I went to WonderCon in Anaheim this past weekend, and I was struck by something (besides the elbows of nerds rushing to see the Shazam! cast signing): the subtle way greater representation in media has changed cosplay for the better. It can’t be overstated just how much of a positive effect the depiction of characters of different ethnicities/genders/body shapes has had on people of those ethnicities/genders/body shapes. Representation matters, and seeing it take physical form at the con really struck home just how important it can be.
I know I’m a white dude, but even still, as a Jew, it’s not like there are a lot of badass Jewish dudes running around in your favorite books and movies. Magneto is a bad guy. Atticus Kodiak from the Greg Rucka novels is literally just a muscular version of Greg Rucka and I’m not gonna cosplay as a comic writer, no matter how much I love his work. I guess there’s the ever-loving blue-eyed Thing, but he’s, you know, made of rocks. Most action heroes are named Jack McIrishlastname, most male comic heroes are Christian. So I get it. It’s nice to have positive examples of someone with your background in media. And this year’s crop of cosplayers really demonstrated that.
I have nothing against “crossplay” or people transforming their favorite (usually white, male) characters into versions they can dress as. But there’s a specific, empowering feeling offered when you see someone similar to yourself on screen. It confirms that you exist, and you matter.
Black women dressed as Shuri and the other Dora Milaje, embracing Black Panther‘s depiction of women more badass than their male counterparts. Black teens suited up as Miles Morales. Spider-Gwens and Captain Marvels filled the floor. I saw Asian women as Gogo Tomago from Big Hero Six or D.Va from Overwatch. Samoan guys dressed (or undressed, as the case may be) as Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Kal Drogo. Queer comics fans had role models in the form of Midnighter, Iceman and Batwoman. There was a Middle Eastern kid dressed as Aladdin. Even middle-aged guys with pot bellies could go as Peter B. Parker.
She-Ra was the most prevalent one, however. A group of ethnically diverse, powerful young women in fun costumes that aren’t exploitative? No wonder nerdy girls flock to that franchise. Not just one token example, either — there’s someone for everyone, thanks to the show’s nuanced variety of skin tones and body types. Adora spoke to girls with more boyish figures; stockier girls could go as Glimmer; muscular women could dress as Scorpia. Frosta offers someone for indigenous girls; Catra could be Hispanic; I even saw an Asian woman dressed as Entrapta (although her floor-length hair seemed like a safety hazard). The show’s casually diverse cast allows viewers to see themselves in any number of its characters. It tells young women that it’s okay to be who you are, and it’s aimed at young women who are at an age where that’s important. It doesn’t expect them to conform to dumb societal standards.
And you know what? It didn’t mean there were any less Batmen or Deadpools. The representation just added to the mosaic. I’m skeptical of nerd culture as a rule. I’ve made fun of my share of shitty cosplay. Clearly, however, many people flock to it as an escape from their everyday lives and as a way to feel seen. It’s a big tent, and not only is there room for everyone, it makes for a much brighter, more enjoyable experience when you have people of different backgrounds in there with you. People love to see themselves in what they watch. They rush to fill those slots when they exist. It’s one thing to be told representation matters; it’s quite another to see just how readily that representation is embraced in the most colorful way possible.