For those of you tuning in, my name is Eri Kagami. I’ve been cosplaying for a decade or so. I love anime. I love video games. I love cosplaying and going to conventions. I’ve seen the standards of cosplay photography shift from our point and click digital cameras in hotel hallways to full on professional DSLR’s on location or at a studio. In the anime and video game cosplay world, there’s always been a preference for far east Asians to photograph. The tiny, porcelain skin cosplayers. There’s nothing wrong with that at all – it’s the preference towards light skin Asians over darker skinned Asians. I’m Eri. I’m Filipinx. I’m a walking mocha frappuccino. To some photographers, I’m the “wrong Asian.”
Let’s talk about the preference to white skin in Asian culture. Asian culture is ingrained with light skinned actors and models in their dramas and pop music. I can only speak for Filipinos. I can tell you that if you watch any drama, newscaster, or F-pop band, the featured people in screen will have that far east porcelain aesthetic. Even in movie and tv parts for indigenous characters, you will still get light side Filipinos in brownface cast in the role. There’s an obsession to be light and white in Filipino culture. In fact, there’s plenty of products on supermarket shelves that tout skin lightening. I tried it out of curiosity in middle school, and only ended up smelling like papaya’s. These aren’t just a beauty commodity, but almost a necessity as soap in Filipino households. The shame in darker skin is there.
Shame stems from classism. If you had dark skin, you were lower class. You lived in the provinces and probably had a job as a farmer, driver, or pick pocketer. It was an indication of where you were on the social scale. Even though Filipinos are naturally brown, there is this desire to look like you’re high on the social totem pole – like the lead of some cheesy soap opera. I never really bought into it. I just appreciated that we all had different shades of melanin in our culture. My mom is pretty light. My dad is pretty dark (people ask me all the time if I’m half Muslim or Indian). My brother is pretty much a walking toffee.
My skintone has been exoticized by white folks. Even when I had well meaning compliments from white girls who wanted to tan so bad, they would tell me I had the “perfect tan” and they wished they had my skin. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sure felt creepy. I had white exes who would tell me they found me hot because I looked “exotic.” Not sure what that means, but I do like exotic short hair cats and their resting bitch face. Maybe that’s what they meant? Sarcasm aside, it just feels weird to be oddly desired by white folks and then my culture tells me to feel bad about not being light skinned.
So when a group of friends were talking about cosplaying from Soul Calibur, I was thinking about cosplaying as Talim, a Filipinx fighter. It would give me a chance to rep my culture in the wide world of fighting games. However, a white compatriot in the group expressed interest in cosplaying as Talim and went on about how she would apply a fake tan and use cosmetics to go full on brownface. Friends were encouraging her to do so. I didn’t know at the time how to explain how hurt it made me feel. I was already a sensitive soul being told to “chill” anytime I expressed anxiety. It just killed my interest in ever having anything to do with Soul Calibur. I just stuck to Dead or Alive. Brown face is never cool especially expressing and encouraging it to someone who is always told that brown = undesirable by their culture.
Not too long ago, I was part of a group photoshoot. We had multiple photographers. I was singled out by one of the photographers who refused to do singles of me. Though I was happy with the photographers I shot with, when I asked him if we could do solos, he rudely told me, “But I already took one photo of you!” The one photo was a candid of me. He was giving the other members of the shoot full on singles. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this. At an alt. fashion Disney shoot, a (white) photographer was focused in with the other members of the group. I was the darkest one and was only given one or two shots while he was spending 10-15 minutes with each girl. I learned to be assertive and I was glad that the other girls stood up for me as well, even offering to take photos of me with their phone so I can also have shots too. I later learned from that these two photographers have racist, colorist, tendencies confirmed to me by folks who have had unfortunate experiences with them.
This is not the first time I’ve encountered this either. There’s this obsession in the Disney cosplay community towards cosplayers who look like the living, breathing Disney princesses. Guess what? Disney doesn’t have a South East Asian heroine. It’s disheartening when I’m often passed up for Disneybound, Disney cosplay groups, etc that want the players to look like the splitting image of Disney characters. I’ll still cosplay as Snow White and Briar Rose. I love Disney as much as the next person. I’m not going to stop cosplaying from Disney, but cosplay is not a casting call or a contest as to who was born to look like a Disney princess. Meanwhile, I’ll be coolin’ with the homies at the Kingdom Hearts lunch table.
So what can we get out of this? I would like my eastern Asian friends to stand up against photographers who only have preference to lighter skin subjects. I’d like to see these photographers be called out. I’d like to see these photographers to perhaps reflect on their errors and commit to do better. I’m not asking for a statement. Statements mean nothing unless it is backed by action. I’d like to see more conventions consider darker skinned Asian cosplayers as guests, program participants, and judges. Brown Asians have always been marginalized and looked down upon from even within the culture. When I see this enacted in the communities I love, it’s upsetting. We can definitely do better.