On [dis]play: Outlier resistance and the matter of racebending superhero cosplay

Ellen Kirkpatrick

[0.1] Abstract—Within this essay, I consider minoritarian fan responses to minoritarian representation within the Western mainstream superhero genre. Minoritarian representation within the genre—on and off page and screen—is notoriously problematic. Yet despite the absences, exclusions, and periodic hostility, the genre remains popular with minoritarian fans and audiences. But how do fans of color keep a beloved, yet often toxic, genre alive and meaningful? This essay considers this question by reviewing resistive and transgressive meaning-making strategies adopted by excluded and maligned superhero fans. Through the lenses of ethno- and Afrofuturism, it unpacks racebending cosplay: an embodied costuming practice—anchored in broader activist traditions of racebending—that reworks the source character's established race and ethnicity. Spotlighting lived experience as a distinguishing and critical aspect of resistance this essay witnesses how, by calling out and disrupting the whiteness of mainstream Western superhero culture, racebending cosplayers perform a powerful form of resistance.

[0.2] Keywords—Affirmational/transformative binary; (Counter)storytelling; Fan activism; Representation

Kirkpatrick, Ellen. 2019. "On [Dis]play: Outlier Resistance and the Matter of Racebending Superhero Cosplay." In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

[0.3] We have to enact the world we are aiming for: nothing less will do.

—Sara Ahmed (2017)

[0.4] Stories hold our cure.

—Hannah Gadsby (2017)

1. Introduction

[1.1] Minoritarian representation within the Western mainstream superhero genre—on and off page and screen—is notoriously problematic. With a few valuable exceptions, such as Netflix's Marvel's Luke Cage (2016–18) and Marvel Studios' film Black Panther (2018), mainstream superheroes are straight white men living in straight white worlds. Yet despite this homogeneity, the genre remains popular with minoritarian fans and audiences. But how do fans of color keep a beloved, yet often hostile, genre alive and meaningful? (note 1). Mimetic, remediative, and transformative activity informs all kinds of fan work, but my focus here rests on racebending cosplay: an embodied costuming practice that reworks—bends—the source character's race and ethnicity to create "alternative and more viable images" (Bobo 1995, 26) (note 2). Radicalized modes of cosplay perform powerful genre critiques as minoritarian cosplayers aim to illuminate and fill representational gaps and omissions, but their fan work also resists and highlights wider institutionalized systems of privilege and oppression that allow the superhero genre to persist, even flourish, while using deleterious and exclusionary practices:

[1.2] For people of color to traverse racial boundaries by cosplaying as white characters is to traverse literature and media that seek to make us invisible. It is a revolutionary act that turns the normative white male or female character on its head because many of these characters represented by white faces easily could have been a person of color. (Swaminathan 2015)

[1.3] Examining the methods and motivations behind minoritarian performances, alongside their effect, will paint a fuller picture of strategies used to navigate, survive, and transform exclusionary realms. To this end, I creatively engage Sara Ahmed's extensive work on minoritarian resistance and survival within majoritarian spheres; for as I have discovered, Ahmed's ideas of "killjoys," "breathing spaces," "lifelines," and disruptive and disorientated bodies echo through racebending cosplay—a resonance unexplored until now.

[1.4] I open by pointing to the transformative, connective power of stories and storytelling. I do so to start locating racebending and transgressive minoritarian superhero cosplay within a broader context of resistive, futuristic meaning making and storytelling. Here the term futurism refers not to the twentieth-century cultural movement emphasizing technology and speed but rather to the practice of speculating about the future and thereby (re)imagining the present and past. Yet futurist speculations are vulnerable to the same controls and biases structuring the real world; stories told about the future thus tend to center the straight white male subject. Afrofuturism is only one of several modes of futuristic cultural production to respond to the various washings of the future by centralizing marginalized subjects, experiences, and communities. Building on this discussion, I move to introduce the concept of [dis]play and point to the empowered possibilities of minoritarian fans as transgressive meaning makers and world makers. I observe that bending identity is currently most often enacted—and theorized—across single categories, primarily gender and sexuality, before moving to spotlight and parse lived experience as a distinguishing and critical aspect of resistance within all kinds of racebending traditions. This allows me to start to theorize moments and spaces of transference characterizing racebending cosplay; to this end, I bring in the concept of embodied translation and unpack the affirmation/transformative binary. I close by exploring racebending cosplay as it touches on the superhero canon and on superhero fandom—historically and stereotypically white male spaces—but I end on a positive note by witnessing how, by calling out and resisting the whiteness of superhero culture, racebending cosplayers perform a powerful form of resistance.

[1.5] In theorizing racebending cosplay as an act of resistance, I have been guided by the experiences and online theorizations of real-life racebending cosplayers, many of them women of color. Alongside spotlighting their voices and the usual citational practices, I also shared this essay with the cosplayers I cite (those I could locate) as a way of acknowledging their—often poached—intellectual labor and their critical, yet routinely overlooked, role in the conversation around racebending praxis as activism; I also hope it forms part of the ongoing conversation. But I write as a white female scholar, one deeply aware of concerns around scholars working outside their range or for which their lived experience has not prepared them. My intention in writing this "critically celebratory" (Nama 2009, 135) essay is not to speak for racebending cosplayers but rather to foreground their voices and (counter)stories, and in so doing illuminate, undermine, and problematize the neutrality of whiteness in scholarship and fandom. (Indeed, this small declaration is intended to contribute to the broader project of undermining the invisibility of whiteness within fan scholarship.) But I also write as an intersectional feminist scholar—one not claiming to be a critical race theorist, but one continually motivated by the tenets of that standpoint and methodology, namely centering race, skepticism regarding liberal approaches to race and racism (neutrality, color-blindness, and merit), and emphasizing the voices and experiences of people of color (Bergerson 2003; Mutua 2006; Wallace 1978; Davis 1981; Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981; hooks 1981; Crenshaw 1991). I wish to I add my voice to those who speak to and harness the expansiveness of cosplay as a storified, socially disruptive force—one capable of transforming not only perceptions of superheroes but also sociocultural hierarchies and relations (Figa 2015b). I close by exploring racebending cosplay as it touches superhero canon and superhero fandom—historically and stereotypically white male spaces—but I end on a positive note by witnessing how, by calling out and resisting the whiteness of superhero culture, racebending cosplayers perform a powerful form of resistance.

