Avoiding the Pitfalls of Halloween

With Halloween just around the corner, the time has come to navigate the minefield that is choosing a costume. Dressing up for Halloween can be fun, but it has, to some extent, morphed from being a scarefest into a hotbed for casual racism and sexism. Here are three issues surrounding Halloween costumes which bother me.

Dressing up as a racial stereotype

I’m actually astounded that some people think of these as legitimate Halloween costumes. White people dressing up as Asian geishas, African-American pimps, Arab terrorists, and so on, is rude and downright offensive. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the lived reality of the lives of non-white people, and an insensitivity to the way our lives are negatively affected by the very stereotypes being perpetuated for the sake of a few laughs. It contributes to the othering and marginalisation of racial minorities by portraying us as a separate species, to be parodied and summed up by one outfit, stripped of individual differences.

A group of students from Ohio University called “Students Teaching About Racism in Society” (STARS) have started a campaign against such costumes. Their posters are very powerful, and have gained lots of publicity:

(all pictures are from STARS)


How to avoid this: Easy – steer clear of racial costumes.

Men dressing up as ‘sexy’ or ‘ugly’ women for a joke

From Fancy Dress Ball – The Online Fancy Dress Shop

Sadly, this doesn’t happen only on Halloween. In the UK, a skirt, wig, high heels, fake boobs and make up is an oh-so-funny get-up for male university students, whenever a costume is required. The hilarity depends on the indignity that we perceive to be inherent in a man dressing as a woman, and the more sexualised the costume, the funnier it is supposed to be. Or they sometimes just turn to mocking women who don’t conform to patriarchal ideals of beauty; that works for them too:

From Halloween Spirit

I must be clear that I am not referring to trans women here, or men who like to cross-dress occasionally. I am talking about the outfits that you see in the pictures above, and others like them, that are clearly meant to be ridiculous, and to elicit guffaws from all their lad friends.

How to avoid this: If you’re a man genuinely wishing to dress up as a female character, (and make sure it is a female character, not just ‘Woman’,) do it in all seriousness, and spend the night urging others to critically analyze why they might find it funny. Otherwise, just stick to vampire/monster/skeleton.

The epidemic of sexy female costumes

Have a browse through some Halloween costumes online, or take a trip to your nearest costume shop. Then see how spot-on this cartoon is:

A man’s costume can be scary, funny, weird or disgusting, but God forbid a woman be anything but sexy! I’ve seen this framed as simply a Halloween issue, and indeed I’m writing about it in the context of Halloween costumes, but the problem extends much further than that. Moving away from the realm of costumes, we see this phenomenon in every aspect of our lives. It isn’t enough for a woman to be a world-class athlete, a comedian, a CEO, or a politician, she must never forget her duty to appear attractive at all times. This is why it makes sense for media outlets to report on the figure of Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo; for people to mock Olympic gold-medallist Leisel Jones for being ‘fat’; for hecklers to insult Hillary Clinton’s appearance. Last time I checked, physical attractiveness was not a competency required to be a successful athlete, CEO or Secretary of State. Unless, of course, you’re a woman in a patriarchy. Then it’s always required.

Solution: If, like me, you’re tired of the mandate to be constantly sexualised, focus on being scary or funny this Halloween. Non-sexualised costumes for women are few and far between, but they do exist, together with unisex costumes that are pretty ace. Or if you’re feeling creative, DIY is a great way to go.

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Happy Halloween!

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Why We Cannot Eradicate Homophobia by Ignoring the Nick Griffins of the World

If you’re from the UK, you’ve probably heard about Nick Griffin’s infamous tweet by now, in which he publicised the address of a gay couple who had just won compensatory damages for being discriminated against at a B & B. The tweet(s) read, “So Messrs Black & Morgan, at [their address]. A British Justice team will come up to Huntington & give you a…” “…bit of drama by way of reminding you that an English couple’s home is their castle. Say No to heterophobia!”

For those not from the UK, Nick Griffin is the leader of the British National Party, a far-right political party famed for its extreme anti-immigration views, its denial of the holocaust, and its racist, sexist and homophobic ideology. They have advocated for the repeal of anti-discrimination legislation, would like to not only stop all immigration to the UK, but to reverse it, and have been known to drop bags full of excrement in the letterboxes of South Asian families.  Not content with being merely racist, the BNP have also displayed their sexism and homophobia. Some quotes from its members (some now ex-members) include, “Rape is simply sex,” “Some women are like gongs, they need to be struck regularly,” and references to gay people as “AIDS monkeys” and “bum bandits.”

A pleasant bunch then. Fortunately, they have little support from the majority of British people, and are generally spoken of with loathing. Following Nick Griffin’s tweets encouraging his supporters to harass the couple at their home, Twitter users were quick to condemn his actions, as well as his views in general. The media, too, wrote of him disapprovingly, and the public has rallied around the couple to express their support.

