Cosplaying in and of itself can be stressful enough; I’ve definitely had convention days when I did not feel confident enough for tight spandex. But for non-white fans, the additional pressure felt when not playing a character of the same ethnicity can add an unspoken anxiety to the experience. It often feels like a white cosplayer can not only dress as their favorite characters of color but also do so in the most offensive way without comment. But when a non-white cosplayer colors outside the lines in the same way, there’s a risk of getting an awkward look because—instead of seeing the costume—no matter how perfect it might be, others see the color of your skin and you can see the confusion in their eyes: Why is a black girl dressed as Zatanna?
Worse are the ones who aren’t confused, but then think they’re being inoffensively clever. You know there probably weren’t many Black USO Girls in the 1940s, right?” Or, my personal favorite, “Wonder Woman? I thought you would’ve done Nubia.
It’s an extension of the “default to white” privilege many fans still engage in on a regular basis.
An article in the April issue of Wired Magazine confirmed and put into words a theory I’ve always secretly harbored: young people who engage in paracosmic play are developing creative skills that pay off later in “real life.” The examples are numerous (is the upcoming novel-turned-movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter anything but a historical AU fanfic?), though the article cites the Brontë Sisters (best known for Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre) as a prime example of those who began writing early through creating and building upon imaginary worlds as children.
"It now appears that, like the Brontës, kids who engage in paracosmic play are more likely to be creative as adults. In 2002 researchers Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein conducted an elegant study. They polled recipients of MacArthur "genius grants"—which reward those who’ve been particularly creative in areas as diverse as law, chemistry, and architecture—to see if they’d created paracosms as children. Amazingly, the MacArthur fellows were twice as likely as "normal" nongeniuses to have done so. Some fields were particularly rife with worldplayers: Fully 46 percent of the recipients polled in the social sciences had created paracosms in their youth."
When I started in online fandom in 1999, mostly writing fanfiction, I was always looking for relatable figures to participate with. Often I had to create them out of thin air, or widely embellish the often slim back-stories that side minority characters were given in my favorite fandoms. I was willing to do the legwork that Joss Whedon wasn’t for characters like Kendra (and, fortunate enough to even have a personal computer to engage with the fanfic communities) and, thanks to years of not being recognised in Halloween costumes, I’ve grown used to having to explain that I’m dressing as non-white characters and why I’m doing it. But what happens to the kid who isn’t encouraged to participate because the white default removes the impetus from the start?
Paracosmic play isn’t the only childhood activity that nurtures the development of creative skills, but for me the benefits are too great to ignore. Fandom turned me into a writer, taught me Photoshop, forced me to learn how to code by the age of 13, showed me the basics of web design, and helped set my course of study in college. All of these elements helped me score my first job after college. Spending years making the singer Monica look like Max from Batman Beyond for online role-playing paid off when I was asked to design ads for a Tony Award winner’s concert series. I can’t imagine what my own life would be like if fandom hadn’t shaped it the way it did, and I’m going to guess that there’re several white fans who would say the same. Luckily, they have a framework to participate in that’s constructed specifically to cater to their needs.
It’s a typical moment in the broadcast life of Black Tribbles, airing weekly on the Germantown-based online radio station G-town Radio: a quintet of black Philly natives who laugh, geek out, and bust the occasional rhyme about superheroes, sci-fi and all sorts of fantastical pop culture. It’s a labor of love for this crew—though they all hope turning pro is in the cards for the show’s future.
Its name comes from the classic Star Trek comedy episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” about a race of adorably fuzzy little alien critters—purring, throbbing balls of happy fur that radiate love and, along the way, reproduce new tribbles at a startling rate. “I was a little worried people would think it was a strictly Star Trek show,” says Len, the show’s producer, “but I knew I didn’t want ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ in the title. A tribble is this round furry thing that’s so cute you want to hug it, but it’s still cool. It’s one of the most memorable things that was ever on Star Trek even though all it did was sit there and multiply. Also, it’s kind of obscure—and so is a black nerd. You don’t see many black nerds in pop culture.”
It’s that simple fact that makes Black Tribbles so remarkable. In real life, there have always been lots of black nerds, both the everyday ones—like the 900 geeks of color who rapidly sounded off a roll call in May 2009, when a viral Internet survey asked nonwhite sci-fi fans on LiveJournal to come say hello and prove they existed—and the historically influential ones, like mathematician Benjamin Banneker, scientist George Washington Carver, author Octavia Butler and astronaut Mae Jemison. But in pop culture? Black nerds depicted as an actual part of black America? In the onslaught of media imagery that television, magazines, movies and comic books hurl at us every day? Not so much. For a long time, it was pretty much just Steve Urkel, the clichéd brainiac on the ’90s sitcom Family Matters, whose nasal whine, physical clumsiness and giant glasses underlined every week for eight years the idea that geek and cool were polar opposites.
“I was always called Urkel growing up,” says Jason, rolling his eyes. “Really? That’s all we get? White nerds can grow up and become scientists and get hot chicks, and I get Urkel?”
Even Star Trek’s much-heralded vision of a peaceful post-racial future has only ever shown us a single black character at a time—Lt. Uhura in the 1960s show, Geordi La Forge in the ’80s, Benjamin Sisko in the ’90s—amid a sea of white faces.