2. The unsettling power of (counter)storytelling

[2.1] Storytelling is a site of control and resistance (Meretoja and Davis 2018). In terms of control, Sara Ahmed (2004), discussing heteronormativity, points to how repetitious stories shape—control and regulate—our lives, our ways of living, and our bodies, causing feelings of comfort for some and discomfort for others. But the stories I share here demonstrate a resistance, a counter, to these kinds of oppressive, institutional, and ideological master narratives (Lyotard [1979] 1984). (Counter)storytelling—"a method of telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told" (Solórzano and Yosso 2002, 32)—sits at the heart of this essay, just as it sits at the heart of many social justice movements and theoretical frameworks grappling with the cultural dominant (e.g., critical race theory, queer, feminist, indigenous, environmental). Within these intersecting domains, the transformative, connective power of stories is universally acknowledged and utilized. Ahmed, for instance, bases her powerful account of diversity on a series of interviews with diversity practitioners: "My aim has been to retell the many stories you told me. This book is thus the product of our collective labor" (2012, ix). Ahmed here recognizes and enacts the metamorphic, entwining power of surfacing and sharing overlooked, long-hidden stories—stories all the more powerful for emerging through lived experience. We might also look to the recent hashtag evocation of "Me Too," a phrase and movement originating with Tarana Burke in 2006, to see this force exemplified: "It's about the millions and millions of people who, one year ago, raised their hands to say, 'Me too'" (Burke 2018). Ahmed, Burke, and all those sharing their lived experience, their stories of exploitation, oppression, suppression, and exclusion—but also resistance, resilience, and survival—believe in the transformative, world- and self-making power of telling (counter)stories. By sharing their stories, cosplayers of color tap into these traditions of resistance; they exemplify and/or embody the idea that there is power in a story shared, a connection made, a tradition broken—"that we can be connected by what we come up against" (Ahmed 2013). And cosplayers of color come up against a lot in their play—a lot of hostility, misconceit, and derision. This enmity, as I come to discuss—via Ahmed, Rukmini Pande, and Rebecca Wanzo—is rooted in the broader recurring tradition of "talking about the problem, becoming the problem." To this end, I suggest that cosplayers of color not only resist and (re)materialize the dominant narrative shaping the who's who of superhero culture, but also, by sharing their stories, become, with every line they write and image-laden column they share, "life-lines" (Ahmed 2013)—lifelines for each other and for those of us also seeking an alternative past-present-future superhero culture.

[2.2] (Counter)storytelling is activism—here, action challenging hegemony with the aim of inciting change—and social media and alternative media are critical spaces for voices, practices, and stories marginalized within the dominant culture (Delgado 1989). Superhero cosplayers of color resist exclusion and hostility by not only creating and sharing their stories of other kinds of superheroes but also by performing an embodied mode of (counter)storytelling. Their aberrant, "willful" (Ahmed 2010a, 2011) superheroic performances—literally making the invisible visible and the impossible possible—resist and (re)shape the dominant narrative of superheroes and superhero fans. By (re)envisaging the genre's present and past, cosplayers of color also (re)imagine and (re)materialize the future possibilities of mainstream superhero culture. Superhero cosplayers of color rankle the comfortable idea of superheroes and superhero fans as white men. They also suspend Ahmed's (2007) feelings of "comfort/discomfort," as those traditionally discomforted, or disorientated, within mainstream superhero culture become comforted by the legibility of superheroes (and superhero fans) of color, and those usually at ease, or oriented, within mainstream superhero culture become discomfited. As Kristen J. Warner (2015) observes, and indeed this special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures demonstrates, women of color are, despite the stereotype, present and active within media fandom. By attending conventions, posting photographs, blogging about their experiences, and generally sharing their stories, racebending cosplayers of color are performing multifaceted activism: the resistive act itself (racebending superhero cosplay), and the act of creating and sharing stories that disrupt and undermine dominant narratives (genre, fandom, and cultural)—stories that not only sustain and serve their own practice and communities but also through their visibility inspire and embolden others to perform similar resistive fan work. Storytelling, consciousness raising, and community building are, after all, foundational forms of grassroots (fan) activism. Cosplayer of color Chaka Cumberbatch (2013b) recalls, for instance, an interaction with a young female blerd (black nerd) at a convention. The girl was excited to see Cumberbatch cosplaying Huntress (an established white female superhero) and told her that "she didn't know black girls were 'allowed' to cosplay, that she hardly knew any black female superheroes, and that she had no idea 'people like us' could join in on things like comic books, cosplay, and conventions." This encounter perfectly illustrates the transformative power, the activism, inherent in creating "imagined moments of identification and representation for an audience that rarely gets to see an actress of color in a leading role" (Warner 2015, 34). Through her disidentificatory cosplay performance, Cumberbatch was able to tell the young girl a different story, one where women of color get to play the hero and be superhero fans. Cumberbatch's story echoes Warner's assertion that "one of the main ways that Black female fandom makes Black femininity visible is by consciously moving mediated women of color, who often occupy supporting roles, to the center, transforming them into leads in fan-produced discourse" (2015, 34).

3. On representation, Afrofuturism, and [dis]play

[3.1] Representation connects intimately with knowledge production and power relations. It can work to encourage, support, and critique hegemony. An unrepresentative image overwhelms our mediascape: that of the affluent, white, cis, straight, nondisabled male subject. This predominant image, and agent, has successfully suppressed diverse media representation. Fortunately, hegemonic agendas can be checked. Foucault suggests that resistance is always a possibility: "There is no power without potential refusal or revolt" (1988, 83–84). There are several intersecting routes to resistance: to realize that "real world image-making is political" (hooks 1992, 5); to alter our way of looking at images; and to come to control, and thereby alter, representational schemas. For marginalized subjects, such strategies create and sustain agency. The feminist reworking of Edouard Manet's painting "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe" (1863) evidences these forms of representational resistance, as does the similarly focused genderswap fan-art project The Hawkeye Initiative, or, as we shall see, Orion Martin's racebending superhero art project. Marvel's recasting of white male characters as white women (e.g., Thor/Jane Foster and Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers)—a broadly pacifying move responding to increasing pressure from sections of superhero fandom to diversify its stable of characters—also speaks to these "bending" practices, as, of course, does transgressive minoritarian cosplay. Bending practices represent and embody radically altered images—images that challenge aspects of (genre) orthodoxy.

