Representation matters. Representation matters in all forms of media and cosplay is no exception.
And yet, I still hear, daily, people asking why representation matters. Or I hear people counter arguing that white males need to be represented too (don’t worry, we are, in boat loads). I’m a cis white male. I can identify with just about any character in any movie or book or comic. Strictly speaking for myself, I’m so well represented, that if I didn’t know better, I’d think that cis white males made up 95% of the world’s population. But it’s not true, and for everyone I know and love who is NOT a cis white male, representation is important to them and me. Because I’d hate to live in that world.
I never once, when I was growing up, wondered why nobody on TV or in movies or in video games looked like me, because they all did. And when I was younger, it skewed my world view. It automatically made everyone who wasn’t like me a mystery or a potential threat or danger. Because of a lack of representation, I was automatically afraid or at least wary of anyone who wasn’t like me. I want my son (who is a white male) and my daughter (who is a Black, Puerto Rican, and white female), to grow up seeing an accurate representation of the world in the media they enjoy and not having to think of anybody the way I did.
My daughter’s first Halloween costume and cosplay will be Han Solo. Why? Why not? There’s no reason a little girl, of any skin color, can’t be Han Solo. And the best part about her costume is not that we are forcing it on her (she’s only four months old after all), it’s that my son chose it for her. Although he loves Doc McStuffins (who is a great character for both of my kids to look up to), he didn’t choose that for her just because she’s a little Black girl.
Star Wars is his favorite thing in the world, but he didn’t choose Finn or Lando or Mace Windu for her just because those are the Black characters (although he does frequently pretend to be all of those characters himself–without ever thinking he needs to paint his skin to do it). He just wants her to be Han Solo. And make no mistake, it isn’t because we pretend to be color blind or avoid talking about race. We talk about it with him all the time. We even bought him these multicultural crayons to not only help with the discussion, but to allow him to actually color and draw people and characters with different skin tones.
But, I’m a white guy. My thoughts and opinions and experience with this subject are very different from what a person of color (POC) has to deal with and has experienced their whole lives, which brings me to the subject of this article–Charles Conley of Ebony Warrior Studios. Conley is an amazing foamsmith and cosplayer. His armor kicks some major butt. But, more importantly, the following story he posted on Facebook recently illustrates perfectly why representation matters. And it will make you cry.
So DragonCon this year was the first time I wore my Batman armor to a major con. As many of you know, I’ve had to deal with issues regarding bigots who can’t seem to wrap their mind around the idea of a Black guy cosplaying Batman, because “Batman is historically white. There are plenty of Black characters you could do instead.” Well I cosplay Batman because I love the character and because representation matters. When I say it matters let me tell you what happened on the Saturday of DragonCon this year.
I was walking around posing in my Dark Knight when I happened upon a little POC boy in a black and yellow batman costume. He couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6. With him was his mother. This little boy saw me approaching and immediately stopped dead in his tracks, tugging at his mother’s hand. I could see him point at his hand (the skin) and then pointing to me. I approached, and he was a little intimidated at first as any little kid is when meeting a life-sized armored character. I knelt down and reached out my hand for a high five. With all the force he could muster he slapped my hand, with the biggest smile on his face. He told me he wanted to ask me something so, still kneeling I leaned in with my ear. “Batman” he said timidly “You’re brown, just like me! Does that mean that I can be a real superhero someday too? I don’t see a lot of brown superheroes.”
If you know me, you know that I don’t ever break character, but I broke down when he said that. His words touched the deepest part of my soul. I then ignored my #1 Batman rule and removed my cowl so he could see my face. His face lit up, and I teared up even more. I looked this kid dead in the eye and said “you can be any superhero you want to be and don’t ever let anyone tell you different. Being a brown superhero is a very special thing, and I know you’re going to make a great one.” He nodded, still grinning. I put my cowl back on, wiping away the remaining tears and trying to get back in to character. The boy’s mother was moved by the exchange as well and let me know that I had made her son’s day by doing what I did.
Think about this. These kids are growing up in a country where you can so easily feel like ‘less than’ because your skin is darker. Police brutality and racism are being made ever so visible by today’s multimedia outlets and these kids aren’t blind, they take that in. For kids like this little boy, the idea that you can one day be a superhero, no matter what your skin color is, opens up a whole new world for them. This is why I cosplay. This is why I’m The Batman. #RepresentationMatters
After reading his story several times and sharing the heck out of it, I reached out to Conley for a quick interview about his cosplay in general and about representation specifically.
GeekDad: How did you get into cosplay and prop/armor making? What was your first cosplay?
Charles Conley: I’ve always been into art. I’ve been doing 2D graphite artwork ever since I was a child. My father was my inspiration, as he used to draw himself. I just discovered around 2011 that I had the ability to create 3D works of art.
