Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with three women who cosplay as Natasha Romanova, a.k.a. Black Widow, a Russian spy turned superhero and a member of the Avengers, played by Scarlett Johansson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The friends found one another by posting pictures of their costumes on Instagram, and though they’ve never met in person, they’ve traded tips for replicating Johansson’s outfits from the movies and supported one another after their favorite character’s tragic death in the final Avengers film. They plan to meet later this year at a convention—and do a photo shoot, naturally.
Katrina Chapman, 30, a fitness instructor and stay-at-home mom who lives in Las Vegas
Stephanie Crets, 31, an editor for an e-commerce publication who lives in Chicago
Andrea Towers, 37, an associate editor at Nerdist who lives in New York City
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: How did you all get into cosplay? And why Black Widow?
Andrea Towers: Back in 2013 and 2014 I did a few costumes, but they were just like, “I’m going to throw this together for a [convention].” At the time I didn’t really have the support system. I had a lot of friends who were into the same things I liked, but I didn’t know anyone who actually did cosplay. It wasn’t until earlier this year that I decided I wanted to pursue it more seriously. I got super emotional when I realized that Avengers: Endgame was going to be the end [of the story] for a lot of [Marvel movie] characters. Since then, my poor credit card has seen so many terrible purchases.
Katrina Chapman: Amazing purchases.
Andrea: Amazing purchases, terrible for my balance. There are other characters I want to cosplay, but right now I can’t see myself focusing on anyone except Black Widow. Throughout my whole life, Black Widow has been really, really important to me. She has been influential and inspiring, helping me become my best self and deal with a lot of very personal things, like being around a group of men in pretty much every job I’ve had, being the sole woman. And [she helps] me accept my flaws and regrets. I’ve always tried to show my passion for her with writing, but since getting into cosplay I’ve realized that it’s even more empowering to get into her literal shoes.
Beck: So you were a fan of Black Widow even before the Marvel movies, from back in the comics?
Stephanie Crets: I think we all were. I guess I’ve been cosplaying before I even realized it was cosplay. For Halloween, I would always want to [dress up as] a video-game character who was really obscure, and no one knew what I was. Then I discovered conventions. I was 14, I think, when I went to my first one. My grandma would help me make [my costumes], because she was a seamstress and really good at sewing. I didn’t do Black Widow until the Avengers movie came out [in 2012].
Kind of like Andrea, I’ve always gravitated towards Black Widow. The news industry is a lot of men, and you are the only girl in a lot of rooms. She gives me a lot of confidence. In my brain sometimes I’m like, What would Nat do in this situation? And her character has brought me to people like Katrina and Andrea.
Katrina: I didn’t actually start cosplaying Natasha until early 2018. I had been wanting to put together the costume for so long, but it wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing. I was coming at this from a place of I just had a kid, and the idea of getting into that costume … I mean Scarlett Johansson did it, but I am not Scarlett Johansson. But I ended up doing it for one of the most amazing conventions of my life, and it led me to the charity I work with now. [I dress up as] Natasha and go into hospitals and cancer centers. I get to step into her shoes all the time now, and it’s definitely something I’ve drawn strength from in so many parts of my life. Especially being in the fitness world where I’m around a lot of dudes, some of whom aren’t super fun to work with.
Beck: How did you get to know each other? Is it normal for people who play the same character to know each other?
Stephanie: No, I don’t think so. In my experience, I feel like it was always a competition: “Oh, they’re cosplaying the same person as you. Ugh, get away from them.” Or at conventions: “We already have this character in this picture; you can’t be in it.”
Andrea You see a lot of cliques in the cosplay community. Someone is Black Widow and then they join an Avengers group, where they have an Iron Man and a Scarlet Witch and a Thor and whatever.
Stephanie: They cast each other.
