Why We Need Humane Education: Inappropriate Halloween Costume Round-Up

Image courtesy magnetbox via Creative Commons.
Yes, today is Halloween in the U.S. (Happy Halloween!) and most everyone has already chosen their costumes, but that doesn't mean we should wait until next year to talk about them.

Halloween costumes are a valuable mirror for our culture, and much of what that mirror reflects isn't really something to be proud of. It also provides us with a great opportunity to discuss issues of sexism, the sexualization of young girls, racism, heteronormativity, and other issues of exploitation, bias, and oppression. (Our friends at Teaching Tolerance have an activity for elementary-aged kids that asks them to think critically about what costumes say.)

I've come across several posts related to Halloween costumes and these issues, so below is a round-up of some of the most interesting ones:

F**k No Sexist Halloween Costumes has been compiling comparison photos of male and female versions of costumes. As you can imagine, most of the costumes for women have been "sexified" quite a bit. Yes, many women do want their femininity reflected in their costumes, but really? Sexy bacon? Slutty pilgrim? And just because you put a cape and something that looks vaguely like Darth Vader's chest panel on a very tight black dress does not make it a Darth Vader costume.

There's some argument that such "sexy" costumes are actually liberating for women and a way for them to take their power back. And that's great, if that's actually what's happening. But does it actually liberate, or does it feed the stereotypes of women as little more than objects? A complex issue that deserves exploration, especially with older students.

The Atlantic recently posted about the ethical and practical challenges of "killing sexy Halloween." As the blog's author, Eleanor Barkhorn, says, it's up to the young women to kill it, not the adults who are doing the hand-wringing. And according to author and adolescent authority Rosalind Wiseman, girls need to learn how they're being manipulated: "When Wiseman talks to girls about Halloween, she says she tries to get them to realize, 'I'm impressionable. I'm a 12-year-old girl. And you're deliberately marketing these things to me so I feel insecure and feel that I have to be this way in order to be a beautiful girl.' Harnessing adolescents' already-existing suspicion of adult authority figures is really the only way to kill sexy Halloween, according to Wiseman."

Over at Huffington Post, Jessica Samakow shares a slideshow comparing costumes for girls from decades past to today's "sexified" options. A little bit unfair comparison, but still a good springboard for discussion.

One of my favorite blogs for media literacy, sociology, and critical thinking, is Sociological Images (SI). They've compiled several of their past posts about Halloween costumes, organized by categories such as "gender" and "race and ethnicity." Good stuff.

Also from SI is this post on heteronormativity in Halloween costumes, including costumes that are meant to imply intercourse. As Lisa Wade, professor of sociology, says: "For people who aren’t heterosexual, these Halloween costumes are just one more example of how they aren’t recognized or validated by our society.  We are increasingly accepting of gay people, yet they remain marginal in our collective imagination."

 Native Appropriations blogger Adrienne K. offers a post about "Native American" costumes; her commentary on one description (*cough* lame and offensive justification *cough*) provided by a costume store is fabulous. At the end of the post, she links to several previous posts she has done on the topic of "Native" costumes.

Jenee Desmond-Harris over at The Root has a thoughtful commentary about racist costumes and the backlash against calling people out for their thoughtlessness. There's also a slideshow highlighting some of the racist costume choices offered.

And the one example of progress I saw was again from a Sociological Images post; they found that Party City offers a few guy-guy couples costumes (nothing for female couples). That may be more due to bromances than an actual acknowledgement of same-sex relationships, but it's a start.

The core issue here is that humane education could help many of these challenges disappear. Children raised to be compassionate and empathetic, to think critically and deeply about issues, and to be empowered to take positive action, wouldn't grow up to be older children and adults who make costume choices that are racist, sexist, or exploitative. They wouldn't grow up to create such costumes. They wouldn't grow up to defend such costume choices. The would grow up to help create a culture of which we could all be proud.

~ Marsha

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