[3.2] Racebending is only one mode of fan resistance to a homogenous mediascape. Transformative fans—those who "take a creative step to make worlds and characters their own" (Busse and Hellekson 2014, 3–4)—rescript all kinds of identity markers through their many and varied practices. Yet although rescripting can traverse several planes of identity simultaneously, it works predominantly across single dimensions. Taking cosplay, the fan practice at the heart of this essay, as our example, we might note segregated descriptors: alongside racebending cosplay, we have crossplay (genderswap cosplay); we also have cosability (cosplayers with disabilities) and—currently without a snappy neologism—cosplaying across age boundaries, as when an older cosplayer cosplays a younger source character. These labels and practices, as well as their theorization, suggest segregated performances, but some moments of cosplay see identity markers blur: a queer black woman may cosplay a Clark Kent version of Superman. In creating alternative images and new ways of looking—at both the original image and the new image—these kinds of bending practices transform not only the look of the present but also how we view the past and (re)imagine the future.

[3.3] Speculating about the future is a tenet of the superhero genre, as is, through plot devices such as time travel and alternative realities, revisioning the past and present. These qualities—alongside a liking for transformation—lock the superhero genre into Western science fiction and fantasy traditions. Yet as with any speculative genre, the other worlds that the superhero genre creates hold fast to the synergistic hierarchies and interlocking oppressions structuring our material world (carrington 2016b). Many of the world's intersecting futurist movements (queer, feminist, ethno- and Afrofuturistic) work to centralize minoritarian bodies and identities, lived experiences, and belief systems. In so doing, they decentralize, decolonize, and problematize the homogeneity stifling the world's stories (and the world's storytellers): typically, tales of straight, cisgender, white, nondisabled, affluent, Western males. Ethno- and Afrofuturism, cultural movements bearing down on what andré carrington (2016a) describes as the "unbearable whiteness of science fiction," are crucial here (note 3). They flow though all kinds of media, including music, visual art, literature, film, games, superhero comics (Nama 2009), and bodies. Of bodies, we might think of the otherworldliness of Grace Jones, Janelle Monáe's visual, thematic, and musical aesthetic, and, more recently, the trend for Wakandan fashion, inspired by the remixed Afrocentric hairstyling and costumes portrayed in the widely acclaimed Afrofuturistic superhero film Black Panther (2018). I explore racebending cosplay as an empowering practice steeped in ethno- and Afrofuturist sensibilities. Indeed, I imagine it as an embodied mode of these futurities. Racebending cosplayers reimagine, rescript—as I come to discuss, they translate—the established embodiment of the Western mainstream superhero. In so doing, they do not merely imitate but become hybrid, embodied cultural artifacts.

[3.4] Transgressive minoritarian cosplay, or as I prefer to think of it, [dis]play—a transitory embodiment opening an experimental space in which marginalized and excluded cosplaying fans may (re)imagine themselves and their source character—intimately connects with all kinds of futurist discourse. Inspired by José Esteban Muñoz's (1999) work on disidentification, the embracing bracketed [dis] in "[dis]play" is meant to evoke notions of displacing, disruptive, discredited, disidentificatory play; "display" itself speaks to ideas of showing feeling and temporarily arranging something often spectacular, even carnivalesque—like a fireworks display or a Body Worlds exhibition—for public viewing. The bracketing is also intended to symbolize the suspended, precarious, ephemeral, and offset nature of the performance. This is not to undermine the radicalism of these performances; although the act itself may be temporary, its impact in the shape of a digital footprint via its social media presence can be deep and lasting (Broadnax 2015; Jackson, Bailey, and Foucault Welles 2017).

[3.5] [Dis]play is a ludic fan practice with a radical heart, one beating through three interconnecting spheres: genre, fandom, and the personal/sociopolitical. It resists the strangling "network of norms" (Jakobsen 1997, 136) and speaks to the pragmatic presentism of queer world making (Muñoz 2009). [Dis]players trouble superhero canon; their rebellious practices reimagine and repurpose the ideology, ontology, and aesthetics of mainstream superheroes. Some performers aim to do so, but for others, it is a by-product of the collision of idealistic representations with outsider materialities. Queer and arresting visualities and performances make the invisible visible and the personal political. They can effect change on a range of intersecting levels, including textual, sociopolitical, fannish, and personal. Yet [dis]play is not only a response to the overwhelming failure of superhero culture to imagine, represent, and embrace diverse, inclusive worlds; it also illuminates and creatively transforms that dereliction. It casts into sharp relief the neutrality of dominant, privileged identity markers such as whiteness, heterosexuality, and maleness. Through activist [dis]play, official, dominant meanings are challenged, resisted, recast, and stretched as unrepresented fans create ways of inserting themselves into often beloved exclusionary texts and surrounding culture, thereby making it anew.

[3.6] [Dis]players see beyond the limits of exclusionary mainstream texts to a place and time where they can be, unproblematically, superheroes, superhero fans, and superhero creators, and in so doing suspend not only the limiting logics of the textual realm but also the lived one. They not only see that future but also recreate that future world in the present of today. Their performances enfold textual and material realms to create riotous and rebellious breathing spaces, empowering lacunae where meaning and traditions are upended. In the brave display of their transgressive superhero bodies, they materialize a better today and hint at an alternative tomorrow (note 4).