So far, so good. However, I am wary of the tendency to portray Griffin and his ilk as anomalies, as villains who have nothing to do with the rest of us ‘good folk’, and whose ideas and actions can be simply ignored. If we do so, then we avoid critical analysis of our society, and we ignore the underlying prejudices that enable such extreme ideas to germinate in the first place.

To illustrate, let’s examine the causes of homophobia. In my opinion, there are four main facets to this.

1. Religious beliefs. If people take the Bible, Qur’an, or other religious texts to be true, they come to believe that homosexuality is morally wrong. This translates into disapproval of both lesbians and gay men.

2. A sense of male entitlement to female bodies. This generally leads to the fetishising of lesbian activity for the male gaze and male pleasure, which can quickly turn into hate and anger when a lesbian denies them this ‘right’, or shows herself to be completely indifferent to male sexual approval.

3. Credit for point number 3 comes from an internet meme, which defined homophobia as “the fear that gay men will treat you the way you treat women.” This is applicable only to homophobia directed at gay men, and succinctly explains the fear and disgust that some straight men feel at the thought of being hit on by another man.

4. Rigid gender roles, combined with the valuing of the masculine over the feminine. Again, this last point is only applicable to gay men, who are frequently the brunt of ridicule, especially from straight men. When society operates with the conviction that traditionally masculine traits are superior to traditionally feminine ones, then men who choose to engage in activities that we associate with women – such as shopping, knitting, ballet-dancing, baking, playing with dolls, or in this case, having sex with men – are degrading themselves. By not conforming to usual ideas of what a manly man should be, they have let their fellow men down, and have forfeited their lad card.

Is Nick Griffin the only one to perpetuate homophobia? Are homophobic ideas confined to the BNP and their supporters? Of course not. I could give you a million examples of complicit homophobia taken from a dozen different sources. Or I could just turn to some of the tweets that, far from supporting his views, were actually angrily condemning Nick Griffin.

“Now then @nickgriffinmep you small penis lard bucket, fuck off you boring bastard, everybody hates you! #racistbastard”

“@nickgriffinmep you’re a fanny”

“@nickgriffinmep why do you continue to speak against homosexuality and against Islam… Be a man.”

“this man is so gay he’s the epitome of gay”

“he’s probably cross dressing secretly in his loft”

Now don’t get me wrong. I know that their heart is in the right place, and applaud their willingness to speak out against Griffin’s atrocious opinions. But I also find them interesting as a snapshot of societal norms, where slurs on a man’s masculinity (“small penis”, “be a man”) are insults that we hardly think twice about, and where the word ‘gay’ is still accepted as a way to poke fun at someone. Going back to the causes of homophobia I outlined above, these comments are symptoms of the fourth point, and inadvertently contribute to the very thing they wish to deride. It speaks volumes about the deep-rootedness of sexism and homophobia, that it even finds its way into the language of people who are in support of gay rights.

To truly abolish homophobia and other nastiness, it’s not enough to dismiss Nick Griffin and his kind as pariahs, while remaining complicit in the culture that continues to churn such people out. Rather, we should take it as an opportunity to examine why they think the way they do, and why they have enough of a following to form a legitimate political party. We can kick Nick Griffin out of the political landscape, but if we don’t take steps to revolutionise society itself, then we can be sure that someone else will soon pop up to take his place.

International Day of the Girl

The 11th of October is International Day of the Girl. Today, we raise our voices in support of girls worldwide, and pledge to double our efforts to invest in their future. Not only will today go down in history as being the first ever Day of the Girl, it is also made especially poignant by the case of Malala Yousafzai, who lies unconscious in hospital, having been shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out about the importance of girls’ education.

Reading about the tragedy two days ago, I kept thinking of a picture I had seen a while ago, and I decided to look for it again:

 

And that’s what the Taliban’s actions have revealed in the end – fear. Because Malala is not just any 14-year-old girl. By publicly condemning the actions of the Taliban and advocating for the education of girls, she represents an idea, a spark towards real social change. And by making an attempt on her life, the Taliban have revealed that they, too, know just how powerful she is.

On this day, then, let her be an inspiration to us all, and while she is silent, let us be her voice, and multiply her message a million times over. Let us express outrage at how 140 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation. How every year, about 10 million girls are married before the age of 18. How women in South Africa are more likely to be raped than to learn to read. How at least one out of every three women worldwide has been abused in her lifetime by someone known to her.

But outrage is not enough. We need to join the fight alongside women and girls everywhere, and there is no better weapon against all this than the education of girls. Please watch this incredibly moving video from It Only Takes a Girl:

 

To take action for girls, please visit the links below:

Because I am a Girl – Plan UK

The Girl Effect

Campaign for Girls

UNICEF – Girls’ Education Campaigns

Girl Up

The Working Group on Girls

The Elders

Most importantly, let’s not let the cause be confined to one day in a year. Every day and every girl matters in the struggle for full gender equality.

