Unmasked

Meet Stardust Megu, ChibiTifa and Nyx Wolff, where the art of wearing costumes is a way of life. This #Blacktober, we’re exploring the creativity and power of Black cosplay

Sarah Rose // Features Editor
Valeriya Kim // Illustration

It’s 2005 and a young girl in New York City is flitting from the TV to the family Gateway computer to watch episodes of Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z. Afterwards, she’ll spend hours searching for photos of her favourite characters to print out and paste into a mosaic in her notebook. The thumbnails of various animated heroes and magical girls filling the screen begin to transform into something different: real people. Fifteen years ago, in the family computer room behind an old notebook and CRT monitor, Stardust Megu discovered cosplay, and the power clothing has to transform us.

A portmanteau of ‘costume play’, cosplay is a type of performance art that began in 1939 in the same city Stardust Megu stumbled upon it. Although the practice has exploded, with international popularity since its inception, the ethos of the medium has always been the same: who do you want to be?

Today, Stardust Megu could be anyone. One of her favourite personas is Yoko Littner, the tough, redheaded gunslinger from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Other days, she’s in the iconic green bodysuit and fire engine red bracers of assassin clone-turned-secret service operative Cammy White, aka ‘Killer Bee’ from Street Fighter. Stardust Megu is an award-winning cosplayer who regularly becomes Sailor Mercury, Joseph Joestar, Junko Enoshima and hundreds of others. For the middle-school-aged girl in her family computer room that she used to be, it was a different story:

“I wanted to do [cosplay] so badly, but was scared to because of the extreme bullying I went through prior. I thought that because I’m both Black (darker skinned) and plus-sized that I wouldn’t look good as the characters.”

Stadust Megu as Yoko Littner (photo by Gogo Cosplay & Photography)

The curious kids of today are still sitting in front of their computers, seeing their beloved characters brought to life. Yet, one of the most frequently asked questions related to cosplay on Google is: “Can I cosplay if I’m Black?” Cosplayers like Stardust Megu, Nyx Wolff and ChibiTifa believe something so intrinsic shouldn’t be questioned at all. One thing each of them shares is not only a love for the artform, but a fastidious belief that cosplay is for everyone.

In another country and another time, Neil Diamond also has something in common with the childhood of Stardust Megu. Rather than a Gateway computer, the Cree filmmaker grew up watching films like The Searches in front of a TV. First, with the unsettling feeling of rooting for the cowboys, and later wanting to play a cowboy in games of cowboys and Indians. Although these films depicted people who looked like him, they weren’t anything like him at all, because what they embody is a white myth. In his documentary Reel Injun, Diamond explores a century of Indigenous portrayals in cinema to unravel the Injun as it was created by white filmmakers for white audiences. Through thousands of hours of footage of people like John Wayne battling Indians, white Hollywood defined for the world what representations of Indigenous people are supposed to be in the dominant hegemony, not what they are.

What Diamond and Black cosplayers alike urge us to recognize is that representation comes with responsibility. Black heroes and characters need to be written with intent; their race is a central aspect to their character. It’s not as straightforward as choosing a different skin tone, which either intentionally or otherwise, results in white creators painting a new shade of white over ideas of what a superhero is—and what a Black superhero should be. “You are looking at representations crafted by white supremacy… It’s not actually Black people you are looking at.” That’s Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who pretended to be a Black, African American history professor.  

Eyes cast towards the horizon, framed by graceful curls of chin length dusty lavender hair grazing the collar of a turquoise rococo gown is ChibiTifa—she’s Anthy Himemiya from Revolutionary Girl Utena. “It means so much to me,” she shares, “Anthy Himemiya was my very first cosplay.” For a girl who never felt like she belonged to a fan community, discovering cosplay fifteen years ago was the lifeline where ChibiTifa made not just costumes but life-long friends. Despite struggling with anxiety and depression, becoming Anthy for an afternoon feels like a beacon of joy and self-expression in the way that costumes help conquer traumatizing parts of adolescence. “Every time I finish a costume and try it on for the first time, I feel a sense of euphoria knowing that I can become my favorite characters despite my race and skin tone.”

“We are here and have always been.”

ChibiTifa
ChibiTifa as Anthy Himemiya

The first Black superhero featured as a protagonist and titular character of a comic book in 1972 was Luke Cage. Imagining him as white comes with a pervasive unease, a sense of loss—Because Luke Cage could never be white. His story is a direct reference to the way the government imprisons and abuses Black bodies. Painting over him with a white brush erases the meaning behind his identity. Black Panther and Storm could never be white because their Blackness is who they are—the king of an African nation that’s never been conquered by colonialism and the descendant of an ancient line of African priestesses.

Behind #Blacktober and many of the cosplays worn by Stardust Megu, ChibiTifa and Nyx Wolff is the principle of racebending; changing the ethnicity of a character from one medium to another. It’s more than skin deep—there’s power in urging audiences to look beneath the surfaces of canon. “I have been told that “’x’ character isn’t Black” or even worse, the “n-word” version of a character,” said ChibiTifa. Nyx Wolff shares how she’s received comments ranging from fat shaming to racism. For Stardust Megu, racist harassment has happened so many times she’s lost track: “People always tell me that I’m “too dark” or “too fat” whenever I post my cosplays.” When ChibiTifa cosplayed Soul Caliber IV’s Ivy Valentine in 2019, she anticipated accusations of “ruining” the classic video game protagonist, not the phenomenal amount of praise she received instead. “I was surprised when many people told me that they actually wished Ivy was a Black woman because I portrayed her so well.”

