I’ve spent a lot of time writing about ways we can keep Halloween fun and interesting without relying on the tired old sexist, and sometimes racist, tropes. But it’s worth noting that there are a lot of pitfalls out there, especially if you’re in the market for a pre-packaged costume.
Here’s my nominees for the Costume Hall of Shame:
1. Ethnic Appropriations
You know what is fun? Dressing up as an interesting or important person from history, like say Ching Shih, a famous Chinese pirate from the 18th century, or the amazing painter Frida Kahlo. You know what’s not cool and can actually be racist? Dressing up as a stereotypical representation of an entire race or ethnicity. You can’t dress up as “Native American” because Native American is a term that represents hundreds of different nations and tribes scattered all across our country. There isn’t one type of Native American just like there isn’t one type of white person or black person or Latino … and so on. Reducing an entire, varied, multicultural group of people to one stereotype that is made into a Halloween costume? It’s not just lame, it’s incredibly offensive. The same goes for Geisha and “Spanish Princess,” below. Don’t do this.
2. Body policing
Costumes that encourage fat-shaming, negative body stereotypes, and otherwise uphold the status quo of an impossible beauty myth can be incredibly cruel and possibly damaging. Although this costume says “Tacky Traveler,” with its emphasis on body weight and shirts that ask where the buffet is, the message is clear — it’s okay to make fun of fat people. The funny thing about this particular costume is that you could do a Tacky Traveler costume that is not offensive and maybe even pokes fun at the way that Americans can be really insensitive when they travel — from an expectation that someone will speak English to refusing to show respect for cultural institutions or rules. It’s not the traveler part of this costume that sucks. It’s fat jokes.
3. Strict gender rules
Notice anything about these two screen-shots? It’s all princess all the time for girls and all muscle-bound superheroes for boys. While there is nothing wrong with either types of costume, the question here is why there is such a strict gender code. If there’s one thing Halloween is about, it is the freedom to be silly and to even question the conventional rules. Why not let the boys be princesses and the girls be Iron Man or Superman? Why the discomfort? It’s just make-believe!
In addition, these set up very specific rules about what it means to be a “girl” and what it means to be a “boy.” Remember, kids, gender is a construct. It’s not real. Girl only means “girl” because we decide to agree on certain conditions that equal “girl.” Same for boy. In different cultures and different periods throughout history, gender identities for boys and girls are/were completely different than they are here in America. So how about we give ourselves a break from the strict enforcement of something that isn’t even real — even if it’s just for one night.
4. Sexy Time
I enjoy feeling sexy just as much as the next person, but some of the double-standards that are on display in costumes for Halloween are just plain stupid. Now, if going as a Sexy Cop, such as the image on the left, is your thing — good for you. But if your tastes skew more toward realism and you identify as a woman, well, you’re out of luck. On several websites I looked at, the sexy version of a cop was the only option for the ladies. Much like the princess/superhero situation for kids, it’s not so much that I’m railing against there being a sexy option for grown-ups. It’s that it is the ONLY option for women. There’s something really wrong with that. And oh so limiting.
I started Take Back Halloween when I realized that sexy costumes for women had gone from being an option to being a requirement. None of my friends could find costumes in the stores that weren’t “Sexy” something. I was hearing the same frustration from teenagers and college women, too. What really pushed it over the edge for me was reading posts online from college women who were actually afraid to wear anything that wasn’t sexy. One woman talked about how she was dying to go as Gollum, and she’d come up with a really cool outfit, but she didn’t have the nerve because she knew she’d be ridiculed for not sexing it up. Other women posted about how they had worn non-sexy costumes, only to be harassed and ridiculed by men for “wearing too many clothes.”
People shouldn’t feel limited, or even threatened, out of wearing a costume that feels fun to them — even if that means wearing a lot of clothes as a woman or choosing to go as something that is not sexy-fied.
I know this probably doesn’t need its own category, but I’m doing it anyway. First of all, do we still really have “pimp” costumes in 2013? Secondly, there is so much wrong with this. There’s a not-so-subtle implication here that it’s cool to be a man who sells women’s bodies for sex. And I want to be clear, I am not saying this is bad because sex work is bad. But it’s pretty clear that these pimps aren’t asking if the people who work for them want to be working for them. These pimps are men who have control over the people who work for them, and sex work that is done unwillingly is not okay. Furthermore, I am saying pimp costumes are bad because they are a kind of racist cultural statement. These aren’t just any men who sell women for sex. These are men who wear the appropriated clothes of a 1970s-era African-American pimp, or “Mac Daddy,” as the costume on the left is called. It’s sexist, racist, and just plain tacky.