Cosplaying With My Kids Helped Me Learn Who I Am As A Parent

One dad learns to embrace who he is—and write himself into the narrative—through cosplaying as comic book characters with his kids.

Navdeep Dhillon and his daughter cosplay as X-Men
Photo: Navdeep Singh Dhillon

Every family has certain traditions that are treated with reverence, like Super Bowl Sunday, Taco Tuesday, or Pizza Friday. While we do take tacos and pizzas seriously in our house, for me and my kids, now 8 and 12, it's all about bonding through cosplay.

At its very basic roots, cosplay means to dress up like a character from whatever you're a fan of (collectively known as the fandom), often taking on their mannerisms, using catchphrases, and staying in character.

When people first see my daughter confidently strutting through the streets of New York in her tinfoil Princess Leia belt, complete with a blaster made out of a banana, they assume I'm the influence.

While I would love to take credit, the truth is that the root of our fandom fun is all her, a fact made evident after a cursory glance in my direction.

I grew up as a Third Culture Kid, which means I spent my childhood in different countries, and still feel slightly unmoored in my own identity. When I became a parent, I didn't have in-built hobbies, and my pop culture references spanned the globe, which made the process of exploring new fandoms and cosplay with my American kids really fun. It meant they got to educate me on movies like Star Wars and school me on the finer points of Avatar: The Last Airbender, cackling gleefully when I was wrong on a storyline or statistic. And I'd often be wrong. (My kids love when I'm wrong.)

Interestingly enough, as a kid, I found solace in another aspect of fandom: fanfiction. When I was younger, I would write myself—a little brown kid—into the narratives I wanted to be a part of, like Ghostbusters, Spiderman, sometimes a mash-up with New Kids on the Block and a dash of Scooby-Doo!

While my son was born into the chaos of glue guns, cardboard costume design, and taking days off from school "due to Comic-Con" (which didn't go over so well with the principal's office!), none of this cosplay life would be happening if it wasn't for the Great Big Tantrum of 2015, when my daughter Kavya was all of 4 years old.

It was New Year's day and the whole family was getting ready to go out for brunch. Kavya was wearing a T-shirt featuring all of the Disney princesses she adored at the time. Quite suddenly, she burst into tears. In-between guttural sobs, she demanded yellow hair "like Rapunzel."

Her grandparents thought it was a regular ole tantrum, and were confused when she started bawling even louder after they pointed out one of the princesses had red hair. But my wife and I knew what was happening. It wasn't about the diversity in hair color. It was the lack of diversity in skin color. It was the idea that she simply didn't belong to the fictional worlds she loved so much.

Most of the princesses she grew up loving were white (thanks Disney!), with the only brown faces—Mulan, Tiana, and Princess Jasmine—always relegated to the background. Her most coveted Princess playset nailed the point: the glamorous white princesses were designed with movable arms and limbs and long flowing dresses, but Tiana, Mulan, and Jasmine kept falling down. Kavya stopped playing with them after a minute.

At all of 4, Kavya had discovered the anguish that being excluded from stories can bring. I understood the academic concepts of mirrors and windows, where a child needs to see a reflection of themselves in the stories they consume, in addition to empathizing and connecting with those different from them through windows. But despite forever being missing from the narrative ourselves, as parents, we had only provided windows. And that was the worst part: we were active participants in our creating daughter's feelings of inadequacy.

Navdeep Singh Dhillon and Kids Cosplay Star Wars
Navdeep Singh Dhillon

That's when I started hunting for different versions of Rapunzel and the other stories my daughter loved. We soon discovered anime and manga with long-haired, brown-skinned girls wielding daggers and swords and an Urdu-speaking superhero who used pencils and books as weapons!

Once Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, a brown girl and shapeshifter from Jersey City, came onto the scene, Kavya's confidence shot through the roof. "My name is Khan" references became commonplace, as well as her unsuccessfully attempting to convince her mother that Kamala Khan cosplayers don't need to brush their hair—which is the lesson she took from the very first issue. She even made her daadima and bhuee sew her the perfect Ms. Marvel cosplay outfit.

Kavya's first proper re-introduction to the world of princesses was through the original Star Wars trilogy one year on May the Fourth, aka Star Wars Day. Canonically, she is General Ortega, but to my daughter, the real star will always be Princess Leia for being awesome and delivering the line, "Why you scruffy looking nerfherder."

But even when it comes to idols like Leia, she's found a way to make it her own. For our very first Comic-Con adventure, 5-year-old Kavya cosplayed as Princess Leia with an oversized white T-shirt from the dollar store and a belt made from foil, her classic buns wrapped in a shiny Punjabi ornamental hair accessory called a parandi. By her side, I'd be assigned the role of a barely recognizable Han Solo or Luke Skywalker. The next day, she was Storm, which made me Wolverine. We were a cosplaying duo. We became a trio when my son Shaiyar was born, as he made a perfect little version of the funny and rebellious R2D2.

Through cosplay, family movie nights, and attending cons, we've had the opportunity to discuss problematic issues in canonical stories with things like gender roles. When my son's daycare told him boys aren't supposed to play with dolls or wear nail polish, Kavya was the first to shut that silliness down. And it was our warm, welcoming cosplay community to the rescue because he saw cosplayers subverting all of these "rules" simply by existing.

The wonderful thing about cosplay is that everyone belongs. Simply existing is often enough to flip the script. There is nothing set in stone. Not gender or body type or skin color or hair color. Everything is fair game. Kavya has added her Punjabi culture to almost every cosplay. It is a very inclusive community, where even a Papa with very limited artistic skills gets equal billing. I'm not the Papa who melts metal or makes realistic armor out of EVA foam. I'm still the dollar store Papa, armed with a glue gun and maybe some sequins for most tasks.

But I've learned a lot as a proud papa to two cosplaying kids. Through them, I've learned to write myself into the story. In fact, the journey inspired my debut novel, Sunny G's Series of Rash Decisions, which is about a cosplaying, crocheting Punjabi Sikh teen going on a prom night adventure to explore his identity with a Hmong teen. Funnily enough, I envisioned both my kids as cosplaying sassy teens in one of the chapters. Of course, by the time it was published, they were both into completely different fandoms than ones I mentioned. They're growing and changing, developing new interests, and I'm learning right alongside them. This week, it's Naruto and Sonic the Hedgehog for my son, but Kavya's still all about May the 4th and the new Ms. Marvel show.

I love seeing both kids exploring their own identities and interests and seeing them so excited about their wildly different fandoms. I love the fact that they can waltz into any room in cosplay knowing they belong. But mostly I love that our bond is always evolving. Cardboard and glitter still litter the floors, and—for now at least—they still need me to load up that hot glue gun.

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