Halloween Can Sometimes Be More Of A Trick Than A Treat

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Halloween is one of my favourite times of the year.  For one night you get to step outside of yourself and embrace a different side of your personality.  Unfortunately for girls many of the costumes that are available purposefully reinforce gender norms. Here we see the classic good girl/bad girl binary.  On a night when a woman or a girl could literally become anything, we are offered  more of the same tired cliches that are meant to discipline our bodies and behaviour.

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Even when boys and girls are offered the same “type” of role, they are noticeable genderized.  What is it about having a vagina that automatically means that you must declare it the world by wearing a cutesy colour? Of course the little girl cannot have a gun because guns are for “real boys”. For a cowboy notices how white her clothing is? She is meant to “play” the role of a cowboy but the boy on the other hand, actually has the possibility of being a believable cowboy.  If both were transferred to a ranch, it is the boy who would immediately be accepted

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Along with reinforcing gender norms apparently Halloween is also a perfect holiday for teaching racial appropriation.  It is not enough that we have decided that it is okay to name sport teams after Native tribes, nooo why not take that one step further and decide that we can play Native for the day for fun.  This is the perfect companion to the lie that children will perform at their yearly Thanksgiving celebrations, when schools conveniently omit the truth of the near genocide of Native peoples.

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Why not compound racism with sexism.  North Americans have often romanticized the “Native Princess“.  She is always a sexualized being who is honoured for her capitulation to whites.  Isn’t it wonderful that for one day a year, women will get to slip into the tantalizing role of the  erotocized ‘other’.  These costumes are a mockery to the history of abuse, rape and murder that Native Women have been subjected to.  That these costumes are all worn by white women who were comparatively deemed pure and womanly when juxtaposed with the “squaw drudge“, makes this cultural cooption that much more awful.

When you go Halloween shopping this year, either for yourself or your child, take the time to think about the message that you are sending with the costume that you choose.  Though this is supposed to be a night of fun, replaying sexist stereotypes or displaying racial privilege by deciding to appropriate the culture of another, is not fun to the bodies that are being targeted.  What message are we sending our children when we teach them that recreating some of the worst aspects of our culture is nothing  but harmless amusement?

Cross Posted from Womanist Musings

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46 Responses to Halloween Can Sometimes Be More Of A Trick Than A Treat

  1. I think we’re honoring our fictional ancestor this year and being pirates.

    Actually, the kids are agitating for me to be an undead prom-queen or a wookiee. I told them if I do Chewbacca, they have to be Han, Luke and Leia (which actually would look right).

    Excellent points.

  2. prairielily says:

    When women dress up as witches, are we falling prey to the same phenomenon? I’m thinking of the Salem Witch Trials specifically.

    I don’t usually dress up, because I’m lazy, but does anyone have any good costume ideas that don’t fall in this trap?

  3. Kat says:

    prairielily: I personally don’t care if someone thinks my witch costume is sexist, I’m not giving it up. If anything I think it’s at least a bit more rebellious than, say, dressing like a Playboy bunny for Halloween.

  4. victoria says:

    Reminds me of an old infographic from The Onion, where all the top female costumes were just some variation of sexy:


  5. Fatemeh says:

    LOL don’t get me started on Halloween, especially the racist + sexist costumes. I did a whole post on Orientalist costumes last year:


    I miss being a kid during Halloween. Free candy always beats skimpy costumes.

  6. merrua says:

    Hallow’een is racial racial appropriation a little in america though? Its from the old irish festival of samhain a feast of harvest and the dead.

  7. Alex says:

    And don’t forget, Halloween is also about sexualizing children.

  8. *dons flameproof protective gear*

    Maybe you could go dressed as 1970s bra-burners?


    (Yes, it’s a joke in extremely poor taste, I apologise! But there is a point… as I understand it from others’ explanations, the bra-burners were fictional characters too?)

    @ Angelia Sparrow – the female pirate is a genuine historical personality, among the most famous is Anne Bonney (spelling may not be accurate, I’ve never seen the name written down) who, after being captured, escaped execution by getting herself pregnant (it was against the law to execute a woman “with child”) and then orchestrating an escape. History does not relate what happened to her after that.

