Is Cosplay Cultural Appropriation?

    Ever since I can remember, I have been a fan of anime. Hell, my most visceral memory of it as a child is when I was barely five years old and my mother would come to feed me daal chawal, which I hated. So, she would time it exactly so that I’d get my first mouthful while watching a rerun of a badly dubbed Sailor Moon episode on the television. And I was mesmerized. So, when I stumbled into the world of cosplay as a teenager, I never looked back.

    Not like there were a lot of opportunities to cosplay where I’m from. But when I did finally get a chance to try cosplaying properly, I was beyond ecstatic. It came at a tumultuous point in my life so I couldn’t afford to do much, but I decided to go as the movie version of Misa Amane from Death Note. Why? Because I wanted to be as accurate as possible, but I knew I couldn’t exactly dye my hair blonde. So, in the movie, Misa was a brunette and that’s what I went off of.

    It’s silly looking back at it, how I tried so hard to be accurate to a character that I can’t fully emulate because a) I was a blonde-haired Japanese idol and b) it isn’t meant to be that serious. It’s not like I’m appropriating a character, right?

    This is what the topic for today is: Cosplay culture and how it’s been liberating for some fans while being an excuse to troll others. And how all of it combined still doesn’t detract from the fact that cosplaying is for everyone, no matter what shape, size, or color you are. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s start from the beginning.

    The History Of Cosplay And Colorism Over The Years

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    Though you can cosplay a character from just about any piece of media and fiction available, historically it has always been associated with Japanese mediums such as manga and anime. And as such, the characters in those stories are created from a Japanese viewpoint. And Japan isn’t a very ethnically diverse country.

    Naturally, the characters you get are pale, with very little variation. Sure, you have some characters with darker skin but that wasn’t the norm until very recently. So, when anime gained popularity in the West, fans there started having issues on both sides of the spectrum.

    Some people actively bashed cosplayers of African-American descent for ‘tarnishing’ light-skinned anime characters by cosplaying them. If you were darker than NC25 in a MAC foundation, you would find yourself being hounded by zealots on the internet for ‘ruining’ their waifu or hero in some way.

    And then, you’d flip the coin and see certain fans cosplay darker-skinned characters while being light-skinned, which is fine until they started darkening their skin tone using makeup to be as ‘accurate as possible. Which is just Blackface Lite.

    Sexualization and Colorism: How To Rise Above?

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    Okay, first off, blackface in any context? It’s a bad idea. I can’t believe I have to say this in the year of our Lord 2022, but please don’t paint yourself as darker unless you’re cosplaying as a literal black hole. It is a hurtful stereotype and people’s ethnicities are not a costume.

    There is also an issue of how fetishization and sexualization come to play when it comes to female cosplayers in the community. There is a harmful stereotype that sexualizes Asian women, in particular, when cosplayers dress up as younger characters but in scantily dressed ‘alternate’ costumes. Again, since a lot of these anime are set in Japan, during high school settings, in particular, it’s easy to see why that is a problem.

    Cosplaying anime characters is all well and good as long as it doesn’t become appropriating. But you can still cosplay any character prefer as long as you remember that real people aren’t costumes. Age-appropriate costuming for certain characters is a thing to consider here.

    How To Differ Between Appropriation And Appreciation?

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    People of different ethnicities are allowed to cosplay different characters without needing approval. If a Southeast Asian woman wants to cosplay, say, Viktor Nikiforov from Yuri!! On Ice, they absolutely can, and no one can stop them. There is no appropriation there because she isn’t purposefully altering her skin tone to cosplay a caricature. And if a Caucasian man wants to cosplay Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender, they can as long as they, again, don’t alter their skin tone.

    You can appreciate a character and show your love for them, without being disgusting about it. And remember, cosplay is for everyone. If you’re black but you want to dress up as Tsunade from Naruto, do it! If you’re obese but want to channel your Inner Goku from Dragon Ball? Go right ahead!

    People shouldn’t hold you back from the things you love. As long as you’re respectful and true to yourself, you’re already doing the character justice. Happy cosplaying, fellow nerds!

    Anza Qureshi
    Anza Qureshi
    Anza Qureshi is a writer, licensed dentist and certified Uchiha fangirl. When she isn't doing root canals or listing down anime waifus, you can find her screeching about her favorite JRPGs across social media.

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