Costume Mirrors: Halloween and beyond

Halloween continues to haunt, as this recently circulated photo of a “Mexican-themed” Penn State sorority party made national headlines, sparking familiar outrage, calls for the university to take action, and a student group march.

While stereotypical representations occur throughout the year, on Halloween these masks, not of ghosts and monsters, but of people and cultures, rear with a truly scary mass acceptability. Cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall reminds us that stereotypes are part of the maintenance of the social and symbolic order – they tend to occur where there are gross inequalities of power, and serve to naturalize inequity.  What do trends in Halloween costumes teach us about our current national obsessions, fears, issues, shadows, projections? Is there a relation between Chi Omega’s offensive Halloween representations of Mexicans, with signs that say “Will mow lawn for weed + beer” and “I don’t cut grass I smoke it” and the realities of state targeting of immigrants, racial profiling, and devastation of families – in other words, dressing up as people at a time of escalating discrimination, immigrants’ rights movements, and people crossing the border or dying in the attempt, to work?

$6 billion was spent on the 2012 election, the most expensive in history. Outrageous, except when you consider we spent $7 billion on Halloween.  No one does consumerized holidays quite like U.S.  A time of incredible creativity, expression, humor, spookiness, weirdness, subversion, streets filled with galaxies of characters and cultural references.  How does consumer culture channel the most expressive holiday of the year into old, tired channels of gendered and racial stereotypes? Channels that seem to narrow more and more, colonizing expansive imagination, dictating what is “edgy” or “fun”.  This year, I was struck by how many people and groups were calling out these trends and their effects, from analysis to Halloween PSAs, on the illuminating relation between how we choose to dress up, what choices are being marketed, and how stereotypes that reinforce racism, homophobia and sexism are sold along with the costumes.  Let’s look back.

Sexist Dreamworlds:

Communications professor and founder of the Media Education Foundation Sut Jhally created the term “dreamworlds” from his influential and widely used Dreamworlds: Desire, Sex and Power in Music Video, which “examines the stories contemporary music videos tell about girls and women, and encourages viewers to consider how these narratives shape individual and cultural attitudes about sexuality…offers a unique and powerful tool for understanding…how pop culture more generally filters the identities of young men and women through a dangerously narrow set of myths about sexuality and gender. In doing so, it inspires viewers to reflect critically on images that they might otherwise take for granted.” (Media Education Foundation) The video collage of hundreds of images make plain the formulaic mold that female artists must fit into as they enter a constructed “dreamworld” where what it means to be female or feminine is to have most or all aspects of one’s personality, humanity or existence, all crowded out by sexual objectification.

For Halloween, many people are increasingly calling out this heterosexist “dreamworld” effect that is taking over, such as the annual Sexy What?.  This is not to deny how great it can feel to sexy it up for Halloween, nor a lack of appreciation for hotness for all genders.  But almost all costumes for girls and women are reduced to the “sexy version” of something, to the point of absurdity – as if that is the utmost expressive edge – and increasingly for young women, teens and girls.

At a White Noise dialogue on “Witches”, someone mentioned they saw a costume for “sexy corn”, a husk of corn with a waistline and curves.  Who knew corn could be or had to be sexy? Unfortunately, due to California’s Prop. 37 not passing, sexy corn will not have to be labeled as genetically modified.

What is going on when this becomes the dominant, expected, massively desired or only way to be? Not just “a” thing but “the” expected thing, and within that, while there are a million different ways to express sexiness, what is being sold and worn is mostly a one-note one-dimensional Playboy Bunny-ified version of whatever the character may be, at some point seeming to all be variations on the same costume.  The contrast with male costumes is about as binary as can be. Images collected at the FuckNoSexistHalloween Costumes Tumblr say it best (note: the whiteness of the models).

As John Berger famously said, in looking at histories of European oil painting and contemporary advertisements, “men act, women appear”.

One great imagination-rescuing PSA music video came out to remind and inspire us of other ways to dress up: Things You Can Be On Halloween Besides Naked!!!

And as always, the delight of reversals, thanks to photoshop:

Gendered Halloween costumes in an extreme binary, the choices and parent anxieties surrounding them, can also teach us about how the intertwined nature of sexism and heterosexism function, as shown in this video with a secret camera in Spirit Halloween, documenting parents’ judgements and fears when their boy wants to be Belle and girl wants to be Spiderman. What assumptions are made about boys’ wish to be be pretty and magical and girls’ desire to be action sheros?  How can a wide range of gendered expression, within and beyond the binary, be supported?

Racist Nightmares:

I remember a couple years into the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror”, walking by a Halloween store and in the display window, seeing among costumes of ghosts, vampires and monsters, a costume for a Middle Eastern man.  Who is being displayed as scary, sub- or non-human? When do they appear as a trend? With costumes such as “Muslim suicide bomber” and “illegal Mexican alien”, how are people who are being targeted with state violence being made into a nightmare to be dressed up as, made fun of, shown as monstrous? Over our country’s history it may be possible to graph a correlation between white people’s costumes of racial others and what systemic racism those who are being dressed up as are facing.  To bring into this context a quote from Audre Lorde “I urge each one of us here to reach down into the deep place of knowledge inside and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there.  See whose face it wears.”

This year, as in years before, different activist groups put out versions of a social justice “What Not To Wear”, documenting the popularity, insensitivity and impact of dressing up and parading around as racial stereotypes. Colorlines repeatedly helps clear confusion about whether your costume is racist.  Just as there are things you can be besides naked!!!, there are things you can be besides an entitled racist fool.  STARS (Students Teaching About Racism in Society), with their influential “We’re A Culture, Not A Costume” campaign has helped to expand and deepen awareness of what is going on when dressing up.

Hampshire also provided this extremely helpful check-list for understanding and reflection:

To return to the Dreamworlds description, what stories are currently being told by our society about different groups of people? What narratives, and underlying assumptions, are being normalized through stereotyped depictions?

This year, like every year, Native American bloggers, scholars and activists point out the pervasiveness and offensiveness of dressing up as an Indian for Halloween, reducing diverse cultures of First Nations people into caricatures of the mythical past as exoticized costumes of warriors and sexy princesses, such as critique of this instructional video, and others, asking what you are doing when you dress up as an Indian for Halloween.

Native sketch comedy group the 1491s released their PSA, Halloween Responsibly: Think Before You Indian, which generated huge waves of gratitude, controversy, critical dialogue, and reflection.

That being said, it needs to be pointed out that when it comes to dressing up as Native Americans, apparently it can be Halloween any day of the year. *Keep the Hampshire checklist on hand* More will be written on this particular phenomenon which is both very, very old and increasingly trendy.

Looking back, looking forward – to a new year of reclaiming and widening imagination, critical thinking, creativity and expression outside of inherited stereotypes, marketed identity boxes, and narrow societal myths that naturalize injustice and normalize an oppressive status quo.

What different realities can our costumes reflect?



5 thoughts on “Costume Mirrors: Halloween and beyond

  1. And if you decide to go ahead and wear a racist costume, try to site freedom of ‘speech’ or expression, just remember that the person(s) who get(s) in your face about it has the freedom to tell you you’re a racist jerk, too!

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