Snark Bite #4: Dress-Up Ain't What It Used to Be

Happy Halloween/Samhain everyone! In light of the day, I have read several articles online about the "sexy costume" phenomenon and thought I would comment as well. It has annoyed me for a while now and am glad to see attention paid to it, at Power Femme's blog here and at Ms. Magazine's blog here. I haven't dressed up for Halloween in years and am doing a big lot of nothing tonight, but I know when I was growing up my mom helped me actually make my costume and Halloween was a huge deal that revolved mostly around obtaining mass quantities of candy. While throughout the years I was a ghoulish ghost,a cat, a genie, a fairy, a dead rock star, or whatever, my intent was never to be the sexiest fill-in-the-blank I could be. That element just never entered my consciousness as necessary or desired, and it wasn't really all that long ago. Something seems to have shifted in the social consciousness in recent years, and it really concerns me.

I posted a comment on Power Femme's post and want to re-post with some elaboration here, as it sums up my feelings about this:

I get so pissed when I get those Halloween store ads in the mail and there is this glaring disconnect between men and women's costumes. I did a quick perusal of the Halloween Express website and they even have a "sexy costume" sub category. Guess how many "sexy men's" costumes were included there? Yeah, none. But in the men's costumes you could find classic superheroes, doctors, pirates, silly costumes, gory costumes, a wide variety that were for the most part more inventive and creative in subject and execution. Sure, women can dress up as superheroes or doctors or pirates, but they must be "SEXY" superheroes, doctors, or pirates, thereby rendering them powerless, not a threat to the current societal model, and not to be taken seriously. Almost a self-inflicted joke, an apology. Like, sure, I'm a doctor, but just a "sexy" doctor, so don't feel nervous, boys. It's just make-believe. But it's not make-believe. Plenty of women are doctors and they didn't go through medical school solely to make their male patients' blood pressure rise. So why do these costumes reduce them to sexualized stereotypes? It's disturbing. It's the Female Chauvinist Pig concept: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. It seems some women, in an attempt to avoid being labeled a feminist, ugly, a prude, a dyke, all those horrible undesirable things, find it easier to just become who oppresses them, to prove that they are tough and can roll with the big boys and not get their feathers all ruffled at good-natured jokes, because if they're objectifying themselves, it's not so damned scary or infuriating...

Women feel a pressure to be "sexy" (but not too much now, as Emilie Autumn says in Opheliac "she knows in society she is either a devil or an angel, with no in-between) in everyday life. But who's definition of sexiness? Who decides and owns that expression, and how much is for the approval of others  rather than sincerely one's own sexual expression? Beauty is a goal women are expected to constantly be striving for, and Halloween is a day in which you're expected to take your appearance to an extreme-therefore, it's seen as strange if a woman tries to be gory, silly, powerful, or cute without the "sexy" component. Women are seen as more valuable and worthwhile when they conform to a narrow definition of beauty and sexiness, so the costumes reflect that goal. Men are already seen as worthwhile just by virtue of their mere existence, so they don't need to wear costumes to look "hot" to win the approval of women. They're free to be whatever they want.

It's almost like the more advances women make in the world politically, professionally, inter personally, the more the definition of beauty narrows, to confine women in different ways. Caroline Knapp says in her thought-provoking book Appetites: Why Women Want: "Women get psychically larger, and they're told to grow physically smaller. Women begin to play active roles in realms once dominated by men (schools, universities, athletic fields, the workplace, the bedroom), and they're countered with images of femininity that infantilize them, render them passive and frail and non-threatening." I think you can see this in play throughout American history. Take a look at how women in general were doing socio-politically during a given time period, then look at the beauty standards that emerged during that time. There just might be a correlation. And now, some might see the whole costume conundrum as frivolous and just innocent fun, but there is something sinister going on here. Consider even the kid's costumes; you can see the dichotomy already in play. The sexualization of little girls is starting earlier and earlier. There has always been that princess/cowboy sort of construct, but many of the girl's costumes are looking more and more like those creepy Bratz. Society seems intent on telling girls what matters and what they're worth before they can even figure it out for themselves.

OK. Rant over. Goodnight now. I'm going to go eat some candy.

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  1. Totally agree, very well thought out and beautifully written. Stereotypes appall me.
    Adults can wear/do what they want, that is freedom in itself. But there is an indirect influence for sure. There is always a pressure to do things and the society telling us what and how to do things. I don't think it is what women see other women as, it just shows what men (synonym for society) see us as.

    As for little children dressed in these costumes, shame on the parents.
    Let's be sane and recognise how inappropriate these things are and how they'd effect a growing child's mind, femininity aside (which is not a derogatory term like many people think)

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughts Su! I agree, I totally support the right to make choices for oneself and for women to express themselves in multi-faceted and self-affirming way. And I expect parents to critically think about the messages their children are bombarded with on a daily basis, and make sure they are supported and encouraged in ways to counter those influences. What bothers me is the LACK of choices in this instance, even on such a small scale as Halloween costumes. There's not much freedom involved if 90% of women's costumes play into some narrow sexist sterotypes whereas men's costumes are free to run the gamut. Women's costumes seem to be more like a paradigm or blueprint that clearly spells out how women are valued in society and for what achievements. It shouldn't take extensive detective work to find a costume that doesn't reduce women to walking stereotypes. That is totally not what I see as empowerment.


Please leave me comments if anything strikes your fancy or if you have any helpful suggestions. Remember, I'm no expert and am just sharing my truth. Hopefully you will find something useful to take with you!

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