4. Activating and theorizing racebending: What lies beneath?

[4.1] Racebending became formalized as a term of fan protest during the white casting of the live-action film Avatar: The Last Airbender (2010), which brought to life the animated TV series of the same name featuring Asian characters (Nelson 2009; Lopez 2011). Indeed, a coalition of Avatar fans went on to found (, a grassroots activist movement advocating and lobbying for, as their website notes, "underrepresented groups in entertainment media." But racebending is a dynamic term; it refers to both mainstream entertainment traditions of white casting (that is, casting established characters of color with white actors) and to diversifying, resistive practices—grassroots and mainstream—that see established white characters (re)cast as/by people of color—for example, Marvel's decision to cast black actor Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, an established white character. But as comics blogger Kelly Kanayama observes of racebent X-Men, when adopting racebending as a diversifying strategy, industry efforts must holistically increase quantity and improve quality:

[4.2] With the original coloring, I don't think people would say that crazy-eyes Jean [an X-Men character] is a stereotype of white women, or that the aggressive Wolverine is a stereotype of white men. That's because we see so many white characters in comics and popular media in general that one problematic portrayal and one grizzled/savage portrayal doesn't contribute to building a stereotype…Even if these two characters are somehow seen as carrying negative implications, they're drops in the ocean. But once you visibly portray them as non-white, that ocean shrinks to a puddle, and every drop counts for a lot more. (Demby 2014)

[4.3] But my focus lies with racebending as a transgressive, grassroots resistive meaning- and world-making practice, and with fannish rather than mainstream media practices—although for many minoritarian superhero fans, racebending works holistically and within the real/imaginary binary. Many racebending cosplayers want their resistive fan work to trouble and reimagine canon and speak to the possibilities of defying social and representational norms. Yet as the example of Jackson becoming Fury illustrates, when it comes to modifying the identity of established and/or source characters, transformation, within both grassroot and mainstream spheres, is currently most often enacted—and theorized—across single dimensions, primarily gender (McClellan 2014) and sexuality (Kreisinger 2012), although increasingly race (Gilliland 2016) (note 5). Indeed, this fracturing of identity echoes the broader theoretical condition of the field of fan studies where attention also concentrates on single issues, notably gender and sexuality, to the detriment (and separation) of other dimensions of identity (Pande 2018; Wanzo 2015; Lothian, Busse, and Reid 2007). Focalized, centralizing work, or "identity hermeneutics," creates opportunities to recover lost and overlooked (hi)stories that "might change our understanding of what a fan is" (Wanzo 2015, ¶ 1.6). It is critical in illuminating and correcting what Pande fittingly describes as the "field's recurrent blindspots" (Pande 2018, 319), but it also, just as critically, opens debate on fan identity and fan communities to intersectional standpoints and understandings (Pande and Moitra 2017).

[4.4] As we might imagine, racebending as resistance is a largely visual affair (note 6). But there is more to racebending than changing an established character's skin color. Discussing racebending in superhero comics, Albert S. Fu notes that comic books, "as a medium based on colour and lines[,] provide a particularly interesting case in examining how the colour-line is constituted and reconstituted via fan discourses" (2015, 270)—an observation that transfers well to racebending (fan) art traditions. Image-driven online platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr are popular repositories for racebending fan art and fan recastings, in which fans recast whitecentric mainstream texts with nonwhite actors (Gilliland 2016; Bennett 2015). But we also find this kind of color-line work displayed outside these venues.

[4.5] In December 2013, contemporary artist and X-Men fan Orion Martin previewed a racebending superhero art project that featured twelve iconic X-Men covers and panels that had been recolored "so that every mutant had a skin color that was some shade of brown." This visually arresting project was designed to activate debate around representation and to undermine the neutrality of whiteness within the superhero genre; it also pointed to a moment of racebending as whitewashing (note 7). But it did a little more than that. One revised series of panels is based on a scene featuring a white Piotr Rasputin, aka Colossus, standing up to an angry white mob; not surprisingly, the panel's meaning changes greatly after it is recolored. As Martin (2013) observes, "Reading about black teenagers standing up to a largely white mob is different than reading about white teenagers in the same situation." As with other modes of superhero racebending, Martin's remixed images distort and disturb canon; however, understood as an ethnofuturistic (re)imagining, its power lies in exhorting the audience to think beyond canon and to look beneath the surface of race and racebending. What does it mean, in a sociocultural sense, to change the skin color of an established character? As Fu argues when discussing negative fan responses to Marvel's decision to racebend Spider-Man, "Much of the tension may not be about a black Spider-Man, but of a black Peter Parker" (2015, 276). Elizabeth Gilliland similarly observes this sociocultural dimension within some Tumblr-based racebending fan casting, presenting the case of a practitioner who is careful to "establish a cultural background within her neo-narrative…to truly create a narrative that engages in the culture of the minorities being represented instead of just appropriating their faces" (2016, ¶ 4.10).

[4.6] Racebending becomes a particularly powerful form of activism when it brings lived experience to the surface—something the embodied practice of racebending cosplay is particularly attuned to. This is as true of mainstream genre production as it is of fan works. As Martin's (2013) project indicates, it is not enough to simply increase the number or prominence of nonwhite characters, or to alter the skin color of existing characters, and expect impactful change (note 8). There must be breadth and depth to any industry revisions to avoid characterizations becoming mere token gestures (Warner 2011; Beltran 2010). For instance, for all the furor surrounding Miles Morales becoming—at the hands of a white creative team—Spider-Man in 2011, Spider-Man's meaning has changed little in the intervening years. Even after the release of the acclaimed animated Morales-centered film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), type "Who is Spider-Man?" into Google and you will see a series of white men looking back at you. Further, when seeking to improve superhero diversity, it is not productive for all, or predominantly all, white creative teams to racebend or create new nonwhite characters. This egregious practice leaves the creative process open to the possibility of creators simply recoloring characters, with white creators applying a veneer of color over their (white mainstream) ideas of what a superhero is and what a nonwhite superhero should be (note 9). Systemic creative conditions such as this risk the production of surface-level nonwhite characters and subvert the opportunity to meaningfully disrupt metanarratives. It also speaks to the assertion that when looking at representations of black people created by white people, "you are looking at representations crafted by white supremacy…it's not actually black people you are looking at" (Oluo 2017). Diversity—diverse lived experience—within creative teams is an essential facet of increasing and improving minoritarian representation and storytelling within the superhero genre, thereby purposefully changing the superhero meaningscape: ontologically, aesthetically, and ideologically. To authentically enfold superheroes of color into official genre meanings and culture, attention must be directed toward increasing quantity and improving quality, but such diversifying moves must be informed by lived experience. But—and shifting back to fannish realms—how might we begin to better understand and foreground the role lived experience plays within resistive embodied superhero fan practices, such as racebending cosplay?