    For thoughts on costume ideas that might escape some of these problems, how about Ancient Rome, or the Dark Ages/Middle Ages Britain (possible problem with the traditional imagery of the Middle Ages being sexist again, but Dark Ages Celtic/Anglo-Saxon costumes could work – maybe modelled on earlier Celtic queen Boudicca?). How about drawing inspiration from the Tarot: both “justice” and “strength” are represented by female figures, so maybe devising a costume idea from those themes would be good? What about a costume as a Hollywood ninja? I suppose it might be seen as cultural appropriation, and there might also be the risk of being mistaken for a niqabi, which again would involve a racist message (although some fake ninja swords might settle the matter!) What about the English Bureaucrat, with the bowler hat and pinstripe suit and umbrella? The top-hat-and-tails look got adapted for showgirls and the like, I bet a similar conversion could be made. What about riding school Mistress? The jodhpurs-and-riding crop costume is more or less the same for both genders (albeit it tends to be portrayed differently in dressing-up costumes). How about “the female drummer-boy” from the folk song?

    That’s all the ideas I could come up with, I hope they help!

  9. Anne Bonney and Mary Reade sailed under the auspices of Calico Jack Rackham, and both slept with him and each other, not to mention the whole drag-king they they had working.

    When they came up pregnant and escaped the gallows, Jack spoke to them before his own hanging and Anne reported told him: “I’m sorry, Jack, but if you had fought like a man you would not now be about to die like a dog. Do straighten yourself up!”

    We were just going for a row of little Jack Sparrows, including the girls. 8)

    We’ve done movie characters and animals. We’ve done SCA garb the year I couldn’t afford anything else. We’ve done hippies, with me looking a lot like a tall Mama Cass. We stay clear of witches (we are) and scary stuff and sexy stuff.

  10. luzzleanne says:

    Or you could just be something inanimate. I remember going as a bubblegum machine one year, and I remember one of my classmates as a bunch of grapes (purple clothes and lots of balloons). There are plenty of things there that could be cute: salt and pepper shakers comes to mind if you have a friend to go with.

    The other things I remember clearly are mostly clown/mime/sci fi characters kind of things. The notable exceptions that I remember are “zombie bride” and “flapper,” both of which I suppose are kind of sexualized. And I think I’d been watching too much Are You Afraid of the Dark for that first one.

  11. Shelby says:

    I have such a personal dilemma with halloween. I fer sher use it as my “I can wear the sexiest thing I want to out in public!” day. But deep down I know I’m objectifying myself…yet it still feels so good!! Ohhh, halloween…you make my brain hurt.

  12. Sycorax says:

    Reality has surpassed the Onion again. The last time I was in a costume shop, I ran across “Sexy Ghostbuster” (actual costume name!).

  13. atlasien says:

    As a Japanese-American I really don’t care if people dress up as ninjas or samurai but the goddamn geisha costumes really piss me off.

  14. purpleshoes says:

    Actually, the boy cowboy has a badass Captain Mal Reynolds thing going on with that coat.

    I can just see me as a parent: “You can dress as anyone you want as long as Joss Whedon invented them. Except for Dollhouse. Nothing from Dollhouse.”

  15. Katie says:

    atlasien – cosign! as a korean-american i have no direct cultural links to ninja/samurai/geisha but the stereotypes of them that permeate american culture do affect me, so they do bother me as well. the ninja/samurai less so, the geisha A LOT. i actually lost several friends recently as a result of calling one of them out on wearing a frickin’ geisha halloween costume.

  16. Vail says:

    My daughter was a pirate last year (boy was it hard to find a pirate costume that wasn’t a “look I’m underage bait” type). This year she wants to go as Supergirl. I’m NOT getting her the pink version though… God why why make a pink Supergirl? Now I just have to find blue tights to go underneath the skirt *sigh*.

  17. Isabel says:

    A three inch skirt on a six foot frame is a belt.
    This is also true, for the record, if you are not THAT tall (I’m 5’7) but you are rather pear-shaped (as I am).

