Talking Costumes with Cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch
Costumes aren't just a Halloween thing for a lot of Americans. Bitch Creative and Editorial Director Andi Zeisler talked with cosplayers at Seattle's Geek Girl Con this month, including Chaka Cumberbatch, about why they think costumes are powerful and what role dressing up plays in their lives.
This interview is an excerpt from our Dress Up podcast episode.
TRANSCRIPT: COSPLAY AT GEEK GIRL CON
SARAH: Every October Geek Girl Con takes over Seattle, filling the downtown convention center with hundreds of proud nerds, some of who are cosplayers decked out in fabulous costumes. Amid the crowd, Bitch editorial and creative director Andi Zeisler caught up with Chaka Cumberbatch, a well-known cosplayer who often speaks out about race and dressing up.
ANDI: I’m sitting on a couch at Seattle’s Geek Girl Con, watching a parade of Captain Marvels, Unicorns, Sailor Moons, and Harley Quinns walk by. For cosplayers, conventions like this one are the ultimate in dress up opportunities. There are individual cosplayers who work only with what they already have in their closets, and troops of cosplayers who work together to create intricately detailed homages to the fandom of their choice.
LAUREN: My name is Lauren. I’ve been in cosplay since 2002. Today I’m dressed as Kaylee from Firefly who’s one of my favorite characters ever—she’s so happy. The reason that I’ve been doing this for so long is that I love it so much, it’s so much fun and I get to meet so many amazing people.
ERIN: My name is Erin, I’m a member of House of Flying Needles cosplay, I’m dressed as Daisy from Mario today with my husband dressed as Luigi. I just always liked the Mario cart games and think they’re really fun cute costumes, so it was fun putting them together.
KATIE: Hi, my name is Katie I’m a part of the house of flying needles. I’m currently dressed as Yasuho Hirose from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, a long-running manga that I fell in love with years ago. I’m pretty much dressed like this because I want to, it’s so much fun and exciting and I get to show other people how much I love what I’m doing.
CHRIS: Hi, my name is Chris and I am dressed as Gai Sensei. He is from Naruto. I loved his character because he aspires people around him to always be stronger, always do better. I like that about anime in general it’s all about trying to prove who you are. That’s what I like about anime, it’s all about trying to be someone better or do things better with your life.
ANDI: I’m here to talk to Chaka Cumberbatch, a rising star in the world of cosplay about the power of becoming your favorite characters. So you’ve been cosplaying since 2008. Tell us about your first time doing cosplay. Who were you, what was it like, what was the con?
CHAKA: My first cosplay was at a con in 2008. I was Misa Misa from the manga and the anime Death Note. I went to that con with my anime club and I didn’t really know what to expect. And I walked in and there were all the different costumes—it was like Halloween in the middle of June, or May, or whenever it was. And I was just super impressed with everything and just really wanted to be a part of it.
ANDI: So what makes you decide what characters to be? Do you look around and say “I see a distinct lack of X character” or is it just characters that you personally love a lot?
CHAKA: It’s really characters that I just love a lot. We talked about this a little in my panel yesterday. I try to go for characters that I have a personal attachment to, like maybe my favorite character from a show, or a character that I really like, or a character that looks like me, or I really like the design. Usually, I just pick a character that I personally feel really passionate about because it’s hard to dedicate all that time and energy to working on a costume if you don’t really have that much attachment to the character. When you really like a show and you really like a character and you’re going to get into it and be really intricate and go for all the little tiny details. But if you don’t really like the show then you’re like “I don’t know this character very well I don’t know why they wear this, I don’t know why this is this color.” Then it’s not the same.
ANDI: So you’ve written, especially recently about the dearth of black women and women of color more generally in cosplay. Is this something that you noticed right away, or did it just sort of build up over time to where you were like “this needs to be addressed and I’m the one to do it?”