5. On [dis]play: Racebending cosplay

[5.1] I now turn to theorizing moments and spaces of transference—the imaginary (fantastical, textual) to the lived (mundane, material), and the invisible (unseen, absent) to the visible (seen, present)—as well as the affirmational (mimetic) and/or transformative quality of this transference. (As discussed below, mimetic/affirmational modes align with and value authorial intent, and transformative expressions explore textual gaps and create new possibilities.) For although some performances are mimetic in intention, all are transformative. But if mimesis involves replication and simulation, questions arise: How can minoritarian fans perform mimetically? How can they replicate what is not originally there? There is, for instance, no black Clark Kent/Superman or Bruce Wayne/Batman in the genre, yet minoritarian cosplayers frequently—and, I submit, mimetically—perform these characters.

[5.2] Superhero cosplay transfers the fantastic—and, regarding [dis]play, the invisible—into the realm of the mundane; in this sense, it is always more about translation than transformation. All superhero cosplayers disrupt and rewrite the ontology and aesthetics of superheroes. Unlike their heroes, they will never become a real superhero by changing their mode of dress. Their bounded performances demonstrate that superheroes can only really exist in the genre's imaginary realms: cosplay eliminates the "super" from the superhero. Elsewhere I have theorized this delimited process as embodied translation (Kirkpatrick 2013). I describe translation as a continuous, fluid, and unassured meaning-making process and cosplayers, as translators, as empowered makers of meaning. Embodied translation speaks to the processes involved in performing the extraordinary within the limits of the ordinary. It is "uniquely enacted within the frame and bounds of the material body of the cosplayer. Thus, in translating an established character, cosplayers are implicated in a process of (re)creation, they produce simultaneously a new character and a revised version of the original" (Kirkpatrick 2013, 64). However, because there are only a few minoritarian source characters to draw from, [dis]players perform an additional layer of imaginary work through their lived experience. Through their empiric performances, [dis]players deliver the extraordinary idea of minoritarian superheroes from their imaginations into the material realm. Superhero cosplay creates the idea of a Superman who cannot fly and a Spider-Man sans Spidey sense, but its [dis]play modes also reveal the possibility of a black disabled Superman and a Muslim female Captain America. Each is in its own way a radical reimagining—embodied translation—of the superhero.

[5.3] [Dis]play makes it possible to see superheroes largely unseen, or unimaginable, within official contexts (note 10). Racebending cosplayers and activists such as Chaka Cumberbatch, Vishavjit Singh, and Briana Lawrence make the invisible visible and the unthinkable doable (Smith-Strickland 2016; Sikh Captain America 2014; Danielle 2015). By transcribing and layering idealistic body norms through their outsider bodyscapes, [dis]players perform a deep, radical form of embodied translation. [Dis]players might reject or misrecognize some superhero characteristics (whiteness, maleness, wealth) while embracing others (costume motifs, names, centrality). By layering the remaining desirable qualities through their own outsider bodies, they reimagine the idea of the superhero and the superhero fan. Even when performing mimetically, [dis]players are in a bilingual, border-smashing dialogue with their source characters—for example, extraordinary/ordinary, imaginary/lived, textual/material, idealistic/deviant, inside(r)/outside(r), seen/unseen, past/future. By redrawing the superhero aesthetic, [dis]players materialize the idea of minoritarian superheroes and minoritarian superhero fans, thereby opening a dialogue—which can turn hostile—with the genre and with mainstream segments of its fandom. By increasing visibility in one realm, they stir revolution in others.

[5.4] Singh, for example, lives in New York and regularly cosplays as a skinny, bearded Sikh Captain America (Hills 2014a). Singh's narrow physique and beard play a prominent role in his mash-up cosplay, as does his blue turban—in place of Cap's helmet—emblazoned with the iconic silver capital "A." Singh's costuming clearly remixes Sikh and superhero traditions. Through his activist performances, Singh aims to dispel preconceptions and stereotypes about Sikhs, superheroes, and, I submit, superhero fans. Writing about his journey from drawing a Sikh Captain America to coming to cosplay this "white-bread" character, Singh (2016) describes how he "re-created a superhero vision from 1941 penned by Jack Kirby. I illustrated a new Captain America with a turban and beard ready to fight intolerance." Singh's personal story echoes ethnofuturist strategies of reimagining alternative universes; it collapses space and time to reimagine a more inclusive, diverse reality. Captain America's—and Singh's—meaning is here both lost and reimagined in translation.

[5.5] As Singh discovered, superhero cosplay can be an empowering practice. Many performers want to animate their beloved heroes and thereby bring a little of the superhero into their own lives. Yet these heroes tend to be (super)privileged, affluent, cishet, nondisabled white men, causing a quandary for minoritarian cosplayers as they negotiate power structures. The question of minoritarians identifying with and in some way wanting to be like extraordinary white characters raises obvious concerns that transgressive fan work might actually be working to buttress real-world racial hierarchies. As Nama observes, "White superheroes pose a problematic incongruity for blacks who as victims of white racism are further victimised by reading and identifying with white heroic figures in comic books" (2009, 134). But rather than follow the binary logic that minoritarians reading superhero comics is either problematic or unproblematic, Nama advocates adopting, as do I, a more nuanced, even strategic, stance. Indeed, within superhero scholarship, several scholars have noted how superhero fans of color regularly negotiate and feel an affinity with the—qualified—outsiderness of many superheroes (Nama 2009; Fawaz 2016; Brown 2001), yet they do not feel compelled to compromise their racial identity or lived experience (note 11). For example, a minoritarian Kent/Superman cosplayer clearly wants to be read as Superman, but not as a straight white man: "Some people think that Black cosplayers are just trying to be White. No, we don't wish we were White. We can be geeks and still love our melanin" (Gooden 2016). [Dis]players are in materialistic dialogue with nearly eight decades of unrepresentative canon. Their performances reveal and query gaps, omissions, and exclusions, but they also provide (rebuking) answers to those elisions and erosions. Of course, there are a few minoritarian superheroes that create a small window for unambiguous mimetic performances, but what of the other numerous occasions of transgressive costuming and identity play? What is happening within those disruptive, borderland performances?

