Friday, 31 October 2014

Gender and Halloween: Costumes for men

By Christopher Ford and Nathan Kalman-Lamb 
As youve already read in part one and if you havent read part one, you can find it here mainstream Halloween costumes marketed towards young women and women can be very problematic in that they normalize the hyper-sexualization of women and perpetuate a gendered division of labour. However, what about the male experience when it comes to Halloween costumes?
Well, lets begin by doing a brief background discussion on masculinity (and we would recommend checking out this video of a poet discussing masculinity through poetry).

According to more traditional (read patriarchal) conceptions of masculinity, being a man means being aggressive, dominant, strong (both physically and mentally), and self-sufficient. It also means being sexually-attracted to women (that is, not homosexual), seldom displaying emotion, and never being a victim of physical and/or sexual violence or abuse.
More broadly, to be a man under this ideology is simply to not be a woman.
This is why many of the more popular slurs that men (and women) use to insult other men are words and phrases that compare them to a woman or her anatomy for example, so-and-so is a [insert derogatory epithet for vagina], or so-and-so does that like a girl. Indeed, for many men, there is no worse insult than to be compared to a woman.
Does this sound like a healthy culture to you?
So, now, lets talk Halloween costumes. When it comes to costumes for men, there are almost no rules. Wear whatever you want, so long as its not offensive.
However, the only thing that is absolutely forbidden for a man unless he wants to have his manhood seriously questioned is that he should not attempt to dress up in a feminine costume.
Take the following example: a few years ago, a story emerged in the New York Times about a woman from Kansas whose five year old son had wanted to dress up as Daphne from Scooby Doo. He was a big fan of Scooby Doo, and, having already dressed up as the mystery-solving pooch the year before, Daphne had seemed like the next logical choice for him.
And so his mother, blogger and writer Sarah Manley, agreed and ordered the costume for him.
When he showed up at school for the annual Halloween party, all of the other children, the young boys friends and classmates, loved his costume!
But, the other moms did not. Many of them made their displeasure known to Manley, and this led to her taking to her blog to write an article that has since accumulated well over two million views and 47 000 comments.
The article begins with the title “My Son is Gay,” a clever bit of misdirection she follows with, [o]r hes not. I dont care.
The point here is that she was incredibly displeased with how some of the other mothers were criticizing her for allowing her son to wear the Daphne costume. Some suggested that she was simply asking for him to be bullied (even though the only people who were bullying her son and herself were the other parents). Others suggested that she might somehow affect her sons sexuality (i.e. cause him to become gay) by allowing him to dress like that.
If you think that me allowing my son to be a female character for Halloween is somehow going to make him gay then you are an idiot, said Manley in her post

Firstly, what a ridiculous concept. Secondly, if my son is gay, OK. I will love him no less. Thirdly, I am not worried that your son will grow up to be an actual ninja so back off.

The final point is perhaps the most important, for it gestures to the fluid and flexible nature of identity. Children experiment with different performances of identity precisely because human beings are not essentially bound to any particular identity category. Gender is one form of identity among many and it is something that children should be free to play with (just as they are free to play at being pirates and vampires and princesses).

It is also something that adults should be free to play with. Yet, conventional masculinity tells us that men (and boys, as we saw in the above example) are only allowed to dress and act in very particular ways that conform to the characteristics described earlier. This is something that actually hurts men because it crams them into an identity box that may (indeed, almost certainly does) feel uncomfortable and constraining.

The fact that men are not allowed* to portray femininity in their Halloween costume attire is simply symptomatic of the fact that they are not allowed to enact traits associated with femininity in their everyday lives.

Halloween is a socially-sanctioned opportunity to perform different identities from those we typically inhabit. Gender should be no exception. If we are interested in deconstructing masculinity and its norms, we need to start encouraging boys and men interested in exploring non-masculine costumes of all sorts rather than holding them back.

We need to act like Sarah Manley.

*There are exceptions to this rule. In fact, men are allowed to perform femininity on Halloween as long as it is in a manner that clearly ridicules the feminine. In certain hyper-masculine contexts, cross-dressing does occur, and is permissible on Halloween, as long as it is clearly designed to reveal that women and femininity are absurd, or simply that men acting in a feminine way are worthy of mockery and disdain. Such costumes do not attempt to recreate the feminine carefully and appreciatively, but instead signify it in sloppy, broad strokes. This is in stark contrast to cross-dressing in other contexts, which seeks to celebrate femininity by reproducing it in loving and meticulous detail.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Gender and Halloween: Costumes for women

Christopher Ford

Its that time of year again.

