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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29 thoughts on “Avoiding the Pitfalls of Halloween

  1. Hallowe’en was originally a religious festival, the midway date between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. Like many ancient festivals it was renamed in Christian terms – All Hallows Eve. I’m not offended by this although I’m a Pagan, but the whole dressing-up-scary thing leaves me cold. So I ignore it.

    I agree with you about the racist and sexist stereotypes. It’s good that people are speaking out against these things. But I think there are real limits when it comes to rejecting drag-queen costumes. So far as I’m concerned, people who don’t like DQs can ignore them.

    • I think drag queens, who are mainly about genuine entertainment, are different from men who stick on fake boobs and a skirt for a night and make bawdy jokes, while their mates fall over themselves laughing at the apparently ridiculous spectacle of a man dressed up as a woman. It’s the mocking aspect of it that I find unacceptable.

      • I agree. It’s insulting to suggest that women’s body shapes and clothing are ridiculous. When somebody like me dresses like a woman, I’m not confessing to weakness, just wearing the clothes that fit my body. If somebody with another body shape (a man) dresses like me, he shouldn’t be seen as confessing to weakness.

        Drag queens, as you say, are a different matter. Drag kings are pretty cool too :-) A few years ago I strutted my stuff at Gay Pride in a sequinned miniskirt, a leather basque and a Tina Turner wig, the ony drag queen whose breasts were real.

  2. I’ve always wondered why it’s seen as so hilarious when a man dresses as a woman, but not when it’s the other way around. My concern with halloween costumes is the increasingly genderised kids outfits, partularly the proliferation of sexy costumes for little girls.

  3. Gone are the days of imagination, when folks created their own amazing costumes You’d show up at the event and laugh and giggle & wish you’d thought of being a pizza. The whole world seems to be turning more & more male-female role oriented.
    I’m getting used to that now, and when halloween comes around, I just try to enjoy all the neighbourhood coming to the door dressed silly and asking for candy. It’s the only time we get to meet so many neighbours in one day. I just ignore the sexist costumes, with some sadness.
    On that note, last evening I was in Indigo Books and went to the performing arts section. It was mostly just guys on the covers, but there were at least five books about a sex-symbol, Marilyn Munroe, and otherwise little representation of the many women involved in performing and visual arts. I find more and more that everything is revolving around what men want these days in the entertainment world, and so halloween is no different.
    These days when I go to an event, I usually go as Janis Joplin because I worship her and she’s, my alter-ego. Besides, I’ve got the hair for it.

      • Exactly! I know a young woman, a friend of my son’s who sews a costume for herself every year. Last year she was a giant hand that had something to do with a TV food commercial. This year she sewed herself a dinosaur costume.

        Before computers, people dressed as TV’s surrounding themselves in painted, cut cardboard boxes. A couple I knew went to an event dressed as pair of boobs, but they weren’t very sexy. They made these themselves & it was just totally imaginative. My son, a few years ago went to high school for halloween dressed as a condom. I helped him put the costume together, but the school didn’t like it too much. Hey, they talk openly about condoms in sex ed class, but don’t dare show up as one.

        About the men dressing as women: when I was a teenager back in the 60′s/70′s, we had a bridal shower in our home for a relative. Men weren’t invited and my dad thought that wasn’t fair. So he went & got himself all dressed up in my mom’s clothes, with panty-hose & high heels that were much too small, put on some makeup, and somehow found himself a wig. We doubled over laughing and let him stay & eat all the cookies & cake he wanted. I believe a few of the other male relatives joined us. My dad’s costume was a much needed diversion from the usual serious and boring all-women-tea-drinking tension. I guess it was simply his determination that motivated him, and a sense of unfairness. I totally agreed with him.

  4. I do get tired of the entirely sexual costumes. There are times when I want to be a sexy nurse, but there are times when I want to be a scary nurse. I can buy one costume; I’d have to create the other. While creating is more fun, it does get tiresome that society and manufacturers don’t seem to think other options other than sexy are valid.