[5.6] As indicated, embodied translation can help us understand the complexities of these textured performances. But I want to now examine how unraveling the mimetic-transformative binary can also shed light on how racebending cosplayers resist and reform exclusionary meaningscapes—text, lived, and fandom—without compromising their racial identity (lived experience). Established modes of fan scholarship, which often hinge on binaries such as mimetic/transformative, cannot adequately explain the mechanics and radicalism of resistive modes of minoritarian fan work such as racebending cosplay. Moving beyond these modes and binaries can usefully illuminate the complexities and layered nature of such practices.

6. Dispelling the binary of affirmation versus transformation

[6.1] Fan practices and cultures are still often unhelpfully categorized as either mimetic/affirmational or transformative, where "affirmational fandom reproduces the source material…while transformational fandom remediates the source material to reflect the fans' desires and interests" (Cherry 2011, 23; see also obsession_inc 2009). This binary has been increasingly problematized within fandom and fan studies (Booth 2015; Rehak 2012; Godwin 2015). Matt Hills (2010, 2014b), for instance, works to dispel it through his gendered considerations of the often veiled transformative qualities of building prop replicas. Drawing from Hills's early work on mimetic fandom, Suzanne Scott writes that cosplay "typically presents itself as a form of mimetic fan production" (2015, 146)—a practice that seeks to replicate rather than "create radical mash-ups, or 'read' in provocative ways, [or] transformatively rework the object of fandom" (Hills quoted in Scott 2015, 146). Alongside suggesting the affirmational or mimetic/transformative binary, this presupposes a nondisruptive fan body/character body equivalency (where cosplayers can unproblematically replicate the source character's visuality), but as we have seen, many modes of cosplay collapse or undermine this opposition. For instance, cosplayer embodiments can interrupt mimetic cosplay, causing it to become radically transformative; such cosplay becomes simultaneously affirmational and transformative. This shift in reading may be intentional or unintentional. Cosplayers of color do not always aim for a radical reworking in their cosplay—they just want to cosplay a beloved character—but given the whiteness of the genre, their cosplay often stops being mimetic and becomes revisionist as they create an original version of the character. Minoritarian cosplayers often, as we have heard, want to perform as a beloved majoritarian superhero and work hard to replicate costumes, props, and mannerisms. Their cosplay is, I assert, just as mimetic as majoritarian cosplay. The effect may be different (transformative), but the motivation and method are the same (mimetic). Hills (2010), although working with a different focus, also affirms that a mimetic/affirmational emphasis does not necessarily impinge on the transformative possibilities of fan work: "Perhaps converting textual visions (back) into material artefacts is the greatest transformative work of all."

[6.2] Hills, in developing his ideas on mimetic fandom, productively (re)phrases its practices as intermediary and oscillatory as well as capable of deconstructing the "binary of fan productions that either transform or imitate mainstream media content, just as textual/material productivities can also blur together" (2014b, ¶ 1.2). Utilizing Derrida's concept of economimesis, Hills usefully restores the productive quality of mimesis: "'True' mimesis is between two producing subjects and not between two produced things" (Derrida quoted in Hills 2014b, ¶ 3.2). This expansive view of mimesis covers not only imitating objects but also imitating production processes (Gebauer and Wulf cited in Hills 2014b, ¶ 3.2) (note 12). Mimetic fan work thus escapes classification as purely affirmational: "Fans who participate in mimetic fandom may ultimately imitate the original media text, [but] certain transformative details that individualize each item surface as well" (Booth 2015, 18).

[6.3] For Hills (2014b), mimetic fandom also pursues a "kind of ontological bridging or unity—from text to reality"—an "authentic," "objective" transference of an object across realms, and during his discussion notes that cosplay may also be able to perform this kind of ontological unity, adding embodiment as a potential site of contradiction. Although cosplay clearly transfers visualities from text to reality, [dis]play is, I contend, less a bridging maneuver—crossing from one side to another—and more an interspatial occupation as minoritarian cosplayers translate extraordinary, idealistic characters though their (paradoxically) ordinary and outsider materialities. [Dis]players occupy the liminal spaces between mimetic and transformative practices. Hills's conceptualization also suggests a one-way crossing, from text to reality, whereas I suggest, in the case of cosplay, the interaction is more of a two-way process, where fan work can potentially impact—by affirming, undermining, or transforming—the textual realm. Although considering dissimilar materials—Hills with inanimate objects and me with animate bodies—these theories and reconceptualizations speak to some of the motivations and methods of [dis]play. Identifying the mimetic-transformative interplay characterizing [dis]play provides a way of navigating these textured performances to reveal [dis]play as a possible survival strategy, one offering minoritarian fans a way of resisting dominant ideology by opening breathing spaces within exclusionary meaningscapes—text, lived, fandom—without compromising their racial identity (lived experience).

7. Canon and fandom's killjoys: Representation, exclusion, and resistance

[7.1] Given the genre's notorious systemic issues with representation, inclusivity, and diversity, minoritarian superhero cosplayers have little choice but to perform [dis]play (note 13). Thinking again about the quality and quantity of representation draws out issues around racial hierarchy and the popularity and recognizability of minoritarian characters and their prominence within the genre. There are, for instance, several minoritarian versions of Superman as well as Icon, the Superman-inspired character from Blackcentric comics house Milestone Comics, yet the white-bread Clark Kent version remains popular with minoritarian cosplayers. These alternative versions of Superman are less well known, leaving many cosplayers reluctant to perform them. Racebending cosplay thus draws attention to the predominance and centrality of white characters even as it spotlights the lack of big-name minoritarian characters and, relatedly, the marginalized positioning of characters of color when they do appear in text, often in sidekick or supporting roles (note 14). Arguing that minoritarian cosplayers should play within "their range" (Cumberbatch 2013b) would currently see cosplayers of color adopting a disempowering secondary role within their own performances—role-play echoing real-world inequalities and oppressions (see also Jenkins 2018). But through their disobedient performances, [dis]players make a play for alternative ways of being and seeing superheroes, minoritarian subjects, and minoritarian fans. Priya Rehal (2016) notes that she uses her "disruptive" (activist) form of "cosplay to challenge the future and the whiteness of the media I enjoy…I want to make space for people who look like me in my fandoms." And, thinking back to the young blerd in the opening section, we are reminded of the power of telling different kinds of stories, and in the case of cosplayers, of literally becoming an alternative body of knowledge. By not "sticking to their range" (Cumberbatch 2013b), [dis]players embody the frustration they feel with a beloved genre that consistently fails to represent them: "I'm tired of not seeing faces like mine. I've had it with people telling me to 'stick to my range' when I cosplay my favorite characters, knowing all the while that my 'range' is maybe in the double digits on a good day while their [white cosplayers] 'range' is almost endless" (Cumberbatch 2013a). Chaka Cumberbatch, the frustrated cosplayer—and founder of the social media (counter)storytelling hashtag #28DaysOfBlackCosplay—here describes the policing tactics of (fannish) white privilege. This is something that Henry Jenkins (2018) also discusses, pointing to how white privilege tries to stifle not only the character options available to cosplayers of color (their range) but also, relatedly, the ways that the concepts of authenticity (and connectedly) canon are deployed to push back against instances of racebending cosplay.