Andrea: That’s unavoidable. But what’s been nice about our friendship is that there’s never any competition. We wear the exact same costumes; we dye the exact same wigs. We use the same sources for clothing. Katrina just posted a picture of one of the wigs that she custom-made yesterday, and I wasn’t looking at her Instagram like, Oh my God, you’re so much better than me, I hate it. I said “Awesome, I love this, I can’t wait to see it on you.”
Stephanie: A little over a year ago, I totally refocused my Instagram on cosplay. I started tracking the hashtag for Black Widow cosplay, and I saw Katrina. [That’s how we met.]
Katrina: It was just so nice to share our resources. It made both of us so much better at what we were doing. Pretty early on [Stephanie and I] started calling each other “twin,” because we’re constantly doing the same thing. Actually, all three of us took ridiculous pictures of us eating peanut butter sandwiches [like Black Widow does in Endgame]. We weren’t like, “Oh, she stole my idea.” No one stole anyone’s idea. We all watched the same movie.
Beck: Were there people who were not as welcoming when you started?
Beck: What is look-alike culture?
Stephanie: It’s when you think you’re the best because you look like the actor or actress that portrays that character. It can generate some real negativity.
You can just tell who is genuine. We connect so deeply with the character, and some people are just [cosplaying] because it’s the popular thing to do.
Beck: What kind of tips do you trade with each other? It seems like there is this whole other knowledge base for cosplay. I feel like I could figure out where to get a wig, but with a specialized superhero suit, I would have no idea how to replicate that.
Andrea: As a first-time serious cosplayer, it’s super overwhelming. There are different groups you can join for specific characters where people trade tips about clothing and share their progress. That’s where I found a lot of my resources.
Katrina: Even with wigs, [to replicate Black Widow’s hair in] the Endgame movie, until about a week ago, it wasn’t as simple as buying a wig. There really weren’t a lot of options for it. For some reason, ombre wigs are very difficult for factories to make. I dip-dyed a wig into synthetic fabric dye, which is the same thing Andrea did. I helped her with it.
Stephanie: You guys are braver than me.
Katrina: I’m so glad my kitchen survived. I’m talking about red synthetic dye that could have gotten everywhere and stained everything.
Beck: And her hair in that movie is blond on the bottom and red on the top, so it’s not like you can dip the blond onto the red, which would be easier.
Katrina: Exactly, I just held onto the blond [ends]. You can’t rest it against the pot, or it’s going to melt. I just kind of used the hair to stir the pot of dye. It’s not very precise, but it turned out okay. You never know what weird thing you’re going to do for cosplay.
Stephanie: I live in an apartment, and it’s not very good for prop-making. The night before a convention, I’m usually hunched down in the garage of my building like a little gremlin, spray-painting my pipes or whatever, because I can’t do it in my apartment. And I’ve had people almost run me over.
Katrina: It’s not cosplay if you didn’t make it out of a box of scraps in a cave.
Andrea: I have found a lot of things on Amazon. There’s a top that Black Widow wears in one of the scenes in Endgame. It’s a two-second scene of her in this red shirt. I went on Amazon and looked up maroon long-sleeve shirt and managed to find something pretty similar.
Stephanie: That also illustrates how crazy we are, that we want cosplay things from a scene that’s two seconds long.
Katrina: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that exact thing. If it was on-screen for more than two seconds, I’m doing it, and no one can stop me.
Beck: Maybe this is a dumb question, but once you get your costume together, then what? Is the end goal to take cool photos in it? Or to wear it to a convention so people can see it?
Stephanie: Sometimes it’s just: I really wanted to re-create the scene, so I’m just going to get this outfit together, take some photos, and then just be excited that they exist. Sometimes it’s finishing a suit and wearing it to a convention, and people recognizing, “Oh, you’re Black Widow.” That’s really exciting.
The other part of it is just being happy that you’re that character, no matter if you’re in your apartment or out at a con. I remember I was having a rough week; I got that wig, and all I did was just put it on, and I felt, like, a million times better, like I could go kick someone’s ass. I felt like, I can do anything because right now I’m Nat.
