If you participated in the digital blogosphere of the early 2010s, you likely spent some time refining your online curatorial style on Tumblr, a once-preeminent site for online content creation. At its peak, the site hosted over 100 million unique blog posts every day, indicating two proven qualifiers for online visibility — the power of an infinite scroll home page and the staying power of community-based content curation, especially among the underrepresented. Black girls who find comfort in anime, gaming, and comic book universes demonstrated this by building a regenerative online community that continuously attracts new participants regardless of the sites that host them.
In the cosplay community, Black women can show their reverence for their favorite media by dressing up as characters from books, movies, and video games. The activity is both an outlet for creative expression and homage to the content that resonates with the cosplayer. “It doesn’t have to be elaborate to start,” explains Kiera Please, a cosplayer, artist, and content creator who got her start after going viral on Tumblr for her character looks. “It’s more accessible than one would assume — testing the boundaries of your creativity by using your available resources.”
Kiera’s path to popularity in the cosplay community is indicative of how inclusive the space can be in its best iterations. She did not initially set out to be a cosplay influencer and built out her first pocket of internet popularity with posts about hair, fashion, and other personalized lifestyle content. This was in 2015 when she decided to dress up as Garnet from one of her favorite TV shows, Steven Universe, an animated coming-of-age series. “I didn’t connect that it was cosplay at the time,” Kiera tells GU. “That’s when I discovered this is a whole world that I didn’t even know existed. It existed before me, but that happy accident kind of introduced me to it.”
Part of the success of the Garnet look was in its validation that the character—an animated crystal gem-alien created by Rebecca Sugar and voiced by singer Estelle—would be personified as a Black woman. Kiera received widespread positive feedback, prompting her to try more looks from across television, comics, and film.
Our Multiple Pop Cultures
Cosplay, in itself, is an unbarriered activity in which anybody can participate. There is a misconception that in order to engage in cosplay, participants must immerse themselves in a fictive pantheon of nerd culture, but this is not necessarily true. Michelle, an L.A.-based cosplayer, streamer and gamer who goes by TattedPoodle (aka ‘Poodle,’ aka ‘Tatted’) affirms that people can enter the space even if they don’t go to conventions or engage with specific online fandom communities.
“You can randomly put on an outfit and just go down the street and meet with your friends and just have fun,” Michelle shares of her cosplay journey. Many people’s entry to cosplay, she notes, starts with Halloween, perhaps the most visible night of costume and character play. In the same way that people may dress up at a themed party or post about a costume they made, cosplayers may gather at conventions to display their work, be photographed, and find other aficionados who share in their particular fandom. Though these conventions can serve as an IRL safe space in an otherwise online-based community, they are far from the only places to engage in cosplay. Kiera and Michelle advise curious cosplayers to start at their comfort level and use their imagination — the competitive element is optional.
“You don’t have to force yourself to do something you’re not ready for,” Kiera tells GU. “People will still accept you in a space where you could wear just the t-shirt of your favorite show. I think people think you have to be a specific way or know everything about a show, or know everything about an animator or a movie to participate or feel connected.” The point is to show love to the characters you love, not strictly to signal a fandom affiliation. Some celebrities, like Megan Thee Stallion, have exemplified this in their costuming choices. Megan has been vocal about her love of anime for years and nodded to one of the most recognizable characters in the genre during the Summer Sonic Festival in Tokyo. Taking the stage in Sailor Moon‘s signature school uniform look, Megan Thee Stallion performed her entire set in cosplay, a move celebrating the multimodality of pop culture and its associated fandoms.
“The thing about pop culture is there are multiple pop cultures; there’s not just one,” TattedPoodle tells GU. “At one point, somebody that was into comics might look at somebody that’s cosplaying in anime and be like, like, what are you doing? And vice versa.” This is no longer the case, she explains. As audiences have access to multiple content niches at once, they have less obligation to align with one space. The revived marketability of Marvel and DC comic book heroes, in particular, has collided with the popular anime landscape to create an environment where the “nerd culture” umbrella is more mainstream than marginal.
Bending Convention in Costume
Cosplay’s effectiveness relies on the player’s imagination, challenging one’s ability to transfer a fictional character’s likeness to human form. This does not have to adhere to a literal interpretation of the original comic, anime, or game. Many cosplayers engage in what they call gender-bending, which is when historically male characters are depicted as women and femmes, and vice versa. For instance, TattedPoodle did not begin to dress up as female characters until later in her cosplay career, and frequently presented her own feminized versions of recognizable male characters, like the Green Lantern of DC Comics and Rock Lee of Naruto. Though these gender-bent interpretations are sometimes dismissed by male cosplayers, the practice is incredibly popular and opens doors for the queering of cosplay. The fact that some of the source media do not have as many Black female characters to draw from does not hinder Balck girl cosplayers from participating. If anything, it substantiates the need for a more diverse range of characters.
“She Gon’ Be Black Today”
Of course, Black women’s ingenuity in spaces where they are not predominantly represented tends to come with some strife. Cosplay’s origins as a countercultural community have unfortunately not exempted it from racist and misogynist rhetoric that targets Blackness and womanhood simultaneously. Kiera and Tatted are among many Black women cosplayers who received online attacks after dressing up as characters originally depicted as white or male. As the quality of these gender-bent and race-bent costumes grew, so did the hostility from fellow cosplayers whose presumptions about race were challenged by seeing Black women interpret white, male characters.
“Online is brutal,” TattedPoodle tells GU. “I felt like overall, online is just so much worse than in person. Conventions are typically pretty safe compared to the pushback you’ll get on social media or in some chat rooms.” Black girl cosplayers are fighting this territorialism, however, and carving out digital safe spaces more conducive to their inclusion.
Kiera Please was able to overcome some of the online hostility she experienced by finding solace with, “OGs in the space,” as she describes them—more experienced Black women cosplayers like Cutie Pie Sensei and Kay Bear. Having been in the space for over ten years, the fellow Black cosplayers have been instrumental in elevating the diversity in cosplay, and celebrating Black girls who engage despite the initial loneliness. On #cosplay TikTok, there is a popular sound referencing this inclusion work, where creator Naomi Chań (@afrococoapuffs) rebuffs claims that certain characters aren’t Black and thus can’t be done by Black cosplayers by responding “she gon’ be Black today.” Thousands of accounts on #blackgirlcosplay TikTok have since used the sound in the background of their videos.
Even though cosplay grapples with remaining traces of hegemonic exclusion, Black women’s growing presence demonstrates how spaces can evolve. The landscape of cosplay content creators is growing in tandem with the demand for gaming, anime, and comic-based content. The Black girls creating costumes and sharing with their audiences exemplify how we enhance marginal spaces with our creativity and dedication to inclusivity.
“I just want to do things and create things that I’m proud of and interested in,” Kiera Please tells GU. “I would like for people to see the things that I create, as long as I’m happy about what I’m creating. And if they don’t get it, I can’t care because at the end of the day, it’s what’s going to make me happy and to a certain point I don’t want to just serve the internet. I want to be authentic and serve myself.”
About Skylar Mitchell: Skylar is a writer and graduate student based in New York. She explores topics in culture, history, arts, and politics, particularly as they impact Black femme interiority, whose work can be found in NYTimes, CNN, Teen Vogue, and her personal newsletter about Black girlhood.