    I admit, I have given thought to doing a “sexy” costume. This is mostly because I think it would be hilarious to go as a Sexy Zombie. You’d get the best of both Halloween worlds, scary and sexy, in one. Plus, unlike Sexy Nurse or Sexy Pirate or whatever, Sexy Zombie would have an actual reason for skimping on the clothing–my shirt got torn at the midriff when I was crawling through the brambles above my grave! And of course, the sexiness would be somewhat offset by plenty of undead-style make-up.

    I’ve also considered doing Cyndi Lauper, because sometimes I’m secretly sad it’s not the height of the 80s, or Death or Delirium from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but I’m pretty sure no one would get those. But, I haven’t actually dressed up in years so we’ll see if something happens this year.

  18. Isabel says:

    Now I just have to find blue tights to go underneath the skirt *sigh*.

    Hey, Vail, depending on how tall your daughter is, Hue tights makes tights in a lot of colors, and I actually passed up buying a pair of royal blue tights because they didn’t go with anything I owned. They say they’ll fit women as short as 4’11 (which is how tall I was in, oh, fourth grade. But I grew way fast).

  19. Ignatz says:

    Last year my 5 year old daughter went as Batman. Not Batgirl: Batman. Full Dark Knight armor, mask, and cape. I was so proud. :-) (So of course I put on a suit and was Commissioner Gordon.)
    This year she wants to be a kitty cat. We’ll have to be inventive.

  20. sara no h. says:

    If my kid manages to be born in time for Halloween, he gets a cow costume. I figure animals are always a safe bet. He can get into werecows next year.

  21. Catherine says:

    we pick our concepts. I’m partial to Medieval anything, including the Near East (post Prophet and Pre Taliban has lots of rich ideas to mine). He likes English Ren.

    THIs year we’re Death and Dream from the Sandman. Some year we’ll be Death and Susan Sto Helit from the Discworld.

    I find the sexualized childrens costumes disturbing, and the skimpy adult costumes tiresome. I look far, far sexier in Tudor Burgeozie than in Skeezy Hooker.

  22. squeefish says:

    I used to work at Value Village (called Savers in the US) and was always in charge of the Hallowe’en department…unfortunately I didn’t have much (any) say over what was actually sold. I remember being irritated too at the myriad of “sexy” women’s costumes (without any alternatives, either) – along with pimp costumes for the guys! great message there! I wondered why someone in a store filled with used clothes – VV is a “thrift department store,” btw, but the Hallowe’en stuff was always new and packaged – would run to these lame pre-made costumes when there was great original material surrounding them.

    My family never bought costumes – as a kid, I went as a bunch of grapes one year, a Victorian era lady another (using one of my mom’s old white nightgowns with a pillow underneath taped to my butt as a bustle) and Arwen another. Of course, these costumes always looked considerably bulkier during the evening non-school part of the day, when we had to stretch them over our parkas and ski pants. Though my brother’s grade 2 costume – an amoeba, costume courtesy of my bio major mom – suited that just fine.

    My parents are awesome.

  23. I’m not sure if this is a joke or not, but I came across a child’s pimp costume awhile back. We posted about it on our blog. (You can also search Amazon if you’re not into clicking through. Our blog is a little on the mature side.)

    I knew a girl who dressed as Sexy Abraham Lincoln last year. Genius.

    I like scary Halloween – but I think this could also be construed a representing the worst parts of our culture? It’s more of a stretch though since the living dead may not be a direct representation of violence against women.

  24. Thomas says:

    Isabel, I can’t help but think of Linnea Quigley’s character from Night of the Living Dead, Trash. But I’m not sure that qualifies as a costume.

  25. yazikus says:

    My partner happens to share his name with a classic silver-screen swashbuckler, who favored delightful pirate costuming (tiny little pantaloon type shorts, silky blouses and an even better mustache) so I think he will go as that, and I have no idea what I would go as…
    Actually, I think I might go as Lewis or Clark.
    Or there was this fantastic viking explorer from a loong time ago who made it to northern Canada, whose wife died along the way leaving him with an infant.
    In his diaries it relates that he then took a dagger to his breast and pierced, and let the infant suck “until the blood turned to water and the water turned to milk” and so he nursed his kid for years.
    Pretty cool story.