[7.2] [Dis]play is a powerful challenge to the textual, canonical supremacy of the affluent, white, male, cishet, nondisabled, youthful superhero and superhero fan. But challenging canon on any front is a critical, even perilous, strategy, as many nonprogressive fans couch their bigotry and prejudice as concerns for canonical accuracy (Zina 2015; Demby 2014; Fu 2015) (note 15). By materially writing themselves into the genre's exclusionary story- and meaningscapes, [dis]players generatively transform and subvert superhero genre canon while simultaneously resisting and challenging the fan stereotype of the straight white fanboy. As Tai Gooden (2016) notes, "Because of this power structure, it can be particularly difficult to fight for change—but that hasn't stopped the marginalized members of the cosplay community from doing so. Despite all the challenges, women of color cosplay artists refuse to back down." Ahmed also evokes the fortitude and resilience—backbone—needed to put an already disempowered body on the line to spotlight another line—the color line: "The body 'going the wrong way' is the one that is experienced as 'in the way' of the will that is acquired as momentum. For some bodies, mere persistence, 'to continue steadfastly,' requires great effort, an effort that might appear to others as stubbornness or obstinacy, as insistence on going against the flow" (2011, 245).

[7.3] By calling out and resisting the whiteness of the superhero genre and its attendant culture, racebending cosplayers perform a powerful form of resistance. Through their [dis]play, they unmask the notion of fandom as, as it is too often assumed, "a homogenously normative band of Othered outsiders" (Warner 2015, 36). Their performances illustrate the difficult, currently uncomfortable kinds of stories. They embody awkward questions. They are akin to feminist killjoys, fandom's killjoys: "The one who gets in the way of other people's happiness. Or just the one who is in the way—you can be in the way of whatever, if you are already perceived as being in the way. Your very arrival in a room is a reminder of histories that get in the way of the occupation of that room" (Ahmed 2010a, 5). And talking more broadly about race and racism in fandom, alongside Wanzo (2015), Pande too asserts the quandary of "observing the problem, becoming the problem" and white entitlement/ownership of fan spaces:

[7.4] It's that position of the feminist killjoys…You talk about it, you're the problem. Everybody else is having fun…for a lot of people who perhaps have been sailing along in their particular experiences of fandom are saying, "well, this was never a problem earlier, I don't see why you guys are coming in"—you know and taking over our spaces and spoiling our fun. (Klink and Minkel 2016)

[7.5] As [dis]players, racebending cosplayers get pushback from all quarters of superhero fandom. But genre critique—the desire to transform canon—is only one thread of their resistance. The very act of racebending cosplayers' coming together to form another line—lineage, family, life (and perhaps even battle)—is a critical part of their activism (note 16). This line stretches at least eighty years into the past, as they reimagine established white characters, and stretches into the future, as their resistive practice and critique spark a genre renaissance that sees the genre and its surrounding culture's becoming an inclusive, diverse—infinitely better—version of itself. [Dis]players give pause to the li(n)e that superheroes can only be one thing because they have always only ever been one thing; in this way they refuse to toe or walk the line. Through their performances, cosplayers of color rewrite the genre's past and thereby rematerialize its present and future. Warner, discussing black female fandom as resistance, examines three interventions, identified by Jacqueline Bobo (1995), that are open to black women engaging exclusionary texts: "imaginative construction, critical interpretation, and Black women's social condition" (2015, 38). Each is clearly in play within racebending cosplay (performances and communities). Acts of [dis]play are meaningful in their own right, but when witnessed by another Other, their resistive power intensifies. Ahmed's (2013) utilization of the lifeline speaks to the power of this kind of solidarity:

[7.6] A lifeline can be…the quiet words of an encouraging friend, an unexpected alliance with a stranger, the sounds of a familiar landscape, or of an unfamiliar one; it can be a revelation that comes to you when you are seated quietly trying to escape from the busyness of a world; or it can be when you are caught up in the buzz of a pressing intense sociality and are caught out by a thought. A lifeline can be the words sent out by a writer, gathered in the form of a book, words that you hang on to, that can pull you out of an existence, which can, perhaps later, on another day, pull you into a more livable world.

[7.7] And it can also be the sight, story, or rumor of a person of color boldly dressing up as a beloved white superhero—despite, and perhaps because of, the flak—to embody a different reality where people of color have moved from the margins to occupy the center ground. Yet the power of [dis]play is not just that it offers a lifeline but also that it offers the possibility of becoming a lifeline—to not only receive comfort but also to give it.