The leaves have already begun to change colour and fall, the temperature has been dropping steadily (maybe even a little too much could you give it a rest, winter?!?), and mid-term season has hit many of us like a tonne of bricks. However, most importantly, we will all very soon be dressing up to celebrate Halloween a day that is, for many university students, one of the best days of the year.

I mean, whats not to like about Halloween? Theres sugary food, pumpkin carving, horror movie marathons, parties, and, of course, costumes.

Now, I love Halloween as much as the next person. But theres one thing that I dont like about it, and it has to do primarily with last thing I mentioned in the previous sentence: Costumes.

Let me explain. Its not that I dont like the dressing up part of Halloween I think its great! People can get super creative with their costumes (especially super-scary ones like these), and I think thats all part of the magic of the holiday.

However, what I dont like is how mainstream, ready-made costumes like the ones sold at your local Party City, Value Village, et cetera perpetuate problematic beliefs about what it means to be male and female, and how we should act as a man or a woman.

In this post, which will function as the first in a two-part series, I will examine costumes that are marketed towards women and girls. In part two, which will be published shortly after, I we shift my attention to costumes marketed towards men and boys.

So lets say, for the sake of argument, that you are a woman who wants to dress up as a firefighter for Halloween. If you look under the womens section in your local costume stores flyer or catalogue, what do you think you will see?

Probably something like this:

Still with me? Okay, now lets say that you are going to be doing a joint costume with a male friend, and he is also looking to dress up like a firefighter. If he looks under the mens section in the same stores flyer, he is most likely to see something like this:

Now, I know some of you may be thinking: whats the problem? 

Well, let me ask you: which one seems more realistic? Have you ever met any firefighter, male or female, who wears skin-tight shorts, knee-high stiletto boots, and a low-cut shirt while theyre at work?

I highly doubt it.

For me, and for many other feminist writers, the over-sexualization of women that manifests through the costume industry is the problem. The costumes that are marketed towards women often have little (or nothing) to do with what they are aiming to portray. In the example above, other than the colour red and the hat, what does the womans costume have to do with being a firefighter?

This is not an isolated example. A recent story in the CBC recounted a British Columbia woman’s frustrations while trying to find a firefighter costume for her daughter, and this led to her making some of the same observations that I have made above.

This photo, created by Raina Delisle, compares costumes marketed towards young girls with those marketed to young boys.

Theres a girls version and a boys version. Now, the boys version looks like the real thing. The model on the package has a hardhat, a jacket and even an axe, the woman, Raina Delisle, told the CBC. The girls version, on the other hand, looks absolutely nothing like a firefighter. Its a skin-tight, black, shiny dress. It doesnt even have a helmet.

What those costumes tell me is that the boys can wear the real thing. They can be a real firefighter. The girls, on the other hand, cant. They can dress up pretty and pretend to be a firefighter, but they could never aspire to be the real thing, she said.

This is pretty profound, and, I think, 100% correct. Our current society, which markets extremely sexualized costumes to women, is perpetuating the belief that certain jobs are reserved for men and only men. Companies, by creating sexy costumes like this without a normal alternative which, I might add, they do for men are assisting in the maintenance of an unfair, gendered division of labour.

Now, I was discussing this topic with a friend of mine the other day, and he confessed to me that he was confused. He asked me, Why are we saying that womens costumes are overly-sexualized, and condemning the over-sexualization of these costumes, while at the same time repeating the refrain that women have the right to dress however they want and to wear costumes like these? Isnt that contradictory?

Well, no, its not. Women should not be criticized for wearing a ‘sexycostume, because they should be able to wear them if they so choose. However, we should be critical of companies who produce costumes that are blatantly sexualized and market them to women and girls as the only choice. In the case of mens costumes, a costume like this:

is labelled police officer, while a costume like this: 

is labelled sexy police officer. Do the same for women and girls, so that they may choose what they want to wear, rather than telling them that they have to wear a costume that is overly sexualized. And if they choose to wear something sexy, thats their choice, and their right.

Oh, and whether its a male, female, transgender, or otherwise gender-queer person wearing a sexy costume, let me remind everyone that sexy does not equal consent.

What about costumes marketed for men and boys, you ask? Stay tuned for part two!