October, that time of the year when Halloween is right around the corner and someone or the other is running across town trying to find the right costume. Costumes are fun, playful, and exhilarating but could some of them be disempowerment in disguise?
Costumes may be often used to reinforce gender roles, gender norms, and to ultimately binarily discipline children’s bodies. The emphasis on masculine attire or feminine garments respectively for boys and girls creates a vision of a ‘super’ boy and a ‘super’ girl where one has to be ‘gender appropriate’. Whereas boys’ costumes emphasise success, strength, and power, the ones for girls’ focus on prettiness or attractiveness. This is even true for so-called gender-neutral costumes where the colours of your bunny costume will slightly change depending on one’s gender identity. Yes, the inscription of gender in the very fabric of the festivities restricts choice, shape preferences, and the set rules on what one can and cannot wear.
Yet, for individuals enjoying some gender-bending fashion, Halloween can also be about liberation and expression, especially for young queer folks. It may represent that one night where this little boy will be able to wear a princess dress and sparkles, the night where you can be whoever you want to be! However, the line between a great costume and an offensive one may sometimes be very thin. For instance, while dressing up in drag may very well allow you to experiment with your gender identity or allow you to embrace an iconic figure of pop culture, do consider what kind of stereotypes your portrayal may convey. Drag culture has now permeated the mainstream but trans and gender queer individuals still too often end up being the laughing stock and this simply shouldn’t be.
One must also be aware of the potential cultural appropriation of one’s costume if one co-opts and adopts creative and artistic themes, customs or traditions from a specific minoritised group without acknowledging it. Far too often, this may perpetuate racist and dehumanising stereotypes. Yes, the difference between definitive appropriation and cultural appreciation may be blurry at times but in doubt, ask friends, do your research, or just don’t you know, there are enough outfits to pick from.
Some also pointed out to the sexism ingrained within Halloween costumes where the ones for women are far more revealing and tight as well as offer very few choices if one does not want to embark on the sexy route. Let us be clear, the issue here is not that women wear sexy garments, please have fun ladies, but the problem lies in the restricted choice on display. So limited in fact that not going for a suggestive vibe on Halloween would represent transgressing some kind of unspoken norm. Hence, the fact that the vast majority of costumes for women objectify, sexualise, and infantilise their bodies is problematic, not that women wear sexy outfits.
The underlying narrative seems to imply that women are meant to be objects of admiration and beauty rather than agents of action. This was exemplified by a research conducted by Sullivan, Hipple, and Hyers where they found that only 1% of women’s costumes included a mask as opposed to 35% of men’s costumes (similar statistics for boys/girls). The explanation advanced by their research goes as follows: since girls’ and women’s costumes focus on accentuating the physical attractiveness of the character herself (rather than her costume character), she becomes a featured subject. Hence, these costumes demand women to fulfil beauty ideals of feminine ornamental display where one must not simply be a princess, but must express herself as a pretty princess. By contrast, boys and men are more likely to be expected to simply portray the role/character of their costumes, effectively switching their identities for a few hours, which seems to explain why masks are more prevalent in boys/men costumes.
While dressing up for Halloween can be real tricky, don’t forget that it can also be a real treat. As Oscar Wilde famously said, “A mask tells us more than a face”. So choose your costume adequately, have fun, enjoy, and dance this spooky night away!