8. Conclusion

[8.1] Within the bounds of this critically celebratory essay, I seek to create a moment, a space, to commemorate the story of racebending cosplay. I want to celebrate rather than censure the conjurings and activism of [dis]players. In other hands, this essay might have focused on examining the effect of racebending cosplay on the echo chamber of official genre production: to what extent does this niche fan work encourage a more inclusive, diverse genre? It might have stressed the limited effect this kind of resistive work has on official genre meaning making. But that would have been a different essay. Within my theorization of racebending cosplay, I aim to prioritize the story of resistive meaning making, focusing on how racebending cosplay impacts participants personally and socially, and of course how this intersects and informs their engagement with a largely exclusionary, often hostile genre. As we have seen, the transformative effect of racebending cosplay is deeply felt within the realms of marginalized (fan) communities. It is—in the greatest traditions of grassroots activism and ethno- and Afrofuturism—a powerful storytelling, consciousness-raising, and community-building tool. Of course, many other complexities remain to be unraveled when it comes to [dis]play and racebending cosplay, but this essay seeks to illuminate how minoritarian superhero fans resist their exclusion from mainstream US-based superhero culture (genre and fandom). In so doing, I work to spotlight a much-overlooked, marginalized segment of fandom, one that chooses to exist despite its "invisibility and exclusion from mainstream fan space" (Warner 2015, 35)—to which I would also, in this case, add broad derision, spectaclization, and fetishization. I want to recognize and tap into the idea that the contestation of the cultural dominant is "never a zero-sum game; it is always about shifting the balance of power in the relations of culture; it is always about changing the dispositions and the configurations of cultural power, not getting out of it" (Hall [1992] 1996, 471). Racebending cosplay is a powerful resistive meaning-making strategy, one enabling excluded fans to remain meaningfully engaged with a troublesome genre, but as a site of minoritarian resistance and survival, it is so much more.

9. Notes

1. See Pande (2018) for an invaluable discussion of the "fans of color" descriptor and Dyer (1997) for similar concerns around the homogenizing effect of the use of the term "people of color." Pande (2018) advocates a negotiated, strategic adoption of the term.

2. Cosplay is an expansive fan-based performance art that involves dressing up as and/or role-playing fictional characters. The motivations to cosplay a character are complex and include being a favorite character, sharing physical attributes, or enjoying a trending character (Winge 2006; Rahman, Wing-Sun, and Cheung 2012; Kirkpatrick 2013). Cosplay is closely allied to the costuming practices and identity play marking the superhero genre (Kirkpatrick 2013). It is a manifold practice, but costuming, bodies, identities, transformation, and community are constituent elements. Although cosplay is deeply connected to the material realm, it is not limited to it; see Booth (2015) for a discussion of digital cosplay.

3. See Gilliland (2016) for a comprehensive discussion of racebending and Afrofuturism.

4. I draw the idea of breathing spaces from Ahmed (2010b, 120). In adopting it, I stress my focus on minoritarian (fan) embodiment as a "killjoying" source of difference and site of resistance that underscores the idea of [dis]play as a survival strategy for fans of color living in a white world, enjoying a largely white genre, and being a member of a predominantly, and stereotypically, white fandom. Racebending cosplay creates a breathing space for the cosplayer of color and for observers of the cosplay performance.

5. There are rare instances when character modifications traverse more than one vector, as when Ms. Marvel's representation transformed from a straight white (European American) woman to a brown (Pakistani American) Muslim girl.

6. But not always. Racebending fan fiction is, for instance, a popular category on story-sharing sites such as Archive of Our Own and Wattpad. Warner's (2015) discussion of visual racebending also touches on racebending fan fiction.

7. The X-Men franchise is a powerful example of white culture appropriating minoritarian history and experiences, and Martin seeks to examine these contradictory meanings. Martin's (2013) project asks how this work represents minoritarian lived experiences, in that although it is a "work of fiction that focuses on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s except that in this work white men have replaced all the people of color," the characters of "Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both have white stand-ins and white followers. In fact, all of the characters are white men."

8. See Dyer (1997) for a discussion of the problematics of the nonwhite descriptor.

9. This is not to suggest that people cannot write outside their range but rather to argue against the erasure of minoritarian experiences and voices within the official production of the superhero genre (both characterization and narratives).

10. Although conventions and geek culture can provide safe spaces for queer or minoritarian cosplayers, it is not always so (Figa 2015a, 2015b; Micheline 2015; Gooden 2016). Cosplaying as a person of color in public spaces carries an increased risk to personal safety—even, as the police killing of cosplayer of color Darrien Hunt demonstrates, a risk to life (Broadnax 2014). Cosplayers who are women of color are vulnerable to a particularly virulent and brazen strain of abuse (Cumberbatch 2013a). Flame Con (, NYC's first queer comics con, provides a much-needed guaranteed safe space.

11. See also Alanna Bennett's (2015) similarly sophisticated discussion of similar issues in relation to identifying—as a woman of color—with Hermione Granger from the whitecentric Harry Potter mythos. For discussions on the systemic invisibility or the unmarkedness of whiteness, see Dyer (1997) and Ahmed (2007).

12. This speaks to my concept of embodied translation, which I propose elsewhere (Kirkpatrick 2013, 2015) as a way of theorizing the connections and repetitions surfacing between diegetic superhero costuming practices and superhero cosplay.

13. Citing James Spooner's documentary Afro-Punk (2003), Wanzo (2015) draws our attention to the complexities involved when thinking about minoritarian fan engagement with whitecentric genres. Wanzo observes the fluidity of the categories of otherness and normativity within these kinds of fannish engagements. See Kilgore (2003) and carrington (2016b) for discussions around black engagement with the predominantly white science fiction genre.

14. With exceptions, cosplayers tend to seek recognition and regard for the accuracy of their cosplay performance, not misrecognition or obscurity, and it is easier to reap such rewards if the audience has an awareness of the source character. Performing an obscure character may provide self and niche pleasure, but it will not secure much-desired general plaudits.

15. This speaks to the fanon-versus-canon debates within fandom and fan studies, and thus to ideas of power, privilege, and entitlement—and consequently toxic fandom (Proctor et al. 2018; Klink and Minkel 2016). Witness the 2018 Comicsgate debacle, echoing 2014's Gamergate. Both are ongoing neocon pop culture movements rooted in white supremacy and intolerance, with fans working to shut down the rise of inclusion and diversity within the comics and gaming industries (and media more generally); see Micheline (2017), Francisco (2018), and Byron (2018). Wanzo points to the critical idea that "some fans of speculative work depend on the centrality of whiteness and masculinity to take pleasure in the text" (2015, ¶ 1.4).

16. Warner's (2015) work on Black female resistance to deleterious representation, summoning the formative work of Jacqueline Bobo and Patricia Hill Collins, speaks clearly to the activism of female racebending cosplayers.

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