Mia Adams, 29, strolled up East 34th street costumed in a DIY mossy, pearl and shell-embellished bra, a long curly red wig, green pencil skirt and boots. Her look was met with a mix of approving nods and sideways sidewalk stares. One guy finally flat out asked what she was wearing and why, to which Adams replied, “I’m Ariel and I’m on my way to Comic Con.”
But first, the CUNY drama major would have to get through her scriptwriting class, where the stares ensued. Though she’d paid $50 for a ticket to New York Comic Con (NYCC), she wouldn’t skip out on her studies for the festivities. Cosplay and class would just have to go together. “I can’t believe you wore that to school,” a student commented. As Adams completed her mid-term, she noticed heads pop up and look back—marveling at her bra and her bravado. Her Sharingan contact lenses proved particularly popular with passersby.
For those unfamiliar with cosplay, it is a hobby in which people dress up in characters from their favorite comics, television shows and film franchises. Though cosplay is often associated with the Japanese culture, it actually originated in the United States where it was first called “costuming.” Most cosplayers show off their looks at national and state conventions like Comic Con and Dragon Con.
Adams credits her love for playing dress-up in general to her mother, who she grew up watching apply make-up and primp in the bedroom mirror as songs from The Five Heartbeats played in the background. Her mother would frequently head out wearing outfits inspired by characters like the ‘70s film heroine, Foxy Brown. Adams models her own cosplay style after shows she watched in the ‘80s including Sailor Moon, X-Men and Care Bears.
She has attended NYCC for the last four years.
I used to feel uncomfortable attending because I always felt fat and ugly,” she says.
Online harassment has also played a role in trying to deter her for being her true self. Internet trolls tossed the term “weeaboo” at her—a slur used against people who are into Asian culture, specifically that of Japan. Showing up to Comic Con 2016 with curly crimson hair and zero f’s to give was about Adams finally feeling confident in her own skin and proving the people wrong who told her Black cosplayers couldn’t dress up as certain characters.
In a world where Black joy and self-expression are challenged daily, it’s no surprise that a hobby as whimsical, colorful and rooted in imagination such as cosplay, is often considered off-limits to Black people.
Such rejection sparked online movements like #29DaysofCosplay—established by prominent Black cosplayer, Chaka Cumberbatch. She started it to celebrate Black cosplayers during each day of Black History Month. Similar to Adams’ experience, Cumberbatch endured online harassment for being a Black female cosplayer who dared to use her melanin to glow up a Sailor Jupiter ensemble. For Adams, the melanin just makes the costume all the more exotic and fun. “You can play any character,” she says. “You do not have to paint your skin.”
There were no social media hashtags to mark her Comic Con moment or signs that read, “Look. Me. I’m Black. And Ariel.” So not Adams’s style. “People just need to see it,” she says. “They just need to see that you can be any character you want. Put your own spin on it. Use your imagination.”
Adams also made it clear that her love for cosplay is not a rejection of her Blackness, but an extension of it.
She may be learning to speak Korean and taking K-Pop dance classes, but she also bases much of her daily style from Black culture of the ‘80s—specifically drawing her natural haircut’s inspiration from the Boomerang film, starring Eddie Murphy. Her favorite Disney Princess? Bih, you guessed it: The Princess & The Frog’s Tiana. This run-down of fun facts on the young actress isn’t to prove that she’s worthy. She is, no question. It is to show that, like all Black women and Black people in general, she is not to be defined by one facet of her life.
Adams gushed about 2016 Comic Con being the “best day.” She opted to wear her Ariel make-up—made with eyeshadow from M.A.C.’s new Selena collection, Anastasia concealer, and highlighter— for the rest of the day to keep the magic going. And when asked about the greatest moments at the conference (besides scoring more Sailor Moon gear), her smile shined brightest when she remembered an attendee commending her for being a fellow curvy, busty brown girl and daring to wear a bra to the convention.
And that’s why visibility matters. There is always another brown girl watching.