The art of cosplay: battling discrimination and making dreams a reality

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Photo courtesy of the artist
Photo courtesy of the artist

While dressing up as your favorite fictional character seems like a 21st-century craze, the origins of what is now known as cosplay date further back than many realize. What is widely credited to modern Japanese culture was actually inspired by 15th-century masquerade balls and didn't actually start in Japan.

There is a documented incident of something reminiscent of modern cosplay as far back as 1908, when a Cincinnati couple named Mr. and Mrs. Fell attended a masquerade ball dressed as characters from a popular newspaper strip at the time.

Then in 1939 sci-fi fan Myrtle Rebecca Douglas Smith Gray Nolan, also known as Morojo, attended the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York City. Accompanied by her boyfriend, she dressed in a "futuristic costume" that she designed and created herself, based on the pulp magazine artwork of Frank R. Paul and the 1936 film Things to Come.

From there, the hobby became known as "costuming," becoming popular at Halloween and other parties, where attendees would dress according to a chosen theme rather than a specific character.

Character costuming became more popular at comic book conventions and similar gatherings in 1975, after the advent of the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The live viewings encouraged moviegoers to dress up in costume as their favorite characters.

The custom became even more popular among Star Trek and Star Wars fans, but the term "cosplay" wasn't invented until 1984, when Japanese journalist Nobuyuki Takahashi attended Worldcon in Los Angeles. The masquerade impressed him so much that he coined the term kosupure, which became "cosplay."

Cosplaying as a hobby skyrocketed in the 1990s and has become an important aspect of popular culture in Japan, other parts of Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.

One would think with an activity as creative and inventive as cosplay that things like race and ethnicity wouldn't matter. Bringing your favorite characters to life should unite people from different backgrounds. However, it's not as clear-cut as it should be.

For people of color, the cosplay community can be hostile, primarily toward those with darker skin. Terms like "blackfacing" and "raceface" (the "art" of switching your race for a character to be "accurate" and "respectful") have become heated topics.

Cosplayers with darker skin are made to feel unwanted and out of place when it comes to their character choices. The "black version" is casually inserted in front of the characters they choose to portray, and they are encouraged to try and lighten their skin for their costumes or are expected to stick to characters that resemble them, which is inherently racist.

Those with darker skin strong enough to brave the online cosplay warzone take the abuse head on. They handle being called the N-word version of characters, as well as endure death threats for "ruining" a character for someone. Yet they are paving the way for those who have cosplay dreams but are too afraid of the backlash.

DJ's journey
One such person is Devonté Jones aka DJ Croft. This 28-year-old cosplay sensation known for his Lara Croft gender-bending cosplay has not only healthily addressed his own personal adversity but also braved these cosplay waters and served the community with dazzling renditions of beloved characters.

At the age of four, he discovered the popular TV series Power Rangers, and like most children, he quickly became obsessed with it. However, that show would prove to be influential for him in more ways than one. Not only would his handmade White Ranger costume help propel his cosplayer status, but his growing attraction to the actor who played the Red Ranger helped him realize and come to terms with his sexual orientation early in life.

When he was six, an adorable and embarrassing outburst of love for a male classmate turned his school years into a nightmare. Kids are cruel, and the early reveal of his homosexuality plagued him from elementary to middle and high school.

Before leaving high school, DJ proved his bravery and maturity by seeking therapy with a school counselor. He was able to work through the self-esteem issues his school experiences caused, and after a while he convinced his mother to join him. Together they were able to reach the acceptance DJ needed for himself and from her, and he was able to gain the insight into how straight parents feel when faced with the knowledge of having a Gay child.

After high school, DJ dabbled in some modeling. It is easy to see why in the fierceness of his photos (all taken by his doting boyfriend). He has been featured in a few magazines and graced the catwalk at New York Fashion Week, but the designers and photographers he worked with never paid him, and so DJ realized he wasn't getting back what he was putting into modeling.

But when one door closes, another opens. And so it was his departure from modeling that set him on the path of professional cosplay. Remembering the joy 10-year-old DJ felt donning a tank top, shorts, and boots, armed with potato chip bag clips as guns, the adult DJ made the best of his limited sewing skills and put together the Lara Croft cosplay he's now known for.

Held back by the possible scrutiny of venturing into other realms, he fell into a "tomb raider" theme, also portraying Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake from Uncharted. But someone like DJ, with an aura as bright as his favorite color (yellow) and the energy to match, can only restrict themselves for so long.

His amazing rendition of Superman immediately became popular, but his gender-bending of Jill Valentine from Resident Evil went viral. He awoke the next day to two thousand likes on Twitter, and the numbers have continued to climb.

Since then, his favorites, like his White Ranger— and Rita Repulsa—inspired villain costumes, have been huge hits, as has his gender-bending of Sailor Pluto from the Sailor Moon series. We were able to have a wonderful conversation, at the end of which he left me with these words of inspiration:

"To the world I know we live in a society where everything is a label, a race, a language, your sexuality, but don't let it be a label. You are more complex than a label. We're not meant to be put in boxes and told what to like or who to like. I want to encourage everyone to make a difference, and when you hear noise, don't listen, don't believe it, tune it out. Say you're awesome, and understand that there's nothing wrong with saying to yourself that you are awesome."

DJ has been certified, followed, and retweeted by the official Tomb Raider and Power Ranger Twitter pages, which is not only a dream come true for him but has put him in position to be a positive role model. He is allowing dark-skinned children like himself to see that, armed with a glue gun and creativity, they can make their cosplay dreams a reality.