A Call to Cover Arms: Sexism At Halloween

Published on September 29th, 2009 in: Feminism, Halloween, Horror, Issues, Over the Gadfly's Nest |

By Maureen

Sometimes I feel like the only person on Earth who still remembers that it’s kind of chilly in New York in late October. I think Miranda Hobbes said it best in Sex and the City: The Movie when she declared while shopping for a Halloween costume, “There’s only two options for women: witch, and sexy kitten.” I am even tempted to see Miranda’s point and raise her to a bet that the witch costume she saw was not any old witch, but a “sexy” witch.

sexy bride of frankenstein

The often-overlooked source of hilarity that is Mean Girls offers another quote which echoes my thoughts on the Halloween costume conundrum. Lindsay Lohan’s character Cady observes that, “in the real world Halloween is when kids dress up in costumes and beg for candy. In ‘girl world?’ It’s the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and none of the other girls can say anything about it.”

This past Halloween I went to the Greenwich Village parade, and the gender disparities I saw in the costumes were especially annoying. It’s not often that the crotchety old woman secretly living inside me comes out to tell kids to get off her lawn, but I just couldn’t believe what some women were wearing on the streets of Manhattan. I had ordered my costume, an incredibly comfortable and flattering Medieval-Style Dress, on a website called Spirit Halloween.com. Their section on “Classic and Cartoon Character Costumes” features multiple, shortened versions of childhood character costumes, such as “Sexy Snow White” and “Sexy Tarzan.” These are, of course, in addition to their “Sexy” section of costumes.

$89.99 (plus tax) will buy you two feet of fabric that will barely cover your most private of parts, as it attempts to evoke a classic character loved by children the world over. That just seems disturbing on many levels to me. There are some full-length versions of these costumes as well, all of which are categorized as “Plus-Size” costumes. Interestingly, but probably unsurprisingly, the men’s costume section does not have nearly as many “sexy” versions of costumes.

These gender discrepancies, while much more obvious in light of the “sexy” costumes, do exist among costumes marketed to younger children as well. Young boys traditionally choose the more traditional scary costumes. It is very rare in my neighborhood to see a young girl dressed as a vampire, ghost, werewolf, Frankenstein’s monster, mummy, or other such traditional horror figures. Granted, many young boys choose to dress as comic book/superhero characters, but society seems to tell young girls that Halloween is just another day of playing dress-up as a princess, except this time you can receive candy.

How did this phenomenon get started, and what purpose is it serving? Halloween is definitely an enjoyable holiday (especially for a self-confessed junk food junkie such as myself), but should we allow what is supposed to be a fun and festive occasion to become twisted into another way to objectify young women and perpetuate heteronormative fantasies about Prince Charming?

sexy freddy

Halloween has traditionally been a celebration of all things supernatural and frightening. Even in my younger days, I noticed the associations with Halloween beginning to change, and some of the changes had to do with gender. Suddenly candy was not the main objective (a fact I still cannot comprehend—candy is always the objective of all of my endeavors), but covering other kids in shaving cream and raw eggs was the “cool” way to celebrate the bridging of the spirit and living worlds. At least, those seemed to be the standards for boys. I never received much criticism for wanting to go trick or treating.

The argument of escapism definitely gives some weight to the gender expectations that society has developed for Halloween. It could be argued that Halloween is about embracing escapism, about believing for one night in things that are otherwise difficult to prove or explain. Many bars also offer Halloween specials, turning the holiday into another potential attempt to excuse bad behavior without assuming any responsibility for one’s actions and/or appearance. We are encouraged to let go of it all and pretend to be something/someone else.

There’s a sort of chicken-and-egg thing that goes on with sexy costumes as well. Are they so popular because they’re easily available in stores and online; or do they hit you over the head while shopping because they’re so popular? Have sexy Halloween costumes become the holiday equivalent of fast food? You know it’s not really a good idea, but it’s late, and you’re running out of options, and it’s easy, so you go for it. Unless you’re plus-sized, of course.

5 Responses to “A Call to Cover Arms: Sexism At Halloween”

  1. Mellzah:
    October 8th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    The thing that bothers me about these sexy costumes is this–I used to work in a porn shop and those ‘Leg Avenue’ costumes you see in alllll the mainstream costume shops for Halloween are the same costumes we sold year ’round for people to #$*(& in. There’s a REASON those skirts are only two inches long! Even the plus size costumes (which start at about size 12) can be really skimpy. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of wearing them, which is why I make my costume every year.

  2. Popshifter:
    October 8th, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Oh dear!

    It can get pretty cold up here (Toronto area) around Halloween so skimpy costumes can also be uncomfortable for other reasons! Another good reason to DIY (and I make my own costumes, too!).


  3. Cee:
    October 8th, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    The funny thing is, during the rest of the year I tend to dress to attract attention (respectful of course, there’s a difference between slutty and sexy). But on Halloween I ALWAYS do cute. An elf, a pumpkin, a pirate (with pantaloons, not those tacky “woman pirate” costumes), Alice in Wonderland–it’s always something kind of puckish or little kiddish.

  4. Popshifter:
    October 8th, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Well, right there, you are already dressing up as something different from your usual, everyday attire, right?

    Makes sense to me!


  5. Lorelei:
    October 11th, 2009 at 9:27 am

    the sad thing is, they’re doing it to little girls now, too. i was at the halloween store (Spirit Halloween, actually) and saw a Snow White costume where she had a knee-length skirt. now it’s not like a micromini or anything, but it’s NOT what Snow White’s get up is supposed to look like. she has a floor-length dress. this was the only variety they offered, too. so now from a young age little girls are going to think that on Halloween you’re SUPPOSED to show a lot of skin.

    i don’t mind people being sexy or wearing revealing things per se, but jesus christ, at least give children their childhoods and not make it look like you’re training girls into dressing a certain way into adulthood. >:|

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