It’s that time of year again when U.S. residents in particular, but an increasing amount of Aussies, too, start gearing up for the last day of October when the jack-o’-lanterns are lit, trick or treating is had, and costumes are curated: Halloween.
The holiday that is believed to have pagan roots in preparing for the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere and warding off evil spirits when the barrier between the dead and the living is at its thinnest, but is more traditionally an excuse for kids to dress up and gorge themselves on lollies, has been appropriated by the mostly-Gen Y masses as an excuse to get your kit off.
Obviously not everyone celebrates Halloween by finding the shortest, tightest, most low-cut outfit available, but the perception of female sluttiness is, if not encouraged, then more acceptable on All Hallow’s Eve than on a regular night out. (Not to worry; garden-variety slut-shaming is sure to be had on October 31st as well.) As Nicole Elphick points out, slutty Halloween costumes are acceptable because we’re often portraying if not a different version of ourselves, then someone else completely: “Oh, it’s just a costume – it’s not me!”
Certainly there are less mainstream Halloween-centric events out there, where party-goers take pride in creating the most original, obscure and ugly costumes they can. But for the not-so-dedicated novice Halloween goers who don’t have the time or money to come up with a truly fancy or left-of-centre costume, there’s always the “one slut fits all” section of the costume store brimming with options.
You know the area of Lombards or any costume hire store that’s segregated from the “serious” party paraphernalia and stocks such run-of-the-mill outfits as the sexy maid, the sexy nurse and the mediocre “tuxedo bunny” that resembles the traditional Playboy bunny costumes not one iota. (This Halloween I’m dressing up as Gloria Steinem when she went undercover at The Playboy Club in the ’60s, so I can attest to the poor quality and unrealistic [oh, the irony!] Playboy costumes available for purchase, so much so that I had mine made.) Sure, these costumes are quick, cheap and come with most of the accessories needed to complete the look—in fact, some of them consist solely of the accessories and little else, fabric-wise—but they’re boring and flash as much flesh as possible. Where are the options for those who don’t want to default to eye-candy or the “sexy nurse” or “sexy nun” instead of a legitimate doctor or person of the clergy?
Furthermore, the problem with the sexy person woman-in-uniform, sexy animal and sexy Scrabble costumes is not only the unoriginality of the former and the absurdity of the latter, but the blatant feminising of these costumes: apparently only women can be sexy fire-fighters, sexy Nemos and sexy showers, while men are just fire-fighters, Nemo and a shower. (The argument could be made that all men in uniform are inherently sexy, but their occupations definitely aren’t sexualised the way in which women in these professions—or even just in these costumes—are.) Elphick adds that, “You can think of almost any regular costume and odds are some costume manufacturer has already made a risqué version for full-grown women.”
Lisa Wade elaborates on the dearth of “sexy” male costumes in an article on Sociological Images. Not only that, but the “sexy” costumes that areavailable to men focus on sex as something to be laughed at or on a man’s status as a recipient of sex from women, not as sex objects themselves:
“When men go sexy, it means joking about how men should be sexually serviced, have access to one night stands, or being in charge of and profiting from women’s bodies. A different type of ‘sexy’ entirely.”
Maybe with the success of Magic Mike this year we’ll be seeing an influx of male stripper-inspired costumes… Something tells me this is doubtful.
I think this obsession with Halloween hyper-feminisation is just a magnified reflection of society’s need for women to be heteronormatively feminine: long hair augmented with extensions for the event, facial symmetry exaggerated with over-the-top makeup and false eyelashes, slender (I, personally, have upped my fitness regime over the past couple of months in preparation), wears dresses (have you noticed how even if the effigy’s garb resembles a dress in no way, the Halloween costume will inevitably appropriate it into a skirt or, less-often, short-shorts if it’s marketed towards women? The “sexy” Sesame Street costumes that have been in the news of recent come to mind).
Rachel Hills hit the nail on the head when, in a response to a similar post earlier this year, she pondered whether the gravitation towards hyper-feminine and-sexy get-ups either in daily life or for special events reflect a fear of not being seen as attractive enough.
Reflecting on my past costume party ensembles, which include Catwoman, sexy Rosie the Riveter and Eve bare as much flesh as possible, it would seem a fear of being perceived as unattractive, unfeminine and/or unsexy is inherent in them, too. As someone who is relatively content with her appearance and in touch with her feminist side (no matter how “slutty” my costumes appear to the naked eye, I always try to incorporate my feminism in there somewhere), this is not something that is front of mind when putting my outfits together, but I guess the evidence speaks for itself: the most conservative Halloween costume I’ve worn was a long, pink vintage dress that I accessorised with fishnets, a feather boa and a headband to portray a 1920s flapper. The only time I’ve ever incorporated pants into the mix was when they were skin-tight pleather leggings (Catwoman, a female wrestler, and one of Barbie’s Rockers), going back as far as my first outing as Catwoman at my tenth birthday party. Inappropriate? Perhaps. But I guess that also conveys a telling tale of our expectations of femininity and, increasingly, sexiness, when it comes to young girls, a topic which is probably best left unpacked til another time.
But maybe we’re reading too much into this? Just because a woman chooses to amp up her sexuality and flash some flesh on Halloween doesn’t necessarily mean that this desire is insidiously ingrained in her by the patriarchy. Feminist du jour Caitlin Moran insists that women are “not dressing up sexy: It’s a parody of sexuality. They’re being silly,” while sex and gender writer Hugo Schwyzer thinks that “the lack of options for any other kind of costume make sexiness the default position rather than the chosen one.” But I have plenty of friends—both female and male—who enjoy getting their sexy on as often as they cover up in the costume department.
When I asked a friend who is so dedicated to her more masculine costumes that I often don’t recognise her for all the faux facial hair, but who also tarts it up with the best of them, most recently in a “sexy” Little Bo Peep costume for her birthday, she said she honestly doesn’t give it much thought. “[Costumes] allow me to hide any insecurities I would usually have… I can hide who I really am for the time I’m in costume,” she said, which is not unlike Elphick’s above assertion that “Halloween is all about taking on an identity that is explicitly not yours.” None of said friends are particularly feminist in their thinking so, as “civilians”, it’s refreshing that they dress up this way without pushing an anti-gender stereotyping message; they haven’t given it a second thought and do it because they want to. Perhaps there is hope for us yet…
Schwyzer sums it up thusly:
“[The] mandatory sexualization of girls and women reflects a culture ill at ease with women’s power. Halloween is at least partly about how we manage fear—and one fear we seem to still have is of powerful women. Sexualising everyone from tween girls to grown mothers is actually a way of reinforcing traditional values. Underneath it all, the message is, all women are the same—they just want attention from men.”
Going back to the earlier point that the reason we see so much skin on Halloween is because of the utter lack of pre-packaged sartorial alternatives, you have to wonder about the costumes that mimic their real-life and/or fantasy life counterparts to a tee: is the reason Halloween has strayed so far from its pagan roots because of our increasingly sex-obsessed society and need for the genders to perform as they always have? For all the absurdly sexualised children’s characters, pets and household appliances, there are as many traditionally scantily attired female superheroes, pop stars and influential women in history to choose from.
As for the guys, Schwyzer thinks the popularity of Magic Mike might see the odd male dressed in short shorts, a bow tie and not much else, but for the most part, they’ll stick to the established costumed-gender norms of “endless capes and Harlequin masks”, just as most women will go for the shorter, tighter, sexier option.
Image via Buzzfeed.