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!

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