Interview by AJ Dent, GeekGirlCon Staff Copy Writer
Being a professional cosplayer can’t be easy—it surely takes nerves of steel, cunning craftswomanship, and all the character of a superheroine. Chaka Cumberbatch not only pulls off this career with grace and humor, but continuously keeps conversations open about race and gender in cosplay communities. I was thrilled to have the chance to chat with her about these topics and am pumped for her appearance at GeekGirlCon ‘13!
In what ways do you see cosplay as empowering for women?
Honestly, the most empowering part of it for me has always been the different skills that I learn. It just makes you so handy! I like it because it keeps me thinking all the time; it’s constantly presenting new problems for me to solve, new skills for me to learn, and new trades to acquire. I’m always learning something new, and it keeps me going. If you want to make bigger, more intricate costumes, you have to learn more skills. It always keeps you on your toes, always keeps you leveling up.
What was your very first cosplay outfit, and what was your most recent? How did that first experience and your latest one differ? In what ways were they similar?
My very first cosplay was Misa Amane, from the anime and manga series Death Note. My most recent cosplay was Red Sonja, The She-Devil with a Sword. In a lot of ways, Misa kind of paralleled how I felt about myself as a cosplayer at the time—not 100% sure I could stand on my own, somewhat naïve, but completely enthralled by and willing to jump headfirst into a world I didn’t fully understand. Sonja, on the other hand, is strong, independent and resilient. She’s unapologetically sexy and she takes no prisoners. Her scale mail bikini, while it may appear tiny to some, was the result of weeks spent weaving over 700 pieces of scale mail and jump rings—whereas I put my Misa costume together in about a day, and didn’t even wear a wig! I really feel the two characters really kind of mirror who I was as a cosplayer then, and who I am now.
What are some ways that you tap into your inner superheroine in order to pep yourself up or steel yourself against the criticism of others?
I’m not going to lie—sometimes, it’s hard. When you’re at the convention, 99.9% of the time, everything is sunshine and rainbows, everyone loves your costume and everyone wants your pictures. The negativity, in my experience, usually doesn’t creep in until after the convention, when pictures start to make the rounds online. You have to remind yourself that when people online are criticizing your body or your costume that they don’t know you, and they don’t know what went into that costume. They don’t see all the hours you spent fighting with the bobbin on your sewing machine, they don’t see all the YouTube videos you watched and tutorials you read to learn how to weave scale mail or sew different seams, they don’t see the painting, the sanding, the sculpting, the false starts, the do-overs—all they see is the final product. And it takes a lot less time to say something snarky about someone’s costume than it actually takes to create a costume from scratch.
So to that end, you can’t let negative comments derail your entire experience. You have to remember how much of a thrill it was to put the costume on for the first time, look in the mirror and see your favorite character in the reflection. You have to remember how exciting it was to have someone recognize your character, compliment your work, and ask you for a picture. Honestly, it sounds cliché, but you have to focus on the positive. With cosplay being such a visual hobby, people are going to say things both good and bad about what they see. You have to be prepared for that, and you have to try not to let it derail you.
Do you view cosplay as a form of healthy escapism, an expression of self, or both?
I kind of feel like it’s a little of both, at least for me. I have no problem waking up every morning and facing the world as Chaka Cumberbatch. I’ve worked hard to build the life that I want, and I love living it. But as a girl with a runaway imagination and a fascination with bright colors, I love being able to put on a wig, snap on some armor, and suddenly take on a completely different identity. So in a way, it’s both escapism and a form of expression for me. It’s escapism in that I get to pretend to save the world for a few days on the weekend, and it’s a form of expression because bringing a character to life is the best way I know how to show my love for that character or that series.
If you could attend or sit on any panel at the intersection of race and geekdom, what would the specific focus of the panel be?
I would love to sit in on a panel that discussed ways we can encourage creators to include more people of color in our comics, video games, books, movies, and cartoons. The audience is there, but we aren’t being spoken to or represented in the mediums we love!
As encouragement to others considering cosplaying characters of different races than their own, when was a time when you felt especially validated in choosing to do so?