  26. sotonohito says:

    SnowdropExplodes Actually, the most successful pirate in the entire world was a woman. Since she was Chinese, however, most westerners don’t even know she existed. Ching Shih started life sold to a brothel by her father, was later kidnapped by raiding pirates. Not a start that for most people would result in little more than being raped and then sold back into sexual slavery.

    Ching, however, got into the good graces of the pirate leader, married him, and when he died took over. She eventually wound up in command of a fleet of over 1,500 ships and was considered to be a significant threat to the fracking British Navy, which in cooperation with the Chinese government negotiated with her because it was thought that it might be too risky to fight her.

    She got a massive cash settlement, a commission in the Chinese navy for her current lover, and amnesty for her crews. She died peacefully years later, wealthy and apparently quite happy. Now *that’s* a successful pirate.

  27. Nicole says:

    Last Halloween my friend Liz and I dressed up as Alice and the Queen of Hearts. I was the latter. I am kind of small so I got the 13-16 year old version of the costume. It was not the most modest of costumes with a skirt to my knees and a a top held up by a choker. I ran into another friend who by coincidence was dressed as the same thing but the adult version and it was much sexier. Sexier then I thought a Queen of Hearts costume could be.

  28. Suzanne M says:

    Among my friends I have a very close-knit group that consists of 5 women and (at present) 2 men. We women hope at some point to dress up as the Bennet sisters from Pride & Prejudice, and maybe wrangle the 2 men into dressing as Bingley and Darcy. Or maybe one of them can be Wickham, depending upon which woman is which sister. Unfortunately, we’re scattered into several different states, so I don’t know when we’ll get the opportunity, but it’s such a good plan that we’d hate to never try it.

    We’re still trying to figure out what to do this year, since it’ll just be 3 women and 1 man. And it probably won’t actually be Halloween when we’re together, but that’s never stopped us before. We do so love dressing in themed costumes, though if we don’t come up with something soon, that may not happen this year.

  29. zingerella says:

    I decided to avoid any cultural difficulties this year, and any problems with any sort of versimiltude or authenticity, and created a superhero for myself to be. This way, I don’t have to deal with gendered superhero costumes (or capes. No capes!), don’t have to worry about cultural appropriation (my superhero has a very WASP background, which is fitting, because that’s my own background), and can wear glasses.

    I highly recommend inventing your own superhero. Then nobody can tell you you’re doin’ it rong.

  30. ACG says:

    Sitting out in front of one of my favorite bars last year at Halloween, I found myself making mental note of all of the couples that passed: Pimp and ho. Luke and Leia (bronze-bikini-clad). Priest and sexy nun. Doctor and sexy nurse. Baseball player and sexy referee. Referee and sexy baseball player. Needless to say, it was never the guy in the microshorts, stilettos, and striped shirt.

    I’m proud to say that my group was a little more creative. One friend was Rosie the Riveter, and another (female) was Tiger Woods, with her boyfriend as her caddy. On the other hand, my brother went as a gynecologist and kept offering women free breast exams, which I guess balances it all out, misogyny-wise.

    This year, I had every intention of finding a way to go as Sexy Pope Benedict, but my guy wants to dress as a couple. We’re thinking Wall-E and Eve.

  31. LC says:

    sotonohito: Thank you for bringing up Ching Shih! No one ever remembers her.

    I am surprised Grace O’Malley hasn’t come up yet, since we are talking pirates.

  32. Rebecca (liberal!Rebecca) says:

    I always put together my own costumes – I don’t find it any fun to just buy them. In the past few years I’ve been a film noir-type spy, Goldberry (from Tolkien), a colonial-era man (I had a tricorne and I really wanted to wear it, and I like drag), Bloody Mary, and a random dead lady from the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

    I’m thinking of being a ghost pirate this year. I could wear my tricorne again, and I had a lot of fun with the full whiteface for the Poe costume last year.

  33. cathy says:

    I did vampire frog when I was about seven. Apparantly I thought that amphibians were awesome and vampires were awesome, so why not combine the two?

