Cosplaying in and of itself can be stressful enough; I’ve definitely had convention days when I did not feel confident enough for tight spandex. But for non-white fans, the additional pressure felt when not playing a character of the same ethnicity can add an unspoken anxiety to the experience. It often feels like a white cosplayer can not only dress as their favorite characters of color but also do so in the most offensive way without comment. But when a non-white cosplayer colors outside the lines in the same way, there’s a risk of getting an awkward look because—instead of seeing the costume—no matter how perfect it might be, others see the color of your skin and you can see the confusion in their eyes: Why is a black girl dressed as Zatanna?
Worse are the ones who aren’t confused, but then think they’re being inoffensively clever. You know there probably weren’t many Black USO Girls in the 1940s, right?” Or, my personal favorite, “Wonder Woman? I thought you would’ve done Nubia.
It’s an extension of the “default to white” privilege many fans still engage in on a regular basis.
An article in the April issue of Wired Magazine confirmed and put into words a theory I’ve always secretly harbored: young people who engage in paracosmic play are developing creative skills that pay off later in “real life.” The examples are numerous (is the upcoming novel-turned-movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter anything but a historical AU fanfic?), though the article cites the Brontë Sisters (best known for Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre) as a prime example of those who began writing early through creating and building upon imaginary worlds as children.
“It now appears that, like the Brontës, kids who engage in paracosmic play are more likely to be creative as adults. In 2002 researchers Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein conducted an elegant study. They polled recipients of MacArthur “genius grants”—which reward those who’ve been particularly creative in areas as diverse as law, chemistry, and architecture—to see if they’d created paracosms as children. Amazingly, the MacArthur fellows were twice as likely as “normal” nongeniuses to have done so. Some fields were particularly rife with worldplayers: Fully 46 percent of the recipients polled in the social sciences had created paracosms in their youth.”
When I started in online fandom in 1999, mostly writing fanfiction, I was always looking for relatable figures to participate with. Often I had to create them out of thin air, or widely embellish the often slim back-stories that side minority characters were given in my favorite fandoms. I was willing to do the legwork that Joss Whedon wasn’t for characters like Kendra (and, fortunate enough to even have a personal computer to engage with the fanfic communities) and, thanks to years of not being recognised in Halloween costumes, I’ve grown used to having to explain that I’m dressing as non-white characters and why I’m doing it. But what happens to the kid who isn’t encouraged to participate because the white default removes the impetus from the start?
Paracosmic play isn’t the only childhood activity that nurtures the development of creative skills, but for me the benefits are too great to ignore. Fandom turned me into a writer, taught me Photoshop, forced me to learn how to code by the age of 13, showed me the basics of web design, and helped set my course of study in college. All of these elements helped me score my first job after college. Spending years making the singer Monica look like Max from Batman Beyond for online role-playing paid off when I was asked to design ads for a Tony Award winner’s concert series. I can’t imagine what my own life would be like if fandom hadn’t shaped it the way it did, and I’m going to guess that there’re several white fans who would say the same. Luckily, they have a framework to participate in that’s constructed specifically to cater to their needs.” —Wild applause for Kendra James’ brilliant post on cosplaying while of color on the R today!
Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne studied the 40 YA books that topped the New York Times bestseller list in the summer of 2008, identifying 1,500 “profane words” in the books.
She explained her thoughts at U.S. News: “I think we put books on a pedestal compared to other forms of media … I thought long and hard about whether to do the study in the first place—I think banning books is a terrible idea, but a content warning on the back I think would empower parents.”” —
Plus here’s a (strong) response to this professor from Seattle Mystery Bookshop— where I found the article in the first place. (Thank you.)
This is one of those instances where I’m a little conflicted. Mostly I don’t want to give more attention to this professor or her ideas, which seem pretty small-time to me. But then I also don’t want to completely ignore them lest they start growing into a thing.
So this is posted as a “heads up” not a “call to arms.” If there was a more credible threat of this kind of system, then all bets would be off.
Much-needed criticisms of The Help and the characters of Aibileen and Minny have come from sources like the Association of Black Women Historians, which, in its own open letter, challenged various aspects of the book and film, including misrepresentations of elements of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism. But there is something else floating in the ether: the idea that the role of a maid is simply too ignoble for a 21st-century black actress. That idea is merely respectability politics at work.
Respectability politics work to counter negative views of blackness by aggressively adopting the manners and morality that the dominant culture deems “respectable.” The approach emerged in reaction to white racism that labeled blackness as “other”—degenerate and substandard—with roots in an assimilationist narrative that prevailed in the late-19th-century United States. Black activists and allies believed that acceptance and respect for African-Americans would come by showing the majority culture “we are just like you.”
Black women in particular had their own set of stereotypes to battle, as they had long been labeled by white society as lascivious Jezebels, animalistic beasts of burden, and disreputable antiwomen. According to Dr. Sarah Jackson, a race and media studies scholar at Boston’s Northeastern University, to counter these stereotypes newly freed African-American women were forced to adhere to the sexist strictures of the Cult of True Womanhood, which positioned white women as inherently chaste, pious, childlike, submissive, and (as Sojourner Truth famously said in her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech) in need of being “helped over mud puddles.” In other words: respectable.
And here emerges one fallacy of respectability politics: An oppressed community can implicitly endorse deeply flawed values, including many that form the foundation of their own oppression. The idea that domestic work is shameful is a product of class bias that disdains the working class, and of gender bias that devalues “women’s work.” And while Truth spoke longingly about the delicate way white women were treated, that treatment was deeply sexist.
On the other hand, respectability has been important for marginalized people throughout history. Black women’s clubs that formed in the early 20th century, spearheaded by women like Ida B. Wells, uplifted the black community and “proved” the respectability of African-American women by replicating similar organizations led by white women. Black civil rights activists showed up at marches and protests in their Sunday best—despite discomfort, and sometimes only to be spat on or sprayed by fire hoses. Those jackets and ties, heels and hats, sent a message: Your stereotypes are untrue; we deserve equality; we, too, are respectable. Jackson notes, “Assimilation was an effective way to join the national conversation at a time when there was a great disparity in not just the visibility of black Americans, but in the opportunity and legal protections afforded them.”
Negative views of blackness have surely not disappeared in the 21st century. And the black community still uses respectability politics as a form of resistance. But perhaps now more than ever—when there are so many different ways to be black and to be a woman—respectability politics have the potential to harm as much as uplift. As often happens, black women carry a double burden, as they are asked to uphold a respectability built on both racist and sexist foundations. And the burden isn’t just about professional decisions—say, which roles an actress should choose—but personal ones as well.” —
—The R’s homie Tami Winfrey Harris breaks down the reasons behind—and the problems with—“respectability politics” in this fantastic post for Bitch’s blog. (via racialicious)
This is so important to think about in terms of kids lit as well. When there are so few Black characters in kids lit books to begin with, it is hard to move beyond ‘respectability’ in children’s lit. Tami Winfrey Harris has got me thinking in whole new ways about this business of bringing diverse characters to kids lit. (not to mention other arenas like the politics around gay marriage too.)