Ever since I wrote my article earlier this year, I’ve gotten messages, emails, and letters from around the world from people who previously hadn’t had the courage to attempt cosplaying a character of a different race—or even cosplaying at all—but were going to give it a shot after reading about my experience. There is nothing more validating than that. The idea that I could have even played a small part in introducing someone to this hobby, or helping them get over their fear of trying feels bigger than I am, if that makes any sense. It’s so humbling, I don’t feel worthy of it. But it’s so gratifying to know that I had the chance to turn something that was a negative experience for me into a positive experience for someone else. If raising my voice helped someone else find their own, then seriously, that makes it all worth it.
What lessons about geek communities and life at large have you learned by cosplaying characters of different races?
Full disclosure—I’m an Air Force brat. I spent my childhood on a series of different Air Force bases, surrounded by friends and classmates who were a mix of different races. So while I don’t agree that it’s possible to “not see” color, I definitely think it’s possible to not see color as someone’s #1 defining characteristic, because when I was growing up, I didn’t. None of us did—there wasn’t much of a point. We were all kids, and we didn’t care. I remember being annoyed by how every time I’d make a new friend at school, my biological mother would want to know if that friend was black, and if they weren’t, she’d lose interest. I never understood why my friend, whom I was so excited about, was somehow less important if he or she wasn’t black. As I’ve grown older, I’m much more aware of the different races that are around me, but still, when I look at a person, the first descriptor that comes to my mind isn’t related to their skin color.
The number one thing that cosplaying outside of my race has taught me is that I may not see others as a “race first and a person second,” but many, many other people do. It’s something I still struggle to wrap my mind around and may never truly understand. Mostly because, I mean, the hobby is called cosplay. It’s short for costume play. The last time I checked, skin color wasn’t part of the elements that make up a costume. So explain to me why it matters if a black girl cosplays Sailor Venus? If the actual costume is accurate, why are we even considering her skin color?
How do you think geek communities can become more welcoming to and inclusive of all races and genders?
Oh goodness, there are a lot of ways. I think one thing we could do as a community is just listen more. When a cosplayer of color brings up an issue, maybe not telling them, “Oh, that isn’t racism because of: this. I don’t want this to be racism, I don’t want this to be a problem, because then we have to acknowledge that there’s a problem. Why can’t we just be quiet and act like everything is ok?” Essentially, down-voting them and making them feel like they don’t have a voice is an issue in itself. Maybe we can just listen to them; we don’t have to solve every problem of a cosplayer of color or a different gender, but just listening to them and acknowledging that some of their complaints may actually be valid may help us find out why they’re making you uncomfortable. If we just ignore them, then we don’t have to talk about it and the fact that there is probably sexism or racism going on. Instead of shutting that down, let’s have that discussion, and that way people will feel more welcome to come in, because people just don’t feel like they are.
I’ve gotten emails from people all over the world who just didn’t feel like they were welcome to do these things—they honestly felt like it was something they weren’t allowed to do. I was at Dragon Con last weekend and a little girl came up to me—I mean, she was maybe in her teens—and she told me she had no idea that black people quote-unquote “were allowed” to cosplay. To be completely honest, it almost feels like it’s an unwritten rule, because you don’t see it as often. I see it, because I know other cosplayers of color, but I know that from the outside looking in, when you look through all the galleries of cosplay at all the big shows, you don’t see people who look like me, so people don’t know that we’re there. So inviting people to participate in the first place, and making them feel welcome to talk about it, will open it up to more people.
Since you’re a superheroine to many people both in and outside cosplay communities, if someone was to cosplay as YOU one day, what would you envision them wearing?
Oh man! So I actually polled my friends for this one, and judging by their responses, any combination of pink, glitter, polka dots, cupcake jewelry, hair bows, velociraptor-related accessories, and red lipstick would make up a pretty accurate Chaka.
Thanks so much for the inspiration and encouragement, Chaka, both in and outside the cosplay world!
We at GeekGirlCon can’t wait to see everyone’s costumes in October! Pick up your passes, charge your camera, and get ready to come see Chaka in person at GeekGirlCon ‘13!