By Christopher Ford and Nathan Kalman-Lamb
As you’ve already read in part one – and if you haven’t 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, let’s 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, let’s talk Halloween costumes. When it comes to costumes for men, there are almost no rules. Wear whatever you want, so long as it’s 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 boy’s 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 he’s not. I don’t 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 son’s 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.