Lu: The Costume Conundrum

by Jessica Lu | 10/29/14 6:05pm

Halloween and Halloween costumes are a juggling act for any feminist. We don’t want to perpetuate and encourage the creation of costumes that reduce women to sex objects, but we also want women to feel free, empowered and sexually liberated. The line between empowerment and oppression is hard to distinguish this time of year.

Women should feel free to be sexy if that’s what they want, and they should be able to define that sexiness however they like. No one should police a woman’s sexuality and slut-shame her, let alone on Halloween, a night where women embracing their sexuality is actually accepted to a greater degree than any other night. To quote “Mean Girls” (2004): “In girl world, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.”

What does it mean, then, to be a “total slut”? The definition Google spits out for slut is “a woman who has many casual sexual partners.” Yes, a woman. No such derogatory term exists for men who have casual sex. Instead, they’re rewarded with positive monikers. Women are shamed for expressing sexuality in the same way as men, but Halloween is the one night where behavior that is usually ridiculed is expected. And yet it isn’t accepted, either. People, men and women, still sneer at plunging necklines and short shorts, even on Halloween. The costumes themselves are labeled “slutty nurse” or “sexy kitten.”

It is problematic that costumes for girls and women are increasingly sexualized. The expectation that women will dress as revealingly as possible on Halloween is certainly an issue. But a woman’s choice to don these costumes does not give anyone the license to throw around words like “slut” or “whore.” The skimpy outfit is not so much the fault of the woman wearing it, but rather an indication of a more insidious set of deeply sexist social pressures that seem to coerce women into wearing these revealing outfits. Don’t blame the woman — blame advertisers and marketing teams that have sexualized her body.

When a woman actively chooses to show off her assets, great. If she decides to show some cleavage, fine. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t often work like that. This year, I believe that thousands of women will click “buy” on a “sexy ______” costume because they feel like they have to, that it’s a social necessity, because the media and men have told them that they should sexualize themselves for the sake of the male gaze.

It seems that every ugly duckling makeover is undergone to get the guy, and male attention becomes the only method of validation or boosting self-esteem. Even Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” (1989), a movie beloved by little girls everywhere that centers around a woman changing herself for a man, contains a wryly pragmatic observation of the “importance of body language” and how far looks, and only looks, will get a woman. Ariel must win over her prince with her looks and her looks alone because she is, quite literally, voiceless. The message that a woman’s physical attributes and a woman’s dress exist for the pleasure of men is one we’re inundated with from a young age.

Halloween becomes an oppressive holiday when social factors pressure women into sexualizing themselves and when that sexy Halloween costume is donned not as a result of an independent decision of sexual liberation, but societal pressure.

When a woman dresses in a sexy little costume because she wants to, good for her. When a woman dons a skimpy sexed up uniform because she feels she has to, then — and only then — should we stand up and point fingers. Women should have autonomy over their bodies, to choose to be sexed up. The fact that women are expected to and consider the desires of others when dressing themselves is deeply problematic. A woman’s attire, especially on Halloween, should be based on what she wants to wear, not on what men want to see her in.