    • I do like Jenna Marbles videos, she’s hilarious =) I think there’s a tightrope that we walk when we criticise the hyper-sexualisation of women’s Halloween costumes, without slut-shaming women who do choose to wear those sexy costumes. And Jenna hits the nail on the head when she points out the senselessness of women hating other women for wearing revealing costumes. At the same time though, I think the basic assumption of Halloween = Halloween ‘sluts’ (female), and that’s all fun and games, ignores gender relations that lead to it in the first place. I strongly believe that women should have the choice to wear whatever they want and not be shamed for it, but I also believe we need to examine these ‘choices’ a little more carefully.

  5. These have all bothered me in the run up to this Hallowe’en. I don’t like the fact that as a woman all the costumes are revealing – surely you can be sexy in other ways too? Or you could have the choice to dress up in a way that is scary!

    • Hmm, interesting point. I think a vampire is more of a mythological supernatural figure (originating from many cultures), and not so much a stereotype of (human) ethnicity. I guess it’s true that one of the biggest influences on vampire mythology today is Stoker’s novel Dracula, which has linked the idea of vampires to the Romanians. But I think Dracula’s nationality was incidental to his vampire nature, and not the cause of it. And looking at vampire trends in today’s society – Twilight, True Blood, etc, full of Caucasian vampires – I don’t think it is tied to a particular ethnicity.
      I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts though.

      • Sure, there are modern vampires that aren’t ethnic stereotypes. But the classic vampire concept includes a Eastern European accent – “I vahnt to suck your blut”. The Count from Sesame Street shows that even children are familiar with the concept. I don’t actually think that vampire costumes are offensive to Eastern Europeans. It’s just an illustration that ruling out any costume that changes your ethnicity is far too strict. You can’t dress up as a Roman soldier without being Italian, or Cleopatra without being Greek, or Chingachgook without being Mohegan?

        • I think there’s a difference between dressing up as a character who happens to be of a certain ethnicity, but whose race is not their defining attribute (eg. Cleopatra or Bruce Lee) and dressing up as a racial stereotype.

  6. I went looking for a costume for my little one (she’s 3) and was genuinely surprised and disgusted by the very sexualized costumes for pre-teens and adolescents! If the entire “girl’s” section wasn’t full of a lot of pink princess skirts and sparkles, it had offensively low-cut skirts and photos on the packaging of young girls with their hips cocked out and a pout on their faces. We picked up a Mater costume from Disney’s Cars (perhaps evil in its own way) and she loves it, so I can relax for another year.

    • I haven’t seen Cars; googled it and think Mater looks cute =) Have you checked out the link posted in a comment above, about how sexualised young girls’ costumes have become? So sad. Genuinely worried for the hordes of little girls out there who are constantly sent the message that their bodies are their most important asset.

  7. Speaking of racism, I find the term “non-white” insulting as a woman of color. When you say “non-white”, it makes out whiteness to be the default and all other skin colors to be out of the ordinary. It implies that whiteness is most desirable and helps to uphold racism.

    • I know exactly where you’re coming from and you know what, I actually have the opposite feeling; I use ‘non-white’ because I have problems with the phrase ‘women/people of colour’. (I am one myself, by the way) I feel that the term ‘women of colour’ lumps us all into one group – whether we’re latina, east asian, south asian, black, native american, etc – when we’re all so different. It’s a label that marks us as the ‘Other’, separate from ‘normal’ white people. So I find ‘non-white’ troubles me less, because I’m simply referring to what we are not: we are not part of the privileged race and are therefore subject to racism. This distinguishes us from white people. But I think that ‘non-white’ doesn’t make us a group, whereas ‘people of colour’ does.

      Not trying to tell you what you should or shouldn’t call yourself, by the way. Just expressing my own personal feelings on the matter, and why I don’t feel comfortable using it.

  8. Pingback: Tis the Season to be “Sexy”: The sexualization of women on Halloween. | gladieux10

  9. Pingback: Tis the Season to be “Sexy”: The sexualization of women on Halloween. | WGSS 2230:

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