Right now the cosplay community is in a uproar about race and what is and is not okay to do regarding a costume. I personally am not a fan of anyone trying to force their opinions on another person. But I would like to try and help the community better understand an issue before they begin preaching on it.
Today’s topic: Blackface vs. Painting one’s skin for character accuracy.
Is there a difference? Yes, there is.
Now before we move on, I would most sincerely like to say that I am in no way trying to tell anyone how they should think or feel about cosplayers painting their skin for accuracy. I do not wish to silence or erase anyone’s feelings on whether they feel it is okay or not okay. The point of this post is to show the difference between painting one’s skin and historical blackface/brownface from a theater makeup perspective. I want people to better understand even just a little bit where this comes from.
What is blackface?
Webster’s dictionary: makeup applied to a performer playing a black person especially in a minstrel show; also : a performer wearing such makeup
The key words in both of these is “minstrel show”
What is a minstrel show? “an American entertainment consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in blackface or, especially after the Civil War, black people in blackface. Minstrel shows lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky, and musical. The minstrel show began with brief burlesques and comic entr’actes in the early 1830s and emerged as a full-fledged form in the next decade.”
Yes, it’s true. African-American Minstrel shows also existed. Where some African-American performers painted themselves in blackface. Don’t ask me why I’m just pointing out that this is also a thing that happened in history.
Is this information offensive? Yes. But this did happen in history. Blackface and brownface alike are forms of theatrical makeup used to create a stereotype of a culture. It is intended to be demeaning and horribly offensive to that culture. It uses not only means of skin painting, but also the presentation of said character to portray that culture poorly through context, actions, physical features, and story.
Blackface has a very specific style of makeup application. The paint is most clearly seen on the face with sections of the mouth and edges of the eyes left unpainted. The mouth was left unpainted to exaggerate the mouth and to make fun of the large lips that many African-American people have. The edges of the eyes were left unpainted for a similar reason, to make them look bigger.
Here are some examples of blackface:
This is what blackface looks like. Is it wrong what people did in the past to portray this ethnic group? Definitely. It is not something that can be forgiven easily.
Brownface makeup application would differ a bit from blackface makeup application because of the desire to exaggerate different features for the purpose of creating a stereotype. Often in brownface, the nose is exaggerated and a mustache is usually included in the stage makeup as well. Changing the person’s teeth through means of blackening a tooth out or changing the color to gold was common as well They are also often wearing a wide-brimmed hat.
Here are some examples of brownface: http://brown-face.com/
That link shows several examples of Hispanic stereotypes but only one of the images is a “true” brownface (as in a “white” person trying to portray a stereotype of a person of Hispanic ethnicity.) It also dives in to how Hispanic ethnic groups have suffered in their own right through media’s poor stereotypes of them. I highly enourage reading the website. I admit it’s not the most academic site out there but it concisely shows and breaks it down. It’s an enlightening read.
This is a modern example of brownface:
That is Ashton Kutcher in brownface. He is wearing a prosthetic nose and a fake mustache and I think there’s a gold tooth in there too. This is brownface. And yes, he did piss off a lot of people doing this. He is clearly showing the stereotype of a person of Hispanic origins and was not attempting to compliment that ethnic group either.
This has been a very VERY short introduction into the history of blackface and brownface. These makeup styles are offensive and that is the purpose of those makeup styles. To offend, degrade and cast a stereotypical view of an ethnicity. I highly enourage you to keep reading about how these makeup forms and how media have affected POC throughout history up through the present. They have every right to be entirely offended by it because it has not gone away (example: M. Knight’s total whitewashing of The Last Airbender protagonists and the villian being of Hindu Indian ehtnicity. What a great message to send to the world that is trying to make racial equality happen. While I do not question Dev Patel’s acting skills, I would have preferred to see him as a waterbender if I had to choose a nation for him. /tangent)
Now, here is where we go back to the issue at hand
Cosplayers who paint their skin for a character are not in blackface or brownface.
As you can see, blackface and brownface are very distinctive makeup styles.
This is NOT blackface or bownface:
IchigoKitty as Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. IchigoKitty is a very pale girl. On her website it says that she painted her skin. It is CLEAR she is not attempting to degrade anyone with this costume. She just wanted to make her costume accurate to the character. There is no prosthetic nose, or bad teeth or degrading composition of the image. This is different from brownface. Are you still allowed to feel offended that she painted her skin? Of course you are. Are you allowed to feel no offense to the costume? Yes, of course.
