Cosplay Convos: The Lack of Diversity in Competitive Cosplay

I can't believe that this year is already my 10th anniversary of competitive cosplay! I've been hooked on cosplay competitions since I started doing them. What does it mean to be a competitive cosplayer? It’s not as intense as it sounds- it just means I enjoy entering cosplay contests, mainly those focused on craftsmanship or performance. However, in my ten years of competition, I and others have noticed that the contest circuit isn’t exactly the most diverse.

Diversity in cosplay is an issue in many channels: cosplay guest lineups, who is featured in con coverage articles, what kind of cosplayers appear in those pretty con videos, and who is shared by content aggregators on social media. The diversity of the average con goer in the U.S. has always been noticeably vast, because being a fan of something is a fairly universal notion here. "Nerd culture" has become more main stream, encouraging people from all walks of life to gather for the sake of just loving similar things.

Yet, while cons seem to get more diverse each year, I have not noticed the same increase in diversity at the contests that I enter or judge at. Why is that? Let’s take a look at some reasons cosplay contests may be lacking in representation, and what efforts we can put forth to initiate more inclusiveness!

Representation is Lacking

First and foremost, I believe competitive cosplay suffers from a catch-22, if you will. Because if mostly white, abled people are entering cosplay competitions, statistically mostly those people will stay winning. As an effect, that group is then more likely to move on to become judges, who often get their position through means of previous wins and contest experience.

So how can we encourage more diversity by showing competitors that contests are diverse, if we are suffering from an issue of representation to begin with? Unfortunately, that’s not an easy answer. You may be tempted to just say “well why don’t POC, disabled people, etc. just enter? The onus is on them to take initiative.” but to that I say nah. The onus isn't just on them.

Animatic Con 2019 - Photo by Kwanye Cosplay

A Cyclical Problem

The issue is far more cyclical, and breaking that cycle takes initiative on both parts. In all of my diversity and competitive cosplay panels, I talk about the lack of diversity in contests and make sure to encourage diverse talent to come forth with their gifts! Still, easier said than done. So what can we do? Try recruiting diverse people to enter! Reach out to talented and capable cosplayers to act as judges! And not as a pity invitation either, nor some kind of "affirmative action" just to seem woke, but a genuinely well-earned, legitimate offer.

Though, when recruiting, be honest about the process- cosplay contests eat up a lot of time! They may not prefer to spend their con that way, and that’s fine. But letting them know their work is good enough to enter, or act as judge- it is at least a nice compliment even if they choose to pass on the invitation. And keep searching for other qualified, diverse candidates. Don't give up after reaching out to a small handful of cosplayers.

Talk is Cheap, but Don't Discount Valuable Words

It does take some effort from the competitive cosplay circuit to show we are an inclusive space. We can't just SAY we are diverse and accepting, we have to SHOW we are through ACTION. Talk is cheap- we need to walk the walk too.

That said, communication of diversity policies would be a good idea to include in your rules. Some cosplayers worry that when being judged on "accuracy", they may get docked points for being the wrong skin color, height, body shape, gender, etc. or even be dismissed for using medical devices like glasses, wheelchairs, crutches, and so on.

Make it absolutely clear that these features that cannot be helped will NOT be taken into account during judging, and they are not being graded on being a "look-a-like" but solely their ability to craft, create, and perform. Be perfectly clear on this, do not be ambiguous. The more questions you can answer for people from the get go, the more trouble it saves everyone!

WonderCon 2015 - Photographer Unknown

Cosplaying is a Privilege?

We need to talk about privilege when it comes to this discussion. I often say cosplay is a luxury- and by that I mean it requires discretionary time and money to be spent. You can only responsibly partake in cosplay after you’ve already taken care of real world priorities. One should never cosplay at the expense of daily responsibilities.

Several socioeconomic factors come into play here when it comes to having hobbies that generally require some form of extended investment. If a family finds is busy working, taking care of loved ones, attending to academics, dealing with medical expenses or disabilities, the luxury of spending extra time and money on cosplay may run thin.

Especially considering that many cosplayers starting off learning to sew or receiving crafting supplies from their family, or had programs for sewing during or after school. That is a privilege not everyone was afforded or grew up with. If your family or education didn't have that background, you may be at a disadvantage in the competition circuit if you have to learn everything on your own. That said, it's all the more impressive to see self-taught artists. They had to struggle more on their own and without guidance in order to become as skilled as they are.