I remember the first time I saw them. They were sauntering around Harold Square with their bubblegum pink hair, white patent leather platform boots, and slim-fitting nurses outfits. As a recent transplant to New York City at the time, I had no idea why these two people were dressed as such. Maybe they were headed to a very early Halloween party, I guessed. But as I continued my shopping and saw more elaborate and outlandish costumes, I began to wonder if I had somehow missed an important memo. Why wasn’t I also dressed in an array of bright colors or gory special effects makeup?
Nearly a decade later, I have since joined the ranks of similar folks you may have seen this weekend on the New York City subway. With white marks drawn on my face, a black spandex suit with an accompanying blue superhero cape, black combat boots, and a stylish fro-hawk, I relished in the confused and/or admiring looks from those people unaware of the current happenings at the Javitz Center: New York Comic Con. Indeed, during the first weekend of every October, droves of self-identified nerds descend into the West Side of Manhattan, eager to attend panels, screenings, meet-and-greets, and other events that celebrate their fandoms. While some attendees show up simply dressed in their everyday attire, others opt to “cosplay,” that is, to dress up as a character from a favorite video-game, TV show, movie, or anime.
For black nerds, such as myself, the decision to cosplay is often fraught with the representational politics of the era. Beyond the basic question of numbers — exactly how many black superheroes, for example, can you style yourself after? — such decisions also inform the ongoing discussion of how various identities are represented (or not) within certain forms of media. Although comics have historically operated at the vanguard of entertainment, stretching the human imagination as well as critiquing our social and political limitations, their cinemagraphic adaptations have, unfortunately, remained quite conservative aesthetically. The newest cinematic rendition of Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot, is one such example of the tension that exists between critique and conservatism within the realm of nerdy representation. Wonder Woman is a symbol of feminine power and integrity, yet, aesthetically, she does not represent or mirror most of the women that look up to her. Indeed, as a black femme, I remain to feel empowered by Wonder Woman; her character instead reminds me of the mainstream exclusionary beauty standards of body type, skin tone, and ability, among other bodily markers, as well as the ways in which female superheroes are always sexualized for mainstream consumption.
But enter cosplay: an arena in which fans make an array of aesthetic choices that reshape and reconfigure their favorite characters, expanding the landscape of possibilities in ways that the original content we have come to know and love perhaps does not. Indeed, over the past four years that I have attended NYCC, I see more and more courageous and creative folks making a range of big and small aesthetic alterations to their cosplay. These alterations range from sporting an afro as Batgirl or adorning a wheelchair as the Flash. They can include incorporating religious garb into your cosplay, as Maliha Fairooz, the founder behind the collective “Hijabi Heroes,” noted during the Muslim Fandom panel this year.
For this year’s NYCC, my own small, yet important cosplay intervention was to maintain my natural curls as part of my Valkyrie costume. While I share a similar complexion to Tessa Thompson, who plays Valkyrie within the Marvel Thor movies, we differ in our hair textures. Deciding to maintain my natural curl pattern was my own small way of carving out space for a different kind of black feminine nerdy aesthetic. Indeed, the convention featured one such panel on styling kinky, coily, and curly hair for interested cosplayers who understand the value of seeing their favorite characters with afros, twist outs, bantu knots, etc. In that way, cosplay can also function as a dialogue between fan and content creator, opening spaces for fans to offer creative visions of the kinds of representation they are hungry for; hopefully, creators will take note.
Keyanah Nurse is a femme intellectual queen on a mission to change the way we think about love, intimacy, and connection. Follow her on Twitter @KeyanahNurse.