GD: Do you have a favorite cosplay of yours?
CC: As of now my favorite cosplay is not yet fully built. It’s in the middle of being made now. It’s the Stormwind Royal Guard armor set from the Warcraft film.
GD: Do you have a favorite piece that challenged you?
CC: Indeed, my Mass Effect Dingo armor was one my most intricate pieces to date.
GD: How much time do you spend doing commissions versus your own cosplay?
CC: Commissions have taken over my life to be quite honest. 2016 has been my least productive year as far as personal projects because I’ve been working on commissions so heavily.
GD: What’s your favorite “medium” to work in (sewing, EVA foam, resin casting, etc.)?
CC: EVA foam is my main building material. I’m what you would call a foamsmith.
GD: Most of our readers are parents and, like me, want to share their geeky interests with their kids. I’ve been doing father and son cosplay with my son, and my daughter will be joining us shortly. Do you have any suggestions on how parents can get their kids interested and involved with cosplay and fabrication?
CC: Start them off small with cosplays from their favorite fandoms. There are all sorts of simple small armor builds you can do with children to get them started. Even modifying Halloween costume pieces into accurate props can be an easy start.
GD: A lot of people don’t seem to get why it’s not only okay but a really good thing for you to cosplay a character like Batman and why representation matters so much. I love the fact that not only are there more and more smart, strong female characters of color for my daughter (like Doc McStuffins or Tulip from Preacher or all the women on The Expanse), but that we are seeing things like Sam Wilson as Captain America or Riri Williams as Iron Man. In your own words, can you explain why representation is so important and why you can’t “just cosplay one of the characters who is already black?”
CC: I love characters of color, and I have a menagerie of characters I cosplay, but I’m not going to let my skin color prevent me from being a character traditionally portrayed as white. Cosplay is about becoming whatever character you love, and I happen to love Batman. Just makes me feel powerful–something I didn’t feel growing up bullied. I want to show kids that there is hope. Though things are picking up there are still so few superhero role models of color for POC children to identify with. I break that barrier.
GD: On a related note, can you also explain why skin-color is not a costume, and why it’s not okay when people do the opposite since that seems to be the go-to position for a lot of people when they see a person of color dressed as a “white character”?
CC: Cultural appropriation, blackface, brownface, and yellow face have been a means to demean and disenfranchise POC for centuries. It’s just not necessary in any form (when it comes to real world ethnicities). Let your cosplay craftsmanship speak for itself. If you think your cosplay isn’t “accurate” because you didn’t paint your skin, you’re doing it wrong. Going along that same line of logic would mean that a traditionally skinny character being cosplayed by someone a bit larger would not be “accurate” either. Skin color accuracy is just an excuse. My Batman is 100% accurate because I put the time into the armor. Never would I dare painting my skin white.
GD: Other than Batman, almost all of your cosplay that I’ve seen seems to be fully armored, covered, and helmeted. What’s been your experience (positive and negative) in those versus one like Batman?
CC: There is something slightly different about fully helmeted cosplays. No one can see your face so you can settle into character a little easier. I think they’re slightly more intimidating but that also is a downside because some of the armors just give off a frightening presence that will scare away kids.
GD: I’m an adoptive parent of a multi-racial (Black, Puerto Rican, and white) little girl. My daughter’s first cosplay is going to be Han Solo, and while she didn’t choose it herself, her big brother (who is white) did. We talk to him about race and skin color–we don’t adhere to the “color blind” school of thought–and he sees nothing at all wrong with a little Black girl being Han Solo. Do you have any advice for me?
CC: That’s PERFECT. You can’t be color blind. You have to see all these different ethnicities as beautiful and unique. Just remember that her skin DOES NOT define her cosplay though. She isn’t a “Black” Han Solo, she is simply Han Solo.
GD: A lot of us geeks would love to do something we love as a full-time job. Do you have another job besides cosplay and prop making? If so, what is it? And do you have any tips for our readers on how to work towards a passion becoming a full-time career?
CC: I have 2 full-time jobs. Ebony Warrior Studios (my cosplay business), and my normal day job (which is too boring to mention). Honestly, if you’re thinking about making this a full-time career, it’s all about having a product that’s done with excellence that people desire. Find that niche that works for you.
GD: Something along the lines of “Being a geek isn’t about what you love but how you love it,” is sort of the new geek mantra. Do you have anything, besides cosplay, that you consider yourself a geek about?
CC: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings are both my jam. I have quite the collection from both fandoms.
GD: What upcoming conventions do you have on your schedule that people could see you at?
GD: Thanks, Charles. I’m hoping to be at both SDCC and DragonCon this year. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us!