CourtoonXIII as Katara. This poor girl has been given so much heartache for changing her skin color for Avatar costumes and many people have told her that she is wearing brownface. She is NOT IN BROWNFACE. Please refer back to the previous examples of deliberate brownface. She is not wearing an overlarge nose or any gold teeth or a wide-brimmed hat! She did not compose her photo in a way that attempts to belittle or hurt an ethnic group. She wanted to make her costume as accurate as possible so she painted her skin darker to make that happen. However, it is okay if you disagree with her decision to paint her skin. That debate is not what this post is about. Remember, it is about seeing the difference in theatrical makeup styles.
Sylar of aicosu as Fenris. Clearly this is painted skin for an ethnicity that doesn’t exist. (Oh wait, the water tribe from the Avatar universe is also an ethnicity that doesn’t exist either!) But none the less here is someone who painted their skin darker to capture the accuracy of the selected character. It is neither brownface or blackface, nor does this image make a deliberate and obvious attempt to degrade an ethnic group through its composition.
Now, if I still have you with me, then I hope you are better equipped to differentiate between what is offensive in the cosplay community and what isn’t. 99% or what you see isn’t offensive and does not intend offense. So please try to reign in the immediate urge to point fingers and make accusations. We’re all just people celebrating our love of sewing, characters and fun hobbies.
This above paragraph, I was very wrong for saying it. I am going to keep it here without edits because I am responsible for saying and writing it and wish to convey my deepest apologies for it.
I do hope that I have helped people learn a little bit about where the dark and evil history of blackface and brownface come from and why it is such a sensitive issue. I enourage everyone to find out more about it in any way they can. I also hope that folks will also be able to see how blackface/brownface/any-face is different in a makeup standpoint from what the cosplayers are trying to do for their costumes. I realize many people feel that a person’s race should not be treated like an accessory and I am making no motions to argue that with you. Why I wanted to show the difference is because accusing someone of brownfacing is a very serious thing. Mislabeling what someone is doing as brownface/blackface is just as offensive as the painting/darkening of their skin is for others. Please use the words with extreme caution as they should not be lightly thrown around.
2nd edit: I have made an attempt to correct my language use to sound less offensive. My offensiveness overshadowed the point of the post.
Hello again, It has been brought to my attention that I may have come off rather incorrectly in my post. There have been folks who have notified me that I come off as if I’m trying to silence or erase other’s opinions on the subject with academic jargon. That is not the case and I sincerely apologize that I came off that way. (E.G. the above paragraph where I in fact did start imposing my opinion.) I have been called out on that and I admit to it. My sincerest apologies. I am only human.
Allow me to try and sum up what I was trying to say all along: Yes there is a difference between blackface/brownface and cosplayers painting themselves for accuracy. There are distinctive characteristics to those particular makeup applications that differ from just darkening the skin. HOWEVER People are competely entitled to sill feel offended by the practice of darkening one’s skin for a character and people are also entitled to take no offense whatsoever. You are all people who think for yourselves. Thinking is good. Feeling is good.
What I urge you, even beg you, to do is to be extremely careful when using the terms brownface and blackface. Calling a cosplayer racist and saying they’re in brownface is incorrect. Being offended because they painted their skin and it REMINDS you of brownface, or hits too close to brownface is more accurate. Why does accuracy matter? Because pointing fingers and saying they are in brownface is just as insulting and offending to the cosplayer as their painted skin is to you. We are all people and we think differently from one another. You have a right to be offended just as I have a right not to be offended by it.
At this time I would also like to invite anyone with additional arguments to feel free to write up your own blog post presenting your own argument backed by some kind of research. I really would like to read it.
Lastly I would like to say this: Our ethnicities do not determine the quality of our minds and our thoughts. I personally feel it should not limit our abilities in the cosplay world either, but I know there are those who have a different view and disagree with me. (I can’t please everyone.)
Best of luck. I wish you all the best.
Blackface photos were located through the google search engine.
cosplayer photos came from www.deviantart.com and costume information was gathered from each cosplayer’s personal website if it did not already come from the information provided in the description on dA.
If any of the cosplayers in this post wish me to remove their image from this post, please let me know and I will do so.
I realize that there is a LOT of additional information on this topic and how it applies to modern times. If you wish to discuss it further, be my guest. I will not tolerate any hate mail nor will I respond to messages describing how wrong I am or what a horrible person I am for making this post. If you wish to make a correction because I misquoted something or add your own sources to the post then I am very open those messages. Thank you.