All Hallows Eve is the one night of the year that the spirits of the dead can walk the earth, and women can wear lingerie in public without ridicule.
Remember the film Mean Girls? New kid Cady arrives at a party in her frightening bride costume, only to discover that the other girls were using Halloween as an opportunity to wear as little as possible:
The film humorously highlights a trend that I am sure most all of us are familiar with. But what is going on here? Why do women put on fishnets and bunny ears and call it a costume? What is going on in our culture that encourages this? Is it "slutty"; is it liberating? In this post, I would like to sketch out the debate and offer my own thoughts on the phenomena of women's hypersexualization via Halloween costuming.
My friend Grace, who blogs over at Grace & Beauty, first got me thinking more critically about this issue. Grace posted a video to youtube and her blog imploring women to ditch the "slutty" Halloween costumes. With Grace's permission, here is her video:
The comment responses to Grace's video have been heated- some slammed Grace for what they perceive as her anti-feminist, slut bashing position, and others celebrated and aligned with her opinions. My own critique falls somewhere in between.
Like Grace, part of me is saddened and disgusted when I see young women in lingerie and kitten ears prancing around on Halloween. It angers me to see women participating so uncritically in the systems (I'm looking at you, patriarchy!) that serve to limit our options and punish us for not conforming to gendered norms. Part of me looks at these women and sees them as brainwashed dupes of the patriarchy. On the other hand, I can't help but think about how our culture has produced the very conditions in which young women would want to do such a thing. Who gets to determine what is sexy? Who does this image of "sexiness" serve? I am all for women expressing themselves as sexual beings, but it strikes me that the very parameters for doing this are actually quite limited and narrow, and have been established and defined by a male gaze. Basically, what is considered "sexy" comes out of a male-dominated pornographic imagination. This definition of sexiness does not come from women who are consciously and critically considering how they want to express their sexuality for themselves. In our discussion of this issue, Grace made an astute observation that it can actually be challenging for women shopping at a Halloween store to find a costume that isn't sexualized.
Moreover, women we reap real benefits, such as male sexual attention and social status, for conforming to these sexist standards of beauty and behavior. When we resist this norm and express our sexuality in a different way, we are called dykes, butch, prude, and so forth. Our culture still operates within the virgin/whore logic regarding female sexuality. If we express ourselves as people with sexual desires, we are called sluts; but if we don't put out, or we don't present ourselves in a way that our cultures sees as sexy, we are called prudes. Halloween is supposedly the one night where this doesn't apply. A combination of the narrow definition of "sexiness" and this pervasive virgin/whore logic might help explain why women might take Halloween as a "free pass." Reminding myself of these things helps me to be more sympathetic and understanding. It prevents me from perpetuating the problematic, misogynistic slut-bashing that I want to challenge.
Another issue I would like to breifly consider is how women who do go the "sexy cop" route on Halloween are demonized as inviting sexual assault. Some responders to Grace's video lamented that young women who dress as "sluts" for Halloween are walking rape targets. First of all, women never ask to be sexually assaulted. I don't care if you are trick or treating naked, that never gives someone the right to touch you without permission. Also, this type of victim-blaming negates the fact that women, regardless of how they dress or behave, can and are sexually assaulted by friends, family members, dates, and strangers all the time. That said, I do think women have a responsibility to be aware of the culture we live in. Though I would never, ever say that a young woman asks for or invites sexual assault or general creepiness, I do think that women must be realistic of how other people who are totally complacent with our culture's messed up views of gender and sexuality might interpret and misread our actions. Us ladies are in a perpetual bind, really. Ideally, we should be able to do and be and dress as we want, but in reality we also have to be attentive and practice risk management.
I would encourage us to resist the urge to look at this trend of sexy Halloween costuming as all good or all bad, as totally slutty or totally empowering. Hopefully my brief discussion of it helped to highlight the complex cultural issues at work here. Let me know what you think about this issue!
Have a happy, creepy, and safe Halloween!