CHAKA: Well being a black female in nerd circles I was kind of used to being the only one, or used to not seeing a lot of people that looked like me. It was something I sort of resigned myself to, and after a while I said “Why aren’t there more of us?” I know several black female cosplayers and we all joke about how whenever we have a new one join the group we all immediately want to be friends with her and bring her in because there are so few of us that we all want to know each other. I really feel that it’s harder for us to get into cosplay because we don’t see a lot of characters who look like us in our comics and our videogames and our cartoons. So that’s the larger problem that needs to be addressed, because it’s related to why there aren’t as many cosplayers. Even if there are young black girl nerds that aren’t into cosplay they still have a right to see characters that look like them in their comic books. It’s really important that someone can have a superhero to look up to and identify with.
ANDI: So there are a lot of younger kids who come to these conventions and get really into it and do cosplay themselves, what’s the best and worst reactions you’ve gotten from younger fans?
CHAKA: The little ones are so sweet. Yesterday I had a girl who was Raven from Team Titans who I guess had told her mom that she wanted a picture with me but she was too shy to ask me so her mom brings her over and she’s essentially hiding behind her. And her mom was like “It’s okay come take a picture, and I said “Yeah girl, come on!” You’ve got to remember that these kids when they’re walking around a con, they don’t know that they’re not in Disneyworld. You look at the way they’re looking around at all these characters and it really reminds you of being five or six at Disneyworld and you saw Snow White face character and you thought it was Snow White. It’s almost like there’s a responsibility there to really be that superhero for those kids. So I try when I’m walking around the con floor, especially when I’m in my costume, to always be smiling and welcoming and willing to interact and take pictures with kids. Because I know that you really are that superhero to them.
I haven’t really had any bad reactions from kids. I did have a girl at Dragon Con this year take my picture and then tell me about how excited she was because she didn’t know that black girls did cosplay and that there were a lot of black superheroes. She was so excited because she was looking at everything and she wanted to be a part of it but she didn’t know that she could be. And so looking at it and seeing someone that looked like her doing this made it feel like it was okay, that she would be welcomed, and that she could join it. It just made me really sad to hear that.
ANDI: Yeah, and to that there is this somewhat erased or obscured history of black female superheroes. Do you see yourself as kind of an ambassador to help people open up that gate and find those historic figures?
CHAKA: I don’t know if I would call myself an ambassador. People tell me all these things and all I really do is just talk about things that matter to me personally. I’m really starting to understand that it comes with a responsibility. Even if I’m just writing a blog post for xojane and I’m just talking to myself or my friends I had no idea that it was going to great spread around and start all these conversations. So I’m really starting to understand that there’s a responsibility there. It’s a little bit intimidating at first, but if it’s a need there than I’m happy to help fill it.
ANDI: So this is for our podcast that’s titled “Dress Up.” So one of the things I’m interested in and one of the things we’ve been talking about is how dressing up and becoming characters is often a way to sort of access different parts of ourselves. So I’m curious about your background. Have you always liked dressing up? Or has cosplay been something that you didn’t really expect to get into? How has it affected your non-dressed up life?
CHAKA: I always knew I would fall into cosplay eventually—it was pretty much inevitable. I was always a nerd and I always really liked dressing up. I would always get in trouble when I was little for taking my parents stuff and getting dressed up in my dad’s military things and stuff like that. Spirit days at school—I was all over it. Loved Halloween, it was my favorite holiday. But I grew up in a really conservative Christian household and so I wasn’t allowed to celebrate Halloween. So every year I’d watch my friends get super into their costumes and get to dress up and I wasn’t allowed to. So cosplay to me is just like Christmas a couple times a year—I get to dress up, I get to dress up when it’s not Halloween, I get to be my favorite characters. And it’s so much fun. Really, it has almost a transformational aspect of it to me. It’s fun because you get to tap into all these different aspects of yourself. Even when you’re working on a costume, you get to learn all these different skills, the achievement level that comes from learning how to sew a garment or learning how to sculpt a weapon or learning how to paint something the way it needs to look is really empowering and helps you in real life. It gives you the confidence to say “Okay, maybe I can tackle this extra problem at work.” Or “Maybe I can tackle buying a house” or whatever because I can break it down like it was a costume and build up “How do I get to this point?” So it helps me in that area, it helps me because cosplay involves being really budget minded as far as money and times goes as far as being at work and being a grown up. There are aspects of this hobby that I think are really positive and that you can use in your everyday life. And that’s something I’ve always really appreciated about it.
Listen to the full Dress Up episode here.
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