  34. raija says:

    This year I’m going as the Joker wearing a candystriper uniform, as inspired by “The Dark Knight”. It’s gruesome, it’s sexy, and it’s drag! (albeit of the “woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman” variety)

  35. Stephanie says:

    My daughter just yesterday told me she wants to do the Indian Princess costume. Not a chance! She’s not convinced, but she will be. At 6 years old, she has no understanding of why I don’t like that idea.

    I always prefer to make costumes for my kids. She had been talking about being a butterfly this year… feminine, certainly, but at least it’s not so offensive.

    I’m working on teaching her to reinterpret what she’s learning from friends and society, but it’s still tough going. She wants to be the girly girl still. Halloween’s a fun time to work on that.

  36. phinky says:

    I’m thinking about going as something truly scary – Sarah Palin.
    I have the glasses and the suit, why not? :)

  37. Sniper says:

    I have the glasses and the suit, why not? :)

    You could get some hairy brown plush, cut it into a moose carcass-like shape, and carry it over your shoulder.

  38. tharine says:

    the boyf and i have discussed going as undead palin and undead mccain, but we’ve also discussed 21 and 24 (RIP) from the venture bros., so who knows what we’ll decide on. i also, for a bit, wanted to be dr. horrible, and have him go as captain hammer.

    ps raija: i love that idea!

  39. Jha says:

    I plan on sitting home with my jammies and my ugly purple sweather ‘housecoat’, waiting for NaNoWriMo to roll around.

    I did the costume thing for a couple of years after coming to Canada, but it lost its appeal right quickly. So I might go to a Samhain ritual, but I’ll not be spending more money on costumes this year – not when I’m already making one for an anime convention next year.

  40. vistana says:

    All this makes me so grateful that my mother had the time and resources to make my sister and I costumes every year.

    When I was 13 I went as roadkill. tire track up the front, garbage and dirt stuck to my back, blood splatters everywhere… it was gruesome.

    Lately I’ve gotten lazy -I have enough folk festival clothing that I can pull together ‘gypsy’ in about 15 seconds. Possibly problematic, but good costumes take so much work!

    I want to be Dr Horrible now!

  41. Karalora says:

    My recommendation for anyone who has the means and the time is: learn how to sew, and make your own costumes. That’s what I do. It’s cheaper in the long run, plus you don’t have to bow to the mainstream market’s idea of what makes a good costume. Last year I made myself a sleeveless gown out of black crushed velvet, draped a swatch of sheer black fabric with a silver moons-and-stars pattern over that, and went as “goddess of the night.” The best thing about that one is that I can re-use the dress with different accessories to be a vampire, sorceress, spider-woman, Goth faerie, etc.

    This year, though, I’m going as a barbarian warrior–a generic fantasy one rather than riffing on any specific Earth culture. I plan to make a tunic and leggings out of faux suede and fake fur and add things like a studded leather belt and “caveman” jewelry. And a big plastic sword, of course.

  42. Suzanne says:

    Great thread! Just wanted to add something about another female pirate, an historical one we had here in Ireland, called Grainne Mhaol, or ‘Grace O’ Malley ‘ as she is called in english. She was known as a pirate queen on the West Coast of Ireland in the 16th century and was the commander of a private army, captain of a fleet of ships, a ruthless pillager and a poltical negotiater at a time when Ireland was being carved up by the English.
    She is known to have given birth to a baby while at sea, fought one of her sons when he took the enemy side, and met Queen Elizabeth amongst many other adventures… I recommend looking her up!

  43. Suzanne says:

    By the way, I went as the Virgin Mary last year. Well, really as one of the statues we have here in grottos, that sometimes move or cry blood, or appear in apparitions. So I had lights and tears of blood and lots of veils. Then I did appearances all over town, like celebrities of today…

  44. Cola Johnson says:

    Over 90% of the original population of North and South Americas vanished as a result of Western conquest. Many tribes and groups and cultures died out completely. I don’t call that near-genocide. I call that genocide.

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  46. Morganna says:

    My boyfriend is going as the Joker this year, and I’m totally going as Harley Quinn-damn the antifemanist sentiment that surrounds them!
    I’m going to flip the power dynamic next year by going as Hannibal Lecter and he’ll go as Clarice Staring. Yeah, we’re weird. But we love it.

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