Beck: What do you think overall of Black Widow’s treatment in the Marvel movies? After Endgame came out, a colleague of mine wrote this piece for The Atlantic about how Black Widow was hard done by throughout the whole series, how she didn’t get as much character development as the male heroes. And then at the end of Endgame, she dies sacrificing herself.
Katrina: The ending is heavily contested among Black Widow fans. I found the ending to be satisfying for her arc. She got to do this brave, meaningful thing because she loved her friends. But I’ve also talked to people who hated that ending. I definitely wish she was treated a little better throughout the movies.
Andrea: I spent a lot of time after the movie trying to figure out my feelings. I was upset about it, but I also think it was something that was fitting for her character. She did something for the greater good.
Stephanie: I still find it pretty devastating. I haven’t gotten up the courage to rewatch the movie yet. I don’t know if I can handle that part again. I also believe that it was fitting for her journey. I just wish it didn’t happen. But I think I would be able to accept it better had the other characters done a little more to honor her sacrifice. If they had talked about it for more than a minute. I still love her, and I’m excited for the [forthcoming Black Widow prequel] movie.
Beck: How does sharing a fandom make for a different sort of friendship, and how does having a friend who shares this interest change your experience of being a fan?
Andrea: My entire life I’ve been making friends through fandoms. I got married last year and almost everyone there was someone that I had met through previous fandoms. I’ve been into Rent, Lost, Broadway, Marvel. People who were sitting at tables together would turn to each other and ask, “What fandom do you know Andrea from?” To have people who share your passion makes it so much more fun and fulfilling. I can text Steph and Katrina, “Oh my God, did you see the set photo that posted?” Or “I can’t believe that they used a different wig in this shot.” I know they’ll understand and they won’t be like, “Really? You’re not talking to me about how my day was? You’re talking to me about a wig?”
Stephanie: Being in this Black Widow cosplay fandom with Katrina and Andrea, it’s such a different level. I can say “I’m sad about Nat today.” And they’ll be like “Yeah, I get it, me too.” They don’t make me feel dumb for being upset about our favorite character dying.
Katrina, that weekend you were texting me and being like, “Did you eat today? Did you get enough sleep?” Making sure I was taking care of myself, because I was legitimately depressed after what happened, and I don’t use that term lightly. We all took it a little roughly.
Katrina: I was at a convention, and people would just come up to me and just be like, “Ha, you’re dead.”
Beck: So you three haven’t met yet in person, right?
Katrina: No, we meet at the end of August.
Beck: Where’s the convention that you’re all going to?
Stephanie: Dragon Con is my favorite convention because it’s a big party. It’s five days straight of you hanging out with all of your friends in costumes. It’s the one time of the year that I get to see all of my friends who I never see. I helped organize a Black Widow meet-up one of the nights there.
Beck: All three of you spend a significant amount of time trying to get into the head of this character. Do you think that reveals some similarities about your personalities? Like you each have a Black Widow–ish part of you and that’s what drew you to each other?
Katrina: I’m like the small, dorky parts of Natasha that we get to see every once in a while. Like, she uses emoticons in her texts even though she’s a super-secret spy. She drives down a busy street on a motorcycle and goes, “Beep beep.”
Stephanie: I’m similar in that I try to put on a tough front, but I’m just a big softie. Once you get through my exterior it’s like, “We’re BFFs forever.” Which I think resembles [Black Widow’s] family that she created with her people.
Andrea: I’ve realized I have that same intense drive to do better and be better, in the same way that Natasha feels like she has to be responsible for everything. That’s very much how my mind works, how my personality works. I get caught up in thinking, I have to help someone with this or I have to do this, otherwise I have failed someone. I don’t know if it’s a good trait, but I identify with that driven part of her.
Stephanie: I think we all are people who take the weight of the world on our shoulders, and we can help each other shoulder some of that.
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