Monday, October 15, 2012

Halloween Costume Challenge

Halloween is a holiday that has evolved from ancient times but originally was celebrated as pagan harvest festivals; it also coincided with events honouring the dead celebrated by many different cultures including Hindus, Japanese Buddhists  and ancient Egyptians.   Catholicism has also influenced this holiday with it's annual observance of All Saints' & All Souls' Day.  Over time October 31 became a celebration of dress up and fantasy:  scary and beautiful, something for children and imagination.  A family event.  Remember when it wasn't even cool to dress up after age 12 and you stayed home to hand out the candy and see the younger kids in their costumes?  Just once as an adult (a very young adult),  I went to a night club with friends on Halloween and we all dressed up.   I spent a lot of money renting my costume.  I was a clown,  fully outfitted in striped cotton,  complete with floppy shoes and a rainbow wig.  In retrospect, I think maybe my then-boyfriend had something else in mind. 

I knew there had been a huge cultural shift when Lindsey Lohan’s character in the popular teen film Mean Girls astutely stated  "Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it."  That was in 2004.  Those words (penned by comedienne and screenwriter, Tina Fey) were a wry observation of what was happening in the world of teen girl Halloween costumes.  In retrospect, I wonder if they were prescriptive as well.

Halloween seems to have become the most sexualized (and drunken) night of the year for teens and adults alike.  While this makes me sad, it is so much more disturbing to see that the training begins so early.  The trend is for little girl's costumes to be skin-tight and include high heels,  fishnet stockings and imply full breasts where they don't yet exist.  Flyers and catalogues feature children's French Maid and Geisha Girl costumes along with sexualized version of all the classics: mini-skirted and crop-topped pirates, princesses and Little Red Riding Hood.

I am not surprised by any of this and wrote my first article commenting on this trend more than four years ago.  However, even though few things shock me, I actually cried when I saw a half-dressed Hermione Granger costume posted on line last week.  A facebook friend wrote this about the image: “Every time I see that "sexy Hogwarts" costume, or any other one that reduces a heroine (or a legit occupation) to a cheap sexual fantasy I want to scream. Hermione Granger is a war hero, a bad ass activist, a genius and is not amused. Why does this exist and not a Sexy Harry or Sexy Ron costume? Why are 95% of costumes for adult women outfits that should rightfully come with a pole as an accessory? And why aren't more people pissed about it???”

It was devastating to see Hermione, a fictional character, reduced to this image.  Partly because behind that fictional character is an amazing young actress, Emma Watson, who has maintained the ability to be a healthy role model for young girls despite her commercial success.  And partly, because this is one of my daughter’s heroines.  She has had more fun dressing as the evil Draco Malfoy and the ethereal Luna Lovegood but Hermione pictures decorate her wall and we have had many conversations about the values that she can learn from Hermione: hardworking, not afraid to be smart, loyal and brave.  There is NO place for a hyper sexualized, semi-bare breasted Hermione in our vision of strong, brave girls who are passionate about social justice and healthy, caring relationships.

Most thoughtful parents are not going to intentionally let their pre-teen child leave the house in a costume that is designed to present them in a sexual and objectified way.   However, I think the problem starts in the aisles of the costume stores. It is almost impossible to go out and purchase costumes without being exposed to inappropriate versions of well known children’s characters. So I have been giving some thought on how to opt out of this sexualized, often racist and commercialized experience. 

Here are a few ideas:
my little Luna Lovegood, Halloween 2011
  • For pre-teens and young children, you can easily reclaim the innocent fun, outrageous and creative aspects of Halloween.  Work together to make costumes instead of immersing your daughter in the commercialized version of Halloween at the mall.  Encourage her to use her imagination and see herself as powerful or adventurous.  If she could be anyone who would she be?  Remind her of characters in books that she admires but does not have a visual image for.  Help her imagine how that character would dress and act if she or he came to life.
  • Consider throwing a party instead of or prior to trick-or-treating.  Raid your own closet and pick up crazy pieces at discount and dollar stores.  Provide face paints and silly hats.  Invite kids to attend and make their own costumes as the main activity.  Give awards for the funniest, scariest or most imaginative costume.  Genuine creativity will boost self-esteem while reducing the pressure to look sexy or pretty.
  • This issue is more difficult to address with teens.  Revealing clothing and appropriate limits are an ongoing conversation at this stage.  Be prepared to talk about the difference between her own healthy, developing sexual desire versus being a sex object and the risks involved with playing that role.  Help her explore her own feelings and develop critical thinking about sexualized images of women,  feminine "ideals" and marketing.  Even if she agrees that Halloween is the one night a year that she can “dress like a slut and no one will say anything about it”,  remind her that the photos live on forever and can be shared anywhere on any day of the year. 
  • Check out this blog post called Take Back Halloween that I came across last year  for some fun and intelligent suggestions.  I'm considering being Emma Goldman this year, thanks to that idea posted in the "Notable Women" section of the article!
  • For a completely different approach - consider joining in a local harvest festival or having your own Day of the Dead celebration complete with a small altar in your home to honour your ancestors or more recently deceased love ones.  Do some research together and join in the dancing in colourful costumes, making your own prayer flags and decorating and gifting skulls shaped from sugar and candy. 
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