I can't believe that this year is already my 10th anniversary of competitive cosplay! I've been hooked on cosplay competitions since I started doing them. What does it mean to be a competitive cosplayer? It’s not as intense as it sounds- it just means I enjoy entering cosplay contests, mainly those focused on craftsmanship or performance. However, in my ten years of competition, I and others have noticed that the contest circuit isn’t exactly the most diverse.
Diversity in cosplay is an issue in many channels: cosplay guest lineups, who is featured in con coverage articles, what kind of cosplayers appear in those pretty con videos, and who is shared by content aggregators on social media. The diversity of the average con goer in the U.S. has always been noticeably vast, because being a fan of something is a fairly universal notion here. "Nerd culture" has become more main stream, encouraging people from all walks of life to gather for the sake of just loving similar things.
Yet, while cons seem to get more diverse each year, I have not noticed the same increase in diversity at the contests that I enter or judge at. Why is that? Let’s take a look at some reasons cosplay contests may be lacking in representation, and what efforts we can put forth to initiate more inclusiveness!
Representation is Lacking
First and foremost, I believe competitive cosplay suffers from a catch-22, if you will. Because if mostly white, abled people are entering cosplay competitions, statistically mostly those people will stay winning. As an effect, that group is then more likely to move on to become judges, who often get their position through means of previous wins and contest experience.
So how can we encourage more diversity by showing competitors that contests are diverse, if we are suffering from an issue of representation to begin with? Unfortunately, that’s not an easy answer. You may be tempted to just say “well why don’t POC, disabled people, etc. just enter? The onus is on them to take initiative.” but to that I say nah. The onus isn't just on them.
Animatic Con 2019 - Photo by Kwanye Cosplay
A Cyclical Problem
The issue is far more cyclical, and breaking that cycle takes initiative on both parts. In all of my diversity and competitive cosplay panels, I talk about the lack of diversity in contests and make sure to encourage diverse talent to come forth with their gifts! Still, easier said than done. So what can we do? Try recruiting diverse people to enter! Reach out to talented and capable cosplayers to act as judges! And not as a pity invitation either, nor some kind of "affirmative action" just to seem woke, but a genuinely well-earned, legitimate offer.
Though, when recruiting, be honest about the process- cosplay contests eat up a lot of time! They may not prefer to spend their con that way, and that’s fine. But letting them know their work is good enough to enter, or act as judge- it is at least a nice compliment even if they choose to pass on the invitation. And keep searching for other qualified, diverse candidates. Don't give up after reaching out to a small handful of cosplayers.
Talk is Cheap, but Don't Discount Valuable Words
It does take some effort from the competitive cosplay circuit to show we are an inclusive space. We can't just SAY we are diverse and accepting, we have to SHOW we are through ACTION. Talk is cheap- we need to walk the walk too.
That said, communication of diversity policies would be a good idea to include in your rules. Some cosplayers worry that when being judged on "accuracy", they may get docked points for being the wrong skin color, height, body shape, gender, etc. or even be dismissed for using medical devices like glasses, wheelchairs, crutches, and so on.
Make it absolutely clear that these features that cannot be helped will NOT be taken into account during judging, and they are not being graded on being a "look-a-like" but solely their ability to craft, create, and perform. Be perfectly clear on this, do not be ambiguous. The more questions you can answer for people from the get go, the more trouble it saves everyone!
WonderCon 2015 - Photographer Unknown
Cosplaying is a Privilege?
We need to talk about privilege when it comes to this discussion. I often say cosplay is a luxury- and by that I mean it requires discretionary time and money to be spent. You can only responsibly partake in cosplay after you’ve already taken care of real world priorities. One should never cosplay at the expense of daily responsibilities.
Several socioeconomic factors come into play here when it comes to having hobbies that generally require some form of extended investment. If a family finds is busy working, taking care of loved ones, attending to academics, dealing with medical expenses or disabilities, the luxury of spending extra time and money on cosplay may run thin.
Especially considering that many cosplayers starting off learning to sew or receiving crafting supplies from their family, or had programs for sewing during or after school. That is a privilege not everyone was afforded or grew up with. If your family or education didn't have that background, you may be at a disadvantage in the competition circuit if you have to learn everything on your own. That said, it's all the more impressive to see self-taught artists. They had to struggle more on their own and without guidance in order to become as skilled as they are.
Lacking Support and Confidence
Another more complex background may also lie in other social factors, such as how our families and peers support our hobbies. If you come from a background that puts you down for liking cosplay, anime, comics, etc. then you may lack some confidence in putting your passion front and center. Having to hide who you are and pride in your interests becomes ingrained if your are often met with negative reactions when sharing your interests. So how does that play into diversity?
Many POC cosplayers and nerds cite being told that comics and anime “is a white people thing”, which truly is an asinine assumption, and just as crazy as girls being told they can’t like video games, or other ridiculous statements. Gendering or racializing being a fan of pop culture is an issue, and it affects people's willingness to participate. People may assume that cosplay isn’t for them, or they may not be good enough to enter a contest, when in reality, they are very talented! By contrast, people who have always been encouraged to follow their passions, tend to enter contests with more confidence.
CosplayCon 2016 - Photo by Adam Roberson Photography
Fear of the Wrong Kind of Judgement
The other issue comes from fear of being judged as a person, rather than having your work judged. Which is a valid fear, and I cannot in earnest tell you that being judged on your looks won’t ever happen. It IDEALLY shouldn’t in a perfect world, but I know cosplayers who have been slighted for the color of their skin, their weight, a disability, etc. especially in contests that are not craftsmanship-based. To those competitions I say: TRASH, TRASH, TRASSSHHH.
An ideal craftsmanship competition will only judge your workmanship and attention to quality. How you look should never ever affect judging scores. A judge will only consider the costume you have made. Again, it is easier said than done to just throw away the notion that people will not judge YOU instead of the costume, especially when we suffer from issues of diversity in pretty much every aspect of cosplay. Especially if you have grown up being judged by others in your everyday life. That will take a massive hit on your confidence, and those feelings may never truly secede from one’s mind.
That's why it is so so important to build other cosplayers up. Let them know how amazing their work is, let them feel like they're doing something incredible, because they ARE! It takes guts to get dressed up, and to venture to make something on your own.
KatsuCon 2017 - Photo by Momo Kurumi Cosplay
Competitions Aren't Always Accessible
Those with disabilities or health complications often find competitions extremely difficult to enter when some of them can last several hours. I’ve been in some as long as 6 hours of making me wait, be judged, sit in a lineup, stand backstage, and then remain available for the awards ceremony.
More accessible competitions sometimes known as Hall Cosplay contests exist at some cons such as Anime Central and KatsuCon. They are faster, more easy going, and don’t require you to go on stage, and regarded just as highly as the main masquerade. Not all conventions offer this, or have the same value in their hall contest as their main event. Honestly, the contest is only as good as those who enter it, “if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best”, so if no one is entering these hall events, the awards may seem less valuable to the winners.
Lack of Accommodations<