“When just about every superhero or characters in TV shows and cartoons are white, it definitely affects the way Black people view ourselves. Since we aren’t shown mostly in a positive light, or rarely at all, we tend to think that we aren’t as important as our white counterparts,” shared ChibiTifa. Stardust Megu loves the joy and creativity from seeing fellow Black cosplayers doing their own versions of lighter skinned characters. “Little kids are like, ‘wow, you’re my favourite character!’” Recounts Nyx Wolff, “they just gush and tell you how much that character means [to them], and [that] they didn’t know the character can look like them.”

It’s a scene that could be lifted straight from anyone’s childhood fairytale: The eponymous hood and cape of Nyx Wolff as Red Riding Hood blankets her body in a cascade of deep crimson, framed beneath the waif-like limbs of a weeping willow. For Nyx Wolff, cosplay is about comfort.

“It’s stepping into a character that lets me leave my muggle worries behind and just enjoy the moment more.”

Nyx Wolff as Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood is one of her favourite cosplays, along with Maleficent, which she chooses specifically for the comfort of accommodating the unpredictable nature of her disability. She also incorporates her cane into many of her costumes.

Conventions, however, are not a fairytale space, despite what those who engage in the culture might want to believe. There is still a notion of otherness, still clinging to the same hierarchies of oppression perpetuated by mainstream culture writ large. Cosplay is a reflection on some level of pop culture rooted in eurocentrism and anti-Blackness, and it’s been normalized and capitalized on for years. New York Comic Con routinely brings in more than 100 million dollars to the city’s local economy. The massive capital generated by conventions is used as justification for upholding the structures built to support hierarchies of systemic oppression therein.

ChibiTifa explains how Black cosplayers are rarely invited to conventions on the presumption that there’s no audience for them, or worse yet, they won’t sell tickets. “It’s disheartening to hear that, especially since we work just as hard on our cosplays as the ones who are constantly invited.” Although Nyx Wolff hasn’t been invited as a guest, she’s thankful for the opportunities she’s had to speak at several sold-out panels. Stardust Megu is hopeful that one day she’ll be invited to a convention like New York Comic Con as a guest, but she acknowledges how difficult it is for Black cosplayers to get guest spots. It’s a struggle that only grows exponentially for those who are darker skinned, plus-sized, LGBTQ or disabled folx. “We have to push even harder than everyone else, and even more than fellow Black cosplayers for opportunities,” she shared. 

“The unbearable whiteness of fandom won’t change without tangible effort by white people committed to changing it.” Writes Talynn Kel in The Establishment. “Racism is a conscious choice that’s become the white noise of American culture, and addressing it takes conscious effort to disrupt how white people see the world.”

In the same way Diamond grapples with the bifurcation of Injun and Indigenous, Black cosplayers are constantly in a bilingual dialogue with their other. They’re alive, in a collective society of material perspective speaking through the memories associated with them. The costume each artist creates is not a blank canvas ready to be worn by anyone, it’s made for them. There is an intentional precision in material, in their social, economic and historic reason for being.

The appeal of superheroes is woven into the ambiguity of identity in the shape of a cape and a mask. When we watch Spiderman soaring through the skyscrapers of inner-city New York, there’s a lingering thought and a held breath, could that be someone like me? Yet, when the mask comes off, it’s always Peter Parker, another white nerd­. 2019’s Into The Spiderverse introduced Miles Morales—An Afro-Latinx teenager from East Harlem—and for the first time, Spiderman’s story is different from Peter’s. It’s Miles’ day-to-day life, like navigating being a new student in a predominantly white charter school, that speaks to the shared experience of many kids in NYC. Kids who’ve never seen their story told before, or a name like Morales associated with heroism. Miles’ Blackness redefines what it means to be Spiderman. “I think that’s why Black Panther meant so much, [as well as] Into The Spiderverse. We deserve to see ourselves in stories, and heroes [who have] tech, powers and excellence,” said Nyx Wolff.

Whether doing cosplay or getting dressed in the morning, we embody a plural of identities, each constructed and labeled like layers of fabric on a dress. There’s an almost ritualistic, religious-like reverence in the act of weaving together a costume, but the truth is costumes themselves have no secret powers. The hard work and intent behind the many personas of Stardust Megu, ChibiTifa and Nyx Wolff is in boldly embodying a different reality where people of colour own the centerfolds. In rematerializing restrictive narratives of what power and heroes can be, cosplay is more than wearing a costume—it’s permission to occupy space.

In the words of Ororo Munroe, “I am a woman, a mutant, a thief, an X-Men, a lover, a wife, a Queen. I am all these things. I am Storm, and for me, there are no such things as limits.”

To see more of their work, follow the artists on social media: @ChibiTifa, @Stardust_Megu and @badwolfreigns

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