Halloween: a time to take our masks off?

31 Oct

I dread Halloween. To say that I am not great with costumes is a gross understatement (one year, I even failed to pull off a black cat: I had the store-bought black pointy ears and tail, the drawn-on whiskers, and the black turtleneck over pants. Still, I was mistaken for a mouse. Repeatedly.) This is not my holiday.

Throw in the standard option for women: “Sexy [insert occupation/fictional character/animal,” and I’m ready for November 1st. I am tired of the costumes that go down to there and up to here, all of which go well with the fishnets and stilettos in your closet from last year.

And I’m not alone: I regularly have conversations with women and girls who also sigh, rant and roll their eyes at the risqué choices in costumery among our kind. We commiserate in our exasperation, feel generally superior to our bare sisters and proceed to either boycott the holiday or spend it dressed as a dinosaur (and not a sexy one–think papier-mâché with no easy way to go to the bathroom once you’re committed). 

Of course, what this means is that I do get dressed up every year for Halloween, in what has turned out to be a very convincing outfit: I’m Alison the Fed Up Feminist! Perhaps it’s not a “costume” in the traditional sense of transforming me into something or someone fantastical or totally different, but it is scary to some people. Boo.

But perhaps what I wear might more accurately be called an anti-costume. Rather than disguising me, it may actually reveal me, or at least a part of me that I don’t allow to be seen most other days of the year.

In her 2010 editorial, “Saying Yes to Slutty Costumes” (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/10/28/sexy-halloween-costumes-why-women-should-wear-what-they-want.html), Erin Bradley wonders, “Why do people who normally defend a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants suddenly label her a bimbo when she opts for the naughty nurse costume on Halloween?” I had to read on. It seemed that by “people,” she meant, “Alison Park.”

Citing the usual complaints about “sexy” costumes (lack of creativity, using Halloween as an “excuse” to look like a slut, bad modelling for children), Bradley digs a little deeper into what she calls The Shaming of the Sexy Halloween Costume, a fine and smug tradition among many self-professed liberals and feminists:

“I wonder whether it’s not about contempt for the costumes themselves, but the women who choose to wear them that’s driving this. While it’s uncool in most educated circles to point to a woman in a miniskirt and label her trashy, during the month of October that social more gets put on hold. Are we only masquerading as enlightened when it comes to women’s sexuality?”

Ouch. Something in Bradley’s musings really resonates for me, or rather, a bunch of somethings: the judgment (perhaps withheld but still tacitly understood) of “educated” folks, the selective application of freedom and rights (only when I say so) and the fact of a contempt. While I do think there’s cause to be concerned about social messages and persistent sexual exploitation, how do we get to contempt? What is our contempt–well-dressed though it may be–about? I think that our culture of discourse almost requires that we escalate any disagreement to the level of contempt in order to be taken seriously. However, it’s easy to lose sight of the issues when all we see is red.

When I step back and let my eyes refocus, my qualms with Halloween are part of a larger unease I have with the rules around expression of sexuality in our culture: I’d like to see us shift towards an ability and acceptance for people to express their sexuality in a mutually respectful way every day–not just in hyperbole one day out the year.

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