The Kissing Sailor, Part 2 – Debunking Misconceptions

Since writing this post about The Kissing Sailor, its reach has completely exceeded all my expectations, and has generated more discussion on my blog than ever before. As I read the comments though, I come across a couple of misunderstandings, and though many excellent people have responded with clarification, I see the same misconceptions popping up again and again.

So I thought I’d clear up some confusion once and for all. Here are some of the most common misconceptions.

Misconception #1: That kiss happened in a different time! How can you judge him using modern values?

The purpose of my original post was not to demonize George or to recommend that he be packed off to prison. A user on Reddit called MBlume gave a succinct response to someone who had Misconception #1. I’ll post it here:

“You’re…completely missing the point. The point isn’t that it happened. The point is that there’s three modern articles discussing the picture, all of which basically quote the woman in the picture as stating that it was sexual assault, and in none of the articles does the editorial voice acknowledge that that’s fucked up.”

This is spot on. Thanks, MBlume.

Misconception #2: Greta herself doesn’t call it a violation and actually seems alright with it. So your argument is invalid.

Indeed, in an interview given to Patricia Redmond, Greta does not seem traumatised by the kiss, and describes the fame that resulted from the photo in a positive manner.

However, I do think it’s worth taking into account that, even in today’s society, there is a lot of pressure on women to smile and get along, to ‘let boys be boys,’ to accept unwanted sexual contact like groping or kissing, and not to make a big deal out of it. Many of the comments have confirmed this, with gems like, “It’s just a kiss, get over it,” and how women should “stop whining” about such matters. In Greta’s case, the pressure would undoubtedly be much higher.

But one thing Greta consistently asserts is that the kiss was sudden, that she was grabbed before she even became aware of his presence. Her remarks about his strength and “vice grip [sic]” don’t sound like the words of someone who had enjoyed the kiss. The fact is, consent was not given, and her feelings about it afterwards don’t change the nature of what George did. To give an extreme example, if you were to kidnap and torture someone, only to find out later that you’d just fulfilled their deepest fantasy, does that make you less culpable?

Misconception #3: The picture on your site is not the original photo. What’s going on? Is this a trick?

Well no, it’s not a trick. Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photographer, took a couple of shots over a 10 second period, in various stages of the kiss. In one of the comments isalu507 provided some links, showing the photos in chronological order:

As isalu507 points out, the third picture shows Greta further on in the kiss, with her left hand clenched in a fist up against George’s face, seemingly pushing him away. I had never seen that photo before, and found it really interesting.

(edit: commenter ‘timd’ has provided some links showing that this is in fact the first photo of the series, not the last)

Misconception #4: People celebrated this photo as an icon; for a long time no one knew the story behind it. So how can you say that our celebrating it was a result of rape culture?

I’m not saying that at all. Most people believed that it was a picture of a couple, expressing their joy after the war. I don’t blame them. What I was referring to when I spoke of rape culture was the silence on the part of the news articles on the subject of Greta’s non-consent, even while publishing quotes from her which make it clear that George had simply grabbed her. This ignoring of inconvenient truths in favour of maintaining the illusion of romance is symptomatic of rape culture.

Misconception #5: Rape culture? The sailor never raped her. We shouldn’t compare this to rape, since that diminishes the experience of actual rape victims.

I think there are two misconceptions embedded in this. Firstly, just because George hadn’t raped Greta doesn’t mean it’s no big deal, nor does calling it out as sexual assault diminish the experience of rape victims. Yes, there are different levels of every crime, and no one is trying to say that the experience is the same across the entire spectrum of sexual assault. But they do stem from the same culture, and just because there are greater evils does not mean we should just ignore the lesser ones.

Also, many seem to be confused as to what is meant by the term ‘rape culture’. Our living in a rape culture doesn’t mean that everyone thinks rape is fantastic. What it does mean is a culture where rape and other forms of sexual violence are normalised, to be expected. It’s a culture where attitudes towards women’s bodies and attitudes towards perpetrators combine to tolerate and condone sexual violence, even while we pay lip service to the monstrosity of rape. It’s a culture where victims are criticised for their choice of clothing, their behaviour, and their sexual freedom, as though they are partly to blame for their fate. It’s a culture where women’s bodies are public property; they undergo scrutiny in the media, and weight gain in female celebrities like Christina Aguilera or Lady Gaga seems like a justification to hurl abuse at them. And the fact that Greta’s comments were given no attention in the news articles is certainly a manifestation of rape culture, contributing to and reflecting it.

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I’m sorry that the term ‘rape culture’ makes people uncomfortable. But perhaps it’s time we stopped being comfortable. After all, it is when we start to acknowledge that society isn’t as perfect as we thought it was, that progress can be made.