In Comics

Hail, xoJaners. Now that I've posted a beguiling jacket tutorial and persuaded a handful of you to maybe care about my favorite comic book character, let's talk about representation in comics and cosplay.

There is an inherent, essential value to seeing yourself in the media you consume. It feels good and it's good for you. Within comics, the superhero genre -- which is my focus (I'm sure there are all kinds of amazing things happening in indie comics and I am not here to tell you about them because I don't read those) -- is considered pretty male dominated. Before the comic book movie franchise ruled the blockbuster list, superhero comics were looked down on for being shallow male power fantasies. I'm not here to argue that they're not still largely power fantasies. But my entire life is a repeated explanation of: the fantasy of physical power is not exclusive to the male person.

I've written about this before and I'll write about it again, but I've always wanted to be Batman. Does that mean that I've always wanted to be a rich buff white guy? No. But the lack of female superheroes for me to identify with in comics did have an impact. Up until very recently, there was a certain sense of outsider-ness, of incongruity. It wasn't that upsetting, because I'd lived with it for so long that I was used to it.

But then, America Chavez.

The first time I glanced at a comic book page and saw her, I just stopped. There was this sudden bubbling excitement -- that was me!

So yeah, America makes me feel included and represented and warm and fuzzy. But that's not all.

There's a ton of practical reasons I love dressing up as America. Here are a few of them.

When You Dress Like A Character Who Looks Like You, You Get Recognized More Easily

There's just a lot that's practical about dressing up as a character that you physically resemble. If your gender, ethnicity, and build match a fictional character, you get recognized a lot more. Your costume can be pretty minimal and you STILL get recognized. You don't have to wear a super accurate outfit, because you bring your own visual accuracy, just by being you -- that's great. It's great because maximum results with minimal effort are great. Being lazy sometimes is great. But it's also not so great, because the inverse is also true.

Look at it this way: a tall white man with dark hair and broad shoulders can put on a dress shirt and thick glasses and people are still like, "SUPERMAN! I love Superman!"

Meanwhile, I once went to Dragon Con with an EXQUISITELY detailed Rick Grimes, right when the Walking Dead was really huge, and people were like, "So, your friend is dressed up as a sheriff?"

I was dressed as a zombie. My Rick Grimes was Asian. He was also carrying a bag of shotguns, covered in some costume dirt/blood, and he had a NAMETAG on that said, "Rick Grimes." We had a half Asian Glenn and a black Michonne, so it wasn't even a full party of people going cross gender or race. The really obvious visual cues were there for the group. A self-professed horror super fan? Should get it. Full stop.

Everyone cosplays for different reasons, so not everyone cares if they get recognized. I don't care too much, because I have the privilege of being a conventionally attractive woman in her mid-twenties -- I can wear basically anything to a con and get praise and picture requests. But when I cosplayed America, and I did get recognized constantly -- oh. Then I got it.

It feels fantastic to feel like you have succeeded -- you have emulated this character you love and been lauded for it. You get more social credit as a fan, in a way, by being recognizable. Clearly you must love this character so much, to have such an accurate costume. Awesome. Except no, not awesome, because so much of what makes people praise a costume on a fan is the physical resemblance the fan has to the character, and a lot of that physical resemblance is totally out of your hands. And if you don't match your character's gender or race or build, people are often at best confused and at worst, really nasty about it.

Better Representation In Comics Means More Options For Cosplay

Some people argue that you should ONLY cosplay characters that you physically resemble. These people are racist and sizeist and also really boring. Like, what are your options, then, as, say, a plus-size black woman? Off the top of my head all I can come up with is "that lady in that one Deadpool comic I read that one time." Compare that to your options as your basic white male, and the difference in list length is just completely insane. And before anyone jumps in with, "but male superheroes also have unrealistic bodies," lemme tell you that, yes. We've established that this genre is a power fantasy genre, so sure. And I don't think men should be any more shamed for their lack of comic book page eight pack than a woman should be for not having a fourteen inch waist. But overall, guys get less grief about dressing contrary to their body type.

I think cosplay culture IS improving. But still, if you want to just have it be easy and not constantly have to justify yourself then your options are limited. If you're a black dude, your options are probably Nick Fury or Luke Cage. If you're an Asian dude, Rufio from the movie Hook is a popular option, because he's a recognizable Asian guy in American pop culture who isn't presented as a joke. My friend once went as Tesla Strong because she's tall and black and doesn't like Storm and she'd already dressed up as Lana from Archer.

My boyfriend -- the half Asian Glenn of our Walking Dead group -- presents as fairly racially ambiguous to most people. He still gets excited for Keanu Reeves movies because Keanu roles are good options for him -- because he'll be recognized much more easily. This man is a huge fan of the Hellblazer comic, where John Constantine is a middle-aged blond British guy. But boyfriend cosplayed the movie version of John Constantine, because Keanu Reeves.

I'm very okay with this, as a lifelong Keanu Reeves fan, but I'd like if he had more easy options. It's still funny/sad that when he went out for this Halloween dressed as a video game character, the only person that recognized him was a fellow Asian dude (who was, I am not even kidding, dressed as Rufio).

Cosplaying A Character Who Looks Like You Is Cheaper And Easier

But let's put all that down for a minute, so I can tell you some more about how my costume is genius: America dresses like me. I think this implies to me, on a subconscious level, that we share a culture. Her big hoop earrings and other outfits feel, oh, so on-trend and Miami to me, and I love Miami and lived there for a long time. There's that feeling of representation again, which is inherently thrilling.

Practically speaking it also means that putting an America costume together is dirt cheap for me, because I already have all her stuff. Black short shorts? I own literally a DOZEN of those! I go to the gym in those! Denim jacket? I have three! Practical red shoes? Everyday wear. Hoop earrings? Please. what sort of Miami girl would I be if I didn't have a pair or two somewhere?

Cosplay is an expensive hobby. If all you have to do is buy paint and spend maybe, like, two dollars total? That's amazing. That's more money to blow on going to the fancy breakfast buffet at the Marriot every morning, because by god, you need to eat and keep your strength up at a con.

Furthermore, because the America costume is all stuff I already own and wear -- and work out in, mostly -- it's exceedingly comfortable, both in the sense of "I feel emotionally comfortable in this; this is my safe zone," and also in the sense of "these are all nice stretchy fabrics that fit well, which is why I live in them." Look, I've done cosplays where my entire body had to be airbrushed green with temporary paint that stuck around for weeks. I've tromped around cons in eight inch platforms. I've walked to the Georgia Aquarium in heels because I didn't want to give up the height they gave my costume.

Cosplay is often hard, and sometimes it's just really awesome to slip into your gym clothes, throw on a jacket, and lounge around with your feet up on the Dungeons and Dragon table while being incredibly source material accurate. And trust me, when you're doing an epic ten hour D&D sesh at the con? You want to be comfortable.

And that is why America Chavez is my favorite cosplay ever: she makes cosplay more accessible through meaningful representation. Well, that and I get to laze around in my gym clothes.