Black Tribbles bucks that trend. For two hours a week, five hip, funny, well-rounded young black adults let their geek flags fly on air in a freewheeling bull session that thrives on the fact that there’s no pretension, no self-conscious radio shtick—just microphones present while a bunch of friends talk about what they love most, from comic books and fantasy movies to science and history and ancient mythology. And they do so in a hip-hop-flavored atmosphere that’s as likely to name-check Dr. Dre as it is Doctor Who.
So my goal in writing this piece isn’t to hold him accountable–that’s already gone on. My goal in writing this is to answer his question. And since I recently gave a talk at Swarthmore on rape culture, I just so happen to have a bunch of examples and facts right at my fingertips.
First, the primary premise is flawed.
Damon seems to think that reinforcing to men that circumstances and consent are different things means that we are also letting women off the hook for reckless behavior. However, most men aren’t privy to all the rape prevention tactics women employ everyday, as a matter of course. (For the purposes of this discussion, the framing will be around cisgender, heterosexual men and women, though we are not the only people impacted by this type of thinking and this type of violence.)
I could share stories about being told from the time I started going out to always cover your drink with a napkin, never be alone after dark, always have your keys out in case of an attack, to never be alone with a guy you don’t know. I was also told not to open the door for boys I didn’t know, but in my case, it was the boy you kind of know that gets you. But I digress.
We could tell our stories all day, but where’s the data? When I presented at Swathmore, I ran a little experiment based on a question I had. How do men talk about rape? So I took it to the newsstands.
Interestingly, most men’s magazines don’t do “How Not to Rape” articles. They don’t really do “How Not to Get Raped Articles.” A further reading into what these articles were about revealed that most of the articles listed on men’s mags weren’t about rape at all–many were jokes about prison rape (or reviews of Oz) or contained the specific phrase “against abortion except in cases of rape of incest.” With one huge exception from Esquire‘s Tom Chiarella, the majority of men’s articles that mention rape aren’t actually dealing with the subject.
Curator’s note: this post didn’t make it into today’s lineup at the main blog—I wrote this way late last night/early this morning—but I wanted to share it because it does speak to the power of seeing one’s image in pop culture. It’s also one of my favorite stories about Dr. King. ~~Andrea (AJ) Plaid
In honor of Dr. King’s birthday and the US government choosing Dr. Jemison to lead a multigenerational mission to the nearest galaxy this past week, let’s look at the woman who connects these two historic people: actor and advocate Nichelle Nichols, who also made history.
From the Wall Street Journal blog:
I understand that the Uhura character didn’t even exist before you were hired.
I walked in to the interview with this magnificent treatise on Africa by [Robert] Ruark called Uhuru, which is Swahili for Freedom. Gene said he really liked the name of that book and wanted to use the title as a first name. I said, why don’t you do an alliteration of the name Uhuru and soften the N and make it Uhura? He said you are Uhura and that belongs to you.
How much input did you have in creating Uhura?
I created my background, where she came from, my parents. They were ambassadors and one was a scientist, so I had this to live up to as well as the expectations of Spock. I made him Uhura’s mentor.
It sounds like you put a lot of thought into the part. Why did you want to quit after the first season?
After the first year, Grace Lee Whitney was let go so it became Bill and Leonard. The rest of us became supporting characters. I decided to leave the show after the first season.
What convinced you to stay on?
I was at a fundraiser and the promoter of the event said there’s somebody that wants to meet you. He is your biggest fan. I stood up and turned to see the beatific face of Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with a sparkle in his eye. He took my hand and thanked me for meeting him. He then said I am your greatest fan. All I remember is my mouth opening and shutting.
What was that like?
I thanked him so much and told him how I’d miss it all. He asked what I was talking about, and told me that I can’t leave the show. We talked a long time about what it all meant and what images on television tell us about ourselves.
Did you know then how much of a role model you’d become?
Oh, god, no. I thought of it as a stepping stone to Broadway. I went back to Gene and told him what had happened, and that I was staying. He smiled up at me and said, thank god for Dr. Martin Luther King.
Did the experience change how you played Uhura?
Nichols: It’s one of the most important things that happened in my life and it changed and defined my career. I took my role much more seriously after that.
Because of this conversation and because Nichols took King’s advice, she inspired generations of people—especially young Black girls—to imagine themselves in space. One of those people is former NASA astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, who is a longtime friend of Nichols.
"Images show us possibilities," the Stanford graduate says. "A lot of times, it’s fantasy that gets us through reality."
A quarter of a century after Lt. Uhura boldly went where no African American had gone before, her protegee returned the favor. Before blasting into orbit aboard the Endeavour in 1992, Jemison, the first woman of color in space, called actress Nichelle Nichols to thank her for the inspiration. And then she made a promise:
Despite NASA’s rigid protocol, Jemison would begin each shift with a salute that only a Trekkie could appreciate. “Hailing frequencies open,” she could be heard repeating throughout the eight-day mission.
Jemison also paid the favor forward: she appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. According to Slice of SciFi, Jemison has “the distinction of being the first real astronaut to appear in a Star Trek series.” She also co-founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which sponsors a international science camp and, according to the wiki about her, appeared at a “forum for promising girls” in Washington, DC, with FLOTUS Michelle Obama in 2009